Saturday, 15 May 2021

Balaenoptera physalus: Fin Whale washes ashore in Mersin Province, Turkey.

The body of a 14 m long Fin Whale, Balaenoptera physalus, has washed ashore on a beach in Mersin Province, Turkey, on Thursday 13 May 2021. The Whale was dead when it came ashore, and was recovered by scientists from Mersin University, with support from the Coast Guard and local firefighters, with the aim of first determining the cause of the Animals death, then preparing its skeleton for display in the Mersin Sea Museum.

 
A Fin Whale, Balaenoptera physalus, that washed ashore on a beach in Mersin Province, Turkey, on 13 May 2021. Hürriyet Daily News.

 Fin Whales are relatively common in the Western Mediterranean, often being seen off the coasts of Spain and France, but are distinctly unusual in the Eastern Mediterranean. Many species of Whales were hunted almost to extinction in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, prior to a moratorium on almost all Whale hunting that was introduced in the 1970s. The reporting of greater numbers of dead Whales on our shores is often distressing, and can appear to be sign of more Whales dying in inshore waters, but in fact this greater number of dead Whales reflects a larger population of Whales being present offshore, and is a symptom of recovering populations.

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Paegniodes sapanensis: A new species of Mayfly from Nan Province in Thailand.

The Mayfly genus Paegniodes currently contains two species, Paegniodes cupulatus, from China, and Paegniodes dao, from Vietnam. Neither of these species is well known, and only Paegniodes cupulatus has been genetically sequenced, but they are considered to both be members of the same, unique, genus with some confidence, based upon unique characters of the imaginal and larval stages.

In a paper published in the journal ZooKeys on 10 May 2021, Boonsatien Boonsoong of the Animal Systematics and Ecology Speciality Research Unit at Kasetsart University, Chonlakran Auychinda of the Department of Biology and Health Science at Mahidol Wittayanusorn School, Michel Sartori of the Museum of Zoology at the Palais de Rumine, and the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Lausanne, and Nuttakun Khanyom, also of the Animal Systematics and Ecology Speciality Research Unit at Kasetsart University,  describe a third species of Paegniodes from Nan Province in Thailand.

The new species is named Paegniodes sapanensis, meaning 'from Sapan', in reference to the Sapan waterfall, a popular tourist attraction in Bo Kluea District of Nan Province, where the species was discovered. 

The species is described from subimagos (a subimago is the penultimate stage in the development of a Mayfly, with the ability to fly but not reproduce) and larvae. A single female subimago is described, this having a body length of 12.8 mm, with cerci (paired appendages on the rear-most segments) 20.0 mm in length, a forewing measurement of 14.4 mm and a hindwing measurement of 2.6 mm. The head, thorax and abdomen are dorsally brown and ventrally light brown; the legs are yellow and the caudal filaments brown. The wings are semitransparent, with veins yellowish to brown, the sternum light brown, and a pair of dark dots is present on both the pronotum and mesonotum. A single male subimago described is coloured similarly to the female, but with a body length of only 8.5 mm, cerci of 17.5 mm, a forewing length of 10.9 mm, and a hindwing length of 1.5 mm. A described larval specimen is 16.2 mm in length, and dark brown in colour, with a whitish underside. 

 
Paegniodes sapanensis, habitus (live). (A) Immature larva, (B) male larva, (C) female larva, (D) closer view of female subimago, (E) male subimago, (F) female subimago. Boonsoong et al. (2021).

The species is known only from Nan Province in Thailand. The specimens were collected from tropical mountain streams which are slightly disturbed by tourist activities. The larvae of the new species were found in flowing areas and the littoral zone of the streams, underneath a mostly cobble substrate.

 
Habitats of larvae of Paegniodes sapanensis. (A) Tributary of a Sapan stream, (B) cobble substrate with bottom sand and gravel, (C) stream bank with cobble. Boonsoong et al. (2021).

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Fireball meteor over upstate New York.

The American Meteor Society has received reports of a bright fireball meteor being seen upstate New York, at about 3.05 am Eastern Standard Time about 8.05 am GMT) on Thursday 13 May 2021. Sightings were reported from Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, and West Virginia, with the object travelling from southwest to northeast, entering the atmosphere somewhere to the southeast of the town of Sweden and vanishing near Cayuga Lake. A fireball is defined as a meteor (shooting star) brighter than the planet Venus. These are typically caused by pieces of rock burning up in the atmosphere, but can be the result of man-made space-junk burning up on re-entry.

 
The 13 May 2021 New York fireball meteor seen from the Thomas G. Cupillari Observatory in Fleetville, Pennsylvania. John Sabia/Thomas G. Cupillari Observatory/Keystone College/American Meteor Society.

Objects of this size probably enter the Earth's atmosphere several times a year, though unless they do so over populated areas they are unlikely to be noticed. They are officially described as fireballs if they produce a light brighter than the planet Venus. The brightness of a meteor is caused by friction with the Earth's atmosphere, which is typically far greater than that caused by simple falling, due to the initial trajectory of the object. Such objects typically eventually explode in an airburst called by the friction, causing them to vanish as an luminous object. However, this is not the end of the story as such explosions result in the production of a number of smaller objects, which fall to the ground under the influence of gravity (which does not cause the luminescence associated with friction-induced heating).
 
 
Heat map showing areas where sightings of the meteor were reported (warmer colours indicate more sightings), and the apparent path of the object (blue arrow). American Meteor Society.

These 'dark objects' do not continue along the path of the original bolide, but neither do they fall directly to the ground, but rather follow a course determined by the atmospheric currents (winds) through which the objects pass. Scientists are able to calculate potential trajectories for hypothetical dark objects derived from meteors using data from weather monitoring services.
 
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Magnitude 7.2 Earthquake off the coast of Sumatra.

The Indonesian Meteorological, Climatological, and Geophysical Agency recorded a Magnitude 7.2 Earthquake at a depth of about 19 km, about 141 km to the southwest of West Sumatra Province, Indonesia slightly after 1.30 pm Western Indonesian Time (slightly after 6.30 am GMT) on Friday 14 May 2021. There are no reports of any damage or casualties associated with this quake, but people have reported feeling it on the islands of Sumatra and Simeulue.

The approximate location of the 14 May 2021 West Sumatra Earthquake. USGS.

The Indo-Australian Plate, which underlies the Indian Ocean to the west of Sumatra, is being subducted beneath the Sunda Plate, a breakaway part of the Eurasian Plate which underlies Sumatra and neighbouring Java, along the Sunda Trench, passing under Sumatra, where friction between the two plates can cause Earthquakes. As the Indo-Australian Plate sinks further into the Earth it is partially melted and some of the melted material rises through the overlying Sunda Plate as magma, fuelling the volcanoes of Sumatra.

 
The Subduction zone beneath Sumatra. NASA/Earth Observatory.

This does not happen at a 90° angle, as occurs in the subduction zones along the western margins of North and South America, but at a steeply oblique angle. This means that as well as the subduction of the Indo-Australian plate beneath the Sunda, the two plates are also moving past one-another. This causes rifting within the plates, as parts of each plate become stuck to the other, and are dragged along in the opposing plate's direction. The most obvious example of this is the Sumatran Fault, which runs the length of Sumatra, with the two halves of the island moving independently of one-another. This fault is the cause of most of the quakes on the island, and most of the island's volcanoes lie on it.

 
The movement of the tectonic plates around Sumatra. NASA/Earth Observatory.

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China successfully lands probe on Mars.

The China National Space Administration has successfully landed a probe on Utopia Planitia, a vast lava plain in Mars' northern hemisphere. The lander comprises the Zhurong Rover, a six wheeled mobile vehicle armed with an array of instruments, plus a supporting platform with a radio transmitter enabling it to communicate with the orbiting Tianwen-1 spacecraft, and thence to Earth. The successful landing makes China only the second nation to have landed a probe on Mars, with the United States having completed several successful landings, but several attempts by the Russian and European space agencies having failed.

 
An artist's impression of the Zhurong Rover surveying the surface of Mars. Aerospace China/China National Space Administration/Wikimedia Commons.

The Tianwen-1 mission was launched from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on 23 July 2020, and entered orbit around Mars on 24 February 2021, with the probe setting down on Utopia Planitia at 7.18 am on Saturday 15 May 2021, Beijing time (11.18 pm on Friday 14 May, GMT). The Zhurong Rover is equipped with seven kinds of scientific instruments: two remote-sensing cameras, the Mars-Orbiting Subsurface Exploration Radar, the Mars Mineralogy Spectrometer, the Mars Magnetometer, the Mars Ion and Neutral Particle Analyzer and the Mars Energetic Particle Analyzer.

 

An animation shows how the Zhurong Rover touched down. BBC.

The name 'Zhurong' (祝融) was chosen by a popular online vote from a list of ten candidate names. It is the name of a fire god traditionally worshiped in southern China, which ties in with the Chinese name for the planet Mars, Huoxing (火星), meaning 'Fire Planet'.

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Landslide destroys buildings in Uttarakhand, India.

Several buildings were destroyed on a landslide in the town of Devprayag, in Uttarakhand State, India, on Tuesday 11 May 2021. The landslide was triggered by heavy rainfall, which caused a rise in the waters of the Shanta River, which rapidly undermined the banks below the buildings, causing the slope on which they were situated to collapse. The buildings are described as having been municipal and commercial in nature, rather than residential, and were evacuated safely before their collapse, so that nobody was injured in the event.

 
Collapsed buildings in the town of Devprayag, in Uttarakhand State, India, following a landslide on 11 May 2021. Times of India.

Uttarakhand is prone to extreme weather events, generally connected to its heavy seasonal monsoon, which typically lasts from July to September. However, this event appears to have been unrelated to the annual monsoon, but instead to have been caused by a cloudburst (isolated extreme rainfall event) which caused similar events across a wide area, although none of them as serious as that in Devprayag. A number of buildings were damaged in other parts of Uttarakhand, including the Kainchi Dham shrine in Nainital District, although there are no reports of anybody being injured in any of these events.

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Platyceps josephi: A new species of Racer from Tamil Nadu.

The Banded Racer, Argyrogena fasciolata, is a species of Colubrid Snake found across much of South Asia, which was first described in 1796 by the Scottish surgeon and naturalist Patrick Russell. Although widespread, the Banded Racer has a non-contiguous distribution (i.e. it's distribution is divided into many small local populations which do not connect) and is highly morphologically variable, which has led to repeated speculation that the 'species' may in fact represent a cluster of closely related species. This has led to many different classifications being proposed, but none of these have gained widespread acceptance, as taxonomists have been unable to agree on the criteria for describing new species, leaving to the retention of a single species to describe all populations, even though it is generally accepted that this is incorrect.

In a paper published in the journal Vertebrate Zoology on 13 May 2021, Veerappan Deepak of the Senckenberg Museum of Zoology, the Department of Life Sciences at the Natural History Museum, and the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Surya Narayanan of the Suri Sehgal Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Pratyush Mohapatra of the Central Zone Regional Centre of the Zoological Survey of India, Sushil Dutta of the Department of Zoology at Assam Don Bosco University, Gnanaselvan Melvinselvan of Dindugal in Tamil Nadu, Ashaharraza Khan of the Indian Herpetological Society, and Kristin Mahlow and Frank Tillack of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, describe a second species of Racer Snake from Tamil Nadu State, India.

Samples of tissue were extracted from samples Colubrid Snakes from across India and Pakistan, and DNA extracted from these using Qiagen DNeasy blood and tissue kits. They amplified partial sequences of two nuclear and three mitochondrial genes. Cytochrome b and NADH dehydrogenase subunit 4, 16S rRNA and the nu markers are oocyte maturation factor and recombination activating gene 1. 

Phylogenetic analyses were carried out using the CIPRES Science Gateway portal v3.3. PartitionFinder v2 was used (default MrBayes settings) to find the best-fit partition scheme for the concatenated dataset and model of sequence evolution for each partition. The best-fit scheme comprised six partitions. Deepak et al. estimated phylogenetic relationships using maximum likelihood and Bayesian inference.

Both the maximum likelihood and Bayesian inference found that the genus Platyceps was monophyletic (i.e. contained all the decendents of a single common ancestor) as long as the genus Argyrogena was included within it. For this reason they abolish the genus name Argyrogena, changing the formal name for the Banded Racer from Argyrogena fasciolata to Platyceps fasciolata. However, Deepak et al. note that the original name for the species was Natrix plinii, and that the species name should therefore now be Platyceps plinii.

The specimens sampled were found to fall into two distinct lineages, with one population comprising specimens from across Pakistan, northern, and central India, and one comprising specimens from Tamil Nadu State, in southern India. This population is therefore described as a new species, named Platyceps josephi (Joseph's Racer), in honour of the late Naveen Joseph, for his research on Reptiles, particularly Snakes in the Tuticorin region.

 
Map showing geomorphological features in parts of the Indian subcontinent and current locality records for Platyceps spp. mentioned in Deepak et al.'s study. Green (triangle) denotes the type locality and green (diamonds) for records of Platyceps plinii. Yellow (star) denotes the type locality, and yellow (circles) for the records of Platyceps josephi. Historically relevant names and important physiographic features are labelled. Deepak et al. (2021).

Platyceps josephi is a medium-sized Snake, with a maximum total length of 951 mm. It has a countersunk lower jaw, a dark brown dorsal service with white speckles, and two 'Π'-shaped white markings with black edges, on either side of the back of the head, behind the parietals, and extending into the body, and 34–48 prominent white bands on the body in both juveniles and adults. The body of Platyceps josephi is subcylindrical, being somewhat dorsoventrally flattened. The head is ovate, and barely wider than the anterior end of body. 

 
Platyceps josephi in life from various parts of Tamil Nadu state, India: (A) Holotype NCBS-AU732 (female, snout-vent length: 757 mm) from Tuticorin, (B) Paratype NCBS-AU733 (female, snout-vent length: 608 mm) from Tuticorin, (C) Paratype BNHS 3516 (female, snout-vent length: 592 mm) from Tuticorin, (D) uncollected (juvenile) from Tuticorin, (E) Paratype ZSI-CZRC-6639 (male, snout-vent length: 574 mm) from Karur, (F) Uncollected (male) from Vathalagundu, (G) uncollected (juvenile) from Tuticorin and (H) uncollected (female, snout-vent length: 655 mm) from Pollachi. Deepak et al. (2021).

Platyceps josephi is so far only known from Tamil Nadu State, India. It is reported from the Anaimallai Hills and different localities within the districts of Coimbatore (Anaikatti, Coimbatore, Pollachi), Dindigul (Batlagundu), Kanyakumari (Maruthuvazhmalai), Karur (Karur), Madurai (Madurai, Vadipatti), Salem (Salem), Theni (Meghamalai Hills), Thoothukudi (Tuticorin), Tirunelveli (Coutrallam, Manimutharu, Tirunelveli) and Villupuram (Auroville). The new species mostly inhabits open habitats with sandy or rocky patches in grasslands and scrublands in both inland and coastal areas of Tamil Nadu from elevations between 10 and 580 m above sealevel. Most of the areas where the species occurs receive less than 500 mm annual rainfall except locations near the rain shadowed areas close to the Western Ghats receives higher rainfall. The species is generally observed under thorny bushes, rock boulders, paddy fields, heaps of dry Coconut fronds and seen crossing roads, although several specimens were collected from Human habitations.

 
Habitats of Platyceps josephi in Tamil Nadu state, India: (A) close to the coast at the type locality Tuticorin, and (B) inland habitat near Anaikatti, Coimbatore. Deepak et al. (2021).

Platyceps josephi is a diurnal Snake, terrestrial and swift in locomotion. There is a report of arboreal behaviour under artificial conditions, but this is not known in the wild. It is an aggressive Snake, flattening its head as a mock hood display mimicking a Cobra, when agitated and biting freely, but it becomes docile after a few days in captivity.

The diet of the Platyceps josephi chiefly consists of Geckos, Lizards and small Rodents. It has been observed to kill the prey by constricting and/or crushing the prey against ground or tree trunk. In all captive observations, it swallows the prey from the head first. It is an oviparous Snake with few records of clutch sizes, 7–12 eggs during the month of March and June and have been reported, with the eggs being 40 mm in length. Females are reported to lay their eggs in bunds (raised areas surrounding the paddy fields) of paddy fields. 

Platyceps josephi is reported only from one protected area (the Megamalai Wildlife Sanctuary) in its known range. The species faces a number of threats across its distributional range, including habitat destruction, because the grasslands in southern Tamil Nadu are being actively converted into plantations, farmlands and urbanisation. Although there are records from such converted plantations and Human settlements, the species’ ability to adapt and its reproductive success is not known. Rocky habitats in Madurai region are also highly affected by the mining activities and road traffic is another important threat to Platyceps josephi. Three out of the seven specimens collected by Deepak et al. were roadkill and six other uncollected roadkill specimens were observed from various parts of Tamil Nadu between 2017 and 2020. The Area Of Occupancy of Platyceps josephi is 72 000 km² and Extent Of Occupancy is 70 698 km². Even though this is a relatively large area of distribution for a species, Deepak et al.'s field surveys and records suggest that this species has patchy distribution within its range. Also, much of the habitat in these regions where Platyceps josephi is reported are under severe threats like conversion of grasslands to farmlands, widescale monoculture plantations (Eucalyptus sp.) and urbanization. Given this information, Deepak et al. suggest that Platyceps josephi should be considered to be Vulnerable under the terms of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

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