Torres del Paine National Park, Chile | image by Luis Davilla
The rare earless monitor lizard (Lanthanotus borneensis) has remained obscure since the last research was conducted on it in the 1960s. It lives underground and has adaptations such as a lack of external openings for its ears and small eyes and limbs. The animals are officially protected in Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, and Malaysia,the countries that make up Borneo. But in the last 2 years, private collectors have begun selling specimens from the wild. TRAFFIC,a wildlife trade monitoring network that is a partnership of conservation organizations,found the animals being offered for sale online in Europe. The organization says many of the lizards are being collected from the wild and smuggled out of Borneo and that the trade should be made illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. All other species of monitor lizard are protected by the convention.
A parasite that bit into an ant’s head and rode its host to a sticky doom millions of years ago has been preserved in a dime-sized piece of amber. The fossil, reported online today in Biology Letters, is the first of a mite from a group whose species commonly plague today’s ants, bees, and wasps. Purchased from a collector who unearthed the gem somewhere in the Baltics, the tiny chunk of amber is probably somewhere between 44 million and 49 million years old. The mite (the large, tick-shaped blob at upper right, above the ant’s head) is one of only 14 known fossils from a group known as Laelapidae, whose modern relatives often live among fallen leaves on the forest floor and parasitize ants. (They’re rare in the fossil record because they’re typically preserved only when they hitch a ride into the trees on a host unfortunate enough to become trapped in oozing resin.) Further study of this gruesome specimen—and others possibly sitting undiscovered in museum drawers worldwide, the researchers say—might provide more information about the origin and evolution of such parasitic mites. That’s of interest because one of this group’s closest modern relatives is the varroa mite, a devastating parasite that afflicts honey bees worldwide.
| image: J. Dunlop/Museum für Naturkunde Berlin
When an insect gets too big for its exoskeleton, it sheds it. This process—known as molting—might sound matter-of-fact, but it’s not. Insects stop eating, many lie still, and they become more vulnerable to predators. Now, a study of mayfly larvae has revealed another difficulty: While molting, insects can’t breathe. Alarmingly, the respiratory impairment grows more severe with higher temperatures, suggesting that climate change and other stressors could make molting an even greater challenge.
Aquatic insects breathe with gills. After oxygen diffuses from the water, it passes into a branching network of ever-smaller airways, called tracheoles, which deliver the gas directly to clumps of cells. Larvae can also absorb some oxygen through their soft exoskeleton.
Molting takes their breath away. When larvae slip out of their exoskeleton, the lining of the tracheoles comes with it. “It’s like having your lungs ripped out,” says Joseph Bernardo, an ecologist at Texas A&M University, College Station, who was not involved in the research. Although it was fairly common knowledge among entomologists that the tracheal linings come out—and likely block the trachea in the process—the impact on respiration hadn’t been measured.
Think crayfish and you probably think supper, perhaps with mayo on the side. You probably don’t think of their brains. Admittedly, crayfish aren’t known for their grey matter, but that might be about to change: they can grow new brain cells from blood.
Humans can make new neurons, but only from specialised stem cells. Crayfish, meanwhile, can convert blood to neurons that resupply their eyestalks and smell circuits. Although it’s a long way from crayfish to humans, the discovery may one day help us to regenerate our own brain cells.
Olfactory nerves are continuously exposed to damage and so naturally regenerate in many animals, from flies to humans, and crustaceans too. It makes sense that crayfish have a way to replenish these nerves. To do so, they utilise what amounts to a “nursery” for baby neurons, a little clump at the base of the brain called the niche.