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New Doc on Nearly Extinct Vaquita Features Sea Shepherd

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New Doc on Nearly Extinct Vaquita Features Sea Shepherd
A vaquita (Phocoena sinus). Paula Olson / NOAA

Last year, an international vaquita recovery committee rang alarm bells after reporting that there were just 30 left on the planet, with more recent estimates pegging the tiny porpoise's population at only 12.

Now, the plight of the world's most endangered marine mammal—and the intense conservation efforts to save it—is the subject of a new documentary from Red Bull's Terra Mater Factual Studios, Variety reported Tuesday.


The new film, slated for completion this year, has the working title Vaquita—Sea of Ghosts. The name likely refers to the vaquita being driven to the brink of extinction due to unauthorized gillnet or "ghost net" fishing in the Gulf of California, the critically endangered species' only known habitat. Gillnets, which are used to catch totoaba bass sought by Chinese markets, can entangle and kill marine animals, including the vaquita that get trapped in them.

Terra Mater previously collaborated with actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio's production company Appian Way on 2016's The Ivory Game that was among the 15 finalists for the best feature documentary Oscar.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society—which has vigorously campaigned to save the imperiled porpoise—is also working on the documentary, as Captain Paul Watson announced in a Facebook post.

According to Variety, the film starts with a meeting between DiCaprio and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Last June, they signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at conserving marine ecosystems in the Gulf of California and saving the vaquita porpoise.

Vaquita—Sea of Ghosts also shows sometimes-heated conflict between Mexican drug cartels and Chinese crime gangs versus the Mexican government, the U.S. Navy, the FBI, Sea Shepherd and other wildlife activist groups, Variety reported.

The film is directed by award-winning Richard Ladkani, who was also behind The Ivory Game. It will premiere internationally in 2018.

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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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