Naturebites

WOODY CLIMBER

Naturebites

A new plant species

In the coastal parts of Karnataka, we now have a new species of Mopane paddle pod plant. A woody climber with looping branchlets and tiny green flowers, the Mopane paddle pod plant is found in parts of Africa and south-east Asia. This species was discovered by a team of researchers from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru. The new species is considered to be a sister species of Mopane paddle pod (Reissantia indica), and is classified under the genus Reissantia. The species, unlike other species in Reissantia, has flowers without any stalk. Hence, it has been named Reissantia sessiliflora.

This species is known to be found only in the sea-facing lateritic scrubs of Uttara Kannada district with an estimated extent of occurrence to be less than 100 sq km. Most of the areas where this plant was found was destroyed by human disturbances, which has forced the species to be classified as critically endangered. "If immediate steps are not taken to protect and restore the last remaining patches, we have little chance in protecting it," says G Ramachandra Rao, who was a part of the team that discovered the new species.

CONSERVING ENERGY IN WINTER

Shrews shrink their skulls and brains

Bad news, bears. Hibernation is no longer the coolest thing animals do to survive the winter. As cold weather approaches, tiny mole-like creatures known as red-toothed shrews (found mostly in  North America, northern South America, Europe and northern Asia) will shrink their own heads, reducing their skull and brain mass by as much as 20%, according to new research published in Current Biology. When warm weather returns, they will regrow the region nearly to its original size. Though it is not yet clear why the shrews go down a few sizes for the winter, the authors of the study speculate that the reduced head and brain size helps them conserve energy when resources are scarce.

"These tiny mammals cannot migrate long distances to avoid winter, nor can they enter any kind of energy-saving state like hibernation," said Javier Lazaro, a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany, and an author of the study. The shrews' reduction in size does not only affect the head. Several major organs lose mass in winter, and the spine shortens, as well. Overall, the shrews in the study reduced their body mass by about 18% from July to February.

INDICATOR OF DISTRESS

Oysters can 'hear' noise pollution

Like anyone with rowdy neighbours, oysters may be feeling stressed thanks to the growing problem of underwater noise pollution, and are trying to filter out the racket. New research published in PLoS One reveals that oysters will close their shells when exposed to noises along a range of frequencies that includes the sounds emitted by known noise polluters like cargo ships and underwater oil exploration. In oysters, closed shells are an indicator of distress. Under optimal conditions, bivalve molluscs will keep their shells open, and they are thought to shut them only when feeling stressed or threatened. Clamping their shells to screen out noise pollution or other artificial irritants could prevent oysters from perceiving important biological cues, said the authors of the study. Oysters "must be able to hear breaking waves and water currents," which could trigger their biological rhythms, said Jean-Charles Massabuau, an author of the study. Not being able to detect other natural events, like rainfall or thunderstorms, could also prevent them from knowing when it is time to spawn, Jean-Charles said.

DOCUMENTARY

An Inconvenient Truth

An Inconvenient Truth presents an illustrated talk on climate by Al Gore, the  former Vice President of United States, aimed at alerting the public to an increasing 'planetary emergency' due to global warming. It weaves the science of global warming with Al Gore's personal history and lifelong commitment to reversing the effects of global climate change. An Inconvenient Truth makes the compelling case that global warming is real, man-made, and its effects will be cataclysmic if we don't act now. The documentary has been credited for raising international public awareness on global warming and re-energising the environmental movement. To watch the documentary, visit www.nflx.it/2h4uaVs.

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