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Last Known Female of Endangered Turtle Species Dies

Animals
Last Known Female of Endangered Turtle Species Dies
The last known female Yangtze giant softshell turtle, who died Saturday. STR / AFP / Getty Images

The last known female Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) has died, putting the critically endangered species at risk for extinction. There are now only three left in the world.


The turtle lived at Suzhou Zoo in China, where researchers attempted to artificially inseminate her Friday, according to the Suzhou Daily, as CNN reported.

"Sadly the female Rafetus did not wake up and after 24 hours died," conservation group the Asian Turtle Program (ATP) wrote in a Facebook Post.

In an earlier post, before the death was confirmed, ATP lamented what it would mean.

"As she was the only captive female globally this would be a tragic loss for such a rare species," the group wrote.

Researchers said that the turtle was in good health before the procedure, and that the procedure appeared to go smoothly, the Associated Press reported. They will conduct an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

This was the fifth time that the more-than 90 year old turtle had been artificially inseminated. Researchers said they would store ovarian tissue samples "for future use," according to CNN.

There are now three of the turtles remaining, one male at the same Suzhou Zoo and two in the wild in Vietnam. One lives in a lake called Dong Mo and is estimated to be around 40 or 50 years old. The other was just discovered last April in Xuan Khanh lake, offering a rare bit of hope for the species, The New Yorker reported in December of 2018.

The genders of the Vietnamese turtles are unknown, but plans are underway to change that, The New Yorker explained:

Last year, a paper published in Scientific Reports showed that, contrary to prior understanding, softshell turtles possess sex chromosomes, which means that they can be sexed using DNA analysis. Minh Le, an evolutionary biologist at Vietnam National University and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, told me that preparations were already being made for a test on the Dong Mo turtle. (DNA samples were procured during its escape and capture in 2008.) Assuming things go smoothly, they should have results early next year.

The Yangtze giant softshell turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in the world, AFP reported. It can grow to be as much as 39 inches long and weigh as much as 220 pounds. It has been driven to the brink by a combination of hunting, pollution, shipping traffic and the building of dams.

In the New Yorker article, Brent Crane explained what it was like to see one in the wild during a visit to Vietnam.

"The head, coconut-size and with giant flared nostrils, was painted in squiggles of lime and pine green," Crane wrote. "Its bottom jaw was yellow. Sparkling in the sunshine was the long, thin bulge of the turtle's carapace. We watched it floating there for several minutes, passing the binoculars back and forth, keeping quiet. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone."

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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