Weekly round-up: May 2

Wasps don’t deserve their bad reputation, according to a team from UCL and UEA

Pollination, pest control and a potential cancer treatment – which family of insect offers all three? The much-maligned wasp, which researchers say needs a significant PR overhaul.

A study, led by UCL and the University of East Anglia, is calling for wasps to be as highly valued as other insects – especially bees, often similar in looks but poles apart in reputation. Reviewing more than 500 papers focusing on around 33,000 species of stinging wasp, the team found wasps contribute significantly to pollination – with 164 species of plant entirely dependent on them for reproduction – and also control populations of aphids, caterpillars and other arthropods that damage crops.

Lead author Professor Seirian Sumner, UCL, said: “Wasps are one of those insects we love to hate – and yet bees, which also sting, are prized for pollinating our crops and making honey. In a previous study, we found that the hatred of wasps is largely due to widespread ignorance about the role of wasps in ecosystems, and how they can be beneficial to humans. 

“Wasps are understudied relative to other insects like bees, so we are only now starting to properly understand the value and importance of their ecosystem services. Here, we have reviewed the best evidence there is, and found that wasps could be just as valuable as other beloved insects like bees, if only we gave them more of a chance.”

In addition to predation and pollination services worth millions of dollars, wasps offer a number of benefits to medicine, with their venom and saliva found to have antibiotic properties, while yellowjacket wasp venom has been shown to kill cancer cells in lab studies.

However, like their more popular counterparts and myriad other insect species, wasp populations are at risk.

Lead author Ryan Brock, UEA, said: “Alongside other insects, many wasp species are declining from factors such as climate change and habitat loss. As such, there is urgent need to address their conservation and ensure that habitats continue to benefit from the far-reaching ecosystem services that wasps provide.”
Publication Biological Reviews

Brachycephalus rotenbergae (Edelcio Muscat)

A pumpkin toadlet new to science has been found in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest – and it glows in the dark.

The tiny Brachycephalus rotenbergae, about the size of a thumbnail, is bright orange with random dark spots of varying size. However, when placed under UV light, fluorescent patches across the head and back are revealed.

The 37th member of the family is not the only pumpkin toadlet to boast luminescent qualities, but the find is an important one both for the forest, which is now just seven per cent of its original size, and amphibians, which are among the most vulnerable groups of vertebrates worldwide.

The species was formally described in the journal PLoS One following a research expedition searching specifically for new pumpkin toadlets.

Fluorescent patches appear on the toadlet’s head and back under UV light (Nunes et al.)

Speaking to National Geographic, lead author and São Paulo State University herpetologist Ivan Sergio Nunes Silva said: “The best moment to be a scientist is when you are looking at something new and you are the only person who knows.

“Unfortunately, nowadays, we are losing unidentified species faster than we can describe new ones.”
Publication PLoS One

Dedicating one per cent of the US Gulf of Mexico to seaweed aquaculture could help soak up excess nutrients that wash into the sea from human activities on land – preventing harmful algal blooms and oxygen-poor dead zones.

Researchers at UC Santa Barbara have proposed the strategy, which they hope will restore balance to the nutrient cycle. The team found more than 800 watersheds across 32 states deliver nutrients to the Gulf, with excess nitrogen and phosphorus from industrial agriculture the key driver of algae growth. Although algae produce oxygen while alive and photosynthesising, their rapid growth can cover vast swathes of ocean, smothering habitats, while some species produce biotoxins. In addition, when they die suddenly and in huge numbers, their decomposition consumes oxygen, causing hypoxic areas or ‘dead zones’.

However, the authors argue that cultivated seaweed could draw down excess nutrients, while also producing oxygen – seaweed also sequesters significant volumes of carbon.

“Cultivating seaweed in less than one per cent of the US Gulf of Mexico could potentially reach the country’s pollution reduction goals that, for decades, have been difficult to achieve,” said lead author Phoebe Racine. The US spends $27 billion every year on wastewater treatment.
Publication Marine Policy

Rainforest fragmentation in Brazil due to conversion for agricultural use (Kate Evans/CIFOR)

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has said his government is using fines for illegal deforestation “as a last resort”, instead preferring to “give advice and observe”.

Speaking at a virtual version of Expozebu, a cattle farmers’ convention, Bolsonaro was explaining why the number of environmental fines had fallen, despite illegal deforestation of the Amazon hitting its highest rate in 12 years – between August 2019 and July 2020, 11,088 square kilometres of forest was lost.

However, ranchers form a key part of Bolsonaro’s political base, while the president has frequently hit out at international critics of his government’s management of the rainforest – often described as ‘the lungs of the Earth’ – and denied the extent of destruction within Brazil’s borders.

While Bolsonaro did attend President Biden’s virtual climate summit in April, pledging to double the budget for environmental enforcement and end illegal deforestation by 2030, 24 hours later he signed off on Brazil’s 2021 federal budget, which included a 24 per cent reduction in funding for the environment ministry.
Source Reuters

The common cuckoo is famed for laying its eggs in the nests of other birds, tricking them into raising their young

A cuckoo named PJ has logged a record 50,000 miles in five years while migrating between Britain and the rainforests of west Africa.

Tagged in Suffolk as part of a British Trust for Ornithology project investigating the species’ decline, PJ caught the teams’ eye having varied his route considerably, while most individuals follow the same path every year.

Speaking to the BBC, lead scientist Dr Chris Hewson said: “[Cuckoos] normally migrate to Africa via either Spain or Italy and keep to the same route every year, but PJ has used both routes, and one in between, over the five years and in fact last autumn he stopped in both Spain and Italy.

“We have been avidly watching PJ since he began his journey back to the UK in late February. “We can now heave a huge sigh of relief knowing he is safely back in Suffolk, but, more than that, I look forward to looking more closely at the information he has given us.”

The number of breeding cuckoos, which famously lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, has declined by more than two-thirds across the UK in the past 23 years according to the BTO.
Source BBC

Overall winner: Turbo Barn Swallow by Karsten Mosebach and Bernhard Volmer

Karsten Mosebach and Bernhard Volmer have been crowned overall winners at this year’s German Society for Nature Photography awards with their stunning freeze frame of a barn swallow in flight. 

Mammals category winner: The King and his Court Fool by Peter Lindel

The pair, who have worked together for almost two decades and first won the competition ten years ago, said: “With our swallow photos we try to depict the beauty and elegance of the animals, which they radiate especially in flight. In the photos, speed, lightness, elegance and beauty of the animals are to be combined into a unity. 

Other animals category winner: Mudskipper by Scott Portelli

“As a stylistic device we have chosen a long exposure. Using flash units with a particularly short flash duration, we freeze the movement at the end of the exposure time. In this way, the swallow in the picture wears a veil that flies after it in an airy, light and transparent way and at the same time testifies to its high speed.”
Source German Society for Nature Photography

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