Snails are going extinct

Given that I studied an abundant snail during my PhD (actually, Potamopyrgus antipodarum is invasive throughout most of the world), this headline was alarming to me.

But like many uncharismatic microfauna, snails are declining in record number across a number of different habitats.

Read about it over at Scientific America, and save the snails!

The endangered Powelliphanta augusta snail of New Zealand Credit: Alan Liefting

The endangered Powelliphanta augusta snail of New Zealand Credit: Alan Liefting

The Pregnant T-rex

It’s often hard to determine the sex of fossils (most of our parts that determine such things are not… fossilizable).

But researchers from North Carolina State University and North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences found a medullary bone, a kind of tissue found only in female birds that are carrying eggs, or have just finished laying them, in a T-rex fossil from the Cretaceous.

While this is exciting (and you should read about it over at the Washington Post), it may be more exciting as researchers now have a means of identifying sex of dinosaurs. Which allows us to find out more about sex-linked traits in extinct dinosaurs.


An artichoke with legs: the pangolin

c026c5902911ebd8cf6c7c912cca0631Some days I just need a pick me up. While others take to the internet and fine photos of kittens telling them to hang in there, I seek the adorable face of the pangolin._80790888_cape_pangolin_spl624

Also known as the spiny anteater, it is the only mammal wholly covered in scales. They resemble artichokes on legs. Oh and they are beyond adorable.  415e1bec42a96a15e13e0323be919600

However, all 8 species of pangolins are endangered because they have one more distinction: the worlds most trafficked mammal. Their meat has become a delicacy in vietnam, which has rapidly wiped out populations of pangolins across South East Asia.

Read about their plight over at BBC, and for a little Friday pick me up, enjoy these lovely photos of my favorite mammal.


Monarch butterflies aren’t quite extinct yet!

The New York Times reports that monarch butterflies migrating from North America to central Mexico appear to be doing better than last year, when the over-wintering colony occupied just 1.7 acres. This year’s survey finds the butterflies have filled 2.8 acres, which seems like a solid improvement until you consider that the peak colony size, since record-keeping started, was 44.5 acres.

(Incidentally, 44.5 acres is more than 40 American football fields of forest covered with roosting monarch butterflies.)

The monarchs that migrate to Mexico aren’t the only population — there’s another migratory route on the U.S. Pacific coast, and there are non-migratory populations in Florida, Hawaii, and even New Zealand. But the Mexico overwintering site represents what used to be the single largest monarch population, butterflies that spend summer across most of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. Logging in Mexico and the loss of summer habitat to farming in the Midwest has been hitting the butterflies hard for years, and while this rebound is encouraging, it might still make sense to put the monarch on the Endangered Species List, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering.

Bringing back the “king” of American forests

The American chestnut used to be one of the most common trees in North American hardwood forests, providing enormous crops of nuts that supported birds and other wildlife, and a source of robust, rot-resistant lumber for human use. But American chestnuts were nearly wiped out by the introduction of a virulent chestnut blight from Asia.

But now, after years of selective breeding and some careful genetic engineering, biologists at the State University of New York and the American Chestnut Foundation have produced blight-resistant chestnuts and they’re getting ready to start restoring the population with a crowd-funding campaign. If American chestnuts couldn’t evolve to cope with blight on their own, they may be one of the first species to get an evolutionary helping hand from humans.

Pangolins are weird, adorable … and very endangered

Pangolins, or scaly anteaters, are delightfully weird. They have many of the adaptations we associate with anteaters—powerful front claws for breaking into anthills, a narrow snout for nosing into broken-open anthills, long tongues and sticky saliva for slurping up ants*—plus a sleek coat of overlapping scales. And, as you’ll see in this clip from the BBC’s The Life of Mammals, they’re (kind of) bipedal!

Pangolins are so different from other mammals, in fact, that all eight species are in a single genus Manis, which is the only genus in the family Manidae. As of this week the IUCN classifies every species in that family of weird adorable mammals as endangered, critically endangered, or vulnerable to extinction—because, apparently, they’re also pretty tasty.

As a review published in this week’s issue of Science describes in detail, we’re in the middle of the sixth mass extinction (that we know about) since life began on Earth, this one caused by the changes we’ve made to the planet. Pangolins are hardly going to be the only potential victims of that mass extinction—they’d be about 2% of the 322 terrestrial vertebrates estimated to have gone extinct since 1500.

(Sad hat-tip to Alex Wild.)

* Or termites, or other insects that hang out in burrows or rotting wood.

“One of the great migration stories of the world” – Shrimp in the mighty Mississippi.


Macrobrachium ohione, by Clinton and Charles Robertson, via Flickr.

The Mississippi River that we know today is a creation of the army corps of engineers. Before they got to levying, dredging and damming it into submission, it was a wild and meandering thing that harbored great concentrations of wildlife. One component of that was a massively abundant shrimp with an amazing life cycle:

It turned out that in pre-colonial times the shrimp traveled all the way north into the upper reaches of the Mississippi’s main eastern tributary, the Ohio River, and back again – a 2,000-mile round trip. It was a journey more amazing than similarly epic migrators like salmon. For whereas adult salmon may have an equally long journey to their upstream spawning sites, it is the quarter-inch juvenile shrimp that swim and crawl 1,000 miles upstream against the strong currents of the Mississippi.

What happened to these shrimp? Go read the story to find out.