A curious little mammal, a species of elephant shrew, has been rediscovered after being absent from scientific observation for 50 years. Despite some local sightings, the animal had been ‘missing’ from scientific records since the 1970s. It has now been seen again in the African nation of Djibouti. Previously known only from Somalia, the Somali Sengi, or elephant shrew is one of the most mysterious species of sengi, with only 39 specimens previously known to science.
The elephant shrew looks very much like a mouse, with a small furry body and long tail, and so named for its long, trunk-like proboscis, which they use to feed on insects. However, these curious little mammals are in fact part of a group called Afrotheres, which means they are more closely related to Elephants, Manatees and Dugongs, than to mice.
In the current environment where species are being lost at an alarming rate, this discovery is a highly important and positive one. The discovery proved puzzling to scientists, because as the name suggests, the Somali sengi was originally only known from Somalia. The next planned expedition will be to track these animals using GPS radio tracking to learn more about their movements and behaviour.
A new species of carnivorous dinosaur has been discovered from fossilised remains found by members of the public at Shanklin, Isle of Wight last year. The four bones were examined by researchers at the University of Southampton who believe they belong to a new species of theropod dinosaur (a group of carnivorous which also include modern birds and their famous Tyrannosaurus rex).
The dinosaur has been named Vectaerovenator inopinatus which means ‘unexpected air-filled hunter’. The name refers to the curious air-filled sacs in many of the bones of the creature, in the neck, back and tail. Indeed, these structures are also found in many other theropod dinosaurs, helping scientists to identify it.
These air sacs, which act as extensions of the lungs, are also found in modern birds, which not only make the skeletons much lighter, but also ensure much more efficient breathing.
Living around 115 million years ago during the cretaceous period, Vectaerovenator was around 4 metres long, a relatively small size for Dinosaurs of this group, and although likely it would not have been the top predator, it would certainly have been an efficient carnivore, probably feeding on reptiles and small, herbivorous dinosaurs such as Hypsilophodon which was a common species at the time.
This exciting find is another example of how our understanding of prehistoric biodiversity is constantly changing with the discovery of many new prehistoric species.
Largely invisible and often overseen, fungi and other microscopic organisms are highly abundant in soils across the world, and play a fundamental in maintaining the biodiversity and nutrient balances in their ecosystem.
Fungi, although visible in the form of fruiting bodies, or toadstools, during certain times, are largely invisible, existing as microbial threads in the soil. It is estimated that there are some 3.8 million species of fungi, only a fraction of which have been formally described and identified. These organisms are incredibly abundant in soils around the world, an are a key component of biological nutrient cycling, as they break down organic matter, releasing key nutrients and compounds from dead bodies. Fungi are found in a variety of areas such as rainforest, woodland, grasslands and even rocky substrates (in the form of lichens) but are most abundant in open areas such as grasslands and Savannah, where they are important in helping poorer soil uptake nutrients.
In the Amazon rainforest for example, fungi are surprisingly abundant and varied. For example, a teaspoon of rainforest soil is estimated to contain around 1800 species of microscopic organisms (according to a study carried out by Dr Camila Duarte of Germany), at least 400 of which are fungi. These fungi are so diverse and they occupy a variety of niches in the forest, such as lichen (a symbiotic relationship between fungi and microscopic plants), some living commensally in the roots of plants and some as plant pathogens and parasites. Each and every one of these plays a significant role on the forest floor, breaking down organic matter and releasing nutrients back into the soil, to be used by plants and animals.
In this sense, the sheer diversity of fungi in the soil means that it is essential to consider this hidden diversity in conservation efforts, particularly in such fragile ecosystems as the Amazon rainforests. Due to their inconspicuous nature fungi are often overlooked in biological surveys, but they are key for nutrient cycling and also act as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide from dead organisms.
Some species are also edible, and are a source of medicine, indeed fungal compounds are being considered as new antibiotic sources in the light of antibiotic resistance. On the other hand, some fungi are considerable pests to crops, while others are disease-causing pathogens which cause disease in humans and animals. There is much to learn about soil fungal diversity, in order to incorporate these organisms into conservation efforts, and to help maintain biodiversity.
A fossil recently discovered on the Isle of Wight has been revealed as a first of its kind to be found in the UK. The fossil belonged to an ancient flying reptile which would have soared through the skies of southern England 100 million years ago.
The fossilised jaw fragment was found by an amateur fossil hunter on Sandown beach, Isle of Wight. The delicate fossil was identified as a tapejarid (a type of medium-sized crested pterosaur) by scientists at the university of Portsmouth, recognisable by the characteristic shape of the jaw and minute holes in the jaw, which experts think were used to detect prey. The fossil has been donated to the IoW dinosaur museum for future display.
So, what did this animal look like? These pterosaurs were small to medium sized and lived around 100 million years ago, during the cretaceous period. With more curved wings than other species, they are well known for the large bony crests on their heads. It is very likely that these crests would have been highly colourful in real life, almost twice the size of the skull, and probably used to communicate and attract partners, much like many bird species such as pheasants and birds of paradise. There has been much debate concerning the diet of these animals, but it is thought that they fed on plant material, especially considering that flowering plants were diversifying around the time these creatures appeared.
The fossil is a key finding for our understanding of these creatures; before the discovery of this specimen, the tapejarids were only known from Brazil, Morocco and China, and this find not only demonstrates a very wide distribution of these pterosaurs, but also showcases the diversity of mesozoic species on the island and surrounding area.
Antarctica is arguably one of the most barren, extreme environments on the planet, with only one permanent terrestrial resident – the Emperor penguin. However, wind the clock back 90 million years, and the continent was far from a frozen wasteland. New evidence has suggested that this icy continent was largely covered in tropical swamp forest, during the time of the Dinosaurs.
The cretaceous period, which spanned from approximately 145 to 66 million years ago, was a very warm period in earth’s history, with an almost worldwide greenhouse climate, and an abundance of vegetation and tropical forests. Antarctica at this time was mostly covered in a swampy, tropical forest and there were no glaciers at the south pole.
Scientists at the Alfred Wegener institute, Germany, made this discovery by analysing sediment cores drilled from the seafloor in West Antarctica. These cores show a glimpse of the past environment in Antarctica, with sediments nearer to the bottom of the core representing older geological time. At three metres down on the core, representing the late cretaceous period, the sediment composition changed drastically, composed mainly of a coal-like material, soil, roots and pollen. The team identified over 65 types of plant material, indicating the presence of an ancient conifer forest.
So, what exactly lived in these forests? The forests would have likely been very similar in plant structure to some of the forests in modern-day New Zealand, dominated by towering tree ferns, cycads and coniferous trees. At this time in history, flowering plants had only recently evolved so were likely rare in these forests. Biogeochemical evidence from the sediment cores also revealed that microscopic photosynthetic life such as algae and cyanobacteria were common in warm lakes and rivers.
These forests were dominated by a variety of dinosaur species, which filled many of the ecological roles of forest ecosystems today. There were giant herbivorous dinosaurs such as the long necked Austrosaurus, and Muttaburrasaurus, a close relative of the Iguanadon, whose remains are commonly found on the Isle of Wight. There were also carnivorous dinosaurs such as Cryolophosaurus and Australovenator, and the tiny herbivorous Leaellynasaura, which likely lived in small groups in the forest. Primitive mammals shared the forests with the dinosaurs; they were furry, egg laying species which were likely similar to modern echidnas and platypus. It is also known that the river networks around these forests were home to a giant salamander-like amphibian called Koolasuchus, belonging to an ancient lineage of animals over 250 million years old.
The discovery of these polar forests is not only an exciting advance for palaeontology, but also shows us how key carbon dioxide levels are in the shaping of an environment. It is known that the tropical climate during the cretaceous period could have only been possible if carbon dioxide levels were much higher than today, so this discovery could give an insight into the future environmental implications of increased carbon dioxide levels in the near future.
The Purbeck heath habitat is an incredibly important natural area for Dorset’s wildlife, providing habitats for a great variety of species. The heathland area comprises a number of habitats, including heathland, sand dunes, salt marsh, Reed beds and woods, and these habitats are home to a myriad of amazing species, such as warblers, bats, butterflies, lizards and even carnivorous plants.
An idea generated by a group of seven landowners joining forces and combining several chunks of land together, the super national nature reserve (NNR) in Purbeck heath will be the first of its kind in the UK, and it is hoped that by combining this natural land, it will be easier to manage, and will make it much easier for animals to navigate through the environment.
The Purbeck heath area is home to a variety of important species, some of which are unique to the area, and many have very small, fragmented habitats with a dwindling population. As such, this nature reserve will play a key role in connecting their habitat and hopefully sparking population growth. One such species which will greatly benefit from this land integration is the pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly; this species was once thought extinct in Dorset, it is estimated that around 15 individuals are living amongst the Purbeck heaths, and they all occupy a very small area at present.
However instead of merely preserving this habitat, many changes will be made to create a dynamic habitat, allowing a great diversity of species to establish themselves. For example, grazing and trampling by cattle, pigs and other ungulate mammals will be encouraged in order to stimulate ecological succession in the environment. This behaviour is hoped to maximise biodiversity in this habitat. Also, anthropogenic changes to the plant assemblages in the area, such as removing the non-native Scots pine and encouraging growth of native flora, will encourage many insect species to thrive.
Dorset is home to a variety of carnivorous plant species, found mainly in nutrient-poor boggy peat habitats, and have evolved to feed on insects and other invertebrates to supplement their nutrient levels. It is hoped that this super reserve will see a boom in these species, including sundew plants, aquatic bladderworts and butterworts.
Among the many species in this new habitat, bird species are amongst those expected to thrive. The Dartford warbler is one such species, preferring in gorse heathland, and feeding on invertebrates such as spiders. The Purbeck heaths are a key habitat for the naturally rare Dartford warbler stronghold in Britain, so the development of this area will be key for the species. The heathland is also home to a variety of other bird species, such as Osprey, Marsh Harrier, Stonechat and Merlin. Reptiles are also key species, mainly in the sand dune and heathland habitats, indeed all six species of native reptiles can be found here, including smooth snakes, sand lizards and slow worms.
This project is a landmark step in landscape-scale conservation, and the important that this plays in maintaining Dorset’s native biodiversity and providing a home for wildlife.