Friday, December 30, 2011

Cryptic Frogs Locate Their Respective Mates by Calls

A member of the Hyla versicolor Complex. JCM

Columbia, MO – When it comes to love songs, female tree frogs are pretty picky. According to a new study from the University of Missouri, certain female tree frogs may be remarkably attuned to the songs of mates who share the same number of chromosomes as they do. The discovery offers insight into how new frog species may have evolved.

Carl Gerhardt, Curators Professor of Biological Sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science and doctoral student Mitch Tucker studied two closely related species of grey tree frogs that live in Missouri, the eastern grey tree frog (Hyla versicolor) and the Cope’s grey tree frog (H. chrysoscelis).

“To the naked eye – human and frog – the two frogs look exactly alike,” Gerhardt said. “The frogs differ only in the number of chromosomes. The eastern grey tree frog has double the number of chromosomes.”

To the ears of potential mates, the two species differ in their vocal performances.

“The males are both singing the same love song – just one frog is singing it slower. It’s kind of like the difference between Eric Clapton’s original and unplugged versions of Layla,” Tucker said.

In previous studies, the scientists found that tree frogs with more sets of chromosome have larger cell sizes, which slows down the trill rate. What was not known was whether the calling preferences of females are similarly linked to chromosome number.

To answer this question, Tucker simulated the chromosome duplication event by replicating spring temperatures early in the frog development. Females were grown to maturity and then exposed to computer-generated, synthetic male calls that differed by trill rate. They found that the females hopped toward the calls with the trill rate of the males with matching chromosome numbers, which indicates female preference.

“This shows that chromosome number alone can control the behavior that keeps the species separate,” Gerhardt said. “In turn, as chromosome number increases, so does the size of cells, which is probably the immediate cause of the changes in calls and preferences.”

In animals, the origin of species is often associated with geographic barriers. A large body of water or range of mountains, for example, splits a large population and prevents mating. The eastern grey tree frog, according to Gerhardt, may represent a rare case of rapid evolution occurring by chromosome duplication, changes in behavior and reproductive isolation.

The report, titled “Parallel changes in mate-attracting calls and female preferences in autotriploid tree frogs,” was published by the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences. The study was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the University of Missouri Research Board.

Tucker, M. and C. Gerhardt. 2011. Parallel changes in mate-attracting calls and female preferences in autotriploid tree frogs. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1968

New Hypothesis on Limb Evolution

 EUGENE, Ore. -- (Dec. 27, 2011) -- A small fish crawling on stumpy limbs from a shrinking desert pond is an icon of can-do spirit, emblematic of a leading theory for the evolutionary transition between fish and amphibians. This theorized image of such a drastic adaptation to changing environmental conditions, however, may, itself, be evolving into a new picture.

Romer's desert hypothesis, left, and Retallack's flooded woodland, right. 
Image courtesy of University of Oregon.
University of Oregon scientist Gregory J. Retallack, professor of geological sciences, says that his discoveries at numerous sites in Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania suggest that "such a plucky hypothetical ancestor of ours probably could not have survived the overwhelming odds of perishing in a trek to another shrinking pond."

This scenario comes from the late Devonian, about 390 million years ago to roughly 360 million years ago. Paleontologist Alfred Romer, who died in 1973 after serving on the faculties at the University of Chicago and Harvard University, saw this time as a period of struggle and escape -- and important in fish-tetrapod transition -- to ensure survival.

Reporting in the May 2011 issue of the Journal of Geology, Retallack, who also is co-director of paleontological collections at the UO's Museum of Natural and Cultural History, argues for a very different explanation. He examined numerous buried soils in rocks yielding footprints and bones of early transitional fossils between fish and amphibians of Devonian and Carboniferous geological age. What he found raises a major challenge to Romer's theory.

"These transitional fossils were not associated with drying ponds or deserts, but consistently were found with humid woodland soils," he said. "Remains of drying ponds and desert soils also are known and are littered with fossil fish, but none of our distant ancestors. Judging from where their fossils were found, transitional forms between fish and amphibians lived in wooded floodplains. Our distant ancestors were not so much foolhardy, as opportunistic, taking advantage of floodplains and lakes choked with roots and logs for the first time in geological history."

Limbs proved handy for negotiating woody obstacles, and flexible necks allowed for feeding in shallow water, Retallack said. By this new woodland hypothesis, the limbs and necks, which distinguish salamanders from fish, did not arise from reckless adventure in deserts, but rather were nurtured by a newly evolved habitat of humid, wooded floodplains.

The findings, he said, dampen both the desert hypothesis of Romer and a newer inter-tidal theory put forth by Grzegorz Niedbwiedzki and colleagues at the University of Warsaw. In 2010, they published their discovery of eight-foot-long, 395-million-year-old tetrapods in ancient lagoonal mud in southeastern Poland, where Retallack also has been studying fossil soils with Polish colleague Marek Narkeiwicz.

"Ancient soils and sediments at sites for transitional fossils around the world are critical for understanding when and under what conditions fish first walked," Retallack said. "The Darwin fish of chrome adorning many car trunks represents a particular time and place in the long evolutionary history of life on earth."

Retallack. GJ. 2011. Woodland Hypothesis for Devonian Tetrapod Evolution. The Journal of Geology, 2011; 119 (3): 235 DOI: 10.1086/659144

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Suizo Report -- The King Doth Beg Again!

Howdy Herpers,                                                                               12/28/11

Well, typing boy here stepped squarely upon his Richard by stepping up to be the speaker for the 17 January 2012 THS meeting.

My subject is going to be on herps that hole up communally. I PROBABLY am a big enough boy to pull this off without help. But it would sure be nice to showcase some of the stuff so many of you are doing in herpland.

I've sent a few samples images to show what I'm after. If you are willing to share, send me some images, and state how you would like to be acknowledged.
A standard 1024 x 768 pixel image is fine.

I will not share use any images of yours for any other purpose but this presentation.

And, FYI, I need to have anything you're willing to share by next Friday, 6 January 2012.
Hope you can help out!

Best to all, roger

Suzio Report, Fall 2011

28 December 2011
Howdy Herpers,                                                                                      

Those who are text challenged can feel to skip the ~3 pages of rambling that follows, and go straight for the brief descriptions that compliment the attached images below. Go for the asterisks (*****). This year has taught me from all directions, (read: it isn’t just me!), that inserting images into the text of emails isn’t the best way to fly. Nor are website images the answer. Where this typing boy is concerned, attaching .jpgs to these Suizo Reports is the best way to assure that images of at least minimal quality arrive on the screens of you, the recipients. Anything else is sub-par, and when delivering images that are already sub-par, one must do their best to polish the turds that one offers.

For over 15 years, Thanksgiving has become the official traditional beginning of the winter herping season for the Herp King of Southern Arizona. The art of waiting until that glorious holiday before striking took many years to master. As hard as it must be to imagine, there was a time when there was no Herp King of Southern Arizona. (These were the darkest days of herpetological history in Arizona.) Prior to hoisting the weighty crown to its lofty perch, a mere mortal would foolishly begin scouring the hillsides in early October. He did this with hopes of discovering the winter lairs of various types of herps. As always, when he found something, there was great excitement and jubilation. And a week later, when that find was revisited, it would be long gone.

Nope, the lesson that was eventually learned here is that good things come to those who wait. While most herps commit to their winter homes by early November, it is best to just give them a few weeks to settle in before visiting them. By doing this, one assures that the animal being watched is usually dug in enough to endure flashing mirrors and cameras without being scared clean out of the county.

As some of you may remember, Thanksgiving 2011 recently descended upon us. On Wednesday, 23 November, the Director of NOAO sent us an email that dismissed us for the long holiday weekend at noon. Ever the dedicated company man, I took that to mean it was ok to leave at 1130. Whap! I was out of there­and heading for my first-ever winter playground. Back in 1991, I found my first “repeating herps,” (that is, herps that demonstrate fidelity to winter sheltersites), at Ragged Top.

With but limited time on my hands, I headed straight for a ridge where chuckwallas (Sauromalus ater) have been observed through the years. I first visited a crevice where a lone large adult chuckwalla has been observed, off and on, since 1996. The big guy was home, and looking good! I eventually worked my eastward to a place that I call “The White Rocks.” I have been visiting this particular rock structure since 1992, when I first found a chuckwalla there. It has been hit-or-miss at the white rocks through the years, but there has been a streak of one or more chucks hanging out here since 2009. And today, there was one present. The crevice where the chucks over-winter is extremely difficult to get a camera into. But I was lucky enough to get something to share. I was lathered in sweat from the effort to get this image, and questioned why taking a picture on a cool fall afternoon would cause this. I broke out my thermometer, and took a temperature on the rock face. It was 39 C, or 102 degrees F! Wow! The chucks know how to find a hot spot!

Thus endeth the Ragged Top adventure. Thanksgiving transpired, and it was learned that Jameson whiskey, Captain Hornitos, and the elixir of the world’s most interesting man doesn’t allow one to effectively mix with republicans­or anybody else for that matter. The day after Thanksgiving became “Misgiving,” but there was no way that a whopper of a hangover was going to stop the Herp King of Southern Arizona. Off he went on a visit to Hill 97, leaving a trail of toxic sweats and partially-digested turkey with all the trimmings in his wake. In all, the king saw, or at least hallucinated, eight diamond-backed rattlesnakes, a desert tortoise (Gopherus hardtospellit), and four Gila Monsters (Heloderma suspectum). A hog-nosed skunk was observed lying beside a rattlesnake in one of the dens. Faced with the spastic side-effects of the DTs, the king’s camera grew a mind of its own, and tried to twitch itself out of his grasp every time he tried to use it. The only image worth sharing from this day of Misgiving is of the “Lazy M” Gila Monster­a monster that has overwintered in the same Gila hole for eleven years now.

In a Suizo Report last year, the king made a big deal out of the Lazy M HESU, calling it the monster of the decade. He showed images of it from November of 2000, and again, November, 2010. I think we’ve done this enough without using comparative images again. The short story, for those who missed it, is that this monster was an adult when found in 2000, and is still with us today. One fine day, I expect we will know how long Gila Monsters live in the wild. For now, an estimate of 20 years is not unreasonable, and longer is certainly possible.  

Bringing it all back home, the Suizo Plot has also been well-monitored this fall. We begin with an accounting of the western diamond-backed rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) dens. Atrox Den #1 (AD1), has had three atrox viewed inside the crevice this fall. There are likely more. We have been monitoring AD1 since 1999. AD5 holds two atrox, AD6 holds one, and AD7 has had as many as six visible. We have been watching AD5 since 2001, AD6 since 2002, and AD7 since 2003. This fall, female CRAT #121, “Tracy,” surprised us by settling into AD6, which was the former home of the “Barbie Twins.” (The Barbie Twins were two female atrox, CRAT # 44 and 46. They were in our study from 2003-2007. The fact that they shared the same winter den, and dogged each other during the active season, led us to speculate that they are sisters. The time will come when their DNA will yield that information.) Our newer female CRAT #87, “Julie” settled into the upper crevice of AD7. (#87 in AD7 forces us to carefully enunciate our words, lest confusion arise when discussing either.) Female CRAT #133 has crossed the big wash, and has settled into a man-made boulder pile near the top of the southwestern flank of the Suizo Mountains proper. It is quite the climb to track her every week. Each time we make the trek, we gleefully cuss John Slone for finding this wayward snake. 

The tiger rattlesnakes (Crotalus tigris) have been somewhat predictable, but fun to watch. Female CRTI #8 “Zona” ended her yearly migration in the exact boulder that she started from last April. Male CRTI #10 “Jeff” snagged a big meal in Mid-October, and settled under a west-facing boulder jumble on the northwest side of Iron Mine Hill. Male CRTI #11 “Steven” ended exactly where Blake and Gordon predicted­AD5! Commensal overwintering between tigris and atrox is normally not a common situation. But there have been several instances of such behaviors on the upper east side of Iron Mine Hill. 

On 10 December, “Steven” gave us a big surprise by being discovered basking in 100% direct sunlight. The transmitter revealed his body temperature to be 22.3 C. By comparison, the two non-basking tigers had body temps of 13.8 and 8.7 C on this day. We have yet to really do much with all the micro-climate data we’ve collected, and these three points may point to how difficult that data will be to fathom. Getting back to Steven, this is only the second time that I’ve ever seen a tiger rattlesnake out basking in December. The first time was with a non-transmittered tiger on Hill 97 in 1998. Perhaps not-so coincidentally, this Hill 97 tiger was also sharing a den with atrox.  

On 19 November, our scrawny female Gila Monster female HESU #13, “Farrah” moved into a Gila hole that she occupied during the same period last year. She surprised us by making a three meter mini-move downslope between 10 December and 17 December. Her new location is a place where during the winters of 2006 through 2008, I would often see an unknown Gila Monster. As we did not actually catch/process Farrah until May of 2008, it is possible that this “unknown” monster was her. In her current location, she is poised to go downslope to a place she hibernated in 2009 and 2010, or she could head upslope to the communal Gila dens, as she did last year at this time. Time will tell.

I will be doing a blow-by-blow accounting of our female black-tailed rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus) in the next report. For now, it is enough to say that female CRMO#10 “Susan” has entered a currently inactive beecave that resides about four meters directly above CRTI #10’s hibernaculum. (Which is also near an inactive beecave). There are still honeycombs visible in both hives, and it is possible that either hive will rejuvenate soon. (Both hives were explosively active during the winter of 2008. Beecaves tend to wax and wane depending on weather circumstances, and we are heading toward an ideal “waxing” situation this winter). A waxing hive does not fall under the category of “none of our beeswax.” An active hive could be the death of us, as we have to get close to the hives to collect the data. And a vibrant hive is equally scary for the snakes, as we speculate that our local “killer bees” (sons of bees) will not hesitate to merrily sting anything to death that they deem a threat­including snakes.

We will leave our wayward Mojave Rattlesnake "Blake the Snake" out in the middle of the flats, where he belongs. We'll stick to Iron Mine Hill for the remainder of this report. In much the same fashion that Ragged Top and Hill 97 have become hands off monitoring places, so has Iron Mine Hill. To be sure, we're sticking transmitters in some of the animals and following them around. But there are many animals that we are content to admire from a distance. Many times I put the receiver away and just hike our little hill, checking known sweet spots, as well as potential new honey holes. This fall has thus far been a little lean in terms of finding winter herps, but that could change shortly. Thus far, I have two Gila Monsters, a tortoise, and a Lyresnake under observation. 

We have reached the point where the images should do the rest of the talking:

Pic 1: Ragged Top. (Grin) I don't want to give away too many secrets, but the two chuckwallas pictured below were found somewhere within the framework of this image. Can you find them?

Pic 2: The first chuckwalla mentioned in the text above. He's a dandy!

Pic 3: The "White Rocks." Chuckwallas have been under observation in this formation since 1992.

Pic 4: The current occupant of the White Rocks.

Pic 5: "The monster of the decade" reaches year #11
Pic 6: "Farrah" looking out at you!

Pic 7: Good old tortoise #505 basking on 10 December. Although he was processed in March of 2005, he has been under watch since 1998.

Pic 8: #505 has consistently chosen a winter sheltersite that is open at two ends. This permits one the rare photo op of shooting a basking tortoise from behind.

Pic 9: CRTI #11, "Steven" found basking on 10 December 2011. This is only the second time this herper has seen a tiger basking in December.

Pic 10: Iron Mine Hill Lyresnake #7. My first attraction to Iron Mine Hill were the lyresnakes that could be found there. In 1992, I found four different crevices that were producing. Through the years, I have managed to find an even dozen crevices. Considering that this involves a time span of almost 20 years, one can understand how scarce they can be. Crevice #7 was first discovered in February of 2000. The last time a lyresnake has been seen here was 2006.

Pic 11: Iron Mine Hill as viewed from CRAT #133's hibernaculum.

Pic 12: Looking west from Iron Mine Hill. Fog smothering Picacho Peak, 4 December 2011. The rains have been generous thus far this fall. We hope for more this winter. Well, that was probably more than enough for the likes of all of you. Thanks to the two of you who hung in there!

Here's to wishing you all a happy and prosperous new year. roger

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Bite from Naja mossambica

news24 in Johannesburg is reporting on the condition of Mikayla Robbertse, a  5-year-old girl from Limpopo bitten by a Mozambique spitting cobra (Naja mossambica). The girl was going to sleep in the family home in Ellisras on Monday night when she was bitten on the hand by the snake in her bed. On Friday her health suddenly deteriorated, her grandmother, Charmaine, reported her liver enlarged and doctors are concerned about her kidneys, her chest tissue had also been affected by the snake's venom. Doctors warned that her condition could worsen at any time. According to the girl's grandmother Mikayala is weak and only weighs 15kg.

The molecules in the venom of a Mozambique spitting cobra moves faster through tissue than those in the venom of other snakes, Graham Alexander, a snake expert at the University of Witwatersrand, told the newspaper. It can necrosis away from the bite area and in the worst cases people can continue to lose tissue for months after being bitten.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Snakes Can Hear

Python regius. JCM
A paper just published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, again confirms that snakes can indeed hear. Snakes are sensitive to most stimuli, but the lack of ears, an auditory meatus, a tympanum, has produced the mis-belief that they cannot hear. Despite the absence of sound detection mechanisms, snakes do have an inner ear connected to the jaw by a single middle ear bone, the columella auris. Christian Christensen, Jakob Christensen-Dalsgaard, Christian Brandt and Peter Madsen inverstigated if snakes detect sound via sound pressure or sound-induced mechanical vibrations through the body.

Playing sounds ranging in pitch from 80 to 1000 Hz at volumes between 50 and 110 dB re. 20 μPa to 11 royal pythons, Christensen recorded electrical responses in one of the snakes' cranial nerves and their brain stems. Increasing the sound volume until he recorded a measurable electrical signal in the brain stem, he found snakes could hear very loud airborne sound (10,000 times louder than the softest sounds heard by humans) and that they were sensitive to low frequencies between 80 to 160 Hz with their sensitivity decreasing at higher frequencies, falling from 78 dB re. 20 μPa at 160 Hz to 96 dB re. 20 μPa at 800 Hz.

But how were the sounds transmitted to the snake's vibration-sensitive inner ear? As low-frequency sounds are efficiently carried by solid materials, the researchers wondered whether sound vibrations might be transmitted from the ground into the snake's body.

Christensen measured vibrations generated in the surface upon which the snakes were lying by a loudspeaker suspended above the platform. Meanwhile, he recorded the animals' auditory electrical response to the vibrations. He found that the animals responded well to 80 Hz vibrations, but at higher frequencies, the vibrations produced in the surface by the airborne sound were too weak for the snake to respond.

So, how were the snakes able to sense the higher pitched sounds that they hear? ‘Some suggested that they could use the lung as fish use the swim bladder. Also, we humans still hear by bone conduction in water, that would be another way of sending the sound’, says Christensen. So the team decided to test whether the animals could sense their own skulls' vibrating in response to airborne sounds.

Attaching minute vibrometers to the snakes' heads, Christensen measured the mechanical vibrations induced in the head by loud airborne sounds that were just above the snakes' hearing thresholds. He found that these skull vibrations were the same intensity as the minimum mechanical vibrations that the animals could sense. So instead of responding to sound pressure, snakes respond to vibrations transmitted directly from the air to the skeleton.

Having shown that snakes are sensitive to sound-induced vibrations rather than sound pressure, the team is interested in investigate the hearing of other earless animals.

Christensen, C. B., Christensen-Dalsgaard, J., Brandt, C. and Madsen, P. T. (2012). Hearing with an atympanic ear: good vibration and poor sound-pressure detection in the royal python, Python regius. J. Exp. Biol. 215, 331-342

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Captive Breeding, Biodiversity, and Sustainabiliy

Deep Sea World in North Queensferry, Scotland has annouced they have bred the Golden Mantella, an endemic forest frog from eastern Madagascar, for the firts time. They have about 50 tadpoles that will metamorphose into froglets after about 60 days of development. Mantella aurantiaca is a group of species threatened by habitat fragmentation, it is also an attractive frog, and a prime candidate for zoos, aquariums, and private collectors to use for display. But, the Golden Mantella can also be used to get people's attention about the environment.

Madagascar's herpetofauna is disappearing due to human activity but documenting those extinctions is difficult at best.Species most at risk are those that remain in small populations in fragmented habiat, like small patches of forest that still support frogs, but once those framents of forest are logged, the species are gone, and it is unlikely anyone is going to be their to document it. Surveying habitats for species often miss small, cryptic species - we really have no idea how many species exsist - and we are pushing them into extinction before we even know they exist. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red Lists include
a few dozens of species from Madagascar, but the very rich and unique fauna is poorly known and disappearing before our eyes - but is out of site.

Captive breeding projects, like the one at Deep Sea World, are useful. They provide knowledge that can be used to held species from becoming extinct. However, once the habitat is gone, captive breeding projects can re-establish new populations - or at least that is the thought. But really, long term projects like these are as unstainable as Noah's Ark. Temporarly they can be quite usefull, but it is impossible to save all of the species that humans are pushing into extinction through captive breeding projects. The only real sustainable approach to stop the declines in biodiversity is for humans to slow their reproduction, live sustainably, and stop habitat fragmentation and start habitat restoration - this does not seem likely. Recently the human population is thought to have exceeded 7 billion.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hellbender Salamanders, Micro-organisms & Global Amphibian Decline

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A new study co-authored by University of Florida researchers on the endangered Ozark Hellbender giant salamander is the first to detail its skin microbes, the bacteria and fungi that defend against pathogens.

Published today in the online journal PLoS One, the study details changes in the salamander’s declining health and habitat, and could provide a baseline for how changing ecosystems are affecting the rapid decline of amphibians worldwide.

“Scientists and biologists view amphibians as kind of a ‘canary in the coal mine’ and their health is often used as a barometer for overall ecosystem health, including potential problems that may affect humans,” said study co-author Max Nickerson, herpetology curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus.

More than 2 feet long, the Ozark Hellbender is the one of largest salamander species in the United States. Its unusual biological characteristics include the ability to regenerate injured or missing body parts.

In the new study, lead author Cheryl Nickerson, a professor at Arizona State University, along with NASA and UF scientists, cultured and identified microorganisms from abnormal and injured tissue on the salamanders searching for pathogens that may be causing the lack of regeneration and population decline.

The researchers found several potentially dangerous pathogens, including Aeromonas hydrophila, a bacterium scientists believe is associated with disease and death in both amphibians and fish.

While many different pathogens were found in the injured tissue, no single organism was found to be responsible for the lack of regeneration. Researchers believe the occurrence of abnormalities and injury in the Ozark Hellbender may have many contributing factors, including disease and habitat degradation, and say further study is needed

“If you don’t understand an amphibian’s skin you don’t understand the amphibians,” Nickerson said.

Scientists have known about the remarkable powers of salamander regeneration for more than 200 years, but beginning in the 1980s, researchers noticed a sharp decline in the Ozark Hellbender population. They also found a specific population from the North Fork of Missouri’s White River was declining dramatically and losing the ability to regenerate.

“We were finding animals with no legs that were still alive with flesh wounds or bones sticking out of limbs,” Nickerson said.

“Looking at the microorganisms on their skin can help us understand why these animals aren’t regenerating at the rate we’re used to seeing, and may lead to conclusions about population declines,” he said.

In November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the Ozark Hellbender to the federal endangered species list. Its species name is Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi.

Stanley Trauth, curator of amphibians and reptiles in the department of biological sciences at Arkansas State University, said public awareness of the species is increasing, and Hellbenders have recently been successfully bred for the first time in captivity at the St. Louis Zoo.

“There has been a dramatic decrease in the population and there are a number of factors that contribute to that,” Trauth said. “But these types of studies will help provide more consistent results on the impact of microorganisms and animal health.”

“In the last 20 years we have been finding a tremendous number of injuries on these animals and those injuries are not healing,” Nickerson said. “Now the population is down to almost nothing and we are very worried about the species and the environmental changes around them.”

The Ozark Hellbender’s fossil record goes back 161 million years and it represents one of the most ancient lines of amphibian life.

“This is about as far, in phylogeny, as that type of regeneration goes, this is the most ancient group of salamanders that we know of,” Nickerson said. “They have been through a lot and we want to find out what these changes mean.”

“The animals in the river systems in that area, just like in Florida, where we have these huge amounts of spring water you have to worry about it,” Nickerson said. “That’s a big dome of fresh water and it has implications on human health as well.”
Figure 2. Representative samples of normal and abnormal lesions on Ozark Hellbenders, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi.All individuals sampled were captured from the North Fork of the White River, Ozark County, Missouri on 17 August 2007. A shows a normal left back foot (NFWR 138), B shows lesion on palm of right back foot (NFWR 136), C shows lesion on toes of left front foot (NFWR 136), D shows lesion on right back limb with all toes missing (NFWR 135), E shows lesion on right back limb with all toes missing (NFWR 139), and F shows lesion on lower lip (NFWR 139).

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Old & New Species

Two new dwarf homalopsid snakes of the genus Myron described in 2011. A. Myron karnsi from the Aru Islands in eastern Indonesia. B. Myron resetari from Western Australia. Both species have been long confused with Myron richardsonii, a species from northern Australia.These are small (less than 400 mm), coastal species that probably hunt fish in marine environments. They are two of a small number of snakes, other than true sea snakes and file snakes, that have been able to adapt to saltwater. M. karnsi is known from a single specimen, M. resetari was known from two specimens when described, but other specimens have been found in the last few months. JCM
This is the time of year for retrospection and it is everywhere. One of the re-occurring stories is the number of new species described during the year. One press release from the California Academy of Sciences reports CAS researchers discovered 140 new species in 2011, including 72 arthropods, 31 sea slugs, 13 fishes, 11 plants, nine sponges, three corals, and one reptile (a tortoise).

A press release from 27 June of 2011 reports scientists discovered 1,060 previously unknown species during a decade of research in New Guinea, the world's second largest island; the majority of new species listed are plants and insects, but the inventory includes 134 amphibians, 71 fish, 43 reptiles, 12 mammals, and 2 birds. A similar, more recent, press release pertaining to the greater Mekong region of Southeast Asia from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports 1068 species were discovered or newly identified by science between 1997 and 2007 – which averages two new species a week and includes 519 plants, 279 fish, 88 frogs, 88 spiders, 46 lizards, 22 snakes, 15 mammals, 4 birds, 4 turtles, 2 salamanders and a toad.

Using AmphibiaWeb and the Reptile Database it is possible to tract the number of species of amphibians and reptiles described during a given year. Despite the week or so left in 2011 it is of interest to note that as of now (December 17) 84 new species of reptiles were described during 2011 (one turtle, 21 snakes, and 62 lizards) and 134 species of amphibians (one caecilian, five salamanders, and 128 frogs). Combined that works out to 218 species, or about 0.59 new species per day. So, we can expect another five or six new species of amphibians and reptiles to be described this year.

What is more difficult to track is the number of species rescued from synonymy. During the late 19th century, and well into the mid to late 20th century it was popular to lump species, thus many species described during the 200 years after Linnaeus were considered mistakes and their names were placed in the synonymy of other names. Reviewers of species and genera often find old names placed in the synonymy of even older names are in fact valid species. Thus, 20th century zoologists were led to believe that the diversity of life on earth, in this case, the diversity of amphibians and reptiles was much less than what we know it to be today. So, while new names are easy to count, old names become more of a challenge - but they still count because they represent real species that have been misplaced and overlooked for decades, or in some cases centuries. 

Murphy, J. C. 2011. The Nomenclature and Systematics of Some Australasian Homalopsid Snakes (Squamata: Serpentes: Homalopsidae). Raffles Bulletin of Zoology 59(2):229-236.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

ShalinIndia Launches Snake Charmers’s Music Instrument Pungi on Global Online Marketplaces

ShalinIndia Launches Snake Charmers’s Music Instrument Pungi on Global Online Marketplaces
ShalinIndia, an online shopping store from India, has launched snake charmer’s pungi music instrument in the international online marketplaces. This may help India’s large number of snake charmers gain an alternative vocation of making and selling their unique music instrument.

New Delhi, India (PRWEB) December 16, 2011

India shopping store ShalinIndia has launched the pungi's music instrument on the online marketplaces. Pungi is a traditional folk music instrument used by the snake charmers of India to make snakes dance to their tunes. This flute like music instrument has intrigued westerners. They have often wondered how snake charmers make the deadly cobras sway to the tune of their pungi music. Actually the cobra is deaf to the snake charmer's pipe, but follows the visual cue of the moving pipe and it can sense the ground vibrations from the snake charmer's tapping.

As a seller of Indian culture products, we are happy to do a commercial launch of the pungi, on the global online marketplaces. Two months ago we began to test market this Indian music instrument. When we found that a good number of people were not only attracted, they had also begun to buy these pungis, we decided to launch them on a commercial scale.

"Besides having clear business goals, we are trying to sell Pungis to achieve certain social objectives too. Snake charmers are no longer allowed to catch snakes. So this community is now looking for alternative sources of income. Selling their music instruments is one of them. Most of the snake charmers make their own Pungis using dried and hollow gourd. If we succeed in achieving scale economies, we would be able to buy pungis from large number of snake charmers", said Shalini Verma.
We have launched two varieties of Pungis, one made from gourd, and the other made from coconut shell. Snake charmers generally use pungis made from gourd. However, this is very delicate and risks breaking at the joints with the flute like pipe. Pungis made from gourd often produce better quality sound than the one made with coconut shell. Pungis made from coconut shell are stronger and last longer. However, they produce inferior quality sound and are used only by the hobbyists.

ShalinIndia, one of the premier online India shopping stores, specializes in selling handmade gifts, silver and gemstone jewelry, clothing accessories like men scarfs and scarves for women to customers around the world. Through an arrangement with Amazon, ShalinIndia keeps its inventory in five countries US, UK, France, Germany, and Japan. This enables ShalinIndia to reduce not only delivery time but also shipping costs for its customers. ShalinIndia has maintained consistently high feedback ratings from its online customers.

ShalinIndia Launches Snake Charmers’s Music Instrument Pungi on Global Online Marketplaces

Funding Progress

Howdy Herpers,                                                               12/16/11

He stands now at $550.00. I hope to see something more by Monday AM, but am happy to have this much.

Who needs to track sidewinders anyhow?

Have a good weekend, roger

Suizo Report, December 16

Howdy Herpers,                                                                               16 December 2011                                          

We first begin with some very good news. We have been receiving steady and consistent rain since November. Our local weather guru is calling the phenomena "the rain train." I call these systems "Seattle Storms," as we are blessed with a jet stream that is dipping down from the Pacific Northwest.
These Seattle Storms are the kind where it rains gently all day long, allowing the top soil to get good and moist without washing away. I can already see the annuals starting to pop up on the landscape, which is quite the contrast to what we've seen lately down here. When the weather books are finally closed on 2011, I suspect that this will be the year of fire and rain.

If these storms continue, by mid-March, we can expect a quiet riot of lush flowers and greenery to carpet our desert.

We faced a severe drought through most of the summer months of 2011. By late July, we were bummed to the point of surrender with the Suizo study. We had six transmitters to use, and couldn't BUY a snake to put them in. We thought we were done. But a couple roundups later turned the tide.

The first cool thing to happen was finding our first Mojave Rattlesnake. We decided to rock with him. He was not exactly a homeboy, as we lost him for a month. We stayed with him, and eventually through intensive (and very enjoyable) effort, found him again. By the end of summer, he had led us 3.6 miles away from his capture spot.

The place he led us is magnificent. It is out in the flats, in the middle of nowhere. The ground is so infested with rodent holes that at times, we drop through the soil and into the networks. The saguaros are massively majestic on his turf, and the hedgehog cactus are waist high. I'm quite sure there will be more Mojave Rattlesnakes out his way, and I'm equally sure there is a good population of sidewinders in the vicinity--not to mention some "flat dwelling" diamondbacks. If we can find some of each, we hope to be able to shift some of our operation out that way.

Meanwhile, back at the rocky hillsides, we were lucky enough to score a new tiger rattlesnake, as well as the snake that sealed our enthusiasm for the upcoming year. We speak of a female black-tailed rattlesnake. We expect that the boys will be all over next year, and that will likely help us to start beefing up our N on them.

When all is said and done, I hope that by this time next year, we will be tracking FIVE species of rattlesnake, as well as a Gila Monster or two.

There has been some incredible activity on the plot lately, likely brought about by the rains.
I will be sending some pictures out next week.

Best to all, roger

The Mr. Snake Fundraiser

Howdy Herpers,                                      12/16/11

I don't wish to detract too much from the Susan show with my words. But I will say that I'm grateful to her, and equally grateful for the kind words about the Schuett/Repp Suizo Mountain study that have come from you.

On the heels of this email, I will send a brief report of what we hope to do in 2012. We are set up to play a brand new game, and MAN do we ever want to play!

Somebody has already bid $500.00 for Mr. Snake. Hence, it makes cents (ha! a play on werds...) that the minimum bid would be something above that--eh?

The bidding process is simple. Simply reply to this email, and write your bid above the "Howdy Herpers" line. (Please don't put your bid in the subject line.) Indicate whether you wish to melt some plastic (credit card/pay pal), or pay by check/money order/or cash.

Tonight, I will send out what the high bid is at that point. Monday morning, (12/19) I will do the same.

Are we paying attention? Good! When I crack open my computer on Tuesday morning at 0630 MST, whoever has submitted the highest bid gets the prize.

I will contact this person at that point in time, and see if they wish to remain anonymous. Following that, I will announce what the winning bid was.

And now, it's the Susan show. Please refer to  the attached .pdf file to see the effort that Susan put into making this one-of-a-kind, showcase piece. If you wish to see more of Susan's craftsmanship, check out her website at the link below:

Best to all, and thanks to all! roger

"What are rattlesnakes good for? Good enough for themselves, and we should not begrudge them their share of life." John Muir, 1901

Another Note from Roger

Howdy Herpers,                                                               15 December 2011

Attached one wrong thing, I did!

Attached is the image of Mr. Snake.

Off to drink the drain cleaner!


A Special Edition of the Suizo Report

Howdy Herpers,                             15 December 2012

Welcome to a special edition of the Suizo Report!

I want to begin by quoting from the last regular Suizo Report, sent on 18 October, 2011. It closed with these words:

"Also in peril is our ability to continue our study. By January of 2012, we will face an expense of $2,000.00 for PIT tags and transmitters. It is at that point where the final decision will transpire. But regardless of that decision, we will at least be out there tracking until the end of September 2012. We look forward to where our new friends will take us, as well as developments with the old."

Thank you to all who wrote in encouragement of the Suizo Study. People, some of whom I've never met, are willing to help us continue. Your willingness to support our scientific endeavors was very heartening.

The suggestion that we pass the hat for help came from many directions – and then right in the thick of all this angst about funding, my talented niece, Susan Barzacchini, sent me images of a three-dimensional snake necklace and a pair of snake shed-skin embossed earrings she created. In her own unselfish fashion, she offered them as a fundraiser for the Suizo Study -- and this, in the wake of hearing that Art Jewelry Magazine will run a feature on the necklace in an upcoming issue!  (For those unfamiliar with Art Jewelry, it is a flagship publication in the world of creative jewelry design.)

The last two weeks have been quite exciting, with Susan and the magazine getting a photo shoot done so that the necklace and earrings can be offered for sale this Christmas. More information about the creation of the necklace and the bidding process will be sent shortly.

Susan has asked me to share more about the Schuett/Repp Suizo Study, since this announcement will go out to many who are not on the Suizo Report email list. As I was compiling information for Susan, I was amazed at how much has happened over the years with our Study:

In March of 2012, we will have completed year number 11 with our radio telemetry study involving 4 species of rattlesnakes and Gila Monsters. The ability to follow individual snakes and monsters around all year long is a dream come true to this herper.

Between Gordon and myself, we have over 300 herp-related publications. We complement each other in this regard, as Gordon mainly centers on peer review venues, whereas I focus on herp society newsletters. We both spread the word about herps via public speaking engagements.

As for the work coming from the Suizo Mountains, we currently have eight peer review publications, two more in review, and the almighty kinship paper is in the hopper. With the latter, for over ten years, we collected blood samples from over 200 Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox). Many of these were from aggregate situations, that is, what we hypothesize are family units. (The Jones family over-winters here together, the Smith clan over there, etc.) But we have more than blood/DNA from these animals. The blood is backed by the behaviors of many of individuals that were followed for years. I expect that when the results are all in, we will see things like brothers and sisters keeping tabs on each other through the course of the year. We will know the mothers and fathers of many of the baby snakes that were nesting under our watch. We have noted that pregnant female atrox, who normally tend to avoid each other during the active season, visit each other just prior to giving birth. Are these females related? Time will tell! These things and perhaps many other surprises are on the horizon.

The educational benefits from the study are numerous. Ever since 2003, we have led students from the U of A herp class to our plot. We teach them radio-tracking techniques, which is a valuable skill to learn if one is to move on in the wildlife studies arena. In addition to the U of A, we have had classes from five other academic institutions out to our plot. In all, we have trained over 200 individuals on the fundamentals of radio tracking, as well as the science of collecting data. We have also shared the mysteries of our beloved Suizo Mountains with hundreds of visitors from all over the country, as well as internationally. We've never sought or accepted funding for doing this important educational work.

On top of all this are the Suizo Reports, sent out to a list-serv with heavy hitter professional herpers as well as people who have but a passing interest in herps. These reports are unique, in that herpers are by nature taciturn and secretive. It is for this reason that we hear so little about the natural history of the animals that we love. This in turn leads to ignorance about what these creatures have to do to survive, and this ignorance leads to minimal public education on animals that are greatly misunderstood.

To all of you who love these animals as much as Gordon and I do, thank you for your encouragement over the past many years. A special thanks to Susan, for offering this spectacular necklace and earrings in financial support of our research! ALL of the money generated by this necklace will go into transmitters and equipment upgrades needed to continue our study.
(Not gas money, not salary--equipment!).

Without further adieu, just to tantalize the snake lovers among us, I will attach two images of "Mr. Snake."
Lastly, for those who have never been there, I attach an image of the patch of ground that we love so.

Created exclusively for a fundraiser for private herpetology research this silver sheet-wire fusion fanged snake is designed by fabricating sterling silver sheet, embossed with snakeskin with a rolling mill, into a dimensional structure of a rattlesnake head.  The tongue is tube-set with a faceted garnet and is hinged to the internal mouth allowing movement.  The eyes are competition glass taxidermy eyes that have been bezel set. Each component was patinaed with liver of sulfur and buffed before assembly. 
Susan Barzacchini

In 24 hours, I will send an email that explains the bidding process, as well as more information from Susan about Mr. Snake.

My heartfelt thanks to all who have been with us through the years. Here is to hoping we can enjoy the ride together for years to come!
Cheers, roger

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Claw Use in Dinosaurs & the Origin of Flight

Figure above from article. RPR “ripper” behavioural model, illustrated by a small dromaeosaurid.A) grasping foot holds on to prey. (B) hypertrophied D-II claw used as anchor to maintain grip on large prey. (C) predator's bodyweight pins down victim. (D) beam-like tail aids balance. (E) low-carried metatarsus helps restrain victim. (F) “stability flapping” used to maintain position on top of prey (see Supporting Information Videos S1 and S2). (G) arms encircle prey (“mantling”), restricting escape route. (H) head reaches down between feet, tearing off strips of flesh (may explain unusual deinonychosaurian dental morphology). Victim is eaten alive or dies of organ failure.

BOZEMAN -- New research from Montana State University's Museum of the Rockies has revealed how dinosaurs like Velociraptor and Deinonychus used their famous killer claws, leading to a new hypothesis on the evolution of flight in birds.

In a paper published Dec. 14 in PLoS ONE, MSU researchers Denver W. Fowler, Elizabeth A. Freedman, John B. Scannella and Robert E. Kambic (now at Brown University in Rhode Island), describe how comparing modern birds of prey helped develop a new behavior model for sickle-clawed carnivorous dinosaurs like Velociraptor.

"This study is a real game-changer," said lead author Fowler. "It completely overhauls our perception of these little predatory dinosaurs, changing the way we think about their ecology and evolution."

The study focuses on dromaeosaurids; a group of small predatory dinosaurs that include the famous Velociraptor and its larger relative, Deinonychus. Dromaeosaurids are closely related to birds, and are most famous for possessing an enlarged sickle-claw on digit two (inside toe) of the foot. Previous researchers suggested that this claw was used to slash at prey, or help climb up their hides, but the new study proposes a different behavior.

"Modern hawks and eagles possess a similar enlarged claw on their digit 2's, something that hadn't been noted before we published on it back in 2009," Fowler said. "We showed that the enlarged D-2 claws are used as anchors, latching into the prey, preventing their escape. We interpret the sickle claw of dromaeosaurids as having evolved to do the same thing: latching in, and holding on."

As in modern birds of prey, precise use of the claw is related to relative prey size.

"This strategy is only really needed for prey that are about the same size as the predator; large enough that they might struggle and escape from the feet," Fowler said. "Smaller prey are just squeezed to death, but with large prey all the predator can do is hold on and stop it from escaping, then basically just eat it alive. Dromaeosaurs lack any obvious adaptations for dispatching their victims, so just like hawks and eagles, they probably ate their prey alive too."

Other features of bird of prey feet gave clues as to the functional anatomy of their ancient relatives; toe proportions of dromaeosaurids seemed more suited for grasping than running, and the metatarsus (bones between the ankles and the toes) is more adapted for strength than speed.

"Unlike humans, most dinosaurs and birds only walk on their toes, so the metatarsus forms part of the leg itself," Fowler said. "A long metatarsus lets you take bigger strides to run faster; but in dromaeosaurids, the metatarsus is very short, which is odd."

Fowler thinks that this indicates that Velociraptor and its kin were adapted for a strategy other than simply running after prey.

"When we look at modern birds of prey, a relatively short metatarsus is one feature that gives the bird additional strength in its feet," Fowler continued. "Velociraptor and Deinonychus also have a very short, stout metatarsus, suggesting that they had great strength but wouldn't have been very fast runners."

The ecological implications become especially interesting when dromaeosaurids are contrasted with their closest relatives: a very similar group of small carnivorous dinosaurs called troodontids, Fowler said.

"Troodontids and dromaeosaurids started out looking very similar, but over about 60 million years they evolved in opposite directions, adapting to different niches," Fowler said. "Dromaeosaurids evolved towards stronger, slower feet; suggesting a stealthy ambush predatory strategy, adapted for relatively large prey. By contrast, troodontids evolved a longer metatarsus for speed and a more precise, but weaker grip, suggesting they were swift but probably took relatively smaller prey."

The study also has implications for the next closest relatives of troodontids and dromaeosaurids: birds. An important step in the origin of modern birds was the evolution of the perching foot.

"A grasping foot is present in the closest relatives of birds, but also in the earliest birds like Archaeopteryx," Fowler said. "We suggest that this originally evolved for predation, but would also have been available for use in perching. This is what we call 'exaptation:' a structure evolved originally for one purpose that can later be appropriated for a different use."

The new study proposes that a similar mechanism may be responsible for the evolution of flight.

"When a modern hawk has latched its enlarged claws into its prey, it can no longer use the feet for stabilization and positioning," Fowler said. "Instead the predator flaps its wings so that the prey stays underneath its feet, where it can be pinned down by the predator's bodyweight."

The researchers suggest that this 'stability flapping' uses less energy than flight, making it an intermediate flapping behavior that may be key to understanding how flight evolved.

"The predator's flapping just maintains its position, and does not need to be as powerful or vigorous as full flight would require. Get on top, stay on top; it's not trying to fly away," Fowler said. "We see fully formed wings in exquisitely preserved dromaeosaurid fossils, and from biomechanical studies we can show that they were also able to perform a rudimentary flapping stroke. Most researchers think that they weren't powerful enough to fly; we propose that the less demanding stability flapping would be a viable use for such a wing, and this behavior would be consistent with the unusual adaptations of the feet."

Another group of researchers has proposed that understanding flapping behaviors is key to understanding the evolution of flight, a view with which Fowler agrees.

"If we look at modern birds, we see flapping being used for all sorts of behaviors outside of flight. In our paper, we are formally proposing the 'flapping first' model: where flapping evolved for other behaviors first, and was only later exapted for flight by birds."

The researchers believe their new ideas will open multiple new lines of investigation into dinosaur paleobiology, and the evolution of novel anatomical structures.

"As with other research conducted at the Jack Horner paleo lab, we're looking at old paleontological questions with a fresh perspective, taking a different angle," Fowler said. "Just as you have to get beyond the idea that feet are used just for walking, so we are coming to realize that many unusual structures in modern animals originally evolved for quite different purposes. Revealing the selection pathways that mold and produce these structures helps us to better understand the major evolutionary transitions that shaped life on this planet."

Fowler DW, Freedman EA, Scannella JB, Kambic RE (2011) The Predatory Ecology of Deinonychusand the Origin of Flapping in Birds. PLoS ONE 6(12): e28964. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0028964

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The World's Small Frogs - New Guinea Microhylids in the genus Paedophryne

These are images of specimens of Paedophryne 
dekot (A) and (B), and P. verrucosa (C), and 
(D). Photos by Fred Kraus.

Field work by researcher Fred Kraus from Bishop Museum, Honolulu has found the world's smallest frogs in southeastern New Guinea. This also makes them the world's smallest tetrapods (non-fish vertebrates). The frogs belong to the genus Paedophryne, all of whose species are extremely small, with adults of the two new species - named Paedophryne dekot and Paedophryne verrucosa - only 8-9 mm in length. The study was published in the open access journal ZooKeys.

Previous research had led to the discovery of Paedophryne by Kraus in 2002 from nearby areas in New Guinea, but the genus was not formally described until last year (Kraus 2010, also in Zookeys). The two species described earlier were larger, attaining sizes of 10-11 mm, but the genus still represents the most miniaturized group of tetrapods in the world.

“Miniaturization occurs in many frog genera around the world,” said the author, “but New Guinea seems particularly well represented, with species in seven genera exhibiting the phenomenon.  Although most frog genera have only a few diminutive representatives mixed among larger relatives, Paedophryne is unique in that all species are minute.”  The four known species all inhabit small ranges in the mountains of southeastern New Guinea or adjacent, offshore islands.  Their closest relatives remain unclear.

The members of this genus have reduced digit sizes that would not allow them to climb well; all inhabit leaf litter, and their reduced digits may be a corollary of a reduced body size required for inhabiting leaf litter and moss.  Habitation in leaf litter and moss is common in miniaturized frogs and may reflect their exploitation of novel food sources in that habitat. The frogs' small body sizes have also reduced the egg complements that females carry to only two, although it is not yet known whether both eggs are laid simultaneously or at staged intervals.

 Kraus, F. At the lower size limit for tetrapods, two new species of the miniaturized frog genus Paedophryne (Anura, Microhylidae). ZooKeys, 2011; 154 (0): 71 DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.154.1963

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reticulated Python Predation on Humans in the Philippines

A 6.9 m  reticulated python,  shot by 
Kekek Aduanan, on the right, on
 June 9, 1970, Luzon, Philippines.  
Photo by J. Headland.

In a forth coming article, published early on-line today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Thomas Headland and Harry Greene document the frequency of python attacks on a tribe of hunter-gatherers in the Philippines, this is the only study to quantify the danger that snakes pose to humans. Anthropologist Headland lived among the Agta Negritos since 1962, and interviewed 58 men and 62 women regarding their interactions with reticulated pythons. Fifteen of the men (26 percent) and one of the women (1.6 percent) had been attacked, and the interviews recalled six fatal attacks that occurred between 1934 and 1973, although Headland could only confirm two fatal attacks on children. The attacks usually occured on men while they walked in the forest, but 15 of the individuals interviewed remembered a python entering a dwelling at sunset and killing two of three children, swallowing one of them. The data compiled suggests that one tramatic or fatal attack occurs every two to three years in the Agta tribe. The report also focuses on the complex interaction between humans and snakes, so while pythons prey on humans, humans also prey on snakes. Headland documented a 6.9 m reticulated python killed, dressed in less than an hour that provided about 25 kg of meat (see photo).

Headland T. N. and H. W. Greene. 2011. Hunter–gatherers and other primates as prey, predators, and competitors of snakes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, early on-line doi:10.1073/pnas.1115116108

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A New Bush Viper & The Strategy to Save it from Extinction

Atheris ceratophora, a species related to
A. matildae. Photo Credit Al Cortex.

Fourteen species of the arboreal viper genus Atheris (subfamily Viperinae), sometimes called bush vipers, are distributed over much of central Africa but seem to reach their greatest diversity in east Africa's sky island complex. The Atheris ancestor originated in Africa's Oligocene and they all use an ambush foraging strategey to capture food. Bush viper have frequently evolved in patches of forest on a mountain top and have stayed put, so most recognized species have limited distributions. Because they depend on forests, many of these snakes are threatened by habitat destruction, but they are also threatened by collectors who feed the wildlife market of developed countries.

This week the journal Zootaxa published the description of a spectacular new species of Atheris, Matilda’s Horned Viper, Atheris matildae which was discovered during a biological survey in southern Tanzania. Superficially It resembles the Usambara bush viper, Atheris ceratophora, but it is larger, has distinct scalation and a genetic divergence of 3.18% in one mitochondrial gene, suggesting the two species separated about 2.2 million years. 

Atheris matildae was discovered in a remote montane forest fragment in southwest Tanzania, a remnant of a more widespread forested landscape that was interspersed with plateau grasslands and other naturally isolated forest islands. The Menegon et al. (2011) suggest that A. matildae is a range-restricted forest species, limited to an area smaller than 100 km2 in an area of declining habitat quailty. 

Wildlife trade is estimated to be US$159 billion a year business and  reptiles play a large part in the exotic wildlife trade that is having a devastating effect on wild populations. So much so, that in many parts of Africa it is the single biggest threat to the existence of many wild species. The colourful, Atheris are popular pet snakes in many countries, however, their natural habitat is seriously threatened and the numbers of wild caught animals destined for the pet trade continues to be unsustainable.

Newly discovered bush viper species can bring a high price and this can have a very damaging impact on the population. In the case of Matilda’s Horned Viper, a sudden rush to collect as many specimens as possible could actually extirpate the species in the wild. To avoid the unsustainable collection of such a rare snake, the authors of the species have agreed with the editor of Zootaxa – where the species description is published – to keep the locality as vague as possible, with the possibility of more specific information provided by the authors on request, scientific purposes only. The authors suggest this practice should be taken into consideration by taxonomists every time a new, rare species of potential commercial interest is described.

While collection from the wild is mostly unsustainable and has reached a level whereby it represents perhaps the biggest threat to Tanzania’s amphibians and reptiles, the authors have propsed a conservation strategy to save the new snake and provide a new conservation opportunity. The authors have initiated a breeding program for the new viper in Tanzania. This will act as an ‘insurance population’ to protect the new species from overexploitation, and begin the conservation of its threatened habitat so that this unique animal can persist in the wild. The first few dozens of babies will n\be placed into the market to produce a commercial population that won't depend upon the wild population. This is an attempt to flood the market with specimens of the new species in order to lower the price and to encourage the captive breeding in the most highly demanding countries, and raise funds to establish an in situ community based forest conservation, programme, including environmental education and wildlife management. The authors will also ask CITES to list the wild population of the species in the Appendix 1 and the captive population in the Appendix 2. Find out more about this strategy at:

Menegon, M. T. R.B. Davenport and K M. Howell. 2011. Description of a new and critically endangered species of Atheris (Serpentes: Viperidae) from the Southern Highlands of Tanzania, with an overview of the country’s tree viper fauna. Zootaxa 3120: 43–54.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Largest USA Dinosaur

It is difficult to estimate body sizes from only fragmentary
remains, but overlapping skeletal material indicates similar
maximum sizes for the biggest dinosaurs. Image courtesy
of Denver Fowler.
BOZEMAN -- New research from Montana State University's Museum of the Rockies and the State Museum of Pennsylvania has unveiled enormous bones from North America's biggest dinosaur.

In a paper published Dec. 6 in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, MSU researcher Denver W. Fowler and coauthor Robert M. Sullivan from Harrisburg, Pa., describe two gigantic vertebrae and a femur that the team collected in New Mexico from 2003 to 2006. Carrying the vertebrae alone took most of a day and was a "killer" because the paleontologists carried them 1.2 miles through 100-degree heat, Fowler said.

The bones belong to the sauropod dinosaur Alamosaurus sanjuanensis: a long-necked plant eater related to Diplodocus. The Alamosaurus roamed what is now the southwestern United States and Mexico about 69 million years ago.

"Alamosaurus has been known for some time; its remains were first described in 1922 from the Naashoibito beds of New Mexico. Since then, more bones have been discovered in New Mexico, Utah, some really nice material from Texas, and Mexico, including a few partial skeletons," Fowler said.

The sheer size of the new bones caught the researchers by surprise, however.

"We used to think that a fully grown Alamosaurus measured around 60 feet long and weighed about 30 tons; but a 2009 study by another MSU researcher, Dr. Holly Woodward, found that a femur thought to belong to an adult was still growing," Fowler said. "This told us that Alamosaurus got even bigger, but we didn't imagine that it could get quite this big."

How big? The enormity of the new bones puts Alamosaurus in the same size league as other giant sauropods from South America, including Argentinosaurus which weighed about 70 tons, and is widely considered to be the biggest dinosaur of all.

"Over the past 20 years, Argentinean and Brazilian paleontologists have been unearthing bigger and bigger dinosaurs, putting the rest of the world in the shade," Fowler said. "However, our new finds not only show that Alamosaurus is newly recognized as the biggest dinosaur from North America, but also that it was right up there with the biggest South American species: the US is back in the fight for the No.1 spot."

Although comparison of the new Alamosaurus bones with the South American species gave the researchers an idea of size, giant specimens of sauropods like Alamosaurus and Argentinosaurus are only known from very fragmentary remains offering only a tantalizing glimpse of what a complete Alamosaurus might look like, Fowler said.

"We'd love to find more complete material," Fowler continued. "Fortunately, Alamosaurus bones are quite common in the Naashoibito of New Mexico, so we have a good chance of going back and finding more, but in order to dig up one of the world's biggest dinosaurs you need one of the world's biggest dinosaur digging teams and large digging equipment."

The Pennsylvania State Museum field crew is typically just two or three people, so there are limits on how many bones can be collected in one season, Fowler said. Even so, many new and important specimens have been recovered over the past 10 to 15 years, including new species, and other members of the fauna including the iconic carnivore Tyrannosaurus.

"We found a shed Tyrannosaurus tooth with another Alamosaurus neck bone that we were excavating," Fowler said. "The Tyrannosaurus may have lost its tooth while feeding on an Alamosaurus carcass."

The Alamosaurus discovery goes beyond just "size" bragging-rights, and may have important implications for other dinosaurs, Fowler said. Recent discoveries by paleontologist Jack Horner's paleo lab at the Museum of the Rockies have emphasized the importance of understanding growth and ontogeny in interpreting dinosaur evolution.

"Increasingly, we're finding that very large or small individuals often look very different, and are often described as different species," Fowler said. "Our findings show that Alamosaurus was originally described based on immature material, and this is a problem as characteristics that define a species are typically only fully gained at adult size. This means that we might be misinterpreting the relationships of Alamosaurus and possibly other sauropod dinosaurs too."

To keep up with the latest research from the Horner Paleo Lab at the Museum of the Rockies, go to Facebook.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Odorrana Frogs as a Source for New Antibiotics

The  Chinese Odorrana tormota. Photo Credit 
Albert Feng
About 45 species of ranid frogs are currently recognized in the genus Odorrana, they inhabit high-gradient streams in Asia from Myanmar and Thailand and Malaya southward through the Sunda Shelf (Sumatra to Borneo) and eastward into China and Japan. And at least some species use ultrasonic sound to communicate through the noise of running water. Now, Yang et al. (2011) find that they may produce the greatest known variety of anti-bacterial substances known, and that they hold promise for becoming new weapons in the battle against antibiotic-resistant infections. The dorous frogs have been described as smelling like decomposing flesh. Zhang's research group at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, of the Chinese Academy worked to identify the specific antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) for developing new antibiotics. They identified more than 700 of these substances from nine species of odorous frogs and concluded that the AMPs account for almost one-third of all AMPs found in the world, the greatest known diversity of these germ-killing chemicals. Interestingly, some of the AMPs have a dual action, killing bacteria directly and simultaneouly activating the immune system. Their results sugest that identical AMPs were widely distributed in odorous frogs; 49 known AMPs can be found in different amphibian species. Purified peptides showed a strong and effective antimicrobial activity against four tested strains of microbe. They synthesized another 23 peptides and evaluated their antimicrobial, antioxidant, hemolytic, immunomodulatory and insulin-releasing properties. Their research demonstrates the extreme diversity of AMPs in amphibian skins and provides numerous templates for developing novel peptide antibiotics. Thus, we have yet another reason to protect biodiversity.

Xinwang Yang, Wen-Hui Lee, Yun Zhang. 2011. Extremely Abundant Antimicrobial Peptides Existed in the Skins of Nine Kinds of Chinese Odorous Frogs. Journal of Proteome Research, 2011: 111118134814004 DOI: 10.1021/pr200782u