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UK Government Adds New Marine Protected Areas Nearly 8x the Size of Greater London

Oceans
UK Government Adds New Marine Protected Areas Nearly 8x the Size of Greater London

Seahorses are among the species that will benefit from the new protections. Andrey Nekrasov / iStock

The UK government has added 12,000 square kilometers (approximately 4,633 square miles) to England's "blue belt" of protected marine areas, meaning the UK now protects a swath of its ocean nearly twice the size of England itself, The Guardian reported Friday.


The 41 new Marine Conservation Zones were created by Environment Secretary Michael Gove Friday and cover an area off the coast of England that is nearly eight times the size of greater London, according to a government press release.

"The UK is already leading the rest of the world by protecting over 30 percent of our ocean — but we know there is more to do. Establishing this latest round of Marine Conservation Zones in this Year of Green Action is another big step in the right direction, extending our blue belt to safeguard precious and diverse sea life for future generations to come," Gove said.

The new zones range from the waters around the Isles of Scilly in the south to the Northumberland coast in the north, The Independent reported. They will protect species like rare stalked jellyfish, short-snouted seahorses, eider ducks, basking sharks and ocean quahog and habitats including ross worm reefs and blue mussel beds.

The Wildlife Trusts celebrated the occasion with a Twitter thread on the history of marine protections in the UK. In the 1980s, the group said, there were only three Marine Nature Reserves in the waters surrounding the country.

"During this time, horse mussel communities were destroyed in one of the few marine nature reserves we had. There was an epidemic of seal deaths in the North Sea. We knew we needed a new approach," the group wrote.

In 2002, the group agitated for a bill that would better facilitate the protection of the UK's marine environment. They sent 250,000 signatures to Westminster, the seat of the UK Parliament, in a "Petition Fish" to promote the bill.

Finally, in 2009, the government passed the Marine and Coastal Access Act, which empowered it to designate and manage protected areas.

Since 2013, the government has designated 91 Marine Conservation Zones off the English coast in three waves, bringing the UK's total number of all kinds of protected areas up to 355, The Independent reported.

Director of Living Seas at The Wildlife Trusts Joan Edwards called Friday's announcement "fantastic news."

"Now we need to see good management of these special places to stop damaging activities such as beam-trawling or dredging for scallops and langoustines which harm fragile marine wildlife," Edwards said in the government press release.

There is, however, debate about how effective the UK government's efforts have been when it comes to actually protecting marine life.

"These areas are poorly monitored and we have little evidence that wildlife is benefiting," WWF Head of Marine Policy Alec Taylor said, as The Independent reported. "We need proper management of activities within the boundaries of all marine protected areas and strict enforcement of safeguarding laws. Only then can we secure a future where people and nature thrive."

But Edwards told The Guardian that the protected areas had made a real difference.

"They are not paper parks. Many of the sites here in Devon have had scallop dredging banned so the most damaging activities have been stopped," she said. "The pressure of fishing has been removed from a very large part of our seabed which is good for nature conservation, and good for fishermen because if you have areas that are left alone they will produce more fish."

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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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