Category Archives: New Scientist

New Scientist – Frog News!

Photo One by By Marshal Hedin from San Diego - Oophaga pumilio (Strawberry poision frog)Uploaded by Jacopo Werther, CC BY 2.0,

The strawberry poison dart frog (Oophaga pumilio) (Photo One)

Dear Readers, as the frogs return to my pond I found myself curious about frogs in general, so off I went to New Scientist. First up, here is the strawberry poison dart frog. In the archipelago of Bocos del Toro, Panama, the frogs vary greatly in colour according to which island they live on, although they are all the same species. Wildlife photographer Paul Bertner headed off to the islands, accompanied by his Panamanian guide who had won one of the islands on a gameshow. It isn’t clear why the frogs on the different islands look so different – presumably the colours give them an advantage in each habitat, so my guess would be that there are slight variations in plant cover and predators. Sadly, some of the colour variants are already becoming rare, because there’s a market for them amongst exotic amphibian collectors. Leave the frogs alone, people! Amphibians and other exotic animals are extremely difficult to rear and breed in captivity, and I dread to think how many die because their conditions aren’t correct. I speak, sadly, from experience, having tried to keep reptiles and amphibians in my twenties. I soon realised that this is a very tricky area which requires specialised knowledge.

Still, here are some of the photos that Bertner captured of the wild frogs, and very pretty they are too. You would never guess from looking at them that they were the same species.

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog (Photo by Paul Bertner)

Strawberry poison dart frog (Photo by Paul Bertner)

You can see all the photos and read the article by Alice Klein here.

From rainbow frogs to fluorescent ones. Scientist Julián Faivovich has found that the polka-dot tree frog of the Amazon basin is the first one that glows in the dark. making it 30% brighter at twilight than other frogs. It’s known that many microorganisms fluoresce, and so do some fish and sea turtles – in other words, they have substances in their skin that absorb light at one wavelength, and emit it at a longer one. Faivovich believes that although this species is the first amphibian which has been proven to fluoresce, it’s unlikely to be the only one – there are 5000 species of frog, so for this to have evolved just once is very unlikely.

The fluorescence happens at a wavelength that the frog can see, and so it’s probably useful for signalling and for communication although, as with so much about frogs, it’s still a mystery.

You can read the whole article by Sam Wong here.

Photo Two by By Erfil - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Polka-dot tree frog (Hypsiboas punctatus) in daylight….(Photo Two)

Photo Three by By Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation), CC BY 2.5 ar,

…and when seen under ultraviolet light (Photo Three)

In other good news, a new species of frog discovered in a protected forest in India in 2019 is the only living member of a lineage that dates back millions of years. The starry dwarf frog (Astrobatrachus kurichiyana) is only two centimetres long with an orange stomach. Interestingly, the number of frog species identified in India has leapt from 200 to 400 species over the past few decades, which just goes to show what you can find when you look. You can read the whole article by Adam Vaughan here.

Starry Dwarf Frog (Photo by Seenapuram Palaniswamy Vijayakumar)

And finally, you may be aware that frog species all over the world are being decimated by chytrid disease, a fungal disease of amphibians. Frogs are widely seen as the ‘canaries in the coalmine’ by ecologists, due to their acute sensitivity to changes in their habitat. Many zoos and institutions have been in a race against time, taking whole frog populations into captivity to preserve them and breed them, with the hope that they will be able to be reintroduced into the wild when a cure for the fungal disease is found, and when their habitats are secure. So it was great to see that some populations of frogs do seem to be developing immunity to chytrid, provided that there are enough of them and their habitat is not too degraded.

The Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog (Rana sierrae) lives in the mountainous regions of California, but its population has been in decline for years. This is partly due to the stocking of the rivers where it lives with non-native trout, who eat the frog’s tadpoles, but the frog really started to decline when chytrid hit in the 1970’s. By 2000 the frog had disappeared from 93% of its habitat, and was classified as endangered. However, the good news is that the frog appears to be bouncing back, with an annual population growth of 11%. Scientist Roland Knapp puts this down partly to the Park Service’s good sense, as they stopped stocking the river with trout in 1991. However, the frogs that have survived chytrid now appear to have some resistance to the fungus, allowing the population to recover. This has also been observed in the Stony Creek frog in Australia, which also appears to have developed resistance.

However, scientists are cautious – in areas with tiny, isolated populations, or where there is already significant habitat degradation, it will be a lot harder for the frogs to survive long enough to develop resistance. It seems that those dedicated frog conservationists battling to save these animals will be busy for quite a while yet.

You can read the whole article by Brian Owens here.

Sierra Nevada Yellow-Legged frog (Photo by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark/Getty)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Marshal Hedin from San Diego – Oophaga pumilio (Strawberry poision frog)Uploaded by Jacopo Werther, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Two By Erfil – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three by By Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation), CC BY 2.5 ar,

New Scientist – Flexible Spiders, Electric Fish and the Deepest Microbes Ever Found

A Water Web (Photo by Darko Cotoras)

Dear Readers, there are some amazing articles in New Scientist this week. First up, scientist Darko Cotoras of the California Institute of Sciences in San Francisco has found that a tiny spider found only on Cocos Island, off the coast of Central America, can make three different types of web according to the circumstances in which it finds itself.

Wendilgarda galapagagensis makes ‘aerial’ webs high above ground, attached to nearby stems and leaves. Near to the ground it makes ‘land’ webs, with long horizontal strands attached to branches, and with vertical strands anchored to the ground. Over pools it makes ‘water’ webs, like the ones in the photo, with the vertical strands attached to the water surface itself.

Cotoras wondered if this meant that the spider was actually turning into three separate species. However, when the spiders were relocated, they often started to build webs in the style that was most suited to their new home. In other words, these tiny invertebrates are not limited to just one web (which seems to be the case with many spiders) but can adapt according to circumstances. This seems to me to contradict one theory, which is that island animals adapt to occupy a very specific niche and are hence threatened if things change.

You can read the whole article here.

Juvenile Brown Ghost Knifefish (Apteronatus leptorhynchus) (Photo by Guy L’Hereux)

Brown Ghost Knifefish are found in the rivers of Colombia, and have a surprisingly complicated social structure. They use electric discharges to find food in the silty water, and to communicate with one another, and until 2016 little was known about them. Then scientist Till Raab and his colleagues at the University of Tübingen in Germany found a group of more than 30 fish in an area only 9 metres square. However, Raab noticed that there was little fighting between the fish, and wanted to examine what was going on.

In captivity, it was found that when a fish was denied access to a shelter by a competitor, the fish responded by targeting the other fish with electric pulses, which gradually increased in discharge before falling back to normal. The subordinate fish seemed to be deliberately provoking the fish who had control of the shelter into chasing and biting it. Although this didn’t result in a change of ownership, it did seem to improve the social standing of the subordinate fish, and over time seems to have ‘evened out’ the relationships between the fish. One fish that made repeated ‘attacks’ on the dominant fish eventually ended up with control of the shelter (one imagines a weary fish deciding that control of a piece of tubing wasn’t worth all this aggro).

Of course, the mere fact of being in captivity will have an influence on behaviour in any animal. However, what this does seem to illustrate is that fish are as capable of weighing up the delicate nuances of social relationships as any mammal.

You can read the whole article here.

The Chinese Continental Scientific Drilling Project (Image by Qin Wang et al)

And finally, here is something truly incredible. Scientists Hailiang Dong at the China University of Geosciences and Li Huang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences have discovered bacterial cells from a 5.1 kilometre-deep borehole in Eastern China (the Chinese Continental Scientific Drilling Project or CCSD). Previously, the deepest known microbes on land were nematodes found 3.6 kilometres deep in a South African gold mine.

At this depth, temperatures are a staggering 137 degrees Centigrade, far above the accepted threshold of 122 degrees Centigrade. Scientists now believe that temperature might not be the only factor involved – the pressure, the physical nature of the rocks and the availability of water might also play a role.

Proving that the cells are alive will be another problem – organisms living at this depth often have an extremely low rate of metabolism because of the poor availability of nutrients. However, experiments with deep sea organisms have revealed that, if fed, they often ‘wake up’ with surprising enthusiasm. It will be interesting to see what approach is taken with these new microbes.

One reason that finds like these are so exciting is that it greatly increases the range of habitats on other planets where life might be possible. But for me, a second reason is that it demonstrates the extraordinary versatility of life. It gives me hope that, even if we screw things up irredeemably on the surface, we might not wipe out life completely. Of course, we won’t be here to see it if things go that wrong but maybe, in millions of year time, the next inhabitants of earth won’t be quite so feckless with the planet that they inherit.

You can read the whole article here.

New Scientist – Tadpole News

Photo One by Miika Silfverberg from Vantaa, Finland, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Frog Tadpole (Photo One)

Dear Readers, following all the excitement about frogs and newts yesterday, I thought I’d dig into the archives of New Scientist and see what I could find to share with you on the subject of tadpoles. One question that I’ve always had is – why do some tadpoles mature as expected and turn into baby frogs or toads, and why do some seem to spend the winter as tadpoles? This very question was asked in New Scientist in 2018, and the answers were most interesting.

One obvious answer that occurred to me is that, as climate change makes for warmer winters, amphibians overwinter as tadpoles simply because they can: if they can get a jump (see what I did there) on the newly-hatched spring tadpoles, they will have a ready source of food (sadly many species of frogs are cannibals). However, I know from my own endeavours that frogs seem to mature according to the water temperature – when I brought some tadpoles indoors because there were problems in their pond, they grew legs several weeks before their ‘wild’ relatives. So can frogs ‘choose’ when to metamorphose?

It also seems to me that in a population of tadpoles, if some mature quickly and some slowly they are covering all eventualities – whatever the winter weather, some will survive. That’s how evolution works, after all.

Another suggestion was that the rate of maturation can be delayed by imperfect conditions in the pond – overcrowding, and hence lack of food, or low water temperature will all slow things down.

But finally one lady, who is definitely a soulmate, used to observe the development of the tadpoles in her garden over seventy years ago. She returned home after the school holidays to find that the tadpoles all had four legs but still had a tail, and that it was long past time when they should be fully-developed. She had a nature book by Enid Blyton (better known for Noddy), and found that tadpoles needed iodine to mature, presumably because of its influence on thyroid hormones. Medicine cabinets used to hold iodine for cuts and grazes in those days, so she put a few drops into the pond.

Days later, the garden was teeming with froglets’.

Fascinating stuff. I remember treating a goldfish who had a fungal disease with a few drops of iodine, and it cleared that up too.

Now, here’s something amazing.

Newly-hatched tadpoles need to breathe air, but are too weak to puncture the surface tension of the water. So, instead they suck at the surface of the water from below so that they break off a bubble which contains fresh air from the outside world. They breathe this in to their lungs and then exhale it out. And furthermore, you can watch it in the article below.

Photo by Kurt Schwenk

And finally, it appears that in Egyptian hieroglyphics, a tadpole represents the number 100,000. Who knew?

Photo Two from

A hieroglyphic tadpole (Photo Two)

Photo Credits

Photo One by Miika Silfverberg from Vantaa, Finland, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two from


New Scientist – Bat Stories

Photo One by Uwe Schmidt, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) (Photo One)

Dear Readers, there are more species of bats on Earth than any other mammal group except for rodents, and yet we know very little about them. So for today’s update from New Scientist, I wanted to pick up on a few stories that shed light on their complex lives.

Vampire bats are not everyone’s choice as favourite small furry animal, but this article shows how little we know about their social structures. Imran Razik of Ohio State University was studying a colony of vampire bats which comprised 23 adult females and their young. Although vampire bats roost together, they normally raise their young individually, although bats form close ‘friendships’ with one another. The researchers noticed the burgeoning relationship between Lilith, a nursing female, and BD, a single bat with no offspring of her own.

When vampire bats form a friendship, they spend a lot of time grooming one another, and sharing food. It was noticed that BD spent a lot of time feeding Lilith, and that this increased as Lilith became ill, even though she was not sharing food reciprocally with BD. As Lilith became sicker, BD also spent more time looking after the baby, grooming it, carrying it and even feeding it.

When Lilith eventually died, BD adopted the baby fully. It is extremely rare for this to happen even amongst mammals that are more closely related to us, such as chimpanzees, so this is a very exciting observation. Why, though, do bats choose one individual over another to be their friend? As it’s hard enough to work this out even in humans, I think this could be a fascinating study.

Photo Two by Emanuel Yellin - עמנואל ילין, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

European free-tailed bat (Tadarida teniotis) (Photo Two)

Now, let’s have a look at the European free-tailed bat, a rather melancholy-looking creature if the photo is anything to go by. It’s long been known that birds can often reach extreme heights by finding thermals and riding them, but these are much less common at night. However, by attaching light-weight GPS monitors to lactating female bats, it was found that they could reach heights of up to 1600 metres. How do they do it? It appears that, although they fly in almost total darkness, they have an excellent knowledge of the landscape of their territory, and use the uplift from where south or west-facing slopes meet the prevailing winds of north-west Portugal, where the colony is located. They soar upwards, gently sail down and then find another slope of similar topography so that they can repeat the process. The team who studied the bats, led by Teague O’Mara from Southeastern Louisiana University, note that this gives a flight-plan that looks rather like a rollercoaster ride. One question would be ‘why go so high’? I would speculate that the bats’ insect prey may also fly high, probably to avoid predators, but this style of flight would be energetically very efficient for the bats. You can read the whole article here.

Photo Three by Barry Mansell/ from

Brazilian free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) (Photo Three)

And now for another free-tailed bat. The Brazilian free-tailed bat was cited as the fastest vertebrate in the world at level flight during tests on the population from the Frio cave in south-western Texas. The bats clocked speeds of 100km an hour, with one bat having a maximum speed of 160km, faster than the spine-tailed swift at 112 km per hour. However, then the controversy started, over the way that the bats were measured, uncertainties about the wind speed, and whether the ‘level’ flight was actually level. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that these are extremely speedy bats – they travel more than 50km to their feeding grounds every night, and fly at heights of more than a kilometre. Perhaps they’re in an arms race with speedy prey?

You can read the whole article here.

Now you might think that with all these speedy, high-flying bats around, moths would stand no chance. In fact, some moths are able to hear the echolocation clicks given by bats and literally fold their wings and drop out of the air to avoid capture. What happens, though, if you have no ears?

Photo Four  By Ivo Antušek -, Public Domain,

Chinese Tussar Moth (Antheraea pernyi) (Photo Four)

Marc Holderied was studying earless moths, such as the Chinese Tussar Moth, at Bristol University. He found that when sound waves were projected at the wings of the moth, they bounced back much more  quietly. Structures on the wings absorbed the sound at the specific frequencies that are emitted by the bats, in effect acting as a ‘stealth coating’. Holderied also studied another species of earless moth, Drury’s Owl Moth (Dactyloceros lucina) and found that it had the same structures on the wings. Moths who could hear didn’t have them. 

Photo Five from

Drury’s Owl Moth (Photo Five)

Scientists are speculating whether similar structures could be designed to help with things like sound-proofing and noise-cancelling headphones. In our increasingly noisy world, that could surely be good thing.

You can read the whole article here.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Uwe Schmidt, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Emanuel Yellin – עמנואל ילין, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by Barry Mansell/ from

Photo Four By Ivo Antušek –, Public Domain,

Photo Five from

New Scientist – Happy Sparrows, Why Shark Skin is so Slippy and Fishy Goings On in the Abyss

Juvenile sparrows chilling out

Dear Readers, long-term followers will know that I am fascinated by animal ‘personality’ – scientists have found that even creatures that barely have a brain (in our terms) can still be consistently shy, or aggressive, or friendly, or curious. So a recent study in which Zoltan Barta at the University of Debrecen in Hungary, investigated not only the personality of individual birds but how they did in groups was always going to be interesting.

Individual sparrows were first assessed for ‘personality type’ by leaving them alone in a cage for ten minutes. Some tried to get out, some sat quite happily and others hopped around looking for something to eat. At the end, the sparrows were put into groups either with birds of their own personality type, or in a diverse group, and left to get on with it for nine days. What interests me is that the birds in the diverse group were much happier and healthier on all measures, from weight to appetite to stress levels, than the birds that were just with cage mates of their own character. I do hope that they were released in the end, to form groups of their own choosing.

Observers of sparrows in the wild have long noted that one sparrow is always the first to explore a new food source, or to threaten a predator. It seems to me that having a variety of personalities within a species or community is useful in an evolutionary sense – after all, if all the sparrows were bold there’s a good chance that they’d be wiped out by a particularly clever predator, but if some were a bit more cautious they would be more likely to survive. But more than that, it shows that animals are not just automata, but are different from one another. As anyone who has ever been a farmer or owned a pet can tell you.

Read more:

Photo One from

Olympic Swimmer Michael Phelps in a ‘sharkskin’ suit (Photo One)

Now, lest you wonder what a semi-naked man is doing on Bugwoman I would like to point out that this chap is wearing a ‘sharkskin’ swimming suit. Biomimicry – the use of design features from plants and animals – has been popular forever, ever since someone looked at the bud of a burdock and thought ‘velcro’, but it seems that we don’t always do it right. Do you remember the controversy about these sharkskin suits at the Olympics? They seemed to help the swimmers go faster, and I seem to recall that they were banned, at least for a while. However, it seems that we might not have got it right anyway, because according to Josephine Galipon at Keio University Institute for Advanced Biosciences in Japan and her colleagues, when sharkskin is on a shark, it helps most when the fish is accelerating and turning rather than when it’s cruising along. So was the effect of the suits psychological, I wonder? Or was there something about them being full-body suits that reduced drag? The jury is out.

Read more:

And finally, have a look at the film on the link below

It used to be thought that below 1000 metres the oceanic abyss was pretty much a desert. More recently, it was found that lots of scavengers can be found around whale carcasses and such, but this group of Pacific eels, found on an underwater mountain 3100 metres below the surface, was the biggest collection of fish ever seen at such a depth, with over 100 individuals. The scientist who found them, Astrid Leitner from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. explained that baited cameras were dropped into the deep ocean.

When they retrieved the lander, the first images they saw were initially disappointing as they seemed to show a black screen. But a closer look revealed the frame was so full of eels that it just appeared black.

“We basically landed on top of eels, then they just swarmed at us,” says Leitner.’

Photo Two Cutthroat eels (Ilyophis arx) swarming around bait 3100 metres down in the Pacific Deep Sea Fish Ecology Lab, UHM; DeepCCZ expedition from Read more: from

Eels in the abyss (Photo Two)

The sad part of this tale is that the area where the fish live is coming under increasing pressure from those who want to mine there (yes, even at 3000 metres deep). The fish seem to like the seamounts rather than the plains where the mining would take place, but so little is known about these areas that untold damage could be caused before we even know what’s there.

This planet has a nasty case of humans, for sure.

Read more:

Photo Credits

Photo One from

Photo Two Cutthroat eels (Ilyophis arx) swarming around bait 3100 metres down in the Pacific Deep Sea Fish Ecology Lab, UHM; DeepCCZ expedition from 


New Scientist – Domesticated Dogs, A New Giant Dinosaur and Guess What the Oldest Image of an Animal Ever Found Shows?

Photo One By Gunner Ries Amphibol - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Wolf on the look out (Photo One)

Original article by Michael Marshall here.

Dear Readers, domesticated dogs split genetically from wolves at some point between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago, but we don’t know where it happened, or why. Some scientists believe that the wolves helped humans to hunt, and the relationship developed from there. Others think that wolves scavenged around waste dumps, and so became used to humans.

However, Maria Lahtinen of the Finnish Food Authority has another explanation. She and her colleagues estimated how much food was available during the Arctic winters, and has calculated that humans probably ended up with more meat than they could eat – humans have a limited capacity to process protein, which would have led to food being available to feed to orphaned wolf cubs. To my mind, this is part of an explanation rather than the whole thing: after all, lots of animals eat meat, but only wolves ended up becoming domesticated. Maybe the cubs were recognised as being useful in the hunt, and so were treated as working animals rather than pets? It’s an interesting theory, however, and helps to fill in the mosaic of reasons for why dogs rather than wolverines or badgers or otters ended up becoming ‘man’s best friend’.

Photo Two by Dinosaur Zoo, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Argentinosaurus with human for size comparison (Photo Two)

Stop press! Scientists in Argentina are excavating a fossil that they *think* might belong to the largest land animal that ever lived. Known as Argentinosaurs or titanosaurs, these huge animals lived about 98 million years ago. They are sauropods, more familiar to old ‘uns like me via animals like the brontasaurus and brachiosaurus – all of them have small heads, a long, long neck and tail, and four pillar-like legs. When I was growing up, it was assumed that they had to be at least semi-aquatic to bear the weight of their bodies, but these days scientists think that, while they probably lived in wet and coastal areas, they had plenty of physical adaptations to ensure that they could wander across the landscape like so many gigantic reptilian giraffes.

So, how big were they? The scientists, led by researchers from Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council, are saying that, from the remains that they’ve discovered, they think that their sauropod is ‘bigger than Patagotitan’, a creature that measured 37 metres (121 feet) long, and weighed 85 tonnes. However, everyone is a little nervous about definitively stating that this is ‘the big one’, as researchers have been found to have overestimated the size of ‘their’ critter before.

One very interesting thing is that there were sauropods of various sizes walking around 98 million years ago – some were a mere 6 metres long (which is still bigger than a car of course). It’s likely that each species had a particular ecological niche, preferring specific plants or types of habitat. Oh for a time machine, to go back and see these amazing creatures in action! Though I’ve watched enough science fiction films to know what happens if I accidentally drop a hair pin or a pair of nail scissors, so it’s probably not a great idea.

The original article by Joshua Rapp Learn is here

Cave paintings showing three pigs (one complete, two vestigial) plus two handprints (Photos by A. A. Octaviana)

And finally, cave paintings found in Indonesia show the oldest known image of an animal in the world – they are at least 45,000 years old, and could be older. The paintings, in Sulawesi, show a complete life size Sulawesi warty pig (Sus celebensis), an animal that was extremely important to the early hunter-gatherers of the region. The painting has been partly covered by a mineral deposit, and it’s this that gives the approximate date although, as the deposit overlaps the image of the pigs, the image itself could be much older.

The hand prints in the top left-hand corner are usually made by someone taking a mouthful of paint and blowing it over the hand, so the researchers hope that they can extract some residual saliva for DNA analysis.

The date of the paintings, which makes them as old as those found in Europe, raises interesting questions about the routes taken by humans when they left Africa – it used to be thought that eastern Asia was inhabited rather later. There is a scarcity of human remains in the area, so there are some thoughts that the paintings could actually have been made by Neanderthals, rather than humans. It will be very interesting to see how this story develops, but what it does point up, to me, is the extremely close observation of animals by early societies, and the significance that such creatures had in the lives of humans.

You can read the original story, by Ibrahim Sawal, here, and there is also a short film which gives an idea of the scale of the painting

Photo Credits

Photo One By Gunner Ries Amphibol – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two by Dinosaur Zoo, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

New Scientist – Harvesting Plants for Rare Metals

Photo One by Anthony van der Ent from

Phyllanthus rufuschaneyi oozing nickel-rich sap (Photo One by Anthony van der Ent) 

This post is based on this article from New Scientist by Michael Allen. 

Dear Readers, for many years it’s been known that plants are useful for bioremediation: some species of brassica guzzle up metals such as nickel from the soil, cleaning it in the process, and lichens are also known to help clean up pollutants. It’s thought that plants do this because the metals are toxic, and might therefore help to protect them against insect predators. Such plants are known as hyperaccumulators because they store so much of the element.

However, when Anthony van der Ent, a plant-hunter based at the University of Queensland in Australia, found a shrub called Phyllanthus rufuschaneyi at a park ranger’s station in Malaysian Borneo, he noticed that it oozed a bright blue-green sap. Upon analysis, it turned out that the sap contained 25% nickel by weight.

Nickel is an essential ingredient in products such as computers and smart phones, but will become even more important with the advent of the rechargeable batteries in electric cars. The metal is also needed for wind turbines. It’s estimated that for electric cars alone, the amount of nickel needed will double, to 256,000 tonnes, by 2025. But the normal method of getting the metal is by strip-mining, one of the most environmentally devastating extraction methods: it creates defoliation, soil erosion and pollutant run-off which contaminates sea water and rivers. One of the leading world nickel producers is the tiny island of New Caledonia. 

Photo Two by Gunnar Ries, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Open cast nickel mine in New Caledonia (Photo Two)

So, would it be possible to grow hyperaccumulating plants so that the nickel could be extracted from them, rather than despoiling the environment? One problem is that the plants don’t grow just anywhere: the metals in the soil are found in areas which had a lot of tectonic activity which meant that instead of just sinking, the elements were raised to the surface. Such soil is known as ‘ultramafic’.

Having found his plant, Anthony van der Ent set about creating the world’s ‘first tropical metal farm’ in Sabah in Borneo. He and his colleagues are growing Phyllanthus ruruschaneyi: every year the shrub is coppiced, the stems and leaves are pulped, and the nickel is extracted. In 2019 they reported a yield of 250 kilograms per hectare, currently worth almost $4000.

A long-time collaborator of van der Ent’s, Guillaume Echevarria of the University of Lorraine in France, also wanted to see what was possible, but using a tropical plant didn’t seem the right way to go. Instead, he used a different hyperaccumulator (not specified in the article but probably an Alyssum species). He has chosen some plots on ultramafic soil in Albania, and the plant is sowed and harvested by local farmers. The plant is then transported to France and burned to produce nickel-rich ash, from which the metal is extracted. The energy yielded by the burning is used as a heat source for nearby buildings, so Echevarria considers that the whole project comes in as carbon-neutral.

Although the results are not as promising as in Borneo, the plant still yields about 200 kilograms per hectare which, at around $3000 at today’s prices still makes this a viable business. For comparison, a hectare’s worth of wheat in the UK can be sold for about $2100.

While Van der Ent thinks that the whole project could be scaled up in areas where there are ultramafic soils, such as Indonesia, Echevarria is more cautious, and I have to say that I would be worried about large scale ‘phytomining’ too. Many areas of the world which are otherwise suitable for growing hyperaccumulators are also biodiversity hotspots and protected areas, and having seen the palm oil plantations in Sabah, the last thing the world needs is more hectares of monocultures. However, there are some areas, particularly in Greece, Albania and Bulgaria, where farms are being abandoned because the soil is so poor for other agricultural applications, and at least growing plants could help to stabilise and revegetate such areas, whilst providing the farmers with some extra income. Echevarria thinks that phytomining could provide a few percent of the global nickel requirements, which is not to be sniffed at.

It’s not just nickel either. Plants that hyperaccumulate arsenic, cobalt, manganese, zinc and rare earths have been discovered. Marie-Odile Simonnot, also at the University of Lorraine, has been assessing Dicranopteris dichotoma, a fern that grows naturally on spoil heaps near rare earth mines in China’s Jiangxi province.

Photo Three from

Dicranopteris dichotoma (Photo Three)

It seems to be possible to harvest about 300 kilograms of mixed rare earth metals per hectare, including lanthanum, cerium, prasedoymium and neodymium from this plant, and Simonnot is working with Chinese scientists to run trials at old mining sites. This seems like a win-win to me, as the plant seems to grow in landscapes that are already environmentally devastated, and which could only be improved by a bit of native plant cover.

Nowadays, though, Van der Ent is no longer trudging through the jungles of Borneo. Instead, he is hunting through the herbariums of the world’s museums with a handheld X-Ray flourescence spectroscope. This gives an instant read-out of the elements that a specimen contains, and hundreds of new hyperaccumulators have been found in this way. Who knows what other secrets the plant kingdom contains? Let’s hope that this time we are able to work with nature to make the most of them, rather than against her.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Anthony van der Ent from

Photo Two by Gunnar Ries, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three from

New Scientist Highlights of 2020 – Part Two

Photo by Gerry Matthews (Alamy) from

White-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) (Photo One)

Dear Readers, before we finally say goodbye to 2020, here are a few final stories from New Scientist that caught my eye.

The first is pandemic-related, as nearly everything seems to be at the moment. White-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucphrys) were found to be singing differently during the Covid lockdown in San Francisco, and scientist Elizabeth Derryberry, from the University of Tennessee, wondered how, and why.

The birds were found to be singing more quietly and at a deeper pitch – it’s known that birds react to the low-frequency background drone of traffic and air conditioners by singing not only louder, but at a higher frequency so that they can be heard over the racket. The noise level in San Francisco had dropped by a full 7 decibels, and so the birds seem to have reverted to their older, sexier songs – birds actually seem to prefer deeper sounds (think Barry White as opposed to Tiny Tim). If you go to the full article here, you can hear both birdsongs. The scientist says that ‘they sing like they used to thirty years ago’. I suppose this is both sad, but also hopeful – birds and other urban animals seem to be so much more adaptable than we thought.

Photo Two by By Ra'ike (see also: de:Benutzer:Ra'ike) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Skeleton of cave bear showing enormous sinuses! (Photo Two)

But not all animals are able to adapt. The prehistoric cave bears (Ursus spelaeus) that used to weigh over 1000 kilograms, and existed alongside our present-day brown bears (Ursus arctos), probably became extinct because they had over-large sinuses. Who knew? These huge animals, who disappeared about 24,000 years ago, lived on a largely plant-based diet. When the ice-ages made vegetation difficult to come by, the cave bears couldn’t switch to a meat-based diet, because their sinuses meant that they could only chew food with their back teeth, while carnivores typically cut up their food with their incisors and canines at the front. The brown bears had smaller sinuses, and hence could switch from a herbivorous to a carnivorous diet.

But why have such big sinuses in the first place? They are thought to play an important role in gas-exchange during hibernation, allowing the bears to hibernate for longer. However, as the poor cave bears wouldn’t have been able to fatten up due to the lack of plant food, they probably starved while they were sleeping. It was one of those evolutionary trade-offs that failed.

You can read the whole article here.

Photo Three from

Pacific hagfish (Photo Three)

Hagfish are extraordinary animals. Early ancestors of the eel, they have four times as much blood compared to their volume as any other fish, four hearts and only half a jaw. When trapped by a predator or accidentally stuck in a tight spot, they throw complex knots and shapes in an attempt to escape. Because this is a very slippery fast-moving process, it’s taken modern technology and a slow-motion camera to decipher what’s going on. Now, scientist Theodore Uyeno has discovered that the animals prefer more complex knots – the hypothesis is that the simpler ones may be more uncomfortable because the loops are so tight.

So, 45 percent of the time the hagfish do a trefoil knot:

Photo Four from By Jim.belkAnimation: MichaelFrey (talk) - Own work, Public Domain,

Trefoil knot (Photo Four)

33% of the time they do a figure-of-eight knot…

Photo Five by By Lucasbosch - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Figure-of-eight knot (Photo Five)

and 4% of the time they manage a three-twist knot, the only animal able to do so (Moray eels can knock up a knot, but nothing this complicated). Kompologists rejoice!

Photo Six by Original: Jim.belk Animation: MichaelFrey, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Three-twist knot (Photo Six)

And finally, how about this little creature with its ‘hats’?

Photo Seven by Alan Henderson at Cover Images. Photo from

Uraba lugens caterpillar – the moth is also known as the ‘gumleaf skeletoniser’ (Photo Seven)

Each ‘hat’ is the moulted skin of the caterpillar’s head – they moult up to thirteen times before they metamorphose into moths, and from the fourth moult on, each ‘hat’ stays stuck. You can see how the size of the head gets bigger from the top down, as the larva munches on eucalyptus leaves: an alternative name is the ‘gumleaf skeletoniser’ because the foliage is eaten right back to the veins.

The ‘hats’ seem to fulfil a useful purpose: biologists have watched the caterpillar using them to swat away predators, and they may also serve to distract a curious bird who will hopefully peck at the wrong ‘head’. You can read the whole article here.

And so, dear readers, onwards and into 2021. Who knows what those scientists will discover next?

Photo Credits

Photo One by Gerry Matthews (Alamy) from

Photo Two By Ra’ike (see also: de:Benutzer:Ra’ike) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three from

Photo Four By Jim.belkAnimation: MichaelFrey (talk) – Own work, Public Domain,

Photo Five  By Lucasbosch – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Six by Original: Jim.belk Animation: MichaelFrey, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by Alan Henderson at Cover Images. Photo from

New Scientist – Highlights of 2020 Part One

Title Photo from

Two Fairy Penguins at St Kilda Pier, Melbourne, Australia – winner of Oceanographic Magazines ‘Ocean Photography Awards’ 2020. The photographer is Tobias Baumgaertner (Title Photo)

Dear Readers, whilst 2020 has been in many ways the gift that just keeps giving, New Scientist has kept me fascinated and amused with its stories of wildlife and plants, both extinct and extant. This lovely photo of two Fairy Penguins (Eudyptula minor) seems so appropriate for this time somehow. Fairy Penguins (also known as Little Penguins) are, indeed, little – they only stand just over a foot tall. This pair would stand and watch the twinkling lights of Melbourne for hours, according to the photographer Tobias Baumgaertner. The Fairy Penguin colony at St Kilda Pier numbers about 1400 individuals, but the penguins in the photo wanted a few minutes away from the bustle of the colony.

And while we’re on the subject of photography, the world’s largest digital camera, which will form part of the sensor array at the Vera C.Rubin Observatory in Chile, was tested by taking the largest photograph every taken – this 3.2 gigapixel photo of a romanesco cauliflower. The camera is powerful enough to take a detailed photo of a golf ball 24 kilometres away, and will eventually be part of a project that will survey the southern sky for the next ten years.

Photo Two from

The largest photo ever taken (Photo Two) from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Now, if you go out for a walk during lockdown in the UK, you are more likely than ever to spot some of these most unlikely creatures – red-necked wallabies.

Photo Two by By Noodle snacks ('s Wallaby) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Red-necked wallaby (Notamacropus rufogriseus) (Photo Three)

Wild wallabies have been spotted on the UK on at least 100 occasions during the past decade, according to a study by Holly English at University College Dublin. Originally from Eastern Australia and Tasmania, these animals were popular in collections all across the UK, and have thrived when they’ve managed to jump over the fence. There is a population of about 1750 individuals on the Isle of Man, a breeding population on Inchconnan Island in Loch Lomond which were set free by their owner in the 1940’s, and English believes that there might also be wallabies breeding in Cornwall and the Chilterns.

The native habitat of these wallabies is surprisingly not that different from the warmer, wetter parts of the UK (and of course everywhere is getting warmer and probably wetter with climate change).

There was also a small population in the Peak District, but these died out in about 2009 following big winter storms.

Generally wallabies are not thought to present any problems with regard to native UK species, but they have become invasive in New Zealand, so one to watch I think.

You can read the whole article here.

And finally, Johan Hermans, a botanist from Kew Gardens thinks he may have found ‘the world’s ugliest plant’ in Madagascar. The orchid lives in deep shade in the leaf-litter of a forest in the south-eastern part of the country.  Gastrodia agnicellis’s species name, which means ‘little lamb’, refers to its woolly root, and the idea that the flower looks a bit like a lamb’s tongue.

Hermans expected the flower to smell unpleasant – many forest-floor orchids are pollinated by flies, and so smell like decaying flesh. However, this one has ‘a fresh citrussy smell’, and Hermans says that we still don’t know how the plant reproduces. It spends most of its time underground and only emerges to flower and disperse its seeds. Let’s hope that this strange plant, which grows only in a tiny area of the south-eastern forest, where deforestation and burning for agriculture are a constant threat, will survive.

Photo Four by Rick Burian. Taken from

Gastrodia agnicellis (Photo Four)

Photo Credits

Title Photo from by Tobias Baumgaertner

Photo Two from  by SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Photo Three By Noodle snacks (’s Wallaby) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four by Rick Burian. Taken from



Highlights from New Scientist – More Ivy, Earlier Autumn and Plane-Sabotaging Wasps

Ivy bee (Colletes hederae)

Dear Readers, as you might know I am generally a big fan of ivy as a wildlife habitat, and so the news that ivy is becoming more common right across Europe might be a kind of good news. Michael Perring at Ghent University in Belgium has been looking at more than 1800 research plots in 40 forest regions across temperate Europe. The data covers the period between 1933 and 2015, and by the end of this period, ivy was found in 14% more of the sites than at the beginning. Most other plant species haven’t spread, and some species are found at fewer sites.

The biggest predictor was local temperature rise, so our old friend climate change is implicated yet again. However, two other factors were the amount of shade and nitrogen levels. Many managed forests are becoming shadier, though the article doesn’t say why – in forestry sites I would imagine this is because of higher stocking density, but in other woods it might be due to the decline of techniques such as coppicing. In shady woods, ivy has an immediate advantage because it’s evergreen, and so can photosynthesize when the leaves on the trees are gone in winter. In the uncoppiced parts of Coldfall, it’s mainly the evergreens such as yew and holly that survive in the understorey, along with ivy.

Nitrogen pollution through the burning of fossil fuels and agricultural run-off also seems to encourage the growth of ivy, possibly a reason that it’s one of those plants that still flourishes in cities.

The Woodland Trust agrees that it isn’t all bad news – as we know ivy is a great wildlife plant. But I do worry about the lessening of biodiversity that this study shows. What about species that are disappearing from our woods? It would be good to know about them too.

Let’s stay in the forest for now – a study by Constantin Zohner at ETH Zurich in Switzerland has completed a study that shows that climate change is causing autumn leaves to fall earlier than they used to. Zohner and his colleagues looked at leaf fall data from 1948 to 2015 for six tree species (including the common oak, Quercus robur) across 4000 sites in Central Europe. They also grew trees in chambers containing different amounts of carbon dioxide and different levels of sunlight to see when the leaves fell. Finally, they modelled the data to see what would have happened by 2100 if carbon dioxide levels remained high.

They found that leaf-fall would probably start about three to six days earlier than now. This happens because higher carbon dioxide levels and temperatures mean that the spring leaves grow faster and are more productive, and so the life of the leaf is shortened.

Why does it matter? Leaves are a major way of storing carbon, which they tie up when they photosynthesise. If they fall earlier, that’s less time for them to absorb the carbon. Zohner thinks this could account for about 1 gigatonne of carbon less stored globally each year by temperature forests – this is roughly a tenth of what we currently emit. The way that climate change disrupts the cycles of life are myriad and complex.

Photo One By gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K - Mason Wasp inspecting holes, Pachodynerus nasidens, CC BY 2.0,

Keyhole wasp (Pachnodynerus nasidens) (Photo One)

And finally, who knew that a little wasp could crash a plane? The keyhole wasp (Pachnodynerus nasidens) is a type of mason wasp who would normally find a tiny hole in a wall and build its nest there. It is native to the Neotropics, but has recently found its way to the northern United States and to some parts of Oceania, including, of all places, Brisbane Airport. At the airport, there were a number of incidents with pilots having problems with their airspeed monitors, which are housed in devices called pitot tubes.

To find out what was going on Alan House, at consulting firm Eco Logical Australia, created some 3D replica pitot tubes and set them up at the airport. After 39 months it was found that 93 of the tubes had become completely blocked by the nests of the keyhole wasps.

For once, the solution wasn’t to spray the whole place with insecticide. Instead, the tubes are now covered when planes arrive at Brisbane airport, so the wasps have to find somewhere else to make their nests. Simple.

Photo Credits

Photo One By gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K – Mason Wasp inspecting holes, Pachodynerus nasidens, CC BY 2.0,