Crassignatha danaugirangensis discovery

Class of Students Discover and Publish New Spider Species

As a spin-off (pun intended) of their Tropical Biodiversity course in Malaysian Borneo, a team of biology students discover a new spider species, build a makeshift taxonomy lab, write a joint publication and send it off to a major taxonomic journal.

Crassignatha danaugirangensis

Discovering a new spider species was not what she had anticipated when she signed up for her field course in Tropical Biodiversity, says Elisa Panjang, a Malaysian master’s student from Universiti Malaysia Sabah. She is one of twenty students following the course, organised by Naturalis Biodiversity Center in The Netherlands, and held in the Danau Girang Field Centre in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. The aim of the one-month course, say organisers Vincent Merckx and Menno Schilthuizen, is to teach the students about how the rich tapestry of the tropical lowland rainforest’s ecosystem is woven.

Besides charismatic species, such as the orang-utans that the students encounter every day in the forest, the tropical ecosystem consists of scores of unseen organisms, and the course focus is on these “small things that run the world”—such as the tiny orb-weaving spiders of the tongue-twistingly named family Symphytognathidae. These one-millimetre-long spiders build tiny webs that they suspend between dead leaves on the forest floor. “When we started putting our noses to the ground we saw them everywhere,” says Danish student Jennie Burmester enthusiastically. What they weren’t prepared for was that the webs turned out to be the work of an unknown species, as spider specialist Jeremy Miller, an instructor on the course, quickly confirmed.

Crassignatha danaugirangensis web

The students then decided to make the official naming and description of the species a course project. They rigged the field centre’s microscopes with smartphones to produce images of the tiny spider’s even tinier genitals (using cooking oil from the station’s kitchen to make them more translucent), dusted the spider’s webs with puffs of corn flour (also from the kitchen) to make them stand out and described the way they were built. They also put a spider in alcohol as “holotype”, the obligatory reference specimen for the naming of any new species—which is to be stored in the collection of Universiti Malaysia Sabah. Finally, a dinner-time discussion yielded a name for this latest addition to the tree of life: Crassignatha danaugirangensis, after the field centre’s idyllic setting at the Danau Girang oxbow lake.

All data and images were then compiled into a scientific paper, which, via the station’s satellite link, was submitted to the Biodiversity Data Journal, a leading online journal for quick dissemination of new biodiversity data. Even though thousands of similarly-sized spider species still await discovery, Miller thinks the publication is an important one. “It means we provide a quick anchor point for further work on this species; the naming of a species is the only way to make sure we’re all singing from the same score,” he says.

Peter Schalk, Executive Secretary of Species 2000 / CoL, and GBIF Chair, comments: “This is a fine example of how the taxonomic world is embracing the digital era. Open data and rapid publication form the key for sharing information which in turn provides valuable input for responsible management of the world’s biosphere. One of the most important achievements of this paper is that all data associated with this species have been harvested from the article and collated with other data on GBIF and Encyclopedia of Life right on the day of publication, through a specially designed format called Darwin Core Archive. This is indeed a “real time” data publishing!”

Field station director Benoît Goossens adds: “This tiny new spider is a nice counterpoint to the large-mammal work we’re doing and having it named after the field centre is extremely cool”. The Danau Girang Field Centre is located in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, a strip of rainforest along Sabah’s major river, squeezed in by vast oil palm plantations on either side. Despite intensive search, the students could not find the new spider in the plantations.


Publication Reference:

Miller J, Schilthuizen M, Burmester J, van der Graaf L, Merckx V, Jocqué M, Kessler P, Fayle T, Breeschoten T, Broeren R, Bouman R, Chua W, Feijen F, Fermont T, Groen K, Groen M, Kil N, de Laat H, Moerland M, Moncoquet C, Panjang E, Philip A, Roca-Eriksen R, Rooduijn B, van Santen M, Swakman V, Evans M, Evans L, Love K, Joscelyne S, Tober A, Wilson H, Ambu L, Goossens B (2014) Dispatch from the field: ecology of micro web-building spiders with description of a new species. Biodiversity Data Journal 2: e1076. DOI: 10.3897/BDJ.2.e1076

Creative commons images from the above journal.

This story is based on creative commons material from Pensoft.


5 Amazing 3D Animal Gifs

Three dimensional animated gifs (3D gifs) have recently been spreading  around the net and are nothing short of awesome. Using simple visual illusion tricks, the images appear to move in a third dimension out from your screen without the use of any glasses.  The effect is achieved mainly by creating the illusion of a false plane with two vertical white lines which the subject can then breach. Other effects such as perspective and focus aid the illusion in some cases.






goat face

Smart as a Herd of Goats

Goats learn how to solve complicated tasks quickly and can recall how to perform them for at least 10 months, which might explain their remarkable ability to adapt to harsh environments, say researchers at Queen Mary University of London.

Writing in the journal Frontiers in Zoologytoday (Wednesday 26 March), the scientists trained a group of goats to retrieve food from a box using a linked sequence of steps; first by pulling a lever with their mouths and then by lifting it to release the reward.


The goats’ ability to remember the task was tested after one month and again at 10 months. They learned the task within 12 trials and took less than two minutes to remember the challenge.

“The speed at which the goats completed the task at 10 months compared to how long it took them to learn indicates excellent long-term memory,” said co-author Dr Elodie Briefer, now based at ETH Zurich.

Before each learning session, some of the goats had the opportunity to watch another goat to demonstrate the task.

Dr Briefer added: “We found that those without a demonstrator were just as fast at learning as those that had seen demonstrations. This shows that goats prefer to learn on their own rather than by watching others.”

This is the first time that scientists have investigated how goats learn complex physical cognition tasks, which could explain why they are so adaptable to harsh environments and good at foraging for plants in the wild, for example.

Co-author Dr Alan McElligott from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, commented: “Our results challenge the common misconception that goats aren’t intelligent animals – they have the ability to learn complex tasks and remember them for a long time.

“This could explain why they are so successful in colonising new environments, though we would need to perform a similar study with wild goats to be sure.”

The research was supported through a Swiss Federal Veterinary Office grant and Swiss National Science Foundation fellowship. The data was collected at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent.

Story from Queen Mary University of London

Featured Image Credit: Flickr: Pete Markham

black widow spider

So What Does a RED Widow Spider Eat Anyway?

First off, the big image above is of a black widow spider (not red) because its nearly impossible to find a large creative commons photo of a red widow spider. The Red widow spider photo is here:

red widow spider
Image Credit: James Carrel

Secondly, you might be asking yourself, why in the world do I need to know what a red widow spider eats? The answer is because if you have kids they will ask you constantly about what every animal eats. So there, you need to know this stuff.

If you want, you can read the full story from the University of Missouri-Columbia which summarizes James Carrel’s new publication in the March issue of Florida Entomologist. - or I can just summarize for you:

The answer is BEETLES. They eat scarab beetles like the one pictured below.

Trigonopeltastes floridana
Image Credit: James Carrel


Featured Image Credit: Flickr: Keith Robinson

tibetan mastiff puppy

Is This Dog Worth 2 Million Dollars?

A tibetan mastiff puppy (like the one pictured above) recently sold in China for a record breaking 2 million dollars. The dog was reportedly purchased by a 56 year old property developer from Quingdao. The breed is prized in China and is said to have “lion’s blood” – although that doesn’t seem to be technically quite right. Perhaps their flowing manes if groomed properly make them look sort of like lions (sort of) but I don’t think the “lion’s blood” part is quite accurate. There is also speculation that some of the inflated prices of mastiffs may be a stunt between breeders to hype up the prices.

You can see photos of the dogs over on NYDailyNews.

Featured Image Credit: Flickr: mastino0100

chicken from hell

Chicken from Hell

A new study published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE (A New Large-Bodied Oviraptorosaurian Theropod Dinosaur from the Latest Cretaceous of Western North America) describes the discovery of a bird like dinosaur that roamed the plains of America 66 million years ago. The bird was a giant 10 foot raptor described as a “chicken from hell.”

Scientists from Carnegie and Smithsonian museums and the University of Utah today unveiled the discovery, naming and description of a sharp-clawed, 500-pound, bird-like dinosaur that roamed the Dakotas with T. rex 66 million years ago and looked like an 11 ½-foot-long “chicken from hell.”

“It was a giant raptor, but with a chicken-like head and presumably feathers. The animal stood about 10 feet tall, so it would be scary as well as absurd to encounter,” says University of Utah biology postdoctoral fellow Emma Schachner, a co-author of a new study of the dinosaur. It was published online today in PLOS ONE, a journal of the Public Library of Science.

The study’s lead author, Matt Lamanna of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, says: “We jokingly call this thing the ‘chicken from hell,’ and I think that’s pretty appropriate.”

The beaked dinosaur’s formal name is Anzu wyliei – Anzu after a bird-like demon in Mesopotamian mythology, and wyliei after a boy named Wylie, the dinosaur-loving grandson of a Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh trustee.

Three partial skeletons of the dinosaur – almost making up a full skeleton – were excavated from the uppermost level of the Hell Creek rock formation in North and South Dakota – a formation known for abundant fossils of Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. The new dinosaur was 11 ½ feet long, almost 5 feet tall at the hip and weighed an estimated 440 to 660 pounds. Its full cast is on display at the Carnegie Museum.

Schachner and Lamanna were joined in the new study and description of three specimens by Hans-Dieter Sues and Tyler Lyson of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

“I am really excited about this discovery because Anzu is the largest oviraptorosaur found in North America,” she says. “Oviraptorosaurs are a group of dinosaurs that are closely related to birds and often have strange, cassowary-like crests on their heads.” (The cassowary is a flightless bird in New Guinea and Australia related to emus and ostriches.)

Anzu is also “one of the youngest oviraptorosaurs known, meaning it lived very close to the dinosaur extinction event” blamed on an asteroid striking Earth 65 million years ago, Schachner says.

The researchers believe Anzu, with large sharp claws, was an omnivore, eating vegetation, small animals and perhaps eggs while living on a wet floodplain. The dinosaur apparently got into some scrapes.

“Two of the specimens display evidence of pathology,” Schachner says. “One appears to have a broken and healed rib, and the other has evidence of some sort of trauma to a toe.”

Having a nearly complete skeleton of Anzu wyliei sheds light on a category of oviraptorosaur theropod dinosaurs named caenagnathids, which have been known for a century, but only from limited fossil evidence.

Like many “new” dinosaurs, Anzu wyliei fossils were discovered some years ago, and it took more time for researchers to study the fossils and write and publish a formal scientific description. As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Schachner helped Lyson excavate the least complete specimen – six bones from the neck, forelimbs and shoulder – in North Dakota. The Carnegie Museum obtained the other specimens.

At a scientific meeting in 2005 Lamanna, Lyson and Schachner realized they had fossils of the same new species of dinosaur. They soon began collaborating on the new study and asked Sues to join them because he was an expert on this type of dinosaur, Schachner says.

“It took years since all of us had busy schedules, and I moved to Utah in 2010 to work on reptile respiratory evolution,” she says.

The study’s four authors finally met for a week at the Carnegie Museum to work on the dinosaur together. Among other tasks, Schachner illustrated and photographed some of the bones.

She says the process was “really exciting. Naming a dinosaur is one of those things I’ve wanted to be involved in since I was a kid.”

Based on story from Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Sumatran tiger Melatil at the london zoo

Rare Sumatran Tigers Born at ZSL London Zoo

In the wild, the Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) is found only on the Indonesian island of….you guessed it- Sumatra. The wwf estimates that less than 400 currently exist in the wild giving it a very real threat of extinction within the next decade. They are among the smallest of the big cat species with females weighing as little as 165 lbs. Big cat births are always cool, but the birth of a cub from a critically endangered species is particularly exciting.

The ZSL London Zoo announced the birth of 3 cubs born to the Sumatran tiger Melati after a 106 day pregnancy. As is usually the case with big cats, the birth was monitored by remote cameras (which always seem to be in unnecessary black and white format). A photo released by the ZSL London Zoo is below, as well as some great video footage of the cubs with mom.


Zookeeper Teague Stubbington said: “We couldn’t be more delighted with our new arrivals, and with how Melati is responding to her three cubs.

“We’ve been observing them 24/7, and one of us is always on duty to keep an eye on the little ones throughout the night. We’ve even been able to observe key milestones like their eyes opening and their tentative first steps.

“While we still don’t know whether they’re boys or girls, we’re starting to see their personalities develop. We’ve nicknamed one Trouble, as it’s much bolder than the others – it was the first to start exploring its den and we’ve spotted it waking up its siblings when they fall asleep!” (more from ZSL London Zoo article).

Featured Image Credit of Melati at the ZSL London Zoo: Flickr:  Daniel Coomber

Lion Shera with Four Cubs at the National Zoo

Four Lion Cubs Born at the National Zoo

Four lion cubs were born at the Smithsonian National Zoo on March 2nd.  Nine year-old African lion Shera gave birth to a litter at the Great Cats exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.  The birth was observed through a closed-circuit camera (hence the black and white photo from a distance).

“Shera successfully raised her previous litter of four in 2010, so we’re cautiously optimistic that these cubs will thrive,”  said Kristen Clark, and animal keeper at the Great Cats exhibit.  ”Like any new mom, she needs some peace and quiet to bond with her cubs, so we’re giving her the solitude she needs. From what we’ve observed on the cam, her behaviors are right on point, and there’s no need for us to intervene.”

The cubs are expected to be on exhibit by this summer.

Full Story on the National Zoo website.

Photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo

baby meerkats

Three Mere Meerkat Kits Born at Perth Zoo

Before we start with this article, you may be saying that you are not completely convinced of the cute-worthiness of meerkats. If so, you should first watch this video of a sleepy meerkat:

Ok, now that you are convinced, more on the new kits:

Perth Zoo has three new residents. These super-cute meerkat kits were born on February 15 and are just starting to explore their home in the Zoo’s African Savannah.

The trio kept to their nest box for the first three weeks but recently began venturing out and playing with the adults and older siblings in their 13-strong meerkat clan.

meerkats at perth zoo

“All of the adult males in the group have been helping mum, Tilly, by sharing the babysitting duties,” Perth Zoo exotics keeper Kaelene McKay said.

“The sex of the kits will be determined at their first health check and vaccination next month.

“The kits are absolutely gorgeous and it’s a real treat to watch them playing together.”

Perth Zoo has two meerkat colonies in its African Savannah.

Found in southern African, meerkats are members of the Mongoose family.  They are extremely social animals but are highly territorial and will fiercely defend their home from other meerkat mobs.

In the wild, appointed meerkat sentries keep a look-out for predators while other group members forage for food.

baby meerkat kit

The sentries stand on their hind legs to get a good view of approaching predators and when a threat is spotted, the sentries let out an alarm call and the group dives into its burrow.

baby meerkat cuteness level

Story based on material from: Perth Zoo