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Naturebites - 19 December

Research Matters, The New York Times, Science Daily Dec 18 2017, 21:12 IST
The current population of red pandas is around 10,000.

The current population of red pandas is around 10,000.

Threats the red pandas face

The red panda is an animal with soft reddish-brown fur and it is only seen in the temperate forests of the Himalayas. Unlike the popular misconception, the red panda is not closely related to the giant panda. In fact, the red panda is put in the Family Ailuridae all to itself, and is more closely related to raccoons, weasels and skunks. But like the giant panda, this small mammal's diet is also made up of mostly bamboo, although it may also eat smaller mammals, birds, flowers, fruits and berries. But the red panda is facing a lot of threats today.
Estimates put the current global population of red pandas at around 10,000 and it has been classified as an endangered species.

A group of researchers conducted a study on red pandas and the factors that affect its population in the Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve in Nepal. The researchers hypothesised that a greater number of red pandas would be found in areas that have less human interference, a high number of Arundinaria species of bamboo (which makes up 81.7% of the red panda's diet in this reserve), and a higher amount of forest cover. As local communities that live in the reserve depend on bamboo for their livelihood, conservation plans for the red panda would have to take into account the interests of both the panda and the indigenous communities, say the researchers.

Picking up on environmental cues

In Medieval Europe, some called bees the smallest birds. Today, we call the smallest hummingbird the bee hummingbird. And now a group of researchers say we should embrace our history of lumping the two together. The way scientists study bees could help them study hummingbird behaviour, too, they argue in a recent review published in Biology Letters. Scientists first compared the two back in the 1970s when studying how animals forage.

The idea is that animals use a kind of internal math to make choices to minimise the work it takes to earn maximum rewards. Researchers at the time focused on movement rules, like the order in which they visited flowers. It was "almost like an algorithm" for efficient foraging, said David Pritchard, a biologist at the University of St Andrews in Scotland who led the review.

Hummingbirds and bees had similar solutions. But the study of optimal foraging overlooked what animals learned about their environments. As the field of animal cognition emerged, hummingbird and bee research diverged. To be fair, hummingbirds and bees differ. For example, bees rely solely on flowers for nectar and pollen; hummingbirds also eat insects, which may require that their brains work differently, Beth Nichols who studies behaviour at the University of
Sussex in Britain said.

Tracking dolphins with algorithms

Researchers have tried deploying underwater sensors to eavesdrop on the clicks dolphins use for echolocation. Sifting through all these data, however, becomes a headache. A machine learning program may be able to help. In a study published in PLOS Computational Biology, scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, USA introduced an algorithm that was able to analyse 52 million dolphin clicks. Wanting to monitor how dolphins were doing after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Kait Frasier and her colleagues placed acoustic sensors around the Gulf of Mexico.

It was Kait's job to go through the data and identify dolphin clicks. She wondered if she could leverage the machine learning techniques used by Google and Facebook to improve on the process. The program that was developed grouped together five-minute chunks with similar average click rates and frequency profiles. While it previously took her three weeks to analyse a year's worth of recordings from one site, the algorithm took about four days to sort through two years of data from five sites.

South Pacific

South Pacific is a six-part documentary series from the BBC Natural History Unit that looks at the natural history of the islands of the South Pacific region. The South Pacific islands' extraordinary isolation has created some of the most curious, surprising and precarious examples of life found anywhere on Earth like the giant crabs that tear open coconuts and the flesh-eating caterpillars that impale their prey on dagger-like claws.

The South Pacific covers a vast area, and less than 1% is land. Filming took place over 18 months in a variety of remote locations around the Pacific including Anuta, Banks Islands, Papua New Guinea, Palmyra, Kingman Reef and Caroline Islands. Each episode of South Pacific takes us through some of these in a thematic manner. For instance, one episode deals with its wildlife diversity, while another deals with how humans colonised even the most remote islands. To watch the documentary, visit www.bit.ly/2o06pjU.

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