DiCaprio and Sheth name new species of tree-dwelling snakes threatened by mining

Five new drop-dead-gorgeous tree-dwelling snake species were discovered in the jungles of Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama.

Five new drop-dead-gorgeous tree-dwelling snake species were discovered in the jungles of Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama. Conservationists Leonardo DiCaprio, Brian Sheth, Re:wild, and Nature and Culture International chose the names for three of them in honor of loved ones while raising awareness about the issue of rainforest destruction at the hands of open-pit mining operations. The research was conducted by Ecuadorian biologist Alejandro Arteaga, an Explorers Club Discovery Expedition Grantee, and Panamanian biologist Abel Batista.

The mountainous areas of the upper-Amazon rainforest and the Chocó-Darién jungles are world-renowned for the wealth of new species continually discovered in this region. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that they also house some of the largest gold and copper deposits in the world. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the proliferation of illegal open-pit gold and copper mining operations in the jungles of Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama reached a critical level and is decimating tree-dwelling snake populations.

Illegal mining activity in the upper Ecuadorian Amazon doubled between 2021 and 2022. Photo by Jorge Anhalzer

Neotropical snail-eating snakes (genera Sibon and Dipsas) have a unique lifestyle that makes them particularly prone to the effects of gold and copper mining. First, they are arboreal, so they cannot survive in areas devoid of vegetation, such as in open-pit mines. Second, they feed exclusively on slugs and snails, a soft-bodied type of prey that occurs mostly along streams and rivers and is presumably declining because of the pollution of water bodies.

“When I first explored the rainforests of Nangaritza River in 2014, I remember thinking the place was an undiscovered and unspoiled paradise,” says Alejandro Arteaga, author of the research study on these snakes, which was published in the journal ZooKeys. “In fact, the place is called Nuevo Paraíso in Spanish, but it is a paradise no more. Hundreds of illegal gold miners using backhoe loaders have now taken possession of the river margins, which are now destroyed and turned into rubble.”

Biologist Alejandro Arteaga examines a snail-eating snake in the museum. Photo by Jorge Castillo

The presence of a conservation area may not be enough to keep the snail-eating snakes safe. In southeastern Ecuador, illegal miners are closing in on Maycu Reserve, ignoring landowner rights and even making violent threats to anyone opposed to the extraction of gold. Even rangers and their families are tempted to quit their jobs to work in illegal mining, as it is much more lucrative. A local park ranger reports that by extracting gold from the Nangaritza River, local people can earn what would otherwise be a year’s salary in just a few weeks. “Sure, it is illegal and out of control, but the authorities are too afraid to intervene,” says the park ranger. “Miners are just too violent and unpredictable.”

Gold mining activities in Napo, Ecuador. Photo by Ivan Castaneira

In Panama, large-scale copper mining is affecting the habitat of two of the new species: Sibon irmelindicaprioae and S. canopy. Unlike the illegal gold miners in Ecuador and Colombia, the extraction in this case is legal and at the hands of a single corporation: Minera Panamá S.A., a subsidiary of the Canadian-based mining and metals company First Quantum Minerals Ltd. Although the forest destruction at the Panamanian mines is larger in extent and can easily be seen from space, its borders are clearly defined and the company is under the purview of local environmental authorities.

Sibon irmelindicaprioae, named after Leonardo DiCaprio’s mother, is the rarest of the lot. It occurs in the Chocó-Darién jungles of eastern Panama and western Colombia. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga of Khamai Foundation.

“Both legal and illegal open-pit mines are uninhabitable for the snail-eating snakes,” says Arteaga, “but the legal mines may be the lesser of two evils. At the very least they respect the limit of nearby protected areas, answer to a higher authority, and are presumably unlikely to enact violence on park rangers, researchers, and conservationists.”

Gold mining activities in Napo province, Ecuador. Photo by Ivan Castaneira

Sibon canopy, one of the newly described species, appears to have fairly stable populations inside protected areas of Panama, although elsewhere nearly 40% of its habitat has been destroyed. At Parque Nacional Omar Torrijos, where it is found, there has been a reduction in the number of park rangers (already very few for such a large protected area). This makes it easier for loggers and poachers to reach previously unspoiled habitats that are essential for the survival of the snakes.

Sibon canopy is named in honor of the Canopy Family system of reserves, particularly its Canopy Lodge in Valle de Antón, Coclé province, Panama. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga

Lack of employment and the high price of gold aggravate the situation. No legal activity can compete against the “gold bonanza.” More and more often, farmers, park rangers, and indigenous people are turning to illegal activities to provide for their families, particularly during crisis situations like the COVID-19 pandemic, when NGO funding was at its lowest.

An Ecuadorian miner shows the gold she has collected and that she will use to pay for any family emergency. Photo by Ivan Castaneira

“These new species of snake are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of new species discoveries in this region, but if illegal mining continues at this rate, there may not be an opportunity to make any future discoveries,” concludes Alejandro Arteaga.

A gold mine in Nangaritza. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga

Fortunately, three NGOs in Ecuador and Panama (Khamai, Nature and Culture International, and Adopta Bosque) have already made it their mission to save the snake’s habitat from the emerging gold mining frenzy. Supporting these organizations is vital, because their quest for immediate land protection is the only way to save the snakes from extinction.

Research article:

Arteaga A, Batista A (2023) A consolidated phylogeny of snail-eating snakes (Serpentes, Dipsadini), with the description of five new species from Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama. ZooKeys 1143: 1-49. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1143.93601

Support Khamai Foundation’s mission to save the upper Amazon rainforest from gold mining: https://www.khamai.bio/save_amazon_rainforest_from_gold_mining.html

Support Nature and Culture International: https://www.natureandculture.org

Support Fundación Adopta Bosque: https://adoptabosque.org

Follow ZooKeys on Twitter and Facebook.

Scientists highlight safe access to the outdoors with naming of new plant species

The scientific name and English-language common name acknowledge the importance of maintaining equitable and safe access to outdoor spaces for all people.

Dr. Chris Martine, Bucknell’s David Burpee Professor, examining a Solanum scalarium plant at its only currently known location on the Escarpment Walk, Judbarra National Park, Northern Territory, Australia. Photo by Angela McDonnell

A new species of Australian bush tomato described from the Garrarnawun Lookout in Judbarra National Park provides a compelling example of the need to provide equal and safe access to natural places. Bucknell University postdoctoral fellow Tanisha Williams and biology professor Chris Martine led the study following a chance encounter with an unusual population of plants during a 2019 research expedition to the Northern Territory.

Martine, who has studied northern Australia’s bush tomatoes for more than 20 years, immediately sensed that the plants were representative of a not-yet-described species, so he, Angela McDonnell (St. Cloud State University), Jason Cantley (San Francisco State University), and Peter Jobson (Northern Territory Herbarium in Alice Springs) combed the local area for plants to closely study and make research collections from. The task was made easier by the fact that the Garrarnawun Lookout is accessible by a set of dozens of human-made stone steps running directly from the unpaved parking area to the peak of the sandstone outcrop – without which the new species might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

The botanists were able to collect numerous new specimens and have now published the new species description in the open-access journal PhytoKeys, choosing the name Solanum scalarium as a nod to the steps leading to the plant and the unusual ladder-like prickles that adorn the flowering stems. The Latin “scalarium” translates to “ladder”, “staircase” or “stairs.”

Photo of Solanum scalarium, a newly-described bush tomato species from the Northern Territory, Australia, showing the unusual ladder-like arrangement of prickles on male floral stems. Plants grown in the Rooke Biology Research Greenhouse at Bucknell University were closely studied by undergraduate student Jonathan Hayes (Biology ‘22) under the supervision of Drs. Tanisha Williams and Chris Martine. Photo by J. Hayes

“This Latin name does relate to the appearance of this species, how it looks,” says first-author Williams. “But it is also a way for us to acknowledge how important it is to create ways for people to interact with nature; not just scientists like us, but everyone.”

Solanum scalarium: immature green fruits enclosed in prickly calyx. Photo by Angela McDonnell

According to the authors, a recent study done by the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries in Western Australia found that 8 in 10 people felt it is important to have access to natural spaces, both locally and outside of their current jurisdictions. However, one in three persons felt dissatisfied with the current outdoor spaces available to them and many identified barriers to access and participation in outdoor activities that include urbanization – which is especially credited for the growing number of Australians that lack outdoor experiences.

Importantly, the awareness of who has access and feels safe to participate in outdoor activities is being recognized throughout Australia and the lack of diversity in participation from culturally diverse and marginalized populations has been identified as an issue. Key indices such as ethnic background, socio-economic status, physical abilities and gender, are indicators of low outdoor recreation participation.

“These disparities of who are and are not participating and who feels safe and welcomed are artifacts of historic and current environmental and social injustices,” notes Williams. “To overcome these injustices and increase access and participation from diverse groups, intentional and targeted efforts are needed to provide a range of outdoor experiences that attract people from all of the 270 plus ancestries with which Australians identify with and special attention should be placed on groups historically excluded from outdoor spaces.”

Dr. Tanisha Williams, Bucknell’s Richard E. and Yvonne Smith Post-doctoral Fellow,  on the rim of the Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater during fieldwork in Western Australia in June 2022. Photo by Chris Martine

Also now known as the Garrarnawun Bush Tomato, Solanum scalarium is a distant cousin of the cultivated eggplant and a close relative to a number of other Australian species recently discovered by Martine and colleagues that were also published in PhytoKeys including Solanum plastisexum, named to reflect the diversity of sex forms across Earth’s organisms; and Solanum watneyi, named for the space botanist of the book/film The Martian. 

The scientists hope that the naming of this latest new species highlights the importance of building community around natural spaces.

“We suggest the use of Garrarnawun Bush Tomato for the English-language common name of the species,” the authors write, “In recognition of the Garrarnawun Lookout near where the type collection was made, a traditional meeting place of the Wardaman and Nungali-Ngaliwurru peoples whose lands overlap in this area.”

Access to nature is not just a concern in Australia.

“In the United States, where most of the authors of this paper are located, “access” is one thing but safety and equitability are another,” says Martine, “The U.S. National Parks Service reports that around 95% of those who visit federal parks are white. Meanwhile, African Americans, Latinos, women, and members of the LGBTQIA+ communities often report feeling unwelcome or unsafe in outdoor spaces.”

“If African Americans, for example, are already apprehensive in a country where they make up 13% of the population, it should be understandable that they are hesitant to be part of a community where they represent as little as 1% of participants.”

Dr. Tanisha Williams, Bucknell’s Richard E. and Yvonne Smith Post-doctoral Fellow, and Dr. Chris Martine, Bucknell’s David Burpee Professor, in Western Australia in June 2022. Photo by Claire Marino

Williams suggests that James Edward Mills, author of The Adventure Gap (2014) put it best:

“It’s not enough to say that the outdoors is free and open for everyone to enjoy. Of course it is! But after four centuries of racial oppression and discrimination that systematically made Black Americans fear for their physical safety, we must also make sure that we create a natural environment where people of color can not only feel welcome but encouraged to become active participants as outdoor enthusiasts and stewards dedicated to the protection of the land.”

Recent Bucknell graduate Jonathan Hayes, who measured and analyzed the physical characters of the new species using plants grown from seed in a campus greenhouse, joins Williams, McDonnell, Cantley, Jobson, and Martine as a co-author on the publication.

Research Article:

Williams TM, Hayes J, McDonnell AJ, Cantley JT, Jobson P, Martine CT (2022) Solanum scalarium (Solanaceae), a newly-described dioecious bush tomato from Judbarra/Gregory National Park, Northern Territory, Australia. PhytoKeys 216: 103-116. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.216.85972

‘Nature’s Envelope’ – a simple device that reveals the scope and scale of all biological processes

All processes fit into a broad S-shaped envelope extending from the briefest to the most enduring biological events. For the first time, we have the first simple model that depicts the scope and scale of biology.

Arctic tern by Mark Stock, Schleswig-Holstein Wadden Sea National Park. License: CC BY-SA.

As biology is progressing into a digital age, it is creating new opportunities for discovery. 

Increasingly, information from investigations into aspects of biology from ecology to molecular biology is available in a digital form. Older ‘legacy’ information is being digitized. Together, the digital information is accumulated in databases from which it can be harvested and examined with an increasing array of algorithmic and visualization tools.

From this trend has emerged a vision that, one day, we should be able to analyze any and all aspects of biology in this digital world. 

However, before this can happen, there will need to be an infrastructure that gathers information from ALL sources, reshapes it as standardized data using universal metadata and ontologies, and made freely available for analysis. 

That information also must make its way to trustworthy repositories to guarantee the permanent access to the data in a polished and fully suited for re-use state.

The first layer in the infrastructure is the one that gathers all old and new information, whether it be about the migrations of ocean mammals, the sequence of bases in ribosomal RNA, or the known locations of particular species of ciliated protozoa.

How many of these subdomains will be there?

To answer this, we need to have a sense of the scope and scale of biology.

With the Nature’s Envelope we have, for the first time, a simple model that depicts the scope and scale of biology. Presented as a rhetorical device by its author Dr David J. Patterson (University of Sydney, Australia), the Nature’s Envelope is described in a Forum Paper, published in the open-science journal Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO).

This is achieved by compiling information about the processes conducted by all living organisms. The processes occur at all levels of organization, from sub-molecular transactions, such as those that underpin nervous impulses, to those within and among plants, animals, fungi, protists and prokaryotes. Further, they are also the actions and reactions of individuals and communities; but also the sum of the interactions that make up an ecosystem; and finally, the consequences of the biosphere as a whole system. 

Nature’s Envelope, in green, includes all processes carried out by, involving, or the result of the activities of any and all organisms. The axes depict the duration of events and the sizes of participants using a log10 scale. Image by David J. Patterson. License: CC BY.

In the Nature’s Envelope, information on sizes of participants and durations of processes from all levels of organization are plotted on a grid. The grid uses a logarithmic (base 10) scale, which has about 21 orders of magnitude of size and 35 orders of magnitude of time. Information on processes ranging from the subatomic, through molecular, cellular, tissue, organismic, species, communities to ecosystems is assigned to the appropriate decadal blocks. 

Examples include movements from the stepping motion of molecules like kinesin that move forward 8 nanometres in about 10 milliseconds; or the migrations of Arctic terns which follow routes of 30,000 km or more from Europe to Antarctica over 3 to 4 months.

The extremes of life processes are determined by the smallest and largest entities to participate, and the briefest and most enduring processes.

The briefest event to be included is the transfer of energy from a photon to a photosynthetic pigment as the photon passes through a chlorophyll molecule several nanometres in width at a speed of 300,000 km per second. That transaction is conducted in about 10-17 seconds. As it involves the smallest subatomic particles, it defines the lower left corner of the grid. 

The most enduring is the process of evolution that has been progressing for almost 4 billion years. The influence of the latter has created the biosphere (the largest living object) and affects the gas content of the atmosphere. This process established the upper right extreme of the grid.

All biological processes fit into a broad S-shaped envelope that includes about half of the decadal blocks in the grid. The envelope drawn round the initial examples is Nature’s Envelope.

Nature’s envelope will be a useful addition to many discussions, whether they deal with the infrastructure that will manage the digital age of biology, or provide the context for education on the diversity and range of processes that living systems engage in.

The version of Nature’s Envelope published in the RIO journal is seen as a first version, to be refined and enhanced through community participation,”

comments Patterson.

***

Original source:

Patterson DJ (2022) The scope and scale of the life sciences (‘Nature’s envelope’). Research Ideas and Outcomes 8: e96132. https://doi.org/10.3897/rio.8.e96132

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Follow Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO Journal) on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

Bay Area high school students describe two new species of scorpions with California Academy of Sciences

Identified on the community science platform iNaturalist, the species add to California’s rich biodiversity.

California now has two new scorpions on its list of species, thanks to the efforts of two keen-eyed high school students from the Bay Area and the California Academy of Sciences. Harper Forbes and Prakrit Jain, avid users on the community science platform iNaturalist, discovered the new-to-science scorpions while trawling the thousands of observations uploaded by other users in the state.

New species Paruroctonus soda and Paruroctonus conclusus are playa scorpions, meaning they can only be found around dry lake beds, or playas, from the deserts of Central and Southern California. For scientists, conservation managers, and the growing communities of wildlife observers on platforms like iNaturalist, these newly described species provide a better understanding of California’s biodiversity and the places most in need of protection—a cornerstone of the Academy’s Thriving California initiative.

The budding naturalists collaborated with Curator of Arachnology  Lauren Esposito, PhD, to formally describe the species in a study published today in ZooKeys

This female scorpion is one of the newly described species (Paruroctonus soda) and is seen carrying 51 juveniles. (© Prakrit Jain)

In 2019, Forbes and Jain came across an unknown scorpion species on iNaturalist observed near Koehn Lake—an ephemeral lake in the Mojave Desert—that had remained unidentified since it was uploaded six years earlier. 

“We weren’t entirely sure what we were looking at,” Jain says. “Over the next couple years, we studied scorpions in the genus Paruroctonus and learned they frequently evolve to live in alkali playas like Koehn Lake. When we returned to that initial observation, we realized we were looking at an undescribed Paruroctonus species.” 

Harper Forbes (left), Prakrit Jain (right), and Academy Curator of Arachnology Lauren Esposito, PhD, (center) search for scorpions. (Gayle Laird 2022 © California Academy of Sciences)

Serendipitously, another unknown scorpion observed in San Luis Obispo County was uploaded to iNaturalist shortly after their discovery in May of 2021. With a few years of arachnid research under their belts, Forbes and Jain knew right away that it was a new species in the same genus. They immediately contacted Esposito to assist, resulting in two new-to-science scorpions—P. soda and P. conclusus—and a published paper in which Forbes and Jain are first authors. 

“Harper and Prakrit went through all the steps to formally describe a species, sampling the populations and comparing them with existing specimens in our collection,” Esposito says. “There’s a lot of work involved, but they are incredibly passionate about this research. It’s inspiring to see that their hobby is one that advances biodiversity science.”

The new scorpions species were discovered on community science platform iNaturalist. (Gayle Laird 2022 © California Academy of Sciences)

P. soda and P. conclusus are both alkali sink specialists, meaning they have adapted to the alkaline basins—dry, salty playas with high pH soils—in which they evolved. Each species has a very limited range and can only be found in the playas where they were discovered: Soda Lake (the former’s namesake) and Koehn Lake. During their summer break, Forbes and Jain visited the lakes to collect specimens of each new species. After scouting the alkali flats during the daytime for habitats most suited for playa scorpions, they set out with their vials and forceps at dusk, as these desert dwellers are primarily active at night. Luckily, most scorpions fluoresce under ultraviolet light, so the researchers used blacklights to scour the open playas while keeping an eye out for their glowing subjects. They also searched the scorpions’ typical hiding places, peering into cracks in the hard clay soil and combing through common alkali sink plants like iodine bush (Allenrolfea occidentalis) and bush seepweed (Suaeda nigra). At the end of each trip, they successfully collected a sample size of both males and females sufficient for the study.

While the species range for P. soda is small (just a few square miles), it is entirely located within Carrizo Plain National Monument—federally protected land that renders this species safe from human-driven threats. Unfortunately, this is not the case for P. conclusus.

“While no official assessment has been carried out for either species, P. conclusus can only be found on a narrow strip of unprotected land, less than two kilometers long and only a few meters wide in some places,” Forbes says. “The entire species could be wiped out with the construction of a single solar farm, mine, or housing development.” 

Habitat of Paruroctonus conclusus at the type locality, taken in July 2021.

Though P. soda seems to be relatively safe compared to P. conclusus, the constant threat of climate change endangers all wildlife, particularly in delicate desert environments. As part of the Thriving California initiative, Academy scientists hope to collaborate with schools and communities throughout the state to conduct further biodiversity research. By harnessing scientific data—including crowd-sourced data from iNaturalist—and providing access to environmental and science learning, the initiative hopes to halt biodiversity loss in the Golden State. 

Harper and Prakrit will continue their research with the Academy and are currently working on a holistic book of California’s scorpions. (Gayle Laird 2022 © California Academy of Sciences)

Now high school graduates, this fall Forbes will study evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona and Jain will study integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley. They will continue their work with Esposito and are currently collaborating on their next major project: a holistic book of California’s scorpions. In addition to their research and academic endeavors, they are excited to get back out in the field to find, collect, and identify more scorpions. 

“I will never get tired of going out at night to find a certain scorpion for the first time,” Jain says. “Whether it be solving the mystery of a long-lost scorpion or discovering something new in an unexpected place, a trip to the desert is always a challenge and an adventure.”

***

Research article:

Jain P, Forbes H, Esposito LA (2022) Two new alkali-sink specialist species of Paruroctonus Werner 1934 (Scorpiones, Vaejovidae) from central California. ZooKeys 1117: 139-188. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1117.76872

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Follow ZooKeys on Facebook and Twitter.

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This press release was originally published by the California Academy of Sciences.

Notice me! Neglected for over a century, Black sea spider crab re-described

After the revision of available type specimens from all available collections in the Russian museums and the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt-on-Main, as well as newly collected material in the Black Sea and the North-East Atlantic, a research team of scientists, led by Dr Vassily Spiridonov from Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of Russian Academy of Sciences, re-described Macropodia czernjawskii and provided the new data on its records and updated its ecological characteristics.

Even though recognised in the Mediterranean Sea, the Macropodia czernjawskii spider crab was ignored by scientists (even by its namesake Vladimir Czernyavsky) in the regional faunal accounts of the Black Sea for more than a century. At the same time, although other species of the genus have been listed as Black sea fauna, those listings are mostly wrong and occurred either due to historical circumstances or misidentifications.Now, scientists re-describe this, most likely, only species of the genus occurring in the Black Sea in the open-access journal Zoosystematics and Evolution.

The studied spirder crab species Macropodia czernjawskii in the wild, Tuaphat (near Gelendzhik), Caucasus, Black Sea.
Photo by Sergey Anosov

The spider crab genus Macropodia was discovered in 1814 and currently includes 18 species, mostly occurring in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The marine fauna of the Black Sea is predominantly of Mediterranean origin and Macropodia czernjawskii was firstly discovered in the Black Sea in 1880, but afterwards, its presence there was largely ignored by the scientists.

After the revision of available type specimens from all available collections in the Russian museums and the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt-on-Main, as well as newly collected material in the Black Sea and the North-East Atlantic, a research team of scientists, led by Dr Vassily Spiridonov from Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of Russian Academy of Sciences, re-described Macropodia czernjawskii and provided the new data on its records and updated its ecological characteristics.

“The analysis of the molecular genetic barcode (COI) of the available material of Macropodia species indicated that M. czernjawskii is a very distinct species while M. parva should be synonimised with M. rostrata, and M. longipes is a synonym of M. tenuirostris”,

states Dr Spiridonov sharing the details of the genus analysis.

All Macropodia species have epibiosis and M. czernjawskii is no exception: almost all examined crabs in 2008-2018 collections had significant epibiosis. It normally consists of algae and cyanobacteria and, particularly, a non-indigenous species of red alga Bonnemaisonia hamifera, officially reported in 2015 at the Caucasian coast of the Black Sea, was found in the epibiosis of M. czernjawskii four years earlier.

“It improves our understanding of its invasion history. Museum and monitoring collections of species with abundant epibiosis (in particular inachid crabs) can be used as an additional tool to record and monitor introduction and establishments of sessile non-indigenous species,”

suggests Dr Spiridonov.
The spider crab species Macropodia czernjawskii in the wild, Tuaphat (near Gelendzhik), Caucasus, Black Sea.
Photo by Sergey Anosov

***

Original source:

Spiridonov VA, Simakova UV, Anosov SE, Zalota AK, Timofeev VA (2020) Review of Macropodia in the Black Sea supported by molecular barcoding data; with the redescription of the type material, observations on ecology and epibiosis of Macropodia czernjawskii (Brandt, 1880) and notes on other Atlanto-Mediterranean species of Macropodia Leach, 1814 (Crustacea, Decapoda, Inachidae). Zoosystematics and Evolution 96(2): 609-635. https://doi.org/10.3897/zse.96.48342

Novel research on African bats pilots new ways in sharing and linking published data

A colony of what is apparently a new species of the genus Hipposideros found in an abandoned gold mine in Western Kenya
Photo by B. D. Patterson / Field Museum

Newly published findings about the phylogenetics and systematics of some previously known, but also other yet to be identified species of Old World Leaf-nosed bats, provide the first contribution to a recently launched collection of research articles, whose task is to help scientists from across disciplines to better understand potential hosts and vectors of zoonotic diseases, such as the Coronavirus. Bats and pangolins are among the animals already identified to be particularly potent vehicles of life-threatening viruses, including the infamous SARS-CoV-2.

The article, publicly available in the peer-reviewed scholarly journal ZooKeys, also pilots a new generation of Linked Open Data (LOD) publishing practices, invented and implemented to facilitate ongoing scientific collaborations in times of urgency like those we experience today with the COVID-19 pandemic currently ravaging across over 230 countries around the globe.

In their study, an international team of scientists, led by Dr Bruce PattersonField Museum‘s MacArthur curator of mammals, point to the existence of numerous, yet to be described species of leaf-nosed bats inhabiting the biodiversity hotspots of East Africa and Southeast Asia. In order to expedite future discoveries about the identity, biology and ecology of those bats, they provide key insights into the genetics and relations within their higher groupings, as well as further information about their geographic distribution.

“Leaf-nosed bats carry coronaviruses–not the strain that’s affecting humans right now, but this is certainly not the last time a virus will be transmitted from a wild mammal to humans. If we have better knowledge of what these bats are, we’ll be better prepared if that happens,”

says Dr Terrence Demos, a post-doctoral researcher in Patterson’s lab and a principal author of the paper.
One of the possibly three new to science bat species, previously referred to as Hipposideros caffer or Sundevall’s leaf-nosed bat
Photo by B. D. Patterson / Field Museum

“With COVID-19, we have a virus that’s running amok in the human population. It originated in a horseshoe bat in China. There are 25 or 30 species of horseshoe bats in China, and no one can determine which one was involved. We owe it to ourselves to learn more about them and their relatives,”

comments Patterson.

In order to ensure that scientists from across disciplines, including biologists, but also virologists and epidemiologists, in addition to health and policy officials and decision-makers have the scientific data and evidence at hand, Patterson and his team supplemented their research publication with a particularly valuable appendix table. There, in a conveniently organized table format, everyone can access fundamental raw genetic data about each studied specimen, as well as its precise identification, origin and the natural history collection it is preserved. However, what makes those data particularly useful for researchers looking to make ground-breaking and potentially life-saving discoveries is that all that information is linked to other types of data stored at various databases and repositories contributed by scientists from anywhere in the world.

Furthermore, in this case, those linked and publicly available data or Linked Open Data (LOD) are published in specific code languages, so that they are “understandable” for computers. Thus, when a researcher seeks to access data associated with a particular specimen he/she finds in the table, he/she can immediately access additional data stored at external data repositories by means of a single algorithm. Alternatively, another researcher might want to retrieve all pathogens extracted from tissues from specimens of a specific animal species or from particular populations inhabiting a certain geographical range and so on.

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The data publication and dissemination approach piloted in this new study was elaborated by the science publisher and technology provider Pensoft and the digitisation company Plazi for the purposes of a special collection of research papers reporting on novel findings concerning the biology of bats and pangolins in the scholarly journal ZooKeys. By targeting the two most likely ‘culprits’ at the roots of the Coronavirus outbreak in 2020: bats and pangolins, the article collection aligns with the agenda of the COVID-19 Joint Task Force, a recent call for contributions made by the Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities (CETAF), the Distributed System for Scientific Collections (DiSSCo) and the Integrated Digitized Biocollections (iDigBio).

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Original source:

Patterson BD, Webala PW, Lavery TH, Agwanda BR, Goodman SM, Kerbis Peterhans JC, Demos TC (2020) Evolutionary relationships and population genetics of the Afrotropical leaf-nosed bats (Chiroptera, Hipposideridae). ZooKeys 929: 117-161. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.929.50240

Plazi and Pensoft join forces to let biodiversity knowledge of coronaviruses hosts out

Pensoft’s flagship journal ZooKeys invites free-to-publish research on key biological traits of SARS-like viruses potential hosts and vectors; Plazi harvests and brings together all relevant data from legacy literature to a reliable FAIR-data repository

To bridge the huge knowledge gaps in the understanding of how and which animal species successfully transmit life-threatening diseases to humans, thereby paving the way for global health emergencies, scholarly publisher Pensoft and literature digitisation provider Plazi join efforts, expertise and high-tech infrastructure. 

By using the advanced text- and data-mining tools and semantic publishing workflows they have developed, the long-standing partners are to rapidly publish easy-to-access and reusable biodiversity research findings and data, related to hosts or vectors of the SARS-CoV-2 or other coronaviruses, in order to provide the stepping stones needed to manage and prevent similar crises in the future.

Already, there’s plenty of evidence pointing to certain animals, including pangolins, bats, snakes and civets, to be the hosts of viruses like SARS-CoV-2 (coronaviruses), hence, potential triggers of global health crises, such as the currently ravaging Coronavirus pandemic. However, scientific research on what biological and behavioural specifics of those species make them particularly successful vectors of zoonotic diseases is surprisingly scarce. Even worse, the little that science ‘knows’ today is often locked behind paywalls and copyright laws, or simply ‘trapped’ in formats inaccessible to text- and data-mining performed by search algorithms. 

This is why Pensoft’s flagship zoological open-access, peer-reviewed scientific journal ZooKeys recently announced its upcoming, special issue, titled “Biology of pangolins and bats”, to invite research papers on relevant biological traits and behavioural features of bats and pangolins, which are or could be making them efficient vectors of zoonotic diseases. Another open-science innovation champion in the Pensoft’s portfolio, Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO Journal) launched another free-to-publish collection of early and/or brief outcomes of research devoted to SARS-like viruses.

Due to the expedited peer review and publication processes at ZooKeys, the articles will rapidly be made public and accessible to scientists, decision-makers and other experts, who could then build on the findings and eventually come up with effective measures for the prevention and mitigation of future zoonotic epidemics. To further facilitate the availability of such critical research, ZooKeys is waiving the publication charges for accepted papers.

Meanwhile, the literature digitisation provider Plazi is deploying its text- and data-mining expertise and tools, to locate and acquire publications related to hosts of coronaviruses – such as those expected in the upcoming “Biology of pangolins and bats” special issue in ZooKeys – and deposit them in a newly formed Coronavirus-Host Community, a repository hosted on the Zenodo platform. There, all publications will be granted persistent open access and enhanced with taxonomy-specific data derived from their sources. Contributions to Plazi can be made at various levels: from sending suggestions of articles to be added to the Zotero bibliographic public libraries on virus-hosts associations and hosts’ taxonomy, to helping the conversion of those articles into findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable (FAIR) knowledge.

Pensoft’s and Plazi’s collaboration once again aligns with the efforts of the biodiversity community, after the natural science collections consortium DiSSCo (Distributed System of Scientific Collections) and the Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities (CETAF), recently announced the COVID-19 Task Force with the aim to create a network of taxonomists, collection curators and other experts from around the globe.

Tiny fly from Los Angeles has a taste for crushed invasive snails

Living individual of Draparnaud’s glass snail
Photo by Kat Halsey

As part of their project BioSCAN – devoted to the exploration of the unknown insect diversity in and around the city of Los Angeles – the scientists at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (USA) have already discovered numerous insects that are new to science, but they are still only guessing about the lifestyles of these species.

“Imagine trying to find a given 2 mm long fly in the environment and tracking its behavior: it is the smallest imaginable needle in the largest haystack. So when researchers discover new life histories, it is something worth celebrating,”

explains Dr. Brian Brown, lead author of a recent paper, published in the scholarly open-access Biodiversity Data Journal.

However, Brown and Maria Wong, former BioSCAN technician, while doing field work at the L.A. County Arboretum, were quick to reveal a curious peculiarity about one particular species discovered as part of the project a few years ago. They successfully lured female phorid flies by means of crushing tiny, invasive snails and using them as bait. In comparison, the majority of phorid flies, whose lifestyles have been observed, are parasitoids of social insects like ants.

Within mere seconds after the team crushed tiny invasive snails (Oxychilus draparnaudi), females representing the fly species Megaselia steptoeae arrived at the scene and busied themselves feeding. Brown and Wong then collected some and brought them home alive along with some dead snails. One of the flies even laid eggs. After hatching, the larvae were observed feeding upon the rotting snails and soon they developed to the pupal stage. However, none was reared to adulthood.

Female phorid fly feeding on a crushed Draparnaud’s glass snail
Photo by Kat Halsey

Interestingly, the host species – used by the fly to both feed on and lay eggs inside – commonly known as Draparnaud’s glass snail, is a European species that has been introduced into many parts of the world. Meanwhile, the studied fly is native to L.A. So far, it is unknown when and how the mollusc appeared on the menu of the insect.

To make things even more curious, species of other snail genera failed to attract the flies, which hints at a peculiar interaction worth of further study, point out the scientists behind the study, Brown and Jann Vendetti, curator of the NHM Malacology collection. They also hope to lure in other species of flies by crushing other species of snails.

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In recent years, the BioSCAN project led to other curious discoveries from L.A., also published in Biodiversity Data JournalIn 2016, a whole batch of twelve previously unknown scuttle fly species was described from the heart of the city. A year later, another mysterious phorid fly was caught ovipositing in mushroom caps after Bed & Breakfast owners called in entomologists to report on what they had been observing in their yard.

Original source:

Brown BV, Vendetti JE (2020) Megaselia steptoeae (Diptera: Phoridae): specialists on smashed snails. Biodiversity Data Journal 8: e50943. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.8.e50943

Research on bats and pangolins – potential vectors of zoonotic pandemics like COVID-19 – invited to a free-to-publish special issue in ZooKeys

Captively bred pangolins. 
Photo by Hua L. et al., taken from their study on the current status, problems and future prospects of captive breeding of pangolins, openly accessible in ZooKeys at: https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.507.6970

Accepted papers will be published free of charge in recognition of the emergency of the current global situation

Was it the horseshoe bat or could it rather be one of the most traded mammal in the world: the pangolin, at the root of the current devastating pandemic that followed the transmission of the zoonotic SARS-CoV-2 virus to a human host, arguably after infected animal products reached poorly regulated wet markets in Wuhan, China, last year? 

To make matters worse, the current situation is no precedent. Looking at the not so distant past, we notice that humanity has been repeatedly falling victim to viral deadly outbreaks, including Zika, Ebola, the Swine flu, the Spanish flu and the Plague, where all are linked to an animal host that at one point, under specific circumstances transferred the virus to people. 

Either way, here’s a lesson humanity gets to learn once again: getting too close to wildlife is capable of opening the gates to global disasters with horrific and irreversible damage on human lives, economics and ecosystems. What is left for us to understand is how exactly these transmission pathways look like and what are the factors making certain organisms like the bat and the pangolin particularly efficient vectors of diseases such as COVID-19 (Coronavirus). This crucial knowledge could’ve been easier for us to grasp had we only obtained the needed details about those species on time.

Aligning with the efforts of the biodiversity community, such as the recently announced DiSSCo and CETAF COVID-19 Task Force, who intend to create an efficient network of taxonomists, collection curators and other experts from around the globe and equip them with the tools and large datasets needed to combat the unceasing pandemic, the open-access peer-reviewed scholarly journal ZooKeys invites researchers from across the globe to submit their work on the biology of bats and pangolins to a free-to-publish special issue. 

The effort will be coordinated with the literature digitisation provider Plazi, who will extract and liberate data on potential hosts from various journals and publishers. In this way, these otherwise hardly accessible data will be re-used to support researchers in generation of new hypotheses and knowledge on this urgent topic.

By providing further knowledge on these sources and vectors of zoonotic diseases, this collection of publications could contribute with priceless insights to make the world better prepared for epidemics like the Coronavirus and even prevent such from happening in the future. 

Furthermore, by means of its technologically advanced infrastructure and services, including expedite peer review and publication processes, in addition to a long list of indexers and databases where publications are registered, ZooKeys will ensure the rapid publication of those crucial findings, and will also take care that once they get online, they will immediately become easy to discover, cite and built on by any researcher, anywhere in the world. 

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The upcoming “Biology of bats and pangolins” special issue is to add up to some excellent examples of previous research on the systematics, biology and distribution of pangolins and bats published in ZooKeys

In their review paper from 2015, Chinese scientists looked into the issues and prospects around captive breeding of pangolins. A year later, their colleagues at South China Normal University provided further insights into captive breeding, in addition to new data on the reproductive parameters of Chinese pangolins.

Back in 2013, a Micronesian-US research studied the taxonomy, distribution and natural history of flying fox bats inhabiting the Caroline Islands (Micronesia). A 2018 joint study on bat diversity in Sri Lanka focused on chiropteran conservation and management; while a more recent article on the cryptic diversity and range extension of the big-eyed bats in the genus Chiroderma

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For more information, visit ZooKeys website

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References:

Buden D, Helgen K, Wiles G (2013) Taxonomy, distribution, and natural history of flying foxes (Chiroptera, Pteropodidae) in the Mortlock Islands and Chuuk State, Caroline Islands. ZooKeys 345: 97-135. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.345.5840

Edirisinghe G, Surasinghe T, Gabadage D, Botejue M, Perera K, Madawala M, Weerakoon D, Karunarathna S (2018) Chiropteran diversity in the peripheral areas of the Maduru-Oya National Park in Sri Lanka: insights for conservation and management. ZooKeys 784: 139-162. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.784.25562

Hua L, Gong S, Wang F, Li W, Ge Y, Li X, Hou F (2015) Captive breeding of pangolins: current status, problems and future prospects. ZooKeys 507: 99-114. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.507.6970

Lim BK, Loureiro LO, Garbino GST (2020) Cryptic diversity and range extension in the big-eyed bat genus Chiroderma (Chiroptera, Phyllostomidae). ZooKeys 918: 41-63. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.918.48786

Zhang F, Wu S, Zou C, Wang Q, Li S, Sun R (2016) A note on captive breeding and reproductive parameters of the Chinese pangolin, Manis pentadactyla Linnaeus, 1758. ZooKeys 618: 129-144. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.618.8886