The NZ-VR Project
Monitoring groups of wild dolphins with a computer algorithm is close to being a reality, after the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California recorded more than 50 million dolphin echolocation clicks on remote sensors placed throughout the Gulf of Mexico. These clicks come in many speeds and pitches, and are generally about three times higher-pitched than the highest frequency humans can hear. Researchers handed the clicks over to a machine-learning programme, an algorithm developed to identify patterns in the sounds. “Imagine people snapping their fingers,” says lead researcher Kaitlin Frasier. “The sound is so short that it would be hard to identify whose snap that was, although if you listened to a very large number of them, you might be able to find differences.” The algorithm found seven patterns, and so far, one of them has been matched to Risso’s dolphins. The next step is to match the other click patterns with the remaining dolphin species. The hope is that eventually, acoustic sensors will be able to monitor dolphin populations year-round, and in all weather—as opposed to the time-consuming method of spotting dolphins from boats.
Is it possible to predict whether a species will be invasive? Having a small genome may be a red flag when the biosecurity risk of plants is being assessed. A study published in Ecology screened 900 clumps of the grass Phragmites australis. This species has many subspecies, all with different genome sizes, and the smaller the genome, the more invasive the grass was. The European Phragmites is a noxious invader in the United States, outcompeting the North American species. It has a much smaller genome than the Gulf of Mexico species, which hasn’t moved out of its region. This has been noticed in other species, such as pines, but has never been studied within a single species. Study author Laura Meyerson says the invasive Phragmites can outcompete others by growing faster, earlier and denser, even when soil is colder, hotter, drier, saltier or darker than normal. “Because they have less genetic material to deal with, they are able to replicate more quickly, allowing them to complete their lifecycle,” says Meyerson. “In other words, the cell cycle is shorter and the plants need fewer resources that may be in short supply, for example nitrogen and phosphorous.”
Bees understand the concept of zero, the first invertebrate shown to do so. Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne trained bees to select the smaller of two numbers using platforms with up to six shapes placed on them. Bees learned to associate a sweet reward with a platform that had fewer shapes, while a bad-tasting solution was placed on a platform with more shapes. Then, when given a choice between up to four shapes and zero, bees identified zero as the smaller quantity. Zero was invented after other numbers, and it takes children longer to learn than other numbers, as they can struggle to identify whether zero or one is greater. Bees’ mathematical ability means they join a select club, which includes humans and chimpanzees.
A rare and misunderstood octopus, the argonaut lives far out to sea, where females construct fragile shells to live in, marble-sized males woo them with severed arms, and much of their lifecycle has never been observed.
Hundreds of Japanese species have now rafted to the United States on debris following the 2011 Tōhoku tsunami—the biggest biological rafting event ever witnessed. Scientists say this is due to the rise of plastics and other synthetic materials, which create highly durable rafts. The 2011 magnitude 9.1 earthquake off eastern Japan created a tsunami of up to 40.5 metres. In the past six years, US scientists have collected 620 pieces of debris from the tonnes that washed up after crossing the northern Pacific Ocean. Within the debris were more than 300 species from Japan—invertebrates and fish, swimming in boat compartments. Larger debris such as buoys, crates, posts, beams, boats and docks supported a higher number of species. Some short-lived species bred for several generations aboard the debris. Life forms have always rafted to other continents, especially after natural disasters. But while natural rafts are made of materials such as tree and kelp debris, modern debris from coastal development contains non-biodegradable materials such as fibreglass and plastic—tough rafts that last longer distances. When it comes to spreading invasive species, say the authors of the study, published in Science, these rafts are even more effective than boat ballast. They are slow-moving, giving the hitchhikers aboard time to grow and adapt to new conditions, and they can wash up on pristine coastlines. Lead investigator James Carlton says this transporting of invasive species by marine debris is set to become more common, with the increase in climate-change-driven storms likely to send more debris into the ocean.
What’s an albatross’s favourite food? New research looking at DNA in albatross droppings found up to 50 per cent of it was jellyfish. An international group of researchers studied eight black-browed albatross colonies dotted around the Southern Hemisphere, including one on New Zealand’s subantarctic Campbell Island. Certain types of jellyfish (hydrozoa and scyphozoa) had been devoured in 42 per cent of samples—and up to 80 per cent in some sites. Some jellyfish was even fed to chicks, which surprised researchers as jellyfish is low-energy food compared with fish. Moreover, albatrosses chose jellyfish whether jellyfish were blooming or not—or in other words, they were not just making do when fish were crowded out by a jellyfish bloom. Previous studies of albatross diet focused on their stomach contents—hard beaks of cephalopods, crustacean exoskeletons and fish bones. Gelatinous sea life wasn’t found, probably because it is digested quickly.
Most introduced mammals have had a devastating effect on native wildlife, but one species is bucking the trend. About 80 conservation dogs are deployed around the country, helping to protect vulnerable native species by leaping into action at a single command: Seek!
Kauri create shelter and nourishment for other species to grow, but now, a disease without a cure is killing these forest giants one by one. In the past five years, the infection rate of kauri has more than doubled in the only forest where it's monitored—the Waitakere Ranges. At least one in five trees there are doomed. Can we save the species?
Old barn owls have young ears, still sharp at an age when mammals would be deaf, according to new research by Germany’s University of Oldenburg. This is because all birds can regrow damaged hair cells in the inner ear, while mammals have lost the ability to do so. Barn owls (Tyto alba) locate and catch prey in darkness using their hearing alone, and their ears specialise in high frequencies—the region where humans and other mammals usually lose their hearing. When a range of barn owls of different ages were tested, all had flawless hearing—even an extremely old 23-year-old. Studies on elderly starlings and invertebrates have also shown inner-ear hair-cell regeneration. The human body has the ability to repair the ear’s vestibular system, which means that we retain our sense of balance, even in old age. Study author Ulrike Langemann says this suggests the genetic switch for hearing regeneration is still there in humans, but in “off-mode” for our inner-ear hair cells. The quest to switch it on is an active field of research.
This issue of New Zealand Geographic went to print almost 20 years to the day after a science-fiction film by a young screenwriter and director from Paraparaumu opened in cinemas in the United States. It envisaged a future where people are genetically engineered, creating an upper class of physically ‘superior’ humans and an underclass of ordinary people whose parents couldn’t afford to tweak their DNA. Gattaca was Andrew Niccol’s first film. It bombed at the box office, but has since acceded to the rank of a classic. In 2012, it topped NASA’s list of the “most-realistic” science fiction films ever made. I was dubious about paying a return visit to its vision of the future, but I discovered that Gattaca has barely aged: its concerns about genetic engineering are the same ones we are still facing today. Since 1997, we haven’t come any closer to answering the question: If we can edit our DNA, where do we draw the line between the eradication of disease and the improvement of other physical qualities? We can’t wait another 20 years to decide. Since 2012, we’ve all of a sudden become really, really good at editing genes. Though we’ve been able to tinker with DNA for decades, only recently has it become possible to make very precise changes very quickly. That’s because the tools are different: we’re using a scalpel rather than an excavator claw. The technology described in Kate Evans’s story is going to dramatically reshape the world around us. So we need to make up rules for how we will use it, and fast. Trouble is, the technology for editing genes—known as CRISPR—has outstripped our understanding of genes themselves. “A geneticist said to me, ‘It feels like we’re building the plane as we’re flying it’,” said ethicist Josephine Johnston, at a public talk in Auckland about gene editing. Data deficiency is a bit of a theme in this issue of the magazine. We don’t know very much about whitebait, except that we’re probably on the cusp of losing them, and we’ll need to make a number of decisions in the absence of complete data if we want to be scoop-netting them every spring for the next 20 years. Nor do we know very much about what lives in the vast blue expanse of our territorial seas, or how our actions impact those species, yet we will increasingly be called to make decisions that affect them. We cannot let the unknown prevent us from taking action. As Jennifer Doudna, the first person to demonstrate how CRISPR works, said of the tool she helped invent: “People will use the technology whether we know enough about it or not.” One place to begin is to address the values that we, as a society, hold close. When we lack data about the species in the world around us, we make decisions—such as decisions to learn more—based on those values. Concerns over gene editing causing discrimination against certain people or characteristics exist because those attributes are already discriminated against. Gattaca’s gene-edited humans are tall and strong and healthy and beautiful because we’re biased against the sick, the weak, the short, the ugly. Social views dictate our use of science, not the other way around, and we should begin any decision-making process by taking a careful, open-minded look at our values and the shape of the society that we want.
Octopuses are solitary, except for when they breed. But gloomy octopuses (Octopus tetricus) have been spotted shacking up together in a mass settlement—for the second time. Up to 15 octopuses live within arm’s reach on rocky outcroppings in Jervis Bay on the south coast of New South Wales, in dens they have sculpted from shells and other remains of their prey. The settlement has been named Octlantis. The first one, discovered in 2009 with up to 16 octopuses and also located in Jervis Bay, was named Octopolis—and was considered an anomaly. It’s not clear why the octopuses have decided to keep close company. Interactions filmed between them involve antagonistic colour changes, morphing, and chasing.
Barely seven per cent of New Zealand is land. The rest of it, the wet bit, covers four million square kilometres. In 2016, photographer Richard Robinson won a Canon Personal Project Grant that enabled a dozen expeditions into this vast marine prairie, arguably the country’s last great tract of undisturbed wilderness.
Ancient whales had ferocious teeth—so how did some become baleen-bearing filter feeders? University of Monash researchers have shed light on this evolutionary mystery. Thirty million years ago, their theory goes, some whales began sucking in their prey instead of biting, slowly losing their teeth in the process until only thick, horny gums remained. A fossilied whale tooth, below, shows horizontal marks thought to have been caused by suction rather than biting. When the Antarctic Circumpolar Current formed, small prey boomed, and these more intricate gums filtered it better. Baleen was born.
The sign of a healthy ecosystem is an abundance of top predators. The Kermadecs is thronging with sharks.
There's safety in numbers, and in caves at the Kermadecs.
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