‘Lost’ Galapagos Tortoise Species Could Make a Comeback

Score one for the giant tortoise: The descendants of one thought-to-be extinct species have apparently been chilling on the side of a volcano, eating grass for the last few hundred years. Scientists say breeding these animals could bring the species back from the brink. A report on the tortoise surprise was published on the preprint server bioRxiv.

Once upon a time, the Galapagos archipelago was a veritable paradise for 15 different species of giant tortoise. Then, humans showed up and the lumbering slowpokes began to disappear with alarming speed. Three centuries of human depredation wiped out 90 percent of the islands’ tortoises. Four entire species, including Floreana (Chelonoidis elephantopus) and Pinta (C. abingdoni) tortoises, completely disappeared. Or so we thought.

Then in 2008, DNA tests revealed that 105 of the tortoises living on Floreana Island had some C. elephantopus blood in their veins, mingled with ancestry from another species on the island. None of the tortoises were purebred, but scientists’ curiosity was piqued.

Seven years later, a team of 70 field researchers set out to see if they could find more. And there, on the grassy side of a volcano, they did: 144 tortoises with C. elephantopus’s distinctive saddle-shaped shell.

Blood tests from the volcano dwellers and six tortoises already in the islands’ captive breeding program revealed a rich field of Floreana tortoise DNA. Most of the samples included some of the thought-extinct species’ DNA, and two individuals appeared to be 100 percent, uncut C. elephantopus.

The researchers collected 23 of the tortoises, including the two apparent purebreds, and added them to the captive breeding program—after checking to make sure none of them were related. A few generations of baby tortoises would be enough to bring the species back.

Craig Stanford is a tortoise and turtle expert at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. He was not involved with the research but expressed excitement about the possibility of bringing Floreana tortoises back.

“We have the opportunity to restore a critically rare and biologically remarkable species to its natural habitat, which is an amazing chance that doesn’t come along very often,” he told New Scientist. “I’m cautiously optimistic about the odds of success.”

The paper’s authors note that the rogue population on the volcano’s slopes may be the result of the same human interference that obliterated the rest of the species. “Ironically, it was the haphazard translocations by mariners killing tortoises for food centuries ago that created the unique opportunity to revive this ‘lost’ species today.”

[h/t New Scientist]

Bombshell, Victoria’s Secret’s Bestselling Fragrance, Also Happens to Repel Mosquitoes

Dids, Pexels
Dids, Pexels

People love Bombshell, the best-selling fragrance at Victoria’s Secret, for its summery blend of fruity and floral notes. Not everyone is a huge fan, though: As Quartz reports, the perfume is surprisingly good at warding off mosquitoes. In fact, it’s almost as effective as DEET insect repellent, according to the results of a 2014 experiment by researchers at New Mexico State University.

Researchers took 10 products that are commercially available and tested their ability to repel two different species of mosquitoes: the yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti) and the Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus), both of which are known to transmit diseases like dengue fever, chikungunya, and yellow fever. In doing so, volunteers subjected their own flesh to the test by placing their hands on either side of a Y-shaped tube containing the blood-sucking critters. One hand was covered in a synthetic rubber glove, while the other hand was sprayed with one of the products but otherwise left bare. Researchers recorded which tunnel the mosquitoes flew to, and how long they avoided the other end.

Three of the products contained DEET, while four products didn’t. In addition, there were two fragrances (including Bombshell) and one vitamin B1 skin patch. The DEET products were the most effective, but Bombshell proved to be nearly as good, keeping mosquitoes at bay for roughly two hours.

“There was some previous literature that said fruity, floral scents attracted mosquitoes, and to not wear those,” Stacy Rodriquez, one of the study’s authors, said in a statement. “It was interesting to see that the mosquitoes weren’t actually attracted to the person that was wearing the Victoria’s Secret perfume—they were repelled by it.”

This isn’t the first time a perfume has had an unintended effect on the natural world. It turns out that tigers are obsessed with Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men cologne, partly because it contains a synthetic version of civetone, a pheromone that's secreted by glands located near a civet’s anus. This substance was once used to create musky fragrances, but nowadays the scent is mostly reproduced in a lab. Still, the fake stuff must be pretty convincing, because big cats go crazy when they catch a whiff of it.

[h/t Quartz]

Mystery Solved: Scientists Have Figured Out Why Some Squirrels Are Black

Rena-Marie/iStock via Getty Images
Rena-Marie/iStock via Getty Images

It can be something of a surprise to see an animal sporting a fresh coat of paint. Blue lobsters occasionally surface after being caught in traps. A pink dolphin was spotted in Louisiana in 2007 (and several times since). In the Chinese province of Shaanxi, a cute brown and white panda greets zoo visitors.

Another anomalous animal has joined their ranks. Black squirrels have been spotted in both the United States and the UK, and now scientists believe they know why.

Like many animals with unusual color schemes, black squirrels are the result of a genetic detour. Researchers at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge University, and the Virginia Museum of Natural History collaborated on a project that tested squirrel DNA. Their findings, which were published in BMC Evolutionary Biology, demonstrated that the black squirrel is the product of interspecies breeding between the common gray squirrel and the fox squirrel. The black squirrel is actually a gray squirrel with a faulty pigment gene carried over from the fox squirrel that turns their fur a darker shade. (Some fox squirrels, which are usually reddish-brown, are also black.)

A black squirrel is pictured
sanches12/iStock via Getty Images

Scientists theorize a black fox squirrel may have joined in on a mating chase involving gray squirrels and got busy with a female. The black fur may offer benefits in colder regions, with squirrels able to absorb and retain more heat, giving them a slight evolutionary edge.

In North America, black squirrels are uncommon, with one estimate putting them at a rate of one in every 10,000 squirrels. In 1961, students at Kent State University in Ohio released 10 black squirrels that had been captured by Canadian wildlife authorities. The squirrels now populate the campus and have become the school’s unofficial mascot. Their coloring might help them hide from predators, which might come in handy at Kent State: The campus is also home to hawks.

[h/t The Guardian]

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