Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Cobras - Cytotoxicity as a Defensive Innovation and Its Co-Evolution with Hooding, Aposematic Marking, and Spitting

Bryan Frye and a cobra.
A University of Queensland-led international study has revealed how one of the world's most feared types of snakes -- cobras -- developed their potent venom.

Associate Professor Bryan Fry of UQ's School of Biological Sciences said cobras were killers in Africa and Asia, and caused crippling social and economic burdens through the number of survivors who needed amputations due to the snake's flesh-eating venom.

"While we knew the results of their venom, how the cobra's unique defensive venom evolved remained a mystery until now," he said.

"Our study discovered the evolutionary factors shaping not only cobra venom, but also the ornate markings on their hoods, and the extremely bright warning colourings present in some species."

The research team studied 29 cobra species and related snakes, finding that the flesh-destroying venom first evolved alongside the broad hoods that make cobras so distinctive.

Dr Fry said further increases in the potency of the toxins subsequently occurred parallel to their warning strategies such as hood markings, body banding, red colouring and spitting.

"Their spectacular hoods and eye-catching patterns evolved to warn off potential predators because unlike other snakes, which use their venom purely for predation, cobras also use it in defence," he said.

"For the longest time it was thought that only spitting cobras had these defensive toxins in high amounts in their venoms, however we've shown that they are widespread in cobras.

"These results show the fundamental importance of studying basic evolution and how it relates to human health."

Dr Fry said the next step in the team's research was to conduct broad antivenom testing.

"Globally, snakebite is the most neglected of all tropical diseases and antivenom manufacturers are leaving the market in favour of products that are cheaper to produce and have a bigger market," he said.

"Antivenom is expensive to make, has a short shelf life and a small market located in developing countries.

"Therefore, we need to do further research to see how well those remaining antivenoms neutralise not only the toxins that kill a person, but also those that would cause a severe injury."

He said there may also be a benefit to this research in cancer treatment.

"Any kind of compound that selectively kills cells could be a good thing," Dr Fry said.

"These chemicals may lead to new cancer treatments if we can find ones that are more potent to cancer cells than normal healthy cells.

"Cobras are a rich resource of novel compounds in this way so there may ultimately be a silver lining to this very dark cloud."


Citation

Panagides N, Jackson TN, Ikonomopoulo MP. Arbuckle K, Pretzler R, Yang DC, Ali SA, Koludarov I, Dobson J, Sanker B, Asselin A, Santana RC, Hendrikx I, van der Ploeg H. Tai-A-Pin J, van den Bergh R. Kerkkamp HM, Vonk FJ, Naude A, Strydom MA, Jacobsz L, Dunstan N. Jaeger M, Hodgson WC, Miles J, Fry BG. 2017 How the Cobra Got Its Flesh-Eating Venom: Cytotoxicity as a Defensive Innovation and Its Co-Evolution with Hooding, Aposematic Marking, and Spitting. Toxins  9, 103.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Hypsiboas punctatus, the first fluorescent frog

Before and after. The polka-dot tree frog in natural light
 (top) and under UV (bottom.)Photo credit: Julian Faivovich
 & Carlos Taboada 
The first fluorescent frogs have been discovered in South America. The green fluorescence is due to a compound found in the lymph and skin glands of the polka-dot treefrog (Hypsiboas punctatus). At twilight, the phenomenon enhances the frogs’ brightness and may help them communicate with each other.

Fluorescence has previously been reported in fish, scorpions and birds, but never amongst the 7000 plus species of amphibians. The blue–green glow of the polka-dot tree frog was observed when they were under UV light and is linked to a new fluorescent compound, not previously known in nature. The compound absorbs light in the violet–ultraviolet region and emits blue–green light. Time-of-flight mass spectrometry showed that the main fluorescent compound was the molecule Hyloin-L1. NMR revealed an N-methyl-dihydroisoquinolinone core.

‘It is basically a benzamide with a methoxy group added on, which makes the absorption band fall on the edge of the visible spectrum,’ notes Andrew Beeby at Durham University, UK, who was not involved in the study. He adds that this ‘DayGlow frog’ adds to our growing awareness of bioluminescence. The isoquinolinone structure has never before been described in any animals, only in plants. The chromophore seems to be the cyclic benzamide.

‘This is very different from fluorophores found in other vertebrates, which are usually proteins or polyenic chains,’ says author Maria Gabriela Lagorio, a photochemist at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. ‘The chromophore itself is well known, but the class of the secondary compound is completely new,’ adds co-author Norberto Peporine Lopes, a natural product chemist at the University of São Paulo in Brazil.

Hyloin L-1 (H-L1) is the molecule that is principally responsible for the polka-dot tree frogs’ fluorescence, although the other molecules pictured also contribute Biologist Karen Carleton at the University of Maryland notes that like many colourful compounds, ‘it contains lots of carbon–carbon double bonds with lots of π electronics that can easily be excited at visible wavelengths. It is also similar to a compound like 11-cis retinal, which is the chromophore that our eye uses to absorb light.’

The discovery is a bolt out of the blue for most in the field. ‘We were not expecting this bio-fluorescence. It was an incredible surprise,’ says Lopes. He suspects the frog, which has translucent skin, uses the phenomenon to communicate. Lagorio agrees: ‘Amphibian species have photoreceptors in their eyes maximally attuned to blue and green vision, so we expect that these compounds enhance the brightness of these frogs under conditions of twilight.’ The team has now begun examining the polka-dot’s relatives. ‘We expect that this will be a more universal phenomenon with perhaps 100 or 200 species showing this property,’ says Lopes.

‘It would be interesting to investigate if [fluorescence] has a role in species recognition, or whether it facilitates the formation of couples,’ notes Bibiana Rojas, ecologist at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. ‘Fluorescence would be potentially very useful in a noisy environment and in a habitat with dense foliage, as it would make individuals brighter.’

Citation

Taboada C, Brunetti AE, Pedron FN, Neto FC,  Estrin DA, Bari SE, Chemes LB,  Lopes NP, Lagorio MG, Faivovich J. 2017. Naturally occurring fluorescence in frogs. PNAS 2017 doi:10.1073/pnas.1701053114

Saturday, March 11, 2017

A new homalopsid snake from Myanmar

Gyiophis salweenensis Photo credit. Evan Quah
The 54th species of homalopid snake has been described by Quah et al. (2017). The new species, Gyiophis salweenensis was described from the lowlands of Mawlamyine District in Mon state, southeastern Myanmar. The authors suggest that Gyiophis salweenensis  is presumed to be closely related to G. maculosa Blanford and G. vorisi Murphy based on the similarities in scales and coloration but can be separated from G. maculosa by the shape of its first three dorsal scale rows that are square, ventral scale pattern that lacks a central spot, and a faint stripe on dorsal scale rows 1–4. It can be further distinguished from G. vorisi by its lower number of ventral scales (129 vs. 142–152), lower number of subcaudals (30/29 vs. 41–58), narrow rostral scale, and having more rows of spots on the dorsum (four vs. three). A preliminary molecular analysis using 1050 base pairs of cytochrome b (cytb) recovered G. salweenensis  as the sister species to the Chinese Mud Snake (Myrrophis chinensis). G. maculosa and G. vorisi were unavailable for the analysis. The discovery of G. salweenensis sp. nov. highlights the need for more surveys into the herpetological diversity of eastern Myanmar which remains very much underestimated.

Citation
Quah ES, Grismer LL, L Jr PE, Thura MK, Zin T, Kyaw H, Lwin N, Grismer MS, Murdoch Ml. 2017. A new species of Mud Snake (Serpentes, Homalopsidae, Gyiophis Murphy & Voris, 2014) from Myanmar with a first molecular phylogenetic assessment of the genus. Zootaxa. 4238(4):571-82.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Tiny frogs from the Western Ghats

Seven new species discovered from the Western Ghats. A. Radcliffe's Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus radcliffei), B. Athirappilly Night Frog
 (Nyctibatrachus athirappillyensis), C. Kadalar Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus webilla), D. Sabarimala Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus sabarimalai),
 E. Vijayan's Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus pulivijayani), F. Manalar Night Frog (Nyctibatrachus manalari), G. Robin Moore's Night Frog.
[(D-G. Size of the miniature species in comparison to the Indian five-rupee coin (24 mm diameter)]. Photo Credit: SD Biju
Scientists from India have discovered seven new frog species belonging to the genus Nyctibatrachus, commonly known as Night Frogs. This find is a result of five years of extensive explorations in the Western Ghats global biodiversity hotspot in India. Four out of seven of the new species are miniature-sized frogs (12.2-15.4 mm), which can comfortably sit on a coin or a thumbnail. These are among the smallest known frogs in the world.

Unlike other frogs in the genus that are predominantly stream dwelling, the new miniature frogs were found under damp forest leaf litter or marsh vegetation. Scientists were surprised by the relative abundance of these previously unknown species at their collection localities. "In fact, the miniature species are locally abundant and fairly common but they have probably been overlooked because of their extremely small size, secretive habitats and insect-like calls," says Sonali Garg who undertook this study as part of her PhD research at University of Delhi.

In the lab, the newly sampled frogs were confirmed as new species by using an integrated taxonomic approach that included DNA studies, detailed morphological comparisons and bioacoustics. Evidence from these multiple sources confirmed that the diversity of Night frogs is higher than previously known and particularly remarkably for the miniaturized forms. Previously, the Night Frog genus composed of 28 recognized species of which only three were miniature-sized.

Now the total number of known Nyctibatrachus species has increased to 35, of which 20 percent are diminutive in size. This frog genus is endemic to the Western Ghats of India and represents an ancient group of frogs that diversified on the Indian landmass approximately 70-80 million years ago.

The discovery of several new species of ancient origin can provide useful insights into the evolution of endemic frog lineages in the Western Ghats, which is a leading amphibian hotspot. The past decade has witnessed an exponential increase in the number of new amphibian species described from this region. Of the total new species of amphibians (1581) described globally between the years 2006-2015, the highest number were from the Brazilian Atlantic Forest (approximately 182) followed by the Western Ghats-Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot (approximately 159), with 103 species described alone from the Western Ghats region.

However, the future of many of the new species may be bleak. All the newly described species are currently known only from single localities in the southern Western Ghats, and some lie outside Protected areas. Researchers found the Radcliffe's Night frog and the Kadalar Night Frog inside private or state-owned plantation areas facing threats such as habitat disturbance, modification and fragmentation. The Athirappilly Night Frog was found in close vicinity to the Athirappilly waterfalls and the Sabarimala Night Frog near the Sabarimala pilgrimage centre, both of which are disturbed by anthropogenic activities. "Over 32 percent, that is one-third of the Western Ghats frogs are already threatened with extinction. Out of the seven new species, five are facing considerable anthropogenic threats and require immediate conservation prioritization," says Prof SD Biju, who led the new study and has also formally described over 80 new species of amphibians from India

Citation
Sonali Garg, Robin Suyesh, Sandeep Sukesan, SD Biju. Seven new species of Night Frogs (Anura, Nyctibatrachidae) from the Western Ghats Biodiversity Hotspot of India, with remarkably high diversity of diminutive forms. PeerJ, 2017; 5: e3007 DOI: 10.7717/peerj.3007

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Phylogenetics of Kingsnakes in the Lampropeltis getula Complex, in Eastern North America

Distribution of kingsnakes in the Lampropeltis getula complex in North America:
 (A) Lampropeltis californiae (banded); (B) Lampropeltis holbrooki;
 (C) Lampropeltis nigra; (D) Lampropeltis getula getula; (E) Lampropeltis getula 
“sticticeps”; (F) Lampropeltis getula floridana; (G–I) Lampropeltis getula 
meansi (patternless, striped, and wide-banded, respectively); (J) Lampropeltis 
splendida; (K) Lampropeltis getula nigrita; (L) Lampropeltis californiae 
(striped). Distributions are modified after Conant and Collins (1998),
 Krysko (2001), Stebbins (2003), Krysko and Judd (2006), and 
Pyron and Burbrink (2009a, 2009b).
Kingsnakes of the Lampropeltis getula complex range throughout much of temperate and subtropical North America; along the Pacific coast from Oregon southward to the Mexican Plateau, and eastward to New Jersey and southward to Florida. Kingsnakes of this species complex are extremely variable in color pattern, and therefore, along with their mostly docile disposition, are easily recognizable and very popular in the pet trade.The distinct morphology and color patterns found in the Lampropeltis getula complex, along with its transcontinental geographic distribution and occasional disjunct populations across the North American
Distribution and locations of samples sequenced for kingsnakes 
of the Lampropeltis getula complex in eastern North America: yellow 
dots = Lampropeltis getula floridana from Florida peninsula; blue dots = 
Lampropeltis getula getula from the Atlantic coast; red dots = Lampropeltis 
getula meansi from the Eastern Apalachicola Lowlands in the Florida 
panhandle; gray dots = morphological intermediates between L. g. floridana
 and L. g. getula; and coral dots = morphological intermediates between 
L. g. getula and L. g. meansi. Green and pink polygons refer to Lampropeltis
 nigra and Lampropeltis holbrooki, respectively, on the western side of the 
Appalachian Mountains. Distributions are modified after Conant and 
Collins (1998), Krysko (2001) using multi-locus phylogeny, 
and Krysko and Judd (2006) using morphology.
landscape make a fascinating subject for phylogeography. In a new paper Krysto et al (2017) expanded the sample from the getula complex and add a nuclear DNA locus to the molecular data set  used previously to hypotheses distinct genetic lineages. They use genetic and ecological methods to test previous hypotheses of distinct evolutionary lineages by examining 66 total snakes for: analyzing phylogeographic structure using 2 mtDNA loci and 1 nuclear locus; estimating divergence dates and historical demography among lineages in a Bayesian coalescent framework, and; applied ecological niche modeling (ENM). The molecular data and ENMs illustrate that three previously recognized subspecies in the eastern United States comprise well-supported monophyletic lineages that diverged during the Pleistocene. The geographic boundaries of these three lineages correspond closely to known biogeographic barriers (Florida peninsula, Appalachian Mountains, and Apalachicola River) previously identified for other plants and animals, indicating shared geographic influences on evolutionary history. Them authors conclude that genetic, ecological, and morphological data support recognition of these 3 lineages as distinct species (Lampropeltis floridana, Lampropeltis getula, and Lampropeltis meansi).

Citation
Krysko KL, Nuñez LP, Newman CE, Bowen BW. Phylogenetics of Kingsnakes, Lampropeltis getula Complex (Serpentes: Colubridae), in Eastern North America. The Journal of heredity. 2017 Jan 24.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Climatic and geographic predictors of life history variation in Eastern Massasauga, Sistrurus catenatus

A juvenile Eastern Massasauga. Photo credit: Eric Hileman.

A new study is bringing attention to a little known and imperiled rattlesnake that slithers among the wetlands in regions surrounding the Great Lakes.

The Eastern Massasauga rattler was once common in such states as Indiana and Illinois. Until recent years, it could still be found in Chicago's Cook County. But the reptile's range and numbers have been steadily declining. In 2016, the snake was listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

In the new study, Northern Illinois University biological sciences professor Richard King and his former student Eric Hileman examine the life history of the Eastern Massasauga, revealing important local climate impacts on the snake that should be carefully weighed when developing conservation strategies.

"Our results provide evidence that climatic variation in the Great Lakes region strongly influences body size, individual growth rates and key aspects of reproduction," says Hileman, first author of the study published in PLOS ONE, a journal of the Public Library of Science. Hileman earned his Ph.D. in biological sciences from NIU in December and is now a postdoctoral fellow in biology at Trent University in Ontario, Canada.

Hileman, King and more than 40 co-authors gathered and synthesized more than a century of data on the snakes from study sites across the range of the Eastern Massasauga. Most of the data was culled from studies conducted from the mid-1990s forward at sites in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, as well as Ontario, Canada.

The scientists found strong evidence for geographic variation in six of nine life-history variables. Among the findings:

The average body size of the snake and the size of its offspring increased with increasing mean annual precipitation, possibly because wetter climates yield greater prey abundance.

Litter sizes decreased with increasing mean temperature, and increased by one offspring for each 1.89-degree increase in latitude, even when maternal size was held constant.

"It's been rare to look within a species and show that these patterns exist," King says. "The study results demonstrate that a one-size-fits all conservation strategy is not appropriate. Rather, assessments of extinction risk and the design of management strategies need to account for geography."

The Eastern Massasauga snakes are generally found in wet prairies or sedge meadows, where the reptiles employ a sit-and-wait strategy to catch and feed on small mammals. Adult size ranges from about 2 feet to 2 ½ feet in length. While venomous, the snakes are not particularly aggressive or dangerous to work with.

"You're not likely to encounter them unless you're looking for them," King says. "It's easy to walk right by one. They're very cryptically colored to look like dead leaves and cattails, so they blend in exceedingly well."

The reptiles suffered habitat loss from extensive drainage of land for agriculture and development. As recently as the 1970s, some states had bounties on the snake.

With concerns over whether they would persist in the wild, the remaining snakes in Chicago's Cook County were taken into a captive breeding program in 2010, King says.

"In Illinois, they've nearly blinked out entirely," he adds. "We're probably down to one location in the southern part of the state that has a stable population. They seem to have stronger holds in Michigan and southern Ontario."

The study authors believe findings will aid Eastern Massasauga recovery efforts.

"The life-history parameter estimates will be essential for improving models related to extinction risk and climate change," Hileman says. "The results from these predictive models can subsequently be used to develop site-specific management strategies."


Citation

Eric T. Hileman, Richard B. King, John M. Adamski, Thomas G. Anton, Robyn L. Bailey, Sarah J. Baker, Nickolas D. Bieser, Thomas A. Bell, Kristin M. Bissell, Danielle R. Bradke, Henry Campa, Gary S. Casper, Karen Cedar, Matthew D. Cross, Brett A. DeGregorio, Michael J. Dreslik, Lisa J. Faust, Daniel S. Harvey, Robert W. Hay, Benjamin C. Jellen, Brent D. Johnson, Glenn Johnson, Brooke D. Kiel, Bruce A. Kingsbury, Matthew J. Kowalski, Yu Man Lee, Andrew M. Lentini, John C. Marshall, David Mauger, Jennifer A. Moore, Rori A. Paloski, Christopher A. Phillips, Paul D. Pratt, Thomas Preney, Kent A. Prior, Andrew Promaine, Michael Redmer, Howard K. Reinert, Jeremy D. Rouse, Kevin T. Shoemaker, Scott Sutton, Terry J. VanDeWalle, Patrick J. Weatherhead, Doug Wynn, Anne Yagi. Climatic and geographic predictors of life history variation in Eastern Massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus): A range-wide synthesis. PLOS ONE, 2017; 12 (2): e0172011 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0172011

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Gliding lizards use the position of the sun to enhance social display

Sulawesi Lined Gliding Lizard (Draco spilonotus
showing the sun on the dewlap
Photo A. S. Kono/Wikamedia
In a recent paper, Klomp et al. describe how a gliding lizard in the genus Draco orient their body to the sun so that the light emphasizes their display. The following is the abstract from the paper.

Effective communication requires animal signals to be readily detected by receivers in the environments in which they are typically given. Certain light conditions enhance the visibility of colour signals and these conditions can vary depending on the orientation of the sun and the position of the signaller. We tested whether Draco sumatranus gliding lizards modified their position relative to the sun to enhance the conspicuousness of their throat-fan (dewlap) during social display to conspecifics. The dewlap was translucent, and we found that lizards were significantly more likely to orient themselves perpendicular to the sun when displaying. This increases the dewlap's radiance, and likely, its conspicuousness, by increasing the amount of light transmitted through the ornament. This is a rare example of a behavioural adaptation for enhancing the visibility of an ornament to distant receivers.

Citation
Klomp DA, Stuart-Fox D, Das I, Ord TJ. 2017. Gliding lizards use the position of the sun to enhance social display. Biology Letters. 2017 Feb 1;13(2):20160979.

Successful reintroduction of the critically endangered Antiguan racer Alsophis antiguae to offshore islands in Antigua, West Indies.

The following is an abstract recently published in the International Zoo Yearbook.

The Critically Endangered Antiguan racer Alsophis antiguae is endemic to Antigua and Barbuda (441 km2 area) but declined following the arrival of invasive mammals. By 1995, only an estimated 51 Antiguan racers survived on an offshore islet (Great Bird Island: 8·4 ha), many of which had injuries consistent with rat bites. To prevent extinction, a consortium of national and international organizations eradicated the Black rats Rattus rattus from Great Bird Island in 1995 and the snake population promptly doubled in size. The agencies then embarked on a program to eradicate invasive rats and, where present, Small Asian mongooses Herpestes javanicus from a further 14 islands around Antigua. The first reintroduction was carried out in November 1999, with ten wild racers translocated from Great Bird Island to Rabbi Island. Further reintroductions followed to Green Island (from October 2002) and York Island (from January 2008), bringing the total area of occupancy for racers to 63 ha. The translocated racers appeared to thrive in their new habitats and reproduced almost immediately. The reintroduction program was underpinned by field research, fundraising and an innovative education campaign to address prevailing negative attitudes towards snakes. While the Antiguan racer metapopulation has increased to > 1100 individuals in the wild, lasting success depends on Great Bird, Rabbit, Green and York Islands being fully protected from invasive mammals and harmful developments. To spread the risk, additional reintroduction sites must be identified.

Daltry JC, Lindsay K, Lawrence SN, Morton MN, Otto A, Thibou A. 2017. Successful reintroduction of the Critically Endangered Antiguan racer Alsophis antiguae to offshore islands in Antigua, West Indies. International Zoo Yearbook. 2017 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A new Fish-scale gecko in the genus Geckolepis

The new fish-scale gecko, Geckolepis megalepis, has the largest body scales of 
all geckos. This nocturnal lizard was discovered in the 'tsingy' karst formations 
in northern Madagascar. Photo Credit: F. Glaw
Many lizards can drop their tails when grabbed, but one group of geckos has gone to particularly extreme lengths to escape predation. Fish-scale geckos in the genus Geckolepis have large scales that tear away with ease, leaving them free to escape whilst the predator is left with a mouth full of scales. Scientists have now described a new species (Geckolepis megalepis) that is the master of this art, possessing the largest scales of any gecko.

The skin of fish-scale geckos is specially adapted to tearing. The large scales are attached only by a relatively narrow region that tears with ease, and beneath them they have a pre-formed splitting zone within the skin itself. Together, these features make them especially good at escaping from predators. Although several other geckos are able to lose their skin like this if they are grasped really firmly, Geckolepis are apparently able to do it actively, and at the slightest touch. And while others might take a long time to regenerate their scales, fish-scale geckos can grow them back, scar-free, in a matter of weeks.

This remarkable (if somewhat gruesome) ability has made these geckos a serious challenge to the scientists who want to study them. Early researchers described how it was necessary to catch them with bundles of cotton wool, to avoid them losing almost all of their skin. Today, little has changed, and researchers try to catch them without touching them if possible, by luring them into plastic bags. But once they are caught, the challenges are not over; identifying and describing them is even harder.

"A study a few years ago showed that our understanding of the diversity of fish-scale geckos was totally inadequate," says Mark D. Scherz, lead author of the new study and PhD student at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and Zoologische Staatssammlung München, "it showed us that there were actually about thirteen highly distinct genetic lineages in this genus, and not just the three or four species we thought existed. One of the divergent lineages they identified was immediately obvious as a new species, because it had such massive scales. But to name it, we had to find additional reliable characteristics that distinguish it from the other species." A challenging task indeed: one of the main ways reptile species can be told apart is by their scale patterns, but these geckos lose their scales with such ease that the patterns are often lost by the time they reach adulthood. "You have to think a bit outside the box with Geckolepis. They're a nightmare to identify. So we turned to micro-CT to get at their skeletons and search there for identifying features." Micro-CT (micro-computed tomography) is essentially a 3D x-ray of an object. This method is allowing morphologists like Scherz to examine the skeletons of animals without having to dissect them, opening up new approaches to quickly study the internal morphology of animals.

By looking at the skeletons of the geckos, the team was able to identify some features of the skull that distinguish their new species from all others. But they also found some surprises; a species named 150 years ago, Geckolepis maculata, was confirmed to be different from the genetic lineage that it had been thought to be. "This is just typical of Geckolepis. You think you have them sorted out, but then you get a result that turns your hypothesis on its head. We still have no idea what Geckolepis maculata really is -- we are just getting more and more certain what it's not."

The new species, Geckolepis megalepis, which was described by researchers from the US, Germany, and Columbia in a paper published today in the open access journal PeerJ, is most remarkable because of its huge scales, which are by far the largest of any gecko. The researchers hypothesize that the larger scales tear more easily than smaller scales, because of their greater surface area relative to the attachment area, and larger friction surface. "What's really remarkable though is that these scales -- which are really dense and may even be bony, and must be quite energetically costly to produce -- and the skin beneath them tear away with such ease, and can be regenerated quickly and without a scar," says Scherz. The mechanism for regeneration, which is not well understood, could potentially have applications in human medicine, where regeneration research is already being informed by studies on salamander limbs and lizard tails.

Citation
Mark D. Scherz, Juan D. Daza, Jörn Köhler, Miguel Vences, Frank Glaw. 2017.  Off the scale: a new species of fish-scale gecko (Squamata: Gekkonidae: Geckolepis) with exceptionally large scales. PeerJ, 2017; 5: e2955 DOI: 10.7717/peerj.2955

Monday, February 6, 2017

Arthroleptis troglodytes rediscovered in Zimbabwe

In this Dec. 3, 2016 photo, a man holds a rare frog that 
hasn't been seen in decades, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. 
 Arthroleptis troglodytes, also known as the “cave 
squeaker” because of its preferred habitat, was 
discovered in 1962 but there were no reported sightings 
of the elusive amphibian after that. An international 
“red list” of threatened species tagged them as 
critically endangered and possibly extinct. 
(AP Photo/ Francois Becker)
The Arthroleptis troglodytes, below, also known as the cave squeaker because of its preferred habitat, was discovered in 1962, but there were no reported sightings of the elusive amphibian after that. An international “red list” of threatened species tagged them as critically endangered and possibly extinct.

Robert Hopkins, a researcher at the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe, in Bulawayo, said his team had found four specimens of the frog in its known habitat of Chimanimani, a mountainous area in eastern Zimbabwe.

The research team found the first male specimen on Dec. 3 after they followed an animal call they had not heard before, Mr. Hopkins said. They then discovered two other males and a female. Mr. Hopkins said he been looking for the cave squeaker for eight years.

“I was not with my team when they were found,” he said. “I was at the base. I can no longer climb the mountains as I am 75.”

Researchers plan to breed more frogs with the ones taken from their habitat and then reintroduce them to the mountain summit. The frog is tiny and light brown with dark spots.

Now the authorities fear for the frogs’ security, especially because scientists’ and researchers’ huge interest could result in the frog being captured and illegally exported. Mr. Hopkins said 16 specimens were on display at various museums, including the British Museum.

Caroline Washaya-Moyo, a spokeswoman for the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, said: “We are expecting an influx of scientists looking for it. We will do everything in our power to protect and conserve the frog.”

Arthroleptis troglodytes is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN because its extent of occurrence (EOO) is 20 km², it occurs in one threat-defined location and there is ongoing decline in the extent and quality of habitat. It was been tagged as Possibly Extinct as it was last seen in 1962 and recent surveys in 2010 failed to detect this species, although it is acknowledged that it may not have been an optimum time in which to detect the species (e.g. not during rains). Most of the specimens were collected in sinkholes or caves and a few were found in open montane grassland. It presumably breeds by direct development. There is very little direct information available for this poorly known species and threats to the species are not well understood. During a survey in 2010, the vicinity of the type locality was found to be intact. However, there are both diamond and gold mining activities locally. The diamond mine at Chimanimani is currently outside the national park, but artisanal mining is known to have caused significant riparian damage on the Zimbabwe side (supposedly worse in the southern part of the park) and is also known to take place in fluvial areas on the Mozambique side. Furthermore, rumours were circulating during a visit in 2010 that the government was considering deproclaiming part of the national park for a commercial gold mine . Thus, considering the available data, it is not implausible that mining activities pose a threat to the species. Finally, as with other species occurring in isolated montane habitats, it could be at risk from the effects of climate change.