Novel research seeks to solve environmental challenges in BioRisk’s latest issue

The special issue features 35 studies presented at the International Seminar of Ecology 2021

Guest blog post by Prof. Stephka Chankova, PhD

The new special issue of BioRisk compiles materials presented at the International Seminar of Ecology – 2021. The multidisciplinary nature of modern ecology was demonstrated by the main topics of the Seminar: biodiversity and conservation biology, biotic and abiotic impact on the living nature, ecological risk and bioremediation, ecosystem research and services, landscape ecology, and ecological agriculture.

Research teams from various universities, institutes, organizations, and departments, both from Bulgaria and abroad, took part in the Seminar. Foreign participants included: Environmental Toxicology Research Unit (Egypt), Pesticide Chemistry Department, National Research Centre (Giza, Egypt); National Institute for Agrarian and Veterinary Research (Oeiras, Portugal), Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Changes (Lisbon, Portugal); Bach Institute of Biochemistry, Research Center of Biotechnology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow, Russia).

Biorisk’s latest issue: Current trends of ecology

Some of the reports presented joint research of Bulgarian scientists and scientists from Germany, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, and the USA. After assessment by independent reviewers, the articles published in the journal cover the topics presented and discussed at the Seminar. 

A set of reports were focused on the anthropogenic and environmental impacts on the biota. Soil properties were shown as a factor that can modulate the effect of heavy metals, present in chronically contaminated soils. Different ap­proaches to overcome environmental pollution were presented and discussed: zeolites as detoxifying tools, microalgae for the treatment of contaminated water bodies, and a newly developed bio-fertilizer, based on activated sludge combined with a bacte­rial strain with detoxifying and plant growth-promoting properties. The clear need for the enlargement of existing monitoring program by including more bioindicators and markers was pointed out.

It was shown that, by using various markers for the evaluation of environmentally induced stress response at different levels (microbiological, molecular, biochemical), it is possible to gain insights of the organisms’ protection and the mechanisms involved in resistance formation. The contribution of increased DNA repair capacity and AOS to the development of environmental tolerance or adaptation was also shown.

Important results for understanding the processes of photoprotection in either cyanobacteria or algae, and higher plants were obtained by in vitro reconstitution of complexes of stress HliA protein with pigments. The crucial role of the cellular physiological state, as a critical factor in determining the resistance to environmental stress with Q cells was demonstrated.

Several papers were focused on the action of bioactive substances of plants origin. The bioactivity was shown to depend strongly on chemical composition. Origanum vulgare hirtum essential oil was promoted as a promising candidate for the purposes of “green” technologies. Analyzing secondary metabolites of plants, it was shown that their productivity in vitro is a dynamic process closely related to the plant growth and development, and is in close relation with the interactions of the plant with the environment.

Origanum vulgare hirtum. Photo by cultivar413 under a CC-BY 2.0 license

The influence of the agricultural system type on essential oil production and antioxidant activity of industrially-cultivated Rosa damascena in the Rose valley (Bulgaria) was reported, comparing organic vs conventional farming. The rose extracts from organic farming were shown to accumulate more phenolic compounds, corresponding to the higher antioxidant potential of organic roses.

A comparative study, based on official data from the statistics office of the EU and the Member countries, concerning viral infection levels in intensive and organic poultry farming, demonstrated that free-range production had a higher incidence of viral diseases with a high zoonotical potential.

Pollinators of Lavandula angustifolia, as an important factor for optimal production of lavender essential oil, were analyzed. It was concluded that, although lavender growers tend to place beehives in the fields for optimal essential oil production, it was crucial to preserve wild pollinators, as well.

Lavandula angustifolia inflorescence excluded from pollinators.

New data reported that essential oils and alkaloid-rich plant extracts had the strongest acetylcholinesterase inhibitory activity and could be proposed for further testing for insect control.

It was reported that the vegetation diversity of Bulgaria had still not been fully investigated. Grasslands, broad-leaved forests, and wetlands are the best investigated habitats, while data concerning ruderal, shrubland, fringe, and chasmophytic vegetation in Bulgaria are scarce.

Other important topics were reported and discussed in this session: the possibility of pest control using pteromalids as natural enemies of pests in various crops; the main reasons responsible for the population decrease of bumblebees – habitat destruction, loss of floral resources, emerging diseases, and increased use of pesticides (particularly neonicotinoids); the strong impact of temperature and wind on the distribution of zooplankton complexes in Mandra Reservoir, in Southeastern Bulgaria; an alternative approach for the ex-situ conservation of Stachys thracica based on in vitro shoot culture and its subsequent adaptation under ex vitro conditions.

Bombus hortorum/subterraneus collecting nectar in 1991, and B B. wurflenii/lapidarius worker robbing nectar of Gentiana asclepiadea in 2017

New information was presented concerning pre-monitoring geochemical research of river sediments in the area of Ada Tepe gold mining site (Eastern Rhodopes). The obtained results illustrate that the explored landscapes have been influenced by natural geochemical anomalies, as well as, impacted by human activity. The forests habitat diversity of Breznik Municipality was revealed, following the EUNIS Classification and initial data from the Ministry of Environment and Water and the Forestry Management Plans. It was shown that, in addition to the dominant species Quercus dalechampii, Quercus frainetto, Fagus sylvatica, Carpinus betulus, some artificial plantations with Pinus nigra and Pinus sylvestris were also present, as well as non-native species, such as Robinia pseudoacacia and Quercus rubra.

Models for Predicting Solution Properties and Solid-Liquid Equilibrium in Cesium Binary and Mixed Systems were created. The results are of great importance for the development of strategies and programs for nuclear waste geochemical storage. In conclusion, many results in different areas of ecology were presented in the Seminar, followed by interesting discussions. A lot of questions were answered, however many others remained open. A good platform for further discussion will be the next International Seminar of Ecology – 2022, entitled Actual Problems of Ecology.

Threatened South American coati found roaming in a large city

Researchers recorded an individual at the Canoas Airbase, one of the last remaining green spaces in a densely urbanized area of a large city in southern Brazil.

You may assume that metropolitan areas are devoid of wildlife, but that is very far from the truth. The remaining green spaces within the urban matrices of large cities can serve as corridors or stepping stones for wild animals. Sometimes, even threatened mammal species end up using them.

On August 12, 2020, a research team from Brazil recorded a South American coati in Canoas, the fourth most populous and densely urbanized city in the southernmost state of Brazil, Rio Grande do Sul. The animal was detected with a camera trap during a Masters research project conducted at the Canoas Airbase, one of the last green spaces remaining in the municipality.

South American Coati at the Canoas airbase in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Video by Diego Floriano da Rocha, Thaís Brauner do Rosario and Cristina Vargas Cademartori

Widely distributed throughout the continent, the South American coati is a medium-sized carnivore living on trees and feeding mainly on small invertebrates and fruits. The species is classified as Vulnerable in Rio Grande do Sul, and it’s considered threatened mainly because of the loss of its forest habitats.

The study that recorded an individual in the urban area was conducted as part of a partnership between the Canoas Airbase and La Salle University. Led by Dr Cristina Vargas Cademartori from La Salle University, the research team was made up of Diego Floriano da Rocha (Doctoral student), Thaís Brauner do Rosario (Masters student), Ana Carolina Pontes Maciel (biologist at the Canoas Airbase), and Duana Suelem Alves (undergraduate student). They described in detail the record and the study area in a paper in the open-access journal Neotropical Biology and Conservation.

The researchers were surprised to find the coati in the midst of a dense urban area. Although the species is not considered threatened in the majority of its area of distribution, its populations have been in decline because of habitat loss and hunting.

“This record confirms the capacity of this species to use environments that have been changed by anthropic activity,” the researchers write in their paper, adding that, because of all the food that humans leave behind, urban environments can in fact favor the establishment of more adaptable species like the coati.

The discovery highlights the importance of urban green spaces for wildlife conservation. “This is very important for defining appropriate conservation measurements for endangered species, especially beyond protected areas,” the authors conclude.

Research article:
da Rocha DF, do Rosario TB, Maciel ACP, Alves DS, Cademartori CV (2022) Record of occurrence of Nasua nasua (Linnaeus, 1766) (Carnivora, Procyonidae) in a densely urbanized area of the city of Canoas, southern Brazil. Neotropical Biology and Conservation 17(2): 111-116. https://doi.org/10.3897/neotropical.17.e81824

Major highway in India threatens reptiles and amphibians

“Is it the road that crosses the habitat, or does the habitat cross the road?” ask scientists before agreeing that the wrong road at the wrong place is bound to cause various perils for the local wildlife, habitats and ecosystems.

Is it the road that crosses the habitat, or does the habitat cross the road?” ask scientists at Gauhati University (Assam, India) before agreeing that the wrong road at the wrong place is bound to cause various perils for the local wildlife, habitats and ecosystems. Furthermore, some of those effects may take longer than others to identify and confirm.

This is how the research team of doctoral research fellow Somoyita Sur, Dr Prasanta Kumar Saikia and Dr Malabika Kakati Saikia decided to study roadkill along a 64-kilometre-long stretch of one of the major highways in India: the National Highway 715. 

What makes the location a particularly intriguing choice is that it is where the highway passess between the Kaziranga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Assam and the North Karbi Anglong Wildlife Sanctuary, thus tempting animals to move to and from the floodplains of Kaziranga and the hilly terrain of the Sanctuary to escape the annual floods or – on a daily basis – in search for food and mating partners.

In the beginning, they looked into various groups, including mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, before realising that the death toll amongst frogs, toads, snakes and lizards was indeed tremendous, yet overlooked. Their findings were recently published in the peer-reviewed scholarly journal Nature Conservation.

“To our surprise, the death toll within that 64-kilometre stretch of the highway was indeed dramatic. We estimated that it has been over 6000 animals that have fallen under the wheels of motor vehicles within a single year. Prior to our study, similar research had focused on big charismatic species like the tiger, elephant and rhino, so when we took into account also the smaller animals: frogs, toads, snakes and lizards, the count went through the roof. Thus, we decided to make smaller species the focus of our work,”

comments Sur.

In conclusion, the scientists agree that roads and highways cannot be abandoned or prevented from construction and expansion, as they are crucial in connecting people and transporting goods and necessities. 

“Yet, we can definitely put some effort into designing and constructing them in a scientifically sound, eco-friendly and sustainable manner, so that they don’t become the bane for our ecosystems,”

the team concludes.

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Research article:

Sur S, Saikia PK, Saikia MK (2022) Speed thrills but kills: A case study on seasonal variation in roadkill mortality on National highway 715 (new) in Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong Landscape, Assam, India. In: Santos S, Grilo C, Shilling F, Bhardwaj M, Papp CR (Eds) Linear Infrastructure Networks with Ecological Solutions. Nature Conservation 47: 87-104. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.47.73036

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A provisional checklist of European butterfly larval foodplants

For the first time, a list of the currently accepted plant names utilised by 471 European butterfly larvae is presented, with references.

Guest blog post by Harry E. Clarke, Independent Researcher

5th instar Swallowtail larvae feeding on Milk-parsley.

Many books on butterflies publish lists of their larval foodplants. However, many of these lists of larval foodplants have been copied from previous lists, which in turn have been copied from previous lists. Consequently, errors have crept in, and many plant names have long been superseded. This can result in duplicates in the list, with the same plant being given two different names. Most plant lists do not include the authority, which can make it difficult or impossible to identify which plant is being referred to. Some of these plants may not be used by butterflies in Europe, but elsewhere in their range. Or the plants may have been used in breeding experiments, but not used by the butterflies in the wild.

Many of these publications providing the larval foodplants of butterflies only provide the binomial name, without specifying the author. This can create problems in knowing which species of plant is being used, as the same plant name has been used in the past by different authors to describe different species. In some cases, distribution can be used to determine the correct species, but plants can often have similar distributions. For example, in the World Checklist of Vascular Plants, there are 40 entries for the plant with the scientific name Centaurea paniculata, which refer to thirteen different accepted species, depending on authors, subspecies, and variety or form.

Not quite so simple: updating the current lists of larval foodplants

With climate change and habitat loss threatening numerous species, the conservation of butterflies (and other animals) is becoming more important. Whilst many factors determine the distribution of butterflies, such as temperature and rainfall, their survival depends solely on the kinds of plants their larvae eat. Accurate lists of larval foodplants are therefore important to find out where to direct limited conservation resources for the best result.

What started out as a straightforward job of updating the existing lists of larval foodplants with currently accepted names turned out to be a far bigger job. Many of the lists are incomplete, and may vary throughout the range of the butterfly. Here, errors have crept in too. Many references provide incomplete, unverifiable information. Many species of butterfly lay their eggs off-host, rather than on the host plant. For example, the Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)oviposits on tree trunks above where Viola species are growing. Consequently, oviposition records need to be treated with caution, depending on the species.

What do butterfly larvae eat, and why does it matter?

Butterfly larvae can be very fussy about which plants they can use. 20% of European butterfly larvae are monophagous, feeding on just one species of plant. 50% are oligophagous, feeding on a few different closely related plants, whilst 30% are polyphagous feeding on plants in many different families. The Holy Blue (Celastrina argiolus) can utilise plants in an astonishing 19 different families.

The oligophagous butterflies can be divided into two groups:

  • Oligophagous-monophagous (OM) – feeding on one plant species in one region, and another species in another region.
  • Oligophagous-polyphagous (OP) – feeding on several closely related species of plants throughout their range, usually in the same genus, or a closely related genus.
4th instar Small Tortoiseshell feeding on Common Nettle.

Plant preferences are only known for a few species of butterflies. For example, the English race of the Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) feeds on Milk-parsley (Peucedanum palustre), whereas in the rest of Europe it has been recorded on 62 other plants. The main larval foodplant of the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) is Common Nettle(Urtica dioica), although it will occasionally use other plants.

The survivability of larvae on different plants is largely unknown, except in a few cases where the butterfly species has been studied in detail. There are plants that larvae may be able to eat, but that would likely not help them survive to pupation.

Two species are known to switch their larval foodplant during their second year of development. The Scarce Fritillary (Euphydryas maturna),for example, switches from Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) to Guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus). The Northern Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus centaureae) switches from Dwarf birch (Betula nana) to Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus).

The most delicious plants

For the first time, a list of the current accepted plant names utilised by 471 European butterfly larvae is presented, with references. Where possible, errors in previous lists have been removed. The list of larval foodplants doubled compared to previous published lists. This has resulted in a list of 1506 different plant species in 72 different families. 86 plant records are only known at the generic level. Larval foodplants of 25 butterfly species are currently unknown, which are mostly the “Browns” (Satyrinae), which probably feed on grasses (Poaceae), or possibly sedges (Cyperaceae).

Whilst most plant families are utilised by less than six butterfly species, a few plant families are particularly favoured, with grasses (Poaceae) and legumes (Fabaceae) being the most popular. Similarly, most plant species are only utilised by a few butterfly species, but the fine grasses Sheep’s Fescue (Festuca ovina) and Red Fescue (Festuca rubra) are favoured by a large number of butterfly species.

Taxonomic splits create problems. Where cryptic species are allopatric, records can be allocated on the basis of their distribution. But where cryptic species are sympatric, this will require a resurvey to determine the larval foodplants. It cannot be assumed that two cryptic butterfly species use the same plants, as something has to become different for them to evolve into separate species.

Looking forward

Future publications should ensure that old and ambiguous plant names are not used. Plant names should be specified with their full scientific name, as specified by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants. The World Checklist of Vascular Plants should be checked to ensure the currently accepted plant name is being used.

Fully documented records are needed of what larval foodplants butterfly larvae are utilising in the wild. To get a better understanding of usage, full details need to be recorded, including date, location, altitude, abundance, and larval stage. Abundance will help in the understanding of preferences. To allow records to be properly verified, evidence should be provided on how the larvae and plants were identified. Regional lists are also important – to help direct conservation efforts to the plants being used locally, rather than elsewhere. This list of larval foodplants is provided as a step towards a fully justified database, which will be updated as and when corrections are found. It highlights those 25 butterfly species whose larval foodplants are currently unknown.

4th instar Chequered Skipper (Carterocephalus palaemon) larvae feeding on Purple Moor-grass (Molinia caerulea).

Research article:

Clarke HE (2022) A provisional checklist of European butterfly larval foodplants. Nota Lepidopterologica 45: 139-167. https://doi.org/10.3897/nl.45.72017

Festschrift for Dr Jason Londt at African Invertebrates invites submissions

African Invertebrates invites any submissions linked to Jason, new species descriptions, revisions of taxa he has worked on, or any work based on specimens he collected.

From 1976 to 1994, Jason Londt was Assistant Director at the Natal Museum (now KwaZulu-Natal Museum) in South Africa, publisher of the African Invertebrates journal. Then, he became Director before retiring in 2003.

During his career at the Museum and well after that, Jason described more than 570 species and 46 genera of insects from the Afrotropics. While the majority of his work was on the robber fly family (Asilidae), Jason also worked on hangingflies (Bittacidae) and ticks. He was also a prolific collector of many other insects, still kept in the collection of the KwaZulu-Natal Museum. 

Dr Jason Gilbert Hayden Londt

Jason’s fieldwork was extensively targeting the diverse habitats in South Africa: from the subtropical coast of KwaZulu-Natal, the grasslands in the Midlands around Pietermaritzburg – where the museum is based – and further north in the Highveld, to the higher elevations of the Drakensberg Mountains bordering Lesotho, and from the Succulent and Nama Karoo, to the diverse Fynbos habitats along the south-western coast of South Africa. Additional major fieldwork took place in Namibia, Kenya, Malawi, and to a lesser extent: Eswatini (Swaziland) and Cote d’Ivoire. In addition to utilising the collected material for taxonomic work, Jason also used his field trips to publish behavioural observations and prey selection of Asilidae species.

To celebrate Jason’s career achievements and his 80th birthday, African Invertebrates will be publishing a Festschrift in his honour in April 2023. We invite any submissions linked to Jason, new species descriptions, revisions of taxa he has worked on, or any work based on specimens collected by Jason.

This issue will be edited by Dr Torsten Dikow (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, USA), Dr Kirstin Williams (KwaZulu-Natal Museum) and Dr John Midgley (KwaZulu-Natal Museum). 

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Submission deadline: 31 December 2022

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Find more about the upcoming Festschrift on the African Invertebrates’ journal website. 

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Taylor Swift, the millipede: Scientists name a new species after the singer

Scientists described a total of 17 new species from the Appalachian Mountains—now published in the open access journal ZooKeys.

Taylor Swift, U.S. singer-songwriter known for hits such as “Shake It Off” and “You Belong With Me”, has earned a new accolade—she now has a new species of millipede named in her honor.

Taylor Swift. Photo by Eva Rinaldi

The twisted-claw millipede Nannaria swiftae joins 16 other new species described from the Appalachian Mountains of the United States. These little-known invertebrates have a valuable role as decomposers: breaking down leaf litter, they release their nutrients into the ecosystem. They live on the forest floor, where they feed on decaying leaves and other plant matter, and in fact, they are somewhat tricky to catch, because they tend to remain buried in the soil, sometimes staying completely beneath the surface.

Her music helped me get through the highs and lows of graduate school, so naming a new millipede species after her is my way of saying thanks.

Derek Hennen

Scientists Derek Hennen, Jackson Means, and Paul Marek, at Virginia Tech, U.S., describe the new species in a research paper published in the open access journal ZooKeys. The research was funded by a National Science Foundation Advancing Revisionary Taxonomy and Systematics grant (DEB# 1655635).

The newly described twisted-claw millipede, Nannaria swiftae. Photo by Dr Derek Hennen

Because of their presence in museum collections, scientists long suspected that the twisted-claw millipedes included many new species, but these specimens went undescribed for decades. To fix this, the researchers began a multi-year project to collect new specimens throughout the eastern U.S. They traveled to 17 US states, checking under leaf litter, rocks, and logs to find species so that they could sequence their DNA and scientifically describe them.

Example of typical habitat for twisted-claw millipedes. Photo by Dr Derek Hennen

Looking at over 1800 specimens collected on their field study or taken from university and museum collections, the authors described 17 new species, including Nannaria marianae, which was named after Hennen’s wife. They discovered that the millipedes prefer to live in forested habitats near streams and are often found buried under the soil, exhibiting more cryptic behaviors than relatives.

The newly-described millipedes range between 18 and 38 mm long, have shiny caramel-brown to black bodies with white, red, or orange spots, and have white legs. The males have small, twisted and flattened claws on their anterior legs, which is the basis for their common name.

The lead author of the study, Derek Hennen, is a fan of Taylor Swift. 

“Her music helped me get through the highs and lows of graduate school, so naming a new millipede species after her is my way of saying thanks,” he says.

Research article:

Hennen DA, Means JC, Marek PE (2022) A revision of the wilsoni species group in the millipede genus Nannaria Chamberlin, 1918 (Diplopoda, Polydesmida, Xystodesmidae). ZooKeys 1096: 17-118. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1096.73485

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Lost South American wildflower “extinctus” rediscovered (but still endangered)

Long believed to have gone extinct, Gasteranthus extinctus was found growing at Bosque y Cascada Las Rocas, a private reserve in coastal Ecuador.

Scientific names get chosen for lots of reasons: they can honor an important person, or hint at what an organism looks like or where it’s from. For a tropical wildflower first described by scientists in 2000, the scientific name “extinctus” was a warning. The orange wildflower had been found 15 years earlier in an Ecuadorian forest that had since been largely destroyed; the scientists who named it suspected that by the time they named it, it was already extinct. But in a new paper in PhytoKeys, researchers report the first confirmed sightings of Gasteranthus extinctus in 40 years.

Long believed to have gone extinct, Gasteranthus extinctus was found growing next to a waterfall at Bosque y Cascada Las Rocas, a private reserve in coastal Ecuador containing a large population of the endangered plant. Photo by Riley Fortier.

Extinctus was given its striking name in light of the extensive deforestation in western Ecuador,” says Dawson White, a postdoctoral researcher at Chicago’s Field Museum and co-lead author of the paper. “But if you claim something’s gone, then no one is really going to go out and look for it anymore. There are still a lot of important species that are still out there, even though overall, we’re in this age of extinction.”

The bright orange flowers of the Ecuadorian cloud forest herb Gasteranthus extinctus, long believed to have gone extinct, light up the forest understory as if begging to be seen. Photo by Riley Fortier

The rediscovered plant is a small forest floor-dweller with flamboyant neon-orange flowers. 

“The genus name, Gasteranthus, is Greek for ‘belly flower.’ Their flowers have a big pouch on the underside with a little opening top where pollinators can enter and exit,” says White.

Photo by by Riley Fortier

G. extinctus is found in the foothills of the Andes mountains, where the land flattens to a plane that was once covered in cloud forest. The region, called the Centinela Ridge, is notorious among biologists for being home to a unique set of plants that vanished when its forests were almost completely destroyed in the 1980s. The late biologist E. O. Wilson even named the phenomenon of organisms instantly going extinct when their small habitat is destroyed “Centinelan extinction.”

Part of the team departs the field for the day with bags full of rare plant specimens, surrounded by the typical Centinelan landscape of tall, remnant trees scattered across pasture and farmland. Photo by Dawson White

The story of Centinela was also an alarm to draw attention to the fact that over 97% of the forests in the western half of Ecuador have been felled and converted to farmland. What remains is a fine mosaic of tiny islands of forest within a sea of bananas and a handful of other crops.

Sunset on the peak of Centinela Ridge in coastal Ecuador, near to where the first collections of the endangered wildflower Gasteranthus extinctus were made some 40 years ago. Photo by Nigel Pitman

“Centinela is a mythical place for tropical botanists,” says Pitman. “But because it was described by the top people in the field, no one really double-checked the science. No one went back to confirm that the forest was gone and those things were extinct.”

Part of the team that rediscovered Gasteranthus extinctus traverses steep ravines in the forests of coastal Ecuador in search of rare plants. From left: Washington Santillán, Sr. Hermogenes, Alix Lozinguez, and Nicolás Zapata. Photo by Thomas L.P. Couvruer

But around the time that Gasteranthus extinctus was first described in 2000, scientists were already showing that some victims of Centinelan extinction weren’t really extinct. Since 2009, a few scientists have mounted expeditions looking for G. extinctus was still around, but they weren’t successful. When White and Pitman received funding from the Field Museum’s Women’s Board to visit the Centinela Ridge, the team had a chance to check for themselves. 

Starting in the summer of 2021, they began combing through satellite images trying to identify primary rainforest that was still intact (which was difficult, White recalls, because most of the images of the region were obscured by clouds). They found a few contenders and assembled a team of ten botanists from six different institutions in Ecuador, the US, and France, including Juan Guevara, Thomas Couvreur, Nicolás Zapata, Xavier Cornejo, and Gonzalo Rivas. In November of 2021, they arrived at Centinela.

A sign points out the community of Centinela del Pichincha in coastal Ecuador, likely the namesake of the Centinela Ridge. Photo by Nigel Pitman

“It was my first time planning an expedition where we weren’t sure we’d even enter a forest,” says Pitman. “But as soon as we got on the ground we found remnants of intact cloud forest, and we spotted G. extinctus on the first day, within the first couple hours of searching. We didn’t have a photo to compare it to, we only had images of dried herbarium specimens, a line drawing, and a written description, but we were pretty sure that we’d found it based on its poky little hairs and showy “pot-bellied” flowers.”

Pitman recalls mixed emotions upon the team finding the flower. “We were really excited, but really tentative in our excitement — we thought, ‘Was it really that easy?’” he says. “We knew we needed to check with a specialist.”

From left: Ecuadorian botanists Juan Ernesto Guevara, Xavier Cornejo, and Gonzalo Rivas after a successful day of plant collecting on the Centinela Ridge in coastal Ecuador. Photo by Nigel Pitman

The researchers took photos and collected some fallen flowers, not wanting to harm the plants if they were the only ones remaining on Earth. They sent the photos to taxonomic expert John Clark, who confirmed that, yes, the flowers were the not-so-extinct G. extinctus. Thankfully, the team found many more individuals as they visited other forest fragments, and they collected museum specimens to voucher the discovery and leaves for DNA analysis. The team was also able to validate some unidentified photos posted on the community science app iNaturalist as G. extinctus.

After the field, the work isn’t finished! The team presses and preserves the specimens collected during the day. Photo by Riley Fortier

The plant will keep its name, says Pitman, because biology’s code of nomenclature has very specific rules around renaming an organism, and G. extinctus’s resurrection doesn’t make the cut.

While the flower remains highly endangered, the expedition found plenty of reasons for hope, the researchers say. 

“We walked into Centinela thinking it was going to break our heart, and instead we ended up falling in love,” says Pitman. “Finding G. extinctus was great, but what we’re even more excited about is finding some spectacular forest in a place where scientists had feared everything was gone.”

Botanist Riley Fortier admires the plantations, pastures, and remnants of old cloud forest that cover Centinela Ridge in coastal Ecuador. Photo by Dawson White

The team is now working with Ecuadorian conservationists to protect some of the remaining fragments where G. extinctus and the rest of the spectacular Centinelan flora lives on. 

“Rediscovering this flower shows that it’s not too late to turn around even the worst-case biodiversity scenarios, and it shows that there’s value in conserving even the smallest, most degraded areas,” says White. 

“It’s an important piece of evidence that it’s not too late to be exploring and inventorying plants and animals in the heavily degraded forests of western Ecuador. New species are still being found, and we can still save many things that are on the brink of extinction.”

Research article:

Pitman NCA, White DM, Guevara Andino JE, Couvreur TLP, Fortier RP, Zapata JN, Cornejo X, Clark JL, Feeley KJ, Johnston MK, Lozinguez A, Rivas-Torres G (2022) Rediscovery of Gasteranthus extinctus L.E.Skog & L.P.Kvist (Gesneriaceae) at multiple sites in western Ecuador. PhytoKeys 194: 33–46. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.194.79638 

Invasive crayfish can cause high fisheries damage

In Zambia and Zimbabwe, a single crayfish may cause annual fishery losses of as much as $6.15

Guest blog post by Josie South

Invasive crayfish have the potential to cause high economic cost to artisanal fisheries in southern Africa through scavenging behaviour and destroying fish fry habitat.

A recent study by C∙I∙B Research Associate Josie South (University of Leeds, UK) with scientists from the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) quantified the damage caused by two invasive crayfish compared to native crab species, at two temperatures, on tilapia catch and macrophytes.

Redclaw crayfish entangled in a gill net in the Kafue River. Photo by Bruce Ellender

Economic costs of invasive species are vital to prioritise and incentivise management spending to reduce and restrict invasive species. No economic costs have been published for the global invader – the redclaw crayfish (Cherax quadricarinatus), and none for the entire continent of Africa. Another prolifically invasive crayfish, the red swamp crayfish (Procambarus clarkii) is also invasive in various countries of southern Africa. Anecdotal reports of crayfish scavenging from artisanal gillnet fisheries are abundant across the invasive ranges but lacked quantification. Similarly anecdotal information about macrophyte stands being destroyed by crayfish has been reported.

For their study, Josie and colleagues compared the feeding rates per gram of crayfish to that of the native Potamonautid crabs at 19°C and 28°C on simulated fisheries catch and macrophytes to identify how much damage may be caused.

Gill net fish catch damaged by crayfish scavenging. Photo by Josie South

The red swamp crayfish consumed the most macrophytes regardless of temperature, at a higher rate than the redclaw crayfish or crabs. In contrast, redclaw crayfish consumed the most tilapia regardless of temperature, and targeted the tail, abdomen, and fins whereas the crab only consumed the head of the fish. The damage rates of redclaw crayfish were then combined with average mass of crayfish in three invasion cores in Zambia and Zimbabwe. It was found that the damage one crayfish may cause annual fishery losses from $6.15 (Kafue River); $5.42 (Lake Kariba); and $3.62 (Barotse floodplain).

Inland fisheries contribute substantially to the livelihoods and quality of life in Africa. The two invasive crayfish have different capacities for ecological and socio-economic impact depending on the resource and the temperature which means that impact assessments should not be generalised across species.

Redclaw crayfish capacity to damage fish catch was substantial but this should be caveated with two over/under estimation issues: 1) the potential for fisher behavioural change which may reduce crayfish damage and 2) small damage to the fish may render the catch unsaleable and therefore the cost of the whole fish is lost.

Dr Josie South states that while these data are a crucial first step in filling knowledge gaps in crayfish impacts in Africa, it also stresses the need to derive observed costs from fisheries dependent data to avoid misleading estimates.

Also of concern, is the capacity for ecological and socio-economic damage from the red swamp crayfish, which was recently removed from the NEM:BA regulations of prohibited species due to lack of impact evidence.

Read the paper published in NeoBiota

Madzivanzira TC, Weyl OLF, South J (2022) Ecological and potential socioeconomic impacts of two globally-invasive crayfish. NeoBiota 72: 25–43. https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.72.71868

This blog post was first published by DSI-NRF Centre for Invasion Biology, Stellenbosch University.

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Citizen science data crucial to understand wildlife roadkill

In a first for science, researchers set out to analyze over 10 years of roadkill records in Flanders, Belgium, using data provided by citizen scientists.

The road is a dangerous place for animals: they can easily get run over, which can seriously affect wildlife diversity and populations in the long term. There is also a human economic cost and possible injury or even death in these accidents, while crashing into heavier animals or trying to avoid them on the road.

Making roads safer for both animals and people starts with a simple first step: understanding when, where, and how many animals get run over. This knowledge can help protect specific species, for example by using warning signs, preventing access to the roads for animals, creating overpasses and underpasses, or closing roads. Wildlife roadkill data can also help monitor other trends, such as population dynamics, species distribution, and animal behavior.

Thanks to citizen science platforms, obtaining this kind of data is no longer a task reserved for scientists. There are now dozens of free, easy-to-use online systems, where anyone can record wildlife collision accidents or roadkill, contributing to a fuller picture that might later be used to inform policy measures.

One such project is the Flemish Animals under wheels, where users can register the roadkill they saw, adding date, time and geolocation online or by using the apps. The data is stored in the online biodiversity database Waarnemingen.be, the Flemish version of the international platform Observation.org

Between 2008 and 2020, the project collected almost 90,000 roadkill records from Flanders, Belgium, registered by over 4,000 citizen scientists. Roadkill recording is just a small part of their nature recording activities – the multi-purpose platform which also allows the registration of living organisms. This is probably why the volunteers have remained engaged with the project for over 6 years now.

In a first for science, researchers from Natuurpunt Studie, the scientific institute linked to the largest Nature NGO in Flanders, with support from the Department of Environmental and Spatial Development, set out to analyze over 10 years of roadkill records in the region, using data provided by citizen scientists. In their study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Conservation, they focused on 17 key species of mammals and their fate on the roads of Flanders. 

The researchers analyzed data on 145,000 km of transects monitored, which resulted in records of 1,726 mammal and 2,041 bird victims. However, the majority of the data – over 60,000 bird and mammal roadkill records – were collected opportunistically, where opportunistic data sampling favors larger or more “enigmatic” species. Hedgehogs, red foxes and red squirrels were the most frequently registered mammal roadkill victims.  

In the last decade, roadkill incidents in Flanders have diminished, the study found, even though search effort increased. This might be the result of effective road collision mitigation, such as fencing, crossing structures, or animal detection systems. On the other hand, it could be a sign of declining populations among those animals that are most prone to being killed by vehicles. More research is needed to understand the exact reason. Over the last 11 years, roadkill records of the European polecat showed a significant relative decrease, while seven species, including the roe deer and wild boar, show a relative increase in recorded incidents.

There seems to be a clear influence of the COVID-19 pandemic on roadkill patterns for some species. Restrictions in movement that followed likely led simultaneously to fewer casualties and a decrease in the search effort. 

The number of new observations submitted to Waarnemingen.be continues to increase year after year, with data for 2021 pointing to about 9 million. Even so, the scientists warn that those recorded observations “are only the tip of the iceberg.”

 “Citizen scientists are a very valuable asset in investigating wildlife roadkill. Without your contributions, roadkill in Flanders would be a black box,”

the researchers conclude.

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Research paper:

Swinnen KRR, Jacobs A, Claus K, Ruyts S, Vercayie D, Lambrechts J, Herremans M (2022) ‘Animals under wheels’: Wildlife roadkill data collection by citizen scientists as a part of their nature recording activities. In: Santos S, Grilo C, Shilling F, Bhardwaj M, Papp CR (Eds) Linear Infrastructure Networks with Ecological Solutions. Nature Conservation 47: 121-153. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.47.72970

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The research article is part of the Special Issue: “Linear Infrastructure Networks with Ecological Solutions“, which collates 15 research papers reporting on studies presented at the IENE2020 conference.

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30-million-year-old Baltic amber reveals lacewing that looks like mantis

The insect, described as Mantispa? damzenogedanica, helped reveal important insights into the morphology of these fascinating insects and how it changed through history

Guest blog post by Viktor Baranov

Lacewings (Neuroptera) are mostly known for representatives such as green lacewings or antlions, which are distinguished by their appearance – large eyes and four long wings – but also by their predatory larvae, which play an important role as pest control agents in agriculture. But few non-specialists know that some lacewings can look a lot like praying mantises.

Mantispa? damzenogedanica, general overview. Photo by V. Baranov

Mantis lacewings (Mantispida) are among the most charismatic, though rather poorly known representatives of the true lacewings. They look like small- to medium-sized praying mantises. Mantis lacewing are 5-47 mm long, and all of them have prominent grasping (also called raptorial) legs. This superficial resemblance is due to the convergent evolution of the shape in true mantises and mantis lacewings. Convergent evolution is a process of organisms evolving similar traits, due to their adaptation to the similar conditions – i.e. hummingbirds and sunbirds live on different continents but look very similar due to their similar lifestyle. This type of evolution has led to the similar shape of the grasping legs, which act as a couple of snap traps for unsuspecting prey. 

Going back to the Cretaceous, Mantis lacewings have a long geological record. There are plenty of Mesozoic records of them and their relatives, such as thorny lacewings (Rachiberothidae) and beaded lacewings (Berothidae), totalling  105 recorded specimens. Curiously, there is a clear gap in mantis lacewings records from the Cainozoic.

Until recently, no adult mantis lacewings had been recorded from Baltic amber. In a single case, fossil parasitoid larvae of mantis lacewings were found attached to their host, a spider.

This changed last year, when a beautiful specimen of the mantis lacewing, almost 2 cm long, was brought to our attention by a private amber collector and esteemed supporter of palaeoentomology research – Jonas Damzen from Vilnus, Lithuania. The specimen was found at the Yantarny mine in Kaliningrad oblast, Russia.

By analysing the morphology of this beautiful specimen, we found out that it is closely related to the extant genus Mantispa. However, it was impossible to conclusively corroborate its affinity, because important characters such as rear wing venation and genitalia were obscured by so called “verlummung” – a white film, which covers many of the fossils in Baltic amber.

Morphospace plot showing changes in the diversity of raptorial appendages over geological time. Image credit J. Haug/ V. Baranov

So, to deal with this uncertainty, we designated this specimen as “probable Mantispa” (Mantispa?). In our research article published in the journal Fossil Record, we gave it the name Mantispa? damzenogedanica. The specific epithet is a combination of ‘Damzen’, honouring Jonas Damzen, who found, prepared, and made the specimen available, and ‘gedanicum’, relative to one of the Latin names for Gdańsk, Poland, where the specimen is housed in the Museum of Gdańsk.

Except for being an impressive, large, imposing insect fossil of the mantis lacewing, and the first one in Baltic amber at that, M.? damzenogedanica also present an intriguing question: why are so few mantis lacewings recorded from this fossil deposit, which is among the best-studied in the world?

Baltic amber deposits were formed in the mid-to-late Eocene epoch (38-33.9 MYA) in Northern Europe. Current consensus on the climate of the area at the time stands that it was not dissimilar to the south of the North American eastern seaboard, for example the Carolinas or Florida’s Panhandle: it was warm-temperate. Such climate is in fact perfect for extant mantis lacewings, so it is logical to suggest that unsuitable climate was not the main reason for the rarity of these animals in Baltic amber.

Analysing the diversity of the shape of mantis lacewings, we found a surprising trend – since the Cretaceous, the diversity in the shape of their legs has decreased. While the shape of the raptorial legs in the Cretaceous was characterised by eclectic, amazing diversity, later mantis lacewings have a rather uniform shape of raptorial legs.

We are not sure what may have caused this decrease. We think that drastic biotic changes after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event (the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs) may have led to the environment becoming less conductive to mantis lacewings, which in turn decreased their diversity. Thus, it is likely that the rarity of mantis lacewings is simply a reflection of the decline in their diversity and abundance after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction. 

Younger amber deposits (i.e. Dominican amber), and, of course, extant fauna display significant species diversity, but the diversity of shape never recovered after the Cretaceous. This new mantis lacewing from Baltic amber offers us a rare glimpse into a time when, in the world after dinosaurs, lacewings got a little less diverse and charismatic.

Research article: Baranov V, Pérez-de la Fuente R, Engel MS, Hammel JU, Kiesmüller C, Hörnig MK, Pazinato PG, Stahlecker C, Haug C, Haug JT (2022) The first adult mantis lacewing from Baltic amber, with an evaluation of the post-Cretaceous loss of morphological diversity of raptorial appendages in Mantispidae. Fossil Record 25(1): 11-24. https://doi.org/10.3897/fr.25.80134