One of world’s two remaining live specimens — female Fatu who lives with her mother Najin on Kenya’s 90,000-acre Ol Pejeta wildlife conservancy — provided the eggs for the project, while the sperm used was from two different deceased males. https://www.dianomi.com/smartads.epl?id=3533
Scientific consortium Biorescue described in a press release late Thursday how the eggs were collected from Fatu in early July before being airlifted to a lab in Italy for fertilisation, development and preservation.
Neither Fatu nor Najin is capable of carrying a calf to term, so surrogate mothers for the embryos will be selected from a population of southern white rhinos.
Ol Pejeta director Richard Vigne told AFP on Friday that he believed in the project’s chances of success, while emphasising the high stakes.
“No one is going to pretend that this is going to be easy,” he said.
“We are doing things which are cutting-edge from a scientific perspective and we a dealing with genetics, with the two last northen white rhinos left on the planet,” said Vigne.
“There are many, many things that could go wrong,” he said. “I think everybody understand the challenges that remain.”
Since 2019 Biorescue has collected 80 eggs from Najin and Fatu, but the 12 viable embryos all hail from the younger rhino.
The project is a multi-national effort with scientists from the German Leibniz Institute backing the Kenya Wildlife Service and Ol Pejeta, and the Italian Avantea laboratory providing fertilisation support.
Kenyan Tourism Minister Najib Balala welcomed the news.
“It is very encouraging to note that the project has continued to make good progress in its ambitious attempts to save an iconic species from extinction,” he said in the press release.
Rhinoceroses have very few natural predators but their numbers have been decimated by poaching since the 1970s.
Modern rhinos have roamed the planet for 26 million years and it is estimated that more than a million still lived in the wild in the middle of the 19th century.
(CNN)As the first North American insect to go extinct due to humans, a blue butterfly has become an icon for insect conservation — and what happens when humans destroy habitats without thought for the creatures living in them.The last of the Xerces blue butterflies fluttered through the air in San Francisco in the early 1940s. Now, they can only be seen in glass displays at museums.These periwinkle pearly-winged insects lived in the coastal sand dunes along San Francisco and were first characterized by scientists in 1852. When urban development swept through this part of California, the sandy soils were disturbed. This caused a ripple effect, wiping out species of the plant the Xerces caterpillars used. The habitat change was too great for the Xerces blue butterfly, and the species went extinct.
“Habitat conversion and urban development caused the loss of this species. The Xerces blue butterfly has become an icon for insect conservation. In fact, the largest insect conservation organization is even named after this species.”
But scientists have long questioned if Xerces was a distinct species, or if it was a subspecies or really just an isolated population of another type of butterfly, the silvery blue that lives across the western United States and Canada.
The new study published Tuesday in the journal Biology Letters.Enter your email to sign up for the Wonder Theory newsletter.close dialog
If you want to save bumble bees, plant these flowers in your yardThe Field Museum also includes the Grainger Bioinformatics Center, which has the capability to sequence and analyze DNA.”DNA is a very stable molecule, it can last a long time after the cells it’s stored in have died,” said Felix Grewe, lead study author and codirector of the Grainger Bioinformatics Center, in a statement.The study team was able to retrieve enough threads of DNA to compare it with the silvery blue butterfly’s DNA and determine that the Xerces blue butterfly was a separate species — and humans indeed caused it to go extinct.”It’s interesting to reaffirm that what people have been thinking for nearly 100 years is true, that this was a species driven to extinction by human activities,” Grewe said. “When this butterfly was collected 93 years ago, nobody was thinking about sequencing its DNA. That’s why we have to keep collecting, for researchers 100 years in the future.”The Field Museum has a collection of extinct Xerces blue butterflies.Next, the researchers want to understand if this species, which was considered to be genetically diverse, experienced a decline in diversity as it neared extinction. That could be a contributing factor to its untimely end.The team was able to retrieve enough genetic information to prove that Xerces was a unique species, but it’s not enough to resurrect the butterflies, the researchers said. And many factors need to be considered before trying to bring a species back through de-extinction.”Although I know there are some people interested in potentially resurrecting this species, I think we have a long way to go before we would be able to actually do this,” Moreau said. “It would require significant time and financial resources to not only recapitulate its genome, but also establish the required host plants for the larvae and native symbiotic ants. During this time of a global insect decline, I would prefer to see our resources put towards saving those species already endangered or protecting critical habitat.”Meanwhile, other butterflies are experiencing decline, like the El Segundo Blue, due to a loss of its sand dune habitat, and the Karner Blue due to the loss of the blue lupine flower its caterpillars use, according to Moreau.”Before we start putting a lot of effort into resurrection, let’s put that effort into protecting what’s there and learn from our past mistakes,” Grewe said.The researchers noted that we’re in the middle of what many scientists dub the insect apocalypse as species decline around the world — something humans have contributed to greatly.
Scientists have finally worked out how butterflies fly“The current ‘insect apocalypse’ is really a death by a thousand cuts,” Moreau said. “Pesticide use, land use modification and climate change are likely the major factors causing these global insect declines and all of these are due to human activities. I think it is in our best interest to try to mitigate as many of these as we can since every species on the planet is important.”Insects are more crucial to our lives than most people realize, the researchers said. While all of them may not be as pretty or attention-getting as the Xerces blue butterfly, they aerate soil and aid in plant growth, which feeds everything else.
“As insects are critical for any ecosystem the loss of any one species has ripple effects through the community,” Moreau said.”As we can see from these examples above the interconnectedness of species from mutualists to food plants to habitat requirements can have huge impacts on the survival of a species. To be honest without insects our planet would become inhospitable to humans within a matter of months. We need insects even if we don’t always realize it.”
FILE – This Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2003 file photo shows a reconstructed Neanderthal skeleton, right, and a modern human skeleton on display at the Museum of Natural History in New York. According to a study published Friday, July 16, 2021 in the journal Science Advances, just 7% of our genome is uniquely shared with other humans, and not shared by other early ancestors. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
WASHINGTON (AP) — What makes humans unique? Scientists have taken another step toward solving an enduring mystery with a new tool that may allow for more precise comparisons between the DNA of modern humans and that of our extinct ancestors.
Just 7% of our genome is uniquely shared with other humans, and not shared by other early ancestors, according to a study published Friday in the journal Science Advances.
“That’s a pretty small percentage,” said Nathan Schaefer, a University of California computational biologist and co-author of the new paper. “This kind of finding is why scientists are turning away from thinking that we humans are so vastly different from Neanderthals.”
The research draws upon DNA extracted from fossil remains of now-extinct Neanderthals and Denisovans dating back to around 40,000 or 50,000 years ago, as well as from 279 modern people from around the world.ADVERTISEMENT
Scientists already know that modern people share some DNA with Neanderthals, but different people share different parts of the genome. One goal of the new research was to identify the genes that are exclusive to modern humans.
It’s a difficult statistical problem, and the researchers “developed a valuable tool that takes account of missing data in the ancient genomes,” said John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who was not involved in the research.
The researchers also found that an even smaller fraction of our genome — just 1.5% — is both unique to our species and shared among all people alive today. Those slivers of DNA may hold the most significant clues as to what truly distinguishes modern human beings.
“We can tell those regions of the genome are highly enriched for genes that have to do with neural development and brain function,” said University of California, Santa Cruz computational biologist Richard Green, a co-author of the paper.
In 2010, Green helped produce the first draft sequence of a Neanderthal genome. Four years later, geneticist Joshua Akey co-authored a paper showing that modern humans carry some remnants of Neanderthal DNA. Since then, scientists have continued to refine techniques to extract and analyze genetic material from fossils.
“Better tools allow us to ask increasingly more detailed questions about human history and evolution,” said Akey, who is now at Princeton and was not involved in the new research. He praised the methodology of the new study.
However, Alan Templeton, a population geneticist at Washington University in St Louis, questioned the authors’ assumption that changes in the human genome are randomly distributed, rather than clustered around certain hotspots within the genome.
The findings underscore “that we’re actually a very young species,” said Akey. “Not that long ago, we shared the planet with other human lineages.”
The saiga has seen a dramatic turnaround in fortunes. But even with the current boom, numbers will never return to the millions estimated in Soviet times due to looming threats, including the impact of state infrastructure projects and oil and gas development, said Albert Salemgareyev.
The latest survey, carried out in April, shows not only a big increase in the total numbers, but that one particular population in Ustyurt in the south of the country, has made a dramatic recovery.
In 2015, there were barely more than 1,000 animals left in the area, but there’s been a big increase to 12,000 in this year’s census.
The UK-based non-profit organisation, Fauna & Flora International, has been involved in efforts to protect the Ustyurt population by establishing a new anti-poaching ranger team and using satellite collaring to monitor saiga movements.
David Gill, FFI senior programme manager for Central Asia, said the new census was the best evidence yet that decades of conservation efforts to protect the saiga were paying off.
But he warned against complacency, saying saiga migrate across huge areas, so future development and infrastructure projects that might fragment its habitat remain a concern.
“But this new data is cause for celebration,” he added. “There are few truly vast wildernesses, like the steppes of central Asia, left on the planet. To know that saiga herds are still traversing them in their thousands, as they have done since prehistoric times, is an encouraging thought for those of us who want those wildernesses to remain.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature classes the saiga among five critically endangered antelope species.
Numbers of the species, which goes by the scientific name Saiga tatarica, have plunged by more than 90% in the late 20th Century, coming close to extinction several times.
Kazakhstan is home to a majority of the world’s saiga, although the antelope also can be found in southern Russia and Uzbekistan.
In the decade after Kazakhstan’s independence the animal was pushed to the brink through poaching for its horns, which are prized in Chinese medicine.
Recent years have seen measures taken by the Kazakh government to protect the saiga population, including a crack down on poaching, with penalties of up to 12 years in prison, and the establishment of nature reserves.
Stephanie Ward, Altyn Dala conservation initiative international coordinator at the Frankfurt Zoological Society, said the antelope is among very few living creatures to have run freely among both Neanderthal humans and the humans of the 21st Century.
“It’s exciting to see their numbers start to recover to levels nearing 1,000,000 individuals, and it speaks volumes about the Government of Kazakhstan’s commitment to their protection,” she said.
The die-off of 2015 was blamed on a bacterium previously present in the saiga which turned into a deadly killer due to excess humidity and higher-than-average daily temperatures on the steppes.
Skull found at the site among other items at Nesher Ramla.(photo credit: DR. YOSSI ZAIDNER)AdvertisementA new type of early human previously not known to scientists has been discovered in Israel, Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University researchers announced Thursday as their extraordinary findings appeared in the prestigious academic journal Science.Researchers believe the new “Homo” species intermarried with Homo sapiens and was an ancestor of the Neanderthals.Read More Related Articles
Recommended byTens of thousands of years ago, the busy central region of what is now a densely populated and traffic-jammed part of Israel, was a landscape that very much resembled the African savanna. It featured rhinos, wild horses and cattle and other large animals that were perfect game for ancient hunter-gatherers.The site of Nesher Ramla, a few kilometers from the modern-day city, was probably close to a water reservoir where early humans could hunt animals. Today, the dig site is filled with many animal bones, stone tools for making fire and butchering, and human bones, including skulls, TAU anthropologist Prof. Israel Hershkovitz said.https://www.youtube.com/embed/OGPKRuyd-5M “We know that modern humans – or Homo sapiens – arrived in this area some 200,000 years ago,” he said. “When we started excavating and examining the different archaeological layers, we found that they dated back between 140,000 and 120,000 years ago, so we expected to find remains of Homo sapiens. We did not realize that another form of human was living alongside them.”
In a new study, an international team led by Sebastian Stumpf from the University of Vienna describes a fossil skeleton of an ancient shark, which is assigned to a new, previously unknown genus and species.
This rare fossil find comes from the Kimmeridge Clay Formation in England, a series of sedimentary rocks that was formed in a shallow, tropical-subtropical sea during the Upper Jurassic, about 150 million years ago. The fossil shark skeleton was found more than 20 years ago on the southern coast of England and is now held in the Etches Collection. Additional fossil shark specimens from it will be investigated in the years to come.
Due to their life-long tooth replacement shark teeth are among the most common vertebrate finds encountered in the fossil record. The low preservation potential of their poorly mineralized cartilaginous skeletons, on the other hand, prevents fossilization of completely preserved specimens in most cases.
The new study published in the journal PeerJ and led by Sebastian Stumpf from the University of Vienna now presents the fossil skeleton of a new ancient shark from the Kimmeridge Clay Formation of England, a fossiliferous rock sequence that was formed during the Late Jurassic in a shallow, tropical-subtropical sea.
The new shark fossil, which is about 150 million years old, is assigned to a previously unknown genus and species of hybodontiform sharks named Durnonovariaodus maiseyi. This extremely rare fossil find was made almost 20 years ago on the southern coast of England and is now held and curated in the Etches Collection, which houses one of the most scientifically significant fossil collections in England.
Hybodontiform sharks are one of the most species-rich groups of extinct sharks and represent the closest relatives to modern sharks. They first appeared during the latest Devonian, about 361 million years ago, and went extinct together with dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, about 66 million years ago. The new genus and species Durnonovariaodus maiseyi differs from all other previously described hybodontiform sharks, including those that are characterized by having similarly shaped teeth. “Durnonovariaodus maiseyi represents an important source of information for better understanding the diversity of sharks in the past as well as for new interpretations of the evolution of hybodontiform sharks, whose relationships are still poorly understood, even after more than 150 years of research,” says Stumpf.
The scientific importance of the Kimmeridge Clay Formation is underlined by additional, but still undescribed hybodontiform shark skeletons, which are also held in the Etches Collection. The research of fossil sharks from the Kimmeridge Clay Formation of England, which will be continued in the years to come, will certainly contain further surprises to be yet discovered.
Reference: “Durnonovariaodus maiseyi gen. et sp. nov., a new hybodontiform shark-like chondrichthyan from the Upper Jurassic Kimmeridge Clay Formation of England” by Sebastian Stumpf1, Steve Etches2, Charlie J. Underwood3, Jürgen Kriwet1 , 11 May 2021, PeerJ. DOI: 10.7717/peerj.11362
Drs. Minter and Bath Enright, of the University of Portsmouth’s School of the Environment, Geography and Geosciences, studied the Burgess Shale area of British Columbia, both on location in the field and with laboratory experiments. Credit: Dr. Orla Bath Enright
A large group of iconic fossils widely believed to shed light on the origins of many of Earth’s animals and the communities they lived in may be hiding a secret.
Scientists, led by two from the University of Portsmouth, UK, are the first to model how exceptionally well preserved fossils that record the largest and most intense burst of evolution ever seen could have been moved by mudflows.
The finding, published in Communications Earth & Environment, offers a cautionary note on how palaeontologists build a picture from the remains of the creatures they study.
Until now, it has been widely accepted the fossils buried in mudflows in the Burgess Shale in Canada that show the result of the Cambrian explosion 505 million years ago had all lived together but that’s now in doubt.
The Cambrian explosion was responsible for kick-starting the huge diversity of animal life now seen on the planet.
Now, Dr. Nic Minter and Dr. Orla Bath Enright have found that some of the animals which became fossils could have remained well preserved even after being carried large distances, throwing doubt on the idea the creatures all lived together.
Drs. Minter and Bath Enright, of the University of Portsmouth’s School of the Environment, Geography and Geosciences, studied the Burgess Shale area of British Columbia, both on location in the field and with laboratory experiments. Credit: Dr. Orla Bath Enright
Dr. Minter said: “This finding might surprise scientists or lead to them striking a more cautionary tone in how they interpret early marine ecosystems from half a billion years ago.
“It has been assumed that because the Burgess Shale fossils are so well preserved, they couldn’t have been transported over large distances. However, this new research shows that the general type of flow responsible for the deposits in which they were buried does not cause further damage to deceased animals. This means the fossils found in individual layers of sediment, and assumed to represent animal communities, could actually have been living far apart in distance.”
Drs Minter and Bath Enright, of the University of Portsmouth’s School of the Environment, Geography and Geosciences, studied the Burgess Shale area of British Columbia, both on location in the field and with laboratory experiments.
The site is an area rich in fossils entombed in the deposits of mudflows and is one of the world’s most important fossil sites, with more than 65,000 specimens already collected and, so far, more than 120 species counted.
The Burgess Shale area has been fundamental to scientists in understanding the origins of animal groups and the communities they lived among and has been closely studied multiple times.
The researchers, together with collaborators from the Universities of Southampton and Saskatchewan in Canada, used fieldwork to identify how the mudflows would have behaved, and then used flume tank laboratory tests to mimic the mudflows and are confident that the bodies of certain creatures could have been moved over tens of kilometers without damage, creating the illusion of animal communities which never existed.
The Burgess Shale was discovered in the early 1900s and led to the idea of the ‘Cambrian explosion’ of life, with the appearance of animals representing almost all the modern phyla, and inspiring copious research and discoveries.
Dr. Bath Enright said: “Many would argue that it is fundamental, even ground zero for scientists in understanding the diversity of life.”
It’s not known precisely what caused the mudflows which buried and moved the animals which became fossilized, but the area was subject to multiple flows, causing well-preserved fossils to be found at many different levels in the shale.
“We don’t know over what kind of overall time frame these many flows happened, but we know each one produced an ‘event bed’ that we see today stacked up on top of one another. These flows could pick up animals from multiple places as they moved across the seafloor and then dropped them all together in one place,” said Dr. Bath Enright.
“When we see multiple species accumulated together it can give the illusion we are seeing a single community. But we argue that an individual ‘event bed’ could be the product of several communities of animals being picked up from multiple places by a mudflow and then deposited together to give what looks like a much more complicated single community of animals.
“Palaeontologists need to appreciate the nature of the sediments that fossils are preserved within and what the implications of that are. We could be overestimating the complexity of early marine animal communities and therefore the patterns and drivers of evolution that have led to our present day diversity and complexity.”
The researchers hope to do further study to investigate whether differences in the species that are present in other fossil sites are due to evolutionary changes through time or the nature of the flows and the effects of transport and preservation of the fossils.
“It was a huge surprise,” Sebastián Di Martino, director of conservation at Fundación Rewilding Argentina told The Guardian.
“I was incredulous. An incredible feeling of so much happiness,” Di Martino said of the sighting. “I didn’t know if I should try to follow it or rush back to our station to tell the others.”
The species, officially called Pteronura brasiliensis, had not been seen in the South American country since the 1980s, with the last sighting in Bermejo recorded more than a century ago, according to the report.
Di Martino reportedly spotted the otter while kayaking in Impenetrable National Park, located in the Chaco province of northeast Argentina.
“We grabbed the cell phone and started filming it, when he poked his body out of the water and showed the unmistakable white bib, we had no doubts, it was a giant river otter,” Di Martino told Gizmodo.
The conservation group shared footage last week of the animal the water mammal bobbing its head in and out of the river.
“[Y]our legs go weak and your heart starts beating faster,” Di Martino told The Guardian about his experience seeing the long-lost species.
The sighting gives conservationists hope that the river can sustain the species if it receives proper environmental protection.
The organization has reportedly been trying to re-introduce otters into national parks for years so they can regulate fish populations.
The Chaco region of the country where the otter was found is under constant threat of deforestation, illegal hunting and development, the reports said.
Aylin WoodwardSat, May 29, 2021, 5:00 AM·7 min read
A ranger patrolling a watershed area east of Oakland, California discovered a trove of hundreds of fossils last summer from nearly a dozen ancient species. The site contains hundreds of petrified trees as well.
It’s one of the largest fossil finds in California history, and new fossils are still being unearthed there almost every day.
The discovery include fossils from prehistoric elephants with four tusks, mammoth-like mastodons, tortoises, and camels. The findings have so far all been between 5 and 10 million years old.
The trove’s precise location remains a secret to protect the fossils and prevent looting.
The photos below show some of the findings so far.
Ranger Greg Francek was patrolling land in northern California last summer when he spotted a weird looking rock. “I was curious and had a closer look,” Francek told Insider.
The rock wasn’t a rock at all, but a petrified tree that was millions of years old.
“One end of the tree was partially exposed, and — to my surprise — I could see the tree rings,” Francek said.- ADVERTISEMENT -https://s.yimg.com/rq/darla/4-6-0/html/r-sf-flx.html
The land Francek was patrolling is east of the San Francisco Bay — he has monitored watershed land for California’s East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) as a naturalist for more than a decade. Francek knew he’d come across something special, so he called paleontologist Russell Shapiro at California State University, Chico.
It wasn’t the first time Shapiro had been asked to look at potential fossils. “We get that call a lot,” he told Insider. But when Francek took Shapiro to see the ancient tree, they discovered a stunning trove of animal fossils.
“The very first day, I could look on the ground and go, ‘Well, that’s an elephant. That’s a rhinoceros. That’s a tortoise. That’s a camel,'” Shapiro said. “We found all this just by tripping over it.”
Shapiro knew it was an unprecedented discovery: Francek, it turns out, had stumbled across one of the largest fossil finds ever found in California.
“You kind of look around at the landscape and just think, ‘Oh, my god, there’s gonna be so much stuff here,'” Shapiro said.
In the 10 months since that first discovery, the duo has helped to unearth several hundred fossil specimens from nearly a dozen species. All are between 5 and 10 million years old.
Now, a team from EBMUD and CSU, Chico are steadily excavating the site. The fossils they’ve found offer a glimpse into an era of history known as the Miocene epoch, which occurred between 5 and 23.5 million years ago.
California looked quite different during the Miocene — there were no Sierra Nevada mountains, according to Shapiro, and dry grasslands were peppered with volcanoes. Still, the creatures that inhabited the land bore some resemblance to animals alive today.
Francek has discovered fossils of animals like rhinos, tortoises, and tapirs, which still exist, as well as extinct species like mastodons – shaggy, woolly mammoth-like beasts with tusks.
Shapiro recalled excavating a particular tapir jaw (pictured above) — he said he thinks tapirs are some of the cutest animals “because they look like a pig, but they have a nose like an elephant.”
Francek said it’s tough to pick a favorite fossil from the site, especially because he continues to find more whenever he visits.
“The giant camels are so cool. I like horses. And I like to think about the tortoises walking around the landscape like little armored tanks,” he said.
“I guess the creature that has my imagination working overtime is the gomphothere,” Francek added, “a four-tusked ancestor to the modern elephant.”
Gomphotheres were widespread in North America during the Miocene. They had tusks protruding from above and below their mouths.
Francek has found fossils from numerous gomphotheres, including an enormous, complete lower jaw and tusks.
That jaw, he said, “required 124 hours of excavation with hammer and chisel, and a tractor to lift it out of the ground.”
Shapiro said the team has unearthed countless herbivores but very few predator fossils. Ten months into the excavation, he said, “we’re just starting to find evidence of carnivores.”
In addition to fossils of weasel and fox relatives, they found evidence of bone-crushing dogs — prehistoric dog-like creatures that split off from the species that eventually became our pets.
These ancient dogs had strong jaws, Shapiro said: “They evolved the ability to chomp bone.”
He thinks these dogs were the dominant carnivores in the area millions of years ago, before they went extinct at the end of the Miocene.
The hundreds of fossilized trees found at the site so far can help scientists understand what happened to California’s climate at the end of the Miocene.
During those years, the Earth was starting to get colder, paving way for the first global ice age 2.4 million years ago.
“We can really tell that the temperatures were starting to drop quickly,” Shapiro said. “Right before this period, you find more tropical plants in California and elsewhere. And then right around this time, you’re seeing the spread of oaks and other plants like redwood trees that really prefer a cooler climate.”
Shapiro and Francek think the trove has more to offer. Francek said he’s been back to the site almost every day since last summer looking for new finds.
When he discovers something new, Francek takes photos, documents the location, contacts Shapiro, and starts trying to figure out what the critter might be. Recently, he uncovered a mastodon skull, complete with its tusks, fossilized in a rock.
“Every time he goes out, he finds something new, Shapiro said. “I’m getting used to him texting me photos almost every day.”
Once fully excavated, the fossils get taken to a lab in Chico. Shapiro said the team has finally secured a lab large enough to properly study all the findings. They’re working to count them and date the fossils more precisely.
“All of these bones come from pretty much one geologic layer,” Shapiro said.
That suggests the ancient creatures were fossilized around the same time.
The trove’s precise location remains a secret, however, in order to keep the area safe from vandals and looters.
Since excavations are ongoing, EBMUD does not allow the public to visit the site. Instead, it has set up an online tour of the findings for users to explore.
The secrecy is warranted: After Francek’s initial discovery, Shapiro recalled the ranger’s excitement at the prospect of showing him that first petrified tree. But when they arrived part of it was missing.
“It was like a punch to the gut to find that some of the petrified tree remains had been stolen and vandalized,” Francek said.
After that, the team quickly secured the remaining specimens and installed an around-the-clock patrol of the site.
“We intentionally waited nearly a year to announce the discovery so that we could establish solid security measures,” Francek added.
Last week, scientists conducting research on Western Australia’s Ashmore Reef became the first humans to lay eyes on a short-nosed sea snake at the site in more than two decades. Olive-colored and critically endangered, the snakes have been thought locally extinct for 23 years.
Like cobras, taipans, and death adders, the short-nosed sea snake is a member of the Elapidae family, meaning that it possesses short, hollow fixed fangs capable of injecting predominantly neurotoxic venom.
In short, it’s not an animal you want to encounter in the course of a swim. Luckily for them, the scientists were safe inside a research vessel “equipped with advanced robotic technologies” at the time of rediscovery, according to ABC Science.
“The robot was looking at a dead shell and [the researchers] were trying to pick it up and it had a sea snake sitting next to it,” Blanche D’Anastasi, a sea snake expert at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, said. “They asked to zoom in on it and they [both] realized straight away it was a short-nosed sea snake. They contacted me soon after and were like, ‘Is this what we think it is?'”NEWSWEEK NEWSLETTER SIGN-UP >
It was, much to her surprise. Short-nosed sea snakes were once abundant on Ashmore Reef, according to D’Anastasi, but their numbers began to decline in the 1970s and bottomed out in the early 2010s. The downward trend is of significant concern to marine biologists.
“You used to find about 50 snakes per day if you were walking the reef site,” D’Anastasi said. “By 2002 it was down to 20 snakes per day, by 2010 it was down to 10, and then in 2012 there were no snakes left in the shallows.”
The species was presumed extinct in 1998 when it disappeared from Ashmore, but Kate Sanders, a reptile ecologist at the University of Adelaide, and her team managed to locate a few small, isolated populations along the coast in 2016.NEWSWEEK SUBSCRIPTION OFFERS >
“Cable Beach in Broome, we’ve had a single specimen from there, and scattered distributions from the Exmouth Gulf,” she said.
However, their members differed from the animals that had been previously observed on the reef in several significant ways, raising the possibility that they represented a distinct species of sea snake entirely. For example, they had smaller heads.
From photos, it’s impossible to definitively identify the new specimen as either a reef snake or a coastal snake. It was found curled up on the seabed about 220 feet below the surface in the ocean’s twilight zone. Not to be confused with the 1960s sci-fi show of the same name, the twilight zone refers to the region of the ocean that receives only a minimal amount of sunlight.
That location, Sanders said, suggests one of two scenarios. In the first, the original short-nosed sea snakes have been inhabiting the reef all along at depths that put them out of the natural reach of humans. In the second, the coastal snakes have simply expanded their territory.
“Could they have recolonized from the coast? That’s a really important question,” Sanders said. “If it’s the coastal population that’s recolonized, that would suggest we’ve lost that historical diversity that used to be present on Ashmore.”