High-schoolers join scholars to lift the lid on Hong Kong’s soil biodiversity

Most often, the students would find millipedes. They even helped identify two species that are new to Hong Kong’s fauna.

Soil and its macrofauna are an integral part of many ecosystems, playing an important role in decomposition and nutrient recycling. However, soil biodiversity remains understudied globally.

To help fill this gap and reveal the diversity of soil fauna in Hong Kong, a team of scientists from The Chinese University of Hong Kong initiated a citizen science project involving universities, non-governmental organisations and secondary school students and teachers.

“Involving citizens as part of the new knowledge generation process is important in promoting the understanding of biodiversity. Training younger-generation citizens to learn about biodiversity is of utmost importance and crucial to conservation engagement”

– say the researchers in their study, which was published in the open-access Biodiversity Data Journal.

The soil sampling methodology that the students employed in this study.
Video by Sheung Yee Lai, Ka Wai Ting, Tze Kiu Chong and Wai Lok So.

Working side by side with university academics, taxonomists and non-governmental organisation members, students from 21 schools/institutes were recruited to collect soil animals near their campusesfor a year and record their observations.

Between October 2019 and October 2020, they monitored and sampled species across 21 sites of urban and semi-natural habitats in Hong Kong, collecting a total of 3,588 individual samples. Their efforts yielded 150 soil macrofaunal species, identified as arthropods (including insects, spiders, centipedes and millipedes), worms, and snails.

Most often, the students found millipedes (23 out of 150 species). They even helped identify two millipede species that are new to Hong Kong’s fauna: Monographis queenslandica and Alloproctoides remyi. The former is usually found in Australia – the researchers suggest it might have been introduced to the area many decades ago from Queensland or vice versa – and the latter has been observed in Reunion and Mauritius.

Two polyxenid millipede species, collected in this study, turned out to had never before been recorded from Hong Kong.
Left: Monographis queenslandica and Alloproctoides remyi (right).
Image by Sheung Yee Lai, Ka Wai Ting and Wai Lok So.

Millipedes like these two species can accelerate litter decomposition and regulate the soil carbon and phosphorus cycling, while earthworms can modify the soil structure and regulate water and organic matter cycling.

“Before the beginning of this project, the understanding of soil biodiversity in Hong Kong, including the understanding of its contained millipede species, was inadequate”

the researchers write in their paper.

Now, they believe that the identified macrofauna species and their 646 DNA barcodes have established a solid foundation for further research in soil biodiversity in the area.

Their project also serves an additional purpose. Unlike most conventional scientific studies, which are usually carried out by the government, non-governmental organisations or academics in universities alone, this study utilised a citizen science approach through creating a big community engaged with biodiversity. In doing so, it helped educate the public and raise awareness on the use of basic science techniques in understanding local biodiversity.

So, it may have inspired a new generation of future scientists: some students started millipede cultures in their own schools, and one school used the millipede breeding model to participate in a science and technology competition.

This study is a proof that local institutes and high schools can unite together with research teams at universities and perform scientific work, the study’s authors believe.

It “has raised public awareness and potentially opens up opportunities for the general public to engage in scientific research in the future.” 

The team hopes that their approach could inspire future biodiversity sampling and monitoring studies to engage more citizen scientists.

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Research article:

So WL, Ting KW, Lai SY, Huang EYY, Ma Y, Chong TK, Yip HY, Lee HT, Cheung BCT, Chan MK, Consortium HKSB, Nong W, Law MMS, Lai DYF, Hui JHL (2022) Revealing the millipede and other soil-macrofaunal biodiversity in Hong Kong using a citizen science approach. Biodiversity Data Journal 10: e82518. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.10.e82518

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Assessments of alien species impacts are reliable to prioritize resources

Experts are consistent when assessing the economic, health and ecological impacts of alien species, find the scientists.

Original post by EBD-CSIC

An international collaboration led by the Doñana Biological Station (EBD-CSIC) has shown that experts are consistent when assessing the economic, health and ecological impacts of alien species. These assessments are therefore reliable to guide the prioritization of resources invested against biological invasions.

You can find the scientific article published in the open-access, peer-reviewed scholarly journal NeoBiota.

These results have a great impact on the management by national and international institutions, which have limited resources to fight against the growing and worrying increase of alien species invasions and the damage they caused to society and environment. 

Biological invasions annually cause huge food losses, disease transmissions, species extinctions and ecosystem perturbations. For these reasons, it is one of the biggest problems that humankind currently faces, and its relevance will alarmingly increase due to the extreme situations that climate change will expose society to.

The seriousness of this problem lies in the limited human resources available to fight against it, that force to prioritize its management. Here is where tools such as impact assessments play a key role. Assessments report the impact of invasive species in different areas, including economy, health and environment, and allow us to rank the most harmful species.

For instance, in aquatic ecosystems like the Ebro Delta in Spain, there are dozens of invasive alien co-occurring species that cause millions of economic losses and irreparable ecological damage.

Such is the case of the Zebra mussel, which affects irrigation; the apple snail that devours rice fields; and the blue crab causing the local extinction and declines of many native species.

“That’s why it is crucial to ensure that the results are not dependent on the assessors and to understand what factors affect discrepancies among experts,”

explains Rubén Bernardo-Madrid, lead author and researcher at Doñana Biological Station – CSIC.

One of the relevant aspects of this study is the quantification of the consistency of responses across assessors for a large number of invasive species of vertebrates, invertebrates and plants. In addition, the researchers have studied multiple protocols focused on different aspects, providing a global view of this problem.

“The study has shown that the great majority of assessments are consistent and therefore valid to aid in decision-making. These results are encouraging as they suggest that these protocols may be useful when facing the worrying forecasts of increasing biological invasions and their damages,” 

explains Rubén.

On the other hand, the researchers have observed that discrepancies across assessments might be due to multiple factors, such as the type of impact asked or the linguistic formulation used in the protocols.

The results suggest that there is room for improvement in assessments, but it will require more funding for research, and more multidisciplinary collaborations between ecologists and linguists to develop less ambiguous protocols.

As always, the most effective measure against biological invasions turns out to be prevention.

However, given the incapacity to control every voluntary and involuntary introduction, other tools such as impact assessments are essential to reduce as far as possible the damage caused by these species on human welfare and environment. Its continuous improvement and evaluation, such as the one made in this study, are decisive.

***

Research article:

Bernardo-Madrid R, González-Moreno P, Gallardo B, Bacher S, Vilà M (2022) Consistency in impact assessments of invasive species is generally high and depends on protocols and impact types. In: Giannetto D, Piria M, Tarkan AS, Zięba G (Eds) Recent advancements in the risk screening of freshwater and terrestrial non-native species. NeoBiota 76: 163-190. https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.76.83028

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Follow NeoBiota on Twitter and Facebook.

Pensoft’s ARPHA Publishing Platform integrates with OA Switchboard to streamline reporting to funders of open research

By the time authors open their inboxes to the message their work is online, a similar notification will have also reached their research funder.

Image credit: OA Switchboard.

By the time authors – who have acknowledged third-party financial support in their research papers submitted to a journal using the Pensoft-developed publishing platform: ARPHA – open their inboxes to the congratulatory message that their work has just been published and made available to the wide world, a similar notification will have also reached their research funder.

This automated workflow is already in effect at all journals (co-)published by Pensoft and those published under their own imprint on the ARPHA Platform, as a result of the new partnership with the OA Switchboard: a community-driven initiative with the mission to serve as a central information exchange hub between stakeholders about open access publications, while making things simpler for everyone involved.

All the submitting author needs to do to ensure that their research funder receives a notification about the publication is to select the supporting agency or the scientific project (e.g. a project supported by Horizon Europe) in the manuscript submission form, using a handy drop-down menu. In either case, the message will be sent to the funding body as soon as the paper is published in the respective journal.

“At Pensoft, we are delighted to announce our integration with the OA Switchboard, as this workflow is yet another excellent practice in scholarly publishing that supports transparency in research. Needless to say, funding and financing are cornerstones in scientific work and scholarship, so it is equally important to ensure funding bodies are provided with full, prompt and convenient reports about their own input.”

comments Prof Lyubomir Penev, CEO and founder of Pensoft and ARPHA.

 

“Research funders are one of the three key stakeholder groups in OA Switchboard and are represented in our founding partners. They seek support in demonstrating the extent and impact of their research funding and delivering on their commitment to OA. It is great to see Pensoft has started their integration with OA Switchboard with a focus on this specific group, fulfilling an important need,”

adds Yvonne Campfens, Executive Director of the OA Switchboard.

***

About the OA Switchboard:

A global not-for-profit and independent intermediary established in 2020, the OA Switchboard provides a central hub for research funders, institutions and publishers to exchange OA-related publication-level information. Connecting parties and systems, and streamlining communication and the neutral exchange of metadata, the OA Switchboard provides direct, indirect and community benefits: simplicity and transparency, collaboration and interoperability, and efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

About Pensoft:

Pensoft is an independent academic publishing company, well known worldwide for its novel cutting-edge publishing tools, workflows and methods for text and data publishing of journals, books and conference materials.

All journals (co-)published by Pensoft are hosted on Pensoft’s full-featured ARPHA Publishing Platform and published in a way that ensures their content is as FAIR as possible, meaning that it is effortlessly readable, discoverable, harvestable, citable and reusable by both humans and machines.

***

Follow Pensoft on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.
Follow OA Switchboard on Twitter and Linkedin.

Interview: description of two African shovel-snout snakes from Angola

The small number of collected samples, coupled with the animals’ curious skull structure and anomalous ecology, has puzzled scientists for decades.

Recently, our journal ZooKeys published a paper describing two new species of African Shovel-snout snakes: Prosymna confusa, endemic to dry habitats in southwestern Angola, and P. lisima, associated with the Kalahari sands.

We interviewed the authors of the study to find out how they made this discovery and what it means for biodiversity. Werner Conradie (South Africa), the leader of the project, collected most of the specimens and did all the morphological examinations and taxonomy work. Chad Keates (South Africa) conducted the molecular analysis, Javier Lobon-Roviara (Spain) did the CT-scanning skull reconstruction, and Ninda Baptista (Angola) performed fieldwork.

Interview with Werner Conradie, Chad Keates, Ninda L. Baptista, and Javier Lobón-Rovira

Why has the taxonomy of African Shovel-snout snakes been so complicated?

While widespread, the group is infrequently encountered, resulting in a relatively low number of samples being collected through time. This, coupled with the animals’ curious skull structure and anomalous ecology, has puzzled scientists for decades. While we finally seem to have a grip on the higher-level taxonomy (their relatedness to other snakes), their relations among each other remain incomplete. One thing is for sure, the next few years will likely result in the discovery and description of many more.

Live P. confusa. Photo by Bill Branch

Please walk us through your research process.

Similar to solving a puzzle, the process starts off by acquiring the pieces. The pieces come in the form of samples, collected by us and by scientists, accessioned in museums all over the world. Once all the pieces are in one place, it becomes our job to piece them all together and build a picture of the taxonomy of the group. We start in the corners, ironing out our hypotheses. Once we have the outline, a theory of the species composition of the group, we get to work building the puzzle using evidence from multiple different species concepts.

We use genetics, morphology, ecology, and skull osteology and through fitting these concepts together we start to see our species and the boundaries between them. Large chunks of the puzzle begin to take shape, revealing our picture with ever-increasing clarity. As we find, orientate, and fit the last pieces of our puzzle through the creation and completion of the manuscript, we finish the puzzle and in doing so provide you with the complete picture: the updated taxonomy of Angolan shovel-snout snakes.

When did you realize you were dealing with new-to-science species?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but the idea grew from the moment Werner Conradie picked up the first snake whilst on the first expedition with the Okavango Wilderness Project, back in 2016. Funded by National Geographic and managed by the Wild Bird Trust, this paper would not be possible without them, because without the transport and logistical support, most of our dataset would never have been found.

What makes these new species unique?

With the aid of modern nano computerised tomography scanning technology, we observed that one of the new species has a well-developed postorbital bone. We still don’t know the purpose of this postorbital bone and why it is absent in the others. We believe it might serve as additional muscle attachment points that aids them on feeding on different kinds of lizard eggs than the others.

Kalahari Shovel-snout snake (Prosymna lisima) from southeastern Angola. Photo by Chad Keates

This is also the first new species of Shovel-snouted snake described in nearly 30 years.

In the late 1980’s Zimbabwean herpetologist, Donald Broadley noted that eastern populations of the Angolan Shovel-snouted snake may be a different species. It took nearly 50 years before more material was collected and with the aid of modern technology, like genetic analysis and CT-scanning, we could show he was correct and described it as a new species.  

What can you tell us about their appearance and behavior?

The Shovel-snouted snakes are unique snakes with a beak-like snout that allow them to dig into sandier soils. Thus most of the time they are below the surface and only come out after heavy rains. They also possess unique backward pointed lancet-shaped teeth that they use for cutting open lizard eggs. These snakes specialize in feeding mostly on soft-shell lizard eggs. They find a freshly laid clutch of eggs and one by one, they swallow them whole. They cut them laterally so that the yolk can be released.

Kalahari Shovel-snout snake (Prosymna lisima) from southeastern Angola. Photo by Chad Keates

Do they interact with people?

These snakes may be encountered by people tending to their lands or crossing the road, but, for the most part, they are incredibly secretive. Because of their ability to burrow in soft soils, these animals are infrequently encountered, only forced to the surface during heavy rain and by the urge to breed and to feed. If encountered, however, these snakes pose absolutely no harm, as they possess no venom. When threatened, these animals may wind themselves into a tight coil to protect their heads.

Kalahari Shovel-snout snake (Prosymna lisima) from southeastern Angola. Photo by Chad Keates

What is the ecological role of these snakes?

Much like most small vertebrates, these animals form an important component of the food web. They consume lizard eggs, exerting a regulatory force on newborn lizards, and serve as food for larger snakes, rodents, and birds. Animals like these form the bedrock of any healthy ecosystem as they contribute to energy exchanges and the flow of nutrients down and up and down again.

Bonus question: how did you get involved in herpetology?

Everyone in the group has a soft spot for reptiles and amphibians’. Irrespective of our contrasting upbringing and our nation of origin, we all came to herpetology independently. While it is hard to unpack the moment that we all fell in love with these weird and wonderful creatures, one thing is for sure, it’s a lifetime commitment.

About the Authors

Werner Conradie holds a Masters in Environmental Science (M. Env. Sc.) and has 17 years of experience with southern African herpetofauna, with his main research interests focusing on the taxonomy, conservation, and ecology of amphibians and reptiles. Werner has published numerous principal and collaborative scientific papers, and has served on a number of conservation and scientific panels, including the Southern African Reptile and Amphibian Relisting Committees. He has undertaken research expeditions to many African countries including Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Werner is currently the Curator of Herpetology at the Port Elizabeth Museum (Bayworld), South Africa.

Chad Keates is a post-doctoral fellow at the African herpetology lab at Port Elizabeth museum (Nelson Mandela University, based in the SAIAB Genetics Platform). Having recently completed his PhD in Zoology, Chad’s research focusses are African herpetofauna and their evolutionary and ecological structuring. In Chad’s short professional career, he has published several principal and collaborative peer-reviewed scientific papers and book chapters. Chad is also a strong advocate for reptile and amphibian awareness and regularly conducts walks, talks and presentations as well as produces numerous popular scientific outputs on the subject. He has undertaken numerous expeditions to many African countries such as Angola, Zambia and South Africa with a variety of both professional and scientific organisations.

Ninda Baptista is an Angolan biologist, holds an MSc degree in Conservation Biology from the University of Lisbon, and is currently enrolled for a PhD in Biodiversity, Genetics and Evolution in the University of Porto, addressing the diversity of Angolan amphibians. Over the last 12 years she has worked on environmental consulting, research and in-situ conservation projects in Angola, including priority areas for conservation such as Kumbira, Mount Moco and the Humpata plateau. She conducted herpetological surveys throughout the country and created a herpetological collection (Colecção Herpetológica do Lubango), currently deposited in Instituto Superior de Ciências da Educação da Huíla (ISCED – Huíla). Ninda is an author of scientific papers and book chapters on Angolan herpetology and ornithology. She also works on scientific outreach, producing magazine articles, books for children and posters about the country’s biodiversity in collaboration with Fundação Kissama.

Javier Lobón-Rovira is PhD student at Cibio, Portugal, working to unveil evolutionary pattern in southern Africa gekkonids. As Biologist he has worked in different conservation projects and groups around the globe, including reptiles and amphibians at Veragua Rainforest Foundation, Costa Rica or big mammals in Utah, USA. However, as photographer, he has collaborated with different Conservation NGOs in Africa, America and Europe and manage to publish on International Journals as National Geographic, Africa Geographic or Nature’s Best Magazine. 

Read the study:

Conradie W, Keates C, Baptista NL, Lobón-Rovira J (2022) Taxonomical review of Prosymna angolensis Boulenger, 1915 (Elapoidea, Prosymnidae) with the description of two new species. ZooKeys 1121: 97-143. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1121.85693

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Unraveling the diversity of Caquetá-Colombia, where the Andes and Amazon meet: Four new species of the genus Piper

Two of the species bear names inspired by the indigenous tribes that live in Caquetá, while the other two species honor Amazonian naturalists.

Recent botanical expeditions in Caquetá department (southeastern Colombia) have uncovered the enormous richness of plant species in this region. Research led by W. Trujillo in the Andean foothills has allowed the unveiling of at least 90 species of Piper in the region, highlighting northwestern Amazonia as one of the richest regions for the genus. Here, four new species of Piper new to science are described.

Andean foothills in Caquetá, Colombia. Photo by William Trujillo

This publication is the result of a collaboration between three institutions and five researchers, each contributing their experience and strengths: main author William Trujillo (Fundación La Palmita), with M. Alejandra Jaramillo (Universidad Militar Nueva Granada), Edwin Trujillo Trujillo, Fausto Ortiz and Diego Toro (Centro de Investigaciones Amazónicas Cesar Augusto Estrada Gonzalez, Universidad de la Amazonia). W. Trujillo, a native of Caquetá, has dedicated the last ten years to the study of Piper species in his department. M. A. Jaramillo has been studying the phylogenetics, ecology and evolution of the genus for more than 20 years. Edwin Trujillo is a local botanist well versed in the flora of Caquetá and the Colombian Amazon. Fausto Ortiz and Diego Toro are trained in plant molecular biology methods and lead this area at Universidad de la Amazonia.

Amazonian slopes of the Andes, Caquetá with Iriartea deltoidea palms. Photo by William Trujillo

Caquetá is situated where the Andes and the Amazon meet in southern Colombia, in the northwestern Amazon. Several researchers have highlighted the importance of the northwest Amazon for high biodiversity and our lack of knowledge of the region. Fortunately, ongoing studies led by W. Trujillo and E. Trujillo are unveiling the immense diversity of plants in Caquetá, showing the importance of local institutions in the knowledge of Amazonian flora. There are many species in the region yet to be described and discovered. Leadership from local institutions and collaboration with experts are vital to appreciating the great relevance of plants from Caquetá.

Piper indiwasii, branch with leaves and spikes. Photo by William Trujillo

Two of the species in this manuscript (Piper indiwasii and Piper nokaidoyitau) bear names inspired by the indigenous tribes that live in Caquetá. The name indiwasii comes from a Quechua word meaning “house of the sun” and is also the name of one of the National Parks where the species lives in southern Colombia. In its turn, nokaidoyitau comes from the Murui language and means “tongue of the toucan,” the way the Murui Indians of the Colombian Amazon call the species of Piper. In fact, local communities rely on these plants for medicinal purposes, using them against inflammations or parasites, or to relieve various ailments.

Furthermore, the other two new species (Piper hoyoscardozii and Piper velae) honor two Amazonian naturalists, the authors’ dear friend Fernando Hoyos Cardozo, and Dr. Vela. Fernando, who was a devoted botanist and companion in W. Trujillo’s botanical expeditions. Dr. Vela, a naturalist and conservation enthusiast who sponsored Trujillo’s trips, was killed in 2020. We miss him immensely. His death is a significant loss for the environment in Caquetá. 

The team’s joint effort will continue to describe new species, explore unexplored regions, and inspire new and seasoned researchers to dive into the magnificent diversity of the Colombian Amazon.

Piper hoyoscadozii, branch with leaves and fruiting spikes. Photo by Fernando Hoyos

Research article:

Trujillo W, Trujillo ET, Ortiz-Morea FA, Toro DA, Jaramillo MA (2022) New Piper species from the eastern slopes of the Andes in northern South America. PhytoKeys 206: 25–48. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.206.75971

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Flora of Cameroon: Annonaceae Vol 45 available in print, as well as Open Access format with PhytoKeys

While every Flora publication is an incredibly valuable scientific resource, Vol. 45 is the first in the series to be made available in digital format, following its publication in the open-access journal PhytoKeys

The 45th volume of the Flora of Cameroon pilots a novel “Flora” section in the journal to promote accessibility and novelty in plant taxonomy

Dedicated to Annonaceae, the 45th volume of the Flora of Cameroon is the result of over 15 years of work on the systematics of this major pantropical group, commonly known as the Custard apple family or the Soursop family, and its diversity in one of the most biodiverse African countries, whose flora has remained understudied to this date.

In their publication, the authors: Thomas L. P. Couvreur, Léo-Paul M. J. Dagallier, Francoise Crozier, Jean-Paul Ghogue, Paul H. Hoekstra, Narcisse G. Kamdem, David M. Johnson, Nancy A. Murray and Bonaventure Sonké, describe 166 native taxa representing 163 species in 28 native genera, including 22 species known solely from Cameroon. The team also provides keys to all native genera, species, and infraspecific taxa, while a detailed morphological description and a distributional map are provided for each species.

Specimen of Uvariastrum zenkeri from Cameroon. Photo by Thomas L.P. Couvreur.

Amongst the findings featured in the paper is the discovery of a previously unknown species of a rare tree that grows up to 6 metres and is so far only known from two localities in Cameroon. As a result of their extensive study, the authors also report that the country is the one harbouring the highest number of African species for the only pantropical genus of Annonaceae: Xylopia.

While every Flora publication presents an incredibly valuable scientific resource due to its scale and exhaustiveness, what makes Volume 45 of the Flora of Cameroon particularly special and important is that it is the first in the series to be made available in digital format, following its publication in the peer-reviewed, open-access journal PhytoKeys

Available in the open-access scholarly journal PhytoKeys, the latest volume of the Flora of Cameroon features perks like displaying occurrences of treated taxa side-by-side when reading the publication in HTML.

As such, it is not only available to anyone, anywhere in the world, but is also easily discoverable and minable online, as it benefits from the technologically advanced publishing services provided by the journal that have been specially designed to open up biodiversity data. While the full-text publication is machine-readable, hence discoverable by search algorithms, various data items, such as nomenclature, descriptions, images and occurrences, are exported in relevant specialised databases (e.g. IPNI, Plazi, Zenodo, GBIF). In their turn, the readers who access the HTML version of the publication may enjoy the benefits of this semantically enriched format, as they navigate easily within the text, and access further information about the mentioned and hyperlinked taxa.

In fact, the Annonaceae contribution is the first to use the newly launched publication type in PhytoKeys: Flora.

Yet, to keep up with the much treasured tradition, the new publication is also available in print format, accompanied by its classic cover design.

In the field: Narcisse G. Kamdem (Université de Yaoundé I, Cameroon), co-author of the Flora of Cameroon – Annonaceae Vol 45. Photo by Thomas L.P. Couvreur.

When we spoke with the team behind the Flora, we learnt that they are all confident that  having the new volume in both print and open-access digital formats, is expected to rekindle the interest in the series, especially amongst younger botanists in Cameroon.

“The hybrid publication is a response to the reluctance to publish new volumes of these series. The hybrid version pioneered in Volume 45, is an opportunity for any scientist to freely access this fundamental work, and eventually use it in future studies. Also, the online and open access format is intended to stimulate botanists to author family treatments without the fear of not having their work published online in an academic journal with an Impact Factor,”

says Dr. Jean Michel Onana, editor and reviewer of the Flora, former Director of the National Herbarium of Cameroon, and a researcher at the Université de Yaoundé 1, Cameroon.

“The chosen format marks a qualitative leap in the presentation of the Flora of Cameroon and will be of interest to young botanists, who until now might have found the old presentation of the Flora unrewarding,” adds Prof. Bonaventure Sonké, last author and Head of the Biology Department of the Université de Yaoundé 1, Cameroon.

In the field: Prof. Bonaventure Sonké, last author and Head of the Biology Department of the Université de Yaoundé 1. Photo by Thomas L.P. Couvreur.

*

As an extensive contribution to a previously understudied area of research, the value of the new publication goes beyond its appreciation amongst plant taxonomists.

“The Flore du Cameroun series is considered as a showcase of the National Herbarium of Cameroon, which promotes knowledge of the flora of Cameroon at all levels. Being able to identify plants and trees is the first and foremost step to addressing the issue of ill-management of forest regions in Cameroon and the Congo Basin as a whole. If planning continues to rely on badly made identification, the forecasts about our resources are not good at all,” says Prof. Jean Betti Largarde, Head of the National Herbarium of Cameroon, and Editor-in-Chief of the Flora of Cameroon.

Narcisse G. Kamdem, co-author of the Flora of Cameroon. Photo by Thomas L.P. Couvreur.

“Plant taxonomy is the basic discipline for the knowledge, conservation and sustainable management of biodiversity, including animals, plants and habitats. Young Cameroonian botanists, privileged to having such floristic richness in their country, are invited to take an interest in it. This is the field that opens the mind and makes it possible to address all other aspects of botanical research and development in relation to natural resources,”

adds Jean Michel Onana.

Research article:

Specimen of Sirdavidia solanona in its natural habitat. Photo by Thomas L.P. Couvreur.

Couvreur TLP, Dagallier L-PMJ, Crozier F, Ghogue J-P, Hoekstra PH, Kamdem NG, Johnson DM, Murray NA, Sonké B (2022) Flora of Cameroon – Annonaceae Vol 45. PhytoKeys 207: 1-532. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.207.61432

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Three new species of ground snakes discovered under graveyards and churches in Ecuador

The new snakes, which are small and cylindrical, were named in honor of institutions or people supporting the exploration of remote cloud forests in the tropics.

A group of scientists led by Alejandro Arteaga, grantee of The Explorers Club Discovery Expeditions and researcher at Khamai Foundation, discovered three new cryptozoic (living underground) snakes hidden under graveyards and churches in remote towns in the Andes of Ecuador. The discovery was made official in a study published in the journal ZooKeys. The new snakes, which are small, cylindrical, and rather archaic-looking, were named in honor of institutions or people supporting the exploration and conservation of remote cloud forests in the tropics.

Atractus michaelsabini was found hidden besides a church in the Andean town Guanazán, El Oro province, Ecuador. Photo by Amanda Quezada

Believe or not, graveyards are also land of the living. In the Andes of Ecuador, they are inhabited by a fossorial group of snakes belonging to the genus Atractus. These ground snakes are the most species-rich snake genus in the world (there are now 150 species known globally), but few people have seen one or even heard about their existence. This is probably because these serpents are shy and generally rare, and they remain hidden throughout most of their lives. Additionally, most of them inhabit remote cloud forests and live buried underground or in deep crevices. In this particular case, however, the new ground snakes where found living among crypts.

General view of a graveyard in Amaluza, Azuay province, Ecuador. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga

The discovery of the three new species took place rather fortuitously and in places where one would probably not expect to find these animals. The Discovery Ground Snake (Atractus discovery) was found hidden underground in a small graveyard in a remote cloud forest town in southeastern Ecuador, whereas the two other new species were found besides an old church and in a small school. All of this seems to suggest that, at least in the Andes, new species of snakes might be lurking just around the corner.

Unfortunately, the coexistence of ground snakes and villagers in the same town is generally bad news for the snakes. The study by Arteaga reports that the majority of the native habitat of the new snakes has already been destroyed. As a result of the retreating forest line, the ground snakes find themselves in the need to take refuge in spaces used by humans (both dead and alive), where they are usually killed on sight.

Atractus zgap. Photo by Alejandro Artaga.

Diego Piñán, a teacher of the town where one of the new reptiles was found, says: “when I first arrived at El Chaco in 2013, I used to see many dead snakes on the road; others where hit by machetes or with stones. Now, after years of talking about the importance of snakes, both kids and their parents, while still wary of snakes, now appreciate them and protect them.” Fortunately, Diego never threw away the dead snakes he found: he preserved them in alcohol-filled jars and these were later used by Arteaga to describe the species as new to science.

A jar full of Atractus snakes. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga

In addition to teaching about the importance of snakes, the process of naming species is important to create awareness about the existence of a new animal and its risk of extinction. In this particular case, two of the new snakes are considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the near future.

The discovery process also provides an opportunity to recognize and honor the work of the people and institutions fighting to protect wildlife.

Alejandro Arteaga examines the holotype of Atractus discovery. He had to examine hundreds museum specimens before confirming the new species as such. Photo by David Jácome

Atractus discovery was named to honor The Explorers Club Discovery Expedition Grants initiative, a program seeking to foster scientific understanding for the betterment of humanity and all life on Earth and beyond. The grant program supports researchers and explorers from around the world in their quest to mitigate climate change, prevent the extinction of species and cultures, and ensure the health of the Earth and its inhabitants.

Atractus zgap. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga

Atractus zgap was named in honor of the Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP), a program seeking to conserve unknown but highly endangered species and their natural habitats throughout the world. The ZGAP grant program supports the fieldwork of young scientists who are eager to implement and start conservation projects in their home countries.

Atractus discovery. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga

Atractus michaelsabini was named in honor of a young nature lover, Michael Sabin, grandson of American philanthropist and conservationist Andrew “Andy” Sabin. Through the conservation organization Re:wild, the Sabin family has supported field research of threatened reptiles and has protected thousands of acres of critical habitat throughout the world.

“Naming species is at the core of biology”, says Dr. Juan M. Guayasamin, co-author of the study and a professor at Universidad San Francisco de Quito. “Not a single study is really complete if it is not attached to the name of the species, and most species that share the planet with us are not described.”

“The discovery of these new snakes is only the first step towards a much larger conservation project,” says Arteaga. “Now, thanks to the encouragement of ZGAP, we have already started the process of establishing a nature reserve to protect the ground snakes. This action would not have been possible without first unveiling the existence of these unique and cryptic reptiles, even if it meant momentarily disturbing the peace of the dead in the graveyard where the lived.”

Research article:

Arteaga A, Quezada A, Vieira J, Guayasamin JM (2022) Leaving no stone unturned: three additional new species of Atractus ground snakes (Serpentes, Colubridae) from Ecuador discovered using a biogeographical approach. ZooKeys 1121: 175-210. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1121.89539

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Scientists reveal the true identity of a Chinese octopus

Locals and fishermen had long been familiar with the species, but they kept mistaking it for a different species.

As they were collecting cephalopod samples in Dongshan island in China’s Fujian Province, a team of researchers came across an interesting finding: a new-to-science species of octopus.

A live individual of Callistoctopus xiaohongxu.

Actually, locals and fishermen have long been familiar with the species -but they kept mistaking it for a juvenile form of the common long-arm octopus (‘Octopus minor), whose trade is widespread throughout the country.

Only when a team of scientists from the Ocean University of China collected a batch of specimens misidentified by locals from Dongshan Seafood Market Pier as ‘O’. minor to study them, did it become apparent that this was in fact a separate, new species. That’s how it got its own name, Callistoctopus xiaohongxu, and a scientific description published in the open-access journal ZooKeys.

A live individual of Callistoctopus xiaohongxu.

The scientific name xiaohongxu is a phonetic translation of the local Chinese name of this species in Zhangzhou, where it was collected. It is a reference to its smooth skin and reddish-brown colour, which are among its most distinctive features. At less than 40 g in its adult stage, C. xiaohongxu is considered a small to moderate-sized octopus.

A net-like web structure on Callistoctopus xiaohongxu.

The researchers also note that this is the first new species of the genus Callistoctopus to be found in the China Seas.

More than 130 different cephalopod species are recorded in Chinese waters. Тhe southeast waters of China, due to the influence of strong warm currents, provide ideal environmental conditions to generate abundant marine biodiversity, and the finding of C. xiaohongxu further confirms the high diversity of species in the southeast China sea, the researchers said.

Research article:

Zheng X, Xu C, Li J (2022) Morphological description and mitochondrial DNA-based phylogenetic placement of a new species of Callistoctopus Taki, 1964 (Cephalopoda, Octopodidae) from the southeast waters of China. ZooKeys 1121: 1-15. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1121.86264

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Swimmer’s Itch: what causes this neglected snail-borne disease?

A new study suggests that a cercarial dermatitis outbreak in South Thailand was caused by the blood fluke Schistosoma indicum.

Cercarial dermatitis, also known as swimmer’s itch or clam-digger’s itch, is caused by the larvae of blood flukes that are parasites of birds or mammals. When these larvae, called cercariae, penetrate human skin, they trigger an allergic reaction within 10-15 hours that takes about a week to heal. Unable to mature into adults, the larvae then die on the skin. The gravity of an outbreak depends on how humans and birds or mammals come in contract with the aquatic environment, but people engaged in water activities, such as farmers, fishermen, and agricultural workers, are most likely to be affected.

Cercarial dermatitis cases from Chana district, October 2020

Between August and October 2020, a cercarial dermatitis outbreak with 359 confirmed cases occurred in Chana district, Songkhla Province, South Thailand. It mostly affected rice farmers from the area, who were busy with cultivation during the rainy season. Following a short investigation, three cases of patients were confirmed to be cercarial infections by skin biopsy (Bureau of Epidemiology, Department of Disease Control, Ministry of Public Health, Thailand).

“The study of intermediate host and definitive host in the outbreak area are important for the control program of snail-borne disease,” the researchers argue in their research paper, which was published in the open-access scientific journal Evolutionary Systematics.

Having studied six snail species from the area, they found out that two were infected, each with three different species of flatworms. The cercarial dermatitis outbreak was due to ruminant parasites, such as the blood fluke Schistosoma indicum, which often uses domestic animals as its host.

Collected snails from five locations of cercarial dermatitis outbreak area. a. Filopaludina s. peninsularis b. Filopaludina s. polygramma c. Indoplanorbis exustus d. Filopaludina m. cambodjensis e. Bithynia s. siamensis f. Pomacea canaliculata (Scale bar: 1 cm).

Ruminant-infecting trematodes, namely, S. indicum and S. spindale, cause a hepato-intestinal schistosomiasis resulting in reduced milk yield,” the authors explain. “This occurrence of S. indicum and S. spindale implies the spread of cattle blood fluke cercariae in aquatic environments.”

“Additionally, these species of the S. indicum group primarily cause cercarial dermatitis in humans, which has become an important public health issue for people living in endemic regions.”

“In South India and Southeast Asia, where S. indicum and S. spindale have been reported to be widespread, they caused major pathology and mortality to livestock, leading to welfare and socio-economic issues, predominantly among poor subsistence farmers and their families.”

Image of Schistosoma indicum Montgomery, 1906 (Syn. S. nasalis Rao, 1933) a. Head organ of cercaria stained with 0.5% neutral red (DIC microscopy) b. Body part of cercaria stained with 0.5% neutral red (DIC microscopy) c. Image of unstained cercaria (DIC microscopy) d. Images of cercaria stained with 0.5% neutral red (DIC microscopy) e. Drawing of cercaria structure f. Images of sporocyst stained with 0.5% neutral red (light microscopy) Abbreviations: c: cercaria, eb: excretory bladder, ep: esophagus, fu: furca, h: head organ, i: intestine, pg: penetration gland, sp: sporocyst, ta: tail, vs: ventral sucker.. (Scale bars: 100 μm).

Some of the other worm species they found parasitized the intestines of fish, mammals, or birds, while others caused anemia and even death in ruminant animals.

“The results of this study will provide insights into the parasite species that cause cercarial dermatitis and may improve our understanding of public health problems in the outbreak and agricultural vicinity areas,” the authors of the study say. “In addition, the sequence data generated here are the first S. indicum DNA sequences from Thailand, which will be useful for further genetic study of the other blood flukes in this region.”

Research article:

Krailas D, Namchote S, Komsuwan J, Wongpim T, Apiraksena K, Glaubrecht M, Sonthiporn P, Sansawang C, Suwanrit S (2022) Cercarial dermatitis outbreak caused by ruminant parasite with intermediate snail host: schistosome in Chana, South Thailand. Evolutionary Systematics 6(2): 151-173. https://doi.org/10.3897/evolsyst.6.87670

Images by Professor Dr. Duangduen Krailas.

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First discovery of microplastics from water trapped on plant leaves

“These phytotelmata are very small and have a short lifespan. The question is, therefore, how were they polluted with microplastics?”

Although they have not been around for long, microplastics have found their way to almost every ecosystem on the planet. They have been discovered in the soil, in rivers, in our food and bottled water, and even in the human body. Recently, a team of researchers found, for the first time, microplastics in water trapped in plant leaf axils.

The teasel Dipsacus.

Katarína Fogašová, Peter Manko, and Jozef Obona of the University of Prešov, Slovakia, initially set out to Eastern Slovakia to study the organisms living in the little water puddles forming in teasel leaf axils. 

Teasels of the genus Dipsacus have characteristic opposite leaves that grow on the stem above each other in several levels. As they clasp the stem, they form cup-like structures that collect water, known as telmata. 

“Teasel phytotelmata are a relatively common but overlooked aquatic microcosm with a very short-term occurrence of only 3 to 4 months.“

To their surprise, they found differently coloured fragments and fibers, some reaching 2.4 mm in length, which were identified as microplastics.

“These phytotelmata are very small and have a short lifespan,” the researchers write in their paper, which was published in the journal BioRisk. “The question is, therefore, how were they polluted with microplastics?”

Phytotelmata provided by teasel.

No other sources of contaminants were found in the studied area, so the fragments and fibers most likely came from polluted atmosphere, they suggest. Another theory is that snails may have transported them from the soil or from other plants, in or on their bodies. 

“The first finding of microplastics in small short-term water reservoirs created by plants is further evidence that contamination of this kind spreads through various pathways and probably no environment on Earth is safe, which of course makes our discovery quite disheartening,” the researchers say.

“On the other hand, the results of our research of teasel phytotelmata, as a very unusual and highly specific natural environment, offer many possibilities for use in researching the spatio-temporal characteristics of the spread of microplastic pollution and its potential impact on the plants themselves, as well as organisms bound to them by ecological relations.”

They suggest that, due to their abundance and theoretical ability to capture microplastics in several ways from the environment, teasel phytotelmata could be a good indicator of microplastic presence.

“Our publication therefore not only brings the first discovery of microplastic pollution of habitats of this type, but also the first proposal of a new approach to the use of teasel phytotelmata and similar micro-ecosystems provided by plants (or artificially created), as bioindicators of the presence of microplastics in the environment, possible sources and pathways of their spread through the environment and spatio-temporal changes in microplastic contamination.”

Research article:

Fogašová K, Manko P, Oboňa J (2022) The first evidence of microplastics in plant-formed fresh-water micro-ecosystems: Dipsacus teasel phytotelmata in Slovakia contaminated with MPs. BioRisk 18: 133-143. https://doi.org/10.3897/biorisk.18.87433

Images by Katarína Fogašová.

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