Monday 31 July 2023

Cattle in the rock art of Wadi Bajdha, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia covers an area of about 2 million km² with rock art known from every area of the country. A comprehensive survey of the rock art of Saudi Arabia begun in 1981 took over 15 years to complete, and recorded over 2000 sites with pre-Arabic and early Arabic inscriptions, as well as thousands of petroglyphs (images made by inscribing into a rock surface).

In a paper published in the Journal of Historical Archaeology and Anthropological Sciences on 3 July 2023, Majeed Khan and Faisal Al-Jabrin of the Antiquities Sector of the Saudi Ministry of Culture, describe a newly discovered rock art site at Wadi Bajdha in the Tabuk Region of Saudi Arabia, and discuss the implications of the images discovered there.

The art is located in a deep valley surrounded by mountains to the northwest of the city of Tabuk, where water collected during the rainy season. The site has historically been visited seasonally by Bedouin herders, and may have, at times, hosted permanent settlements.

The rock art is located on a vertical rock face on the side of a hill, which appears to contain images from different periods. The oldest figures on this panel appear to be a group of Cattle with short horns and flat humps. These Cows appear to be different from both the long-horned Oxen depicted at the Neolithic sites of Jubbah and Shuwaymis, and the high-humped Indian Zebu-like Cattle depicted in the Najran area of southern Saudi Arabia. Khan and Al-Jabrin suggest that this art represents the second phase of Cattle domestication in Saudi Arabia, following the Neolithic long-horned Oxen phase.

The rock art gallery at Wadi Bajdha in the Tabuk Region, in north of Saudi Arabia. Khan & Al-Jabrin (2023).

The rock art of Saudi Arabia is highly diverse, and appears to have been produced in a range of contexts with different purposes and meanings. Neolithic images appear to show Oxen as both Animals hunted as prey, and as sacred or possibly Divine Animals. Chalcolithic images have been interpreted to show Oxen as mythical creatures, deities, and sacrificial Animals. With this in mind, Khan and Al-Jabrin are careful to compare the Wadi Bajdha rock art to rock art from other locations, before drawing any conclusions about its meaning.

An open air temple, where Cows are depicted with idoliform images possibly deities or gods, located in Wadi Damm northwest of Tabuk. Believed to be evidence of Cow worship in Arabia. Khan & Al-Jabrin (2023).

Archaeological evidence and rock art depictions both suggest that Wild Cattle, Bos primigenius, were present in Arabia as both wild and domestic Animals during the Neolithic. At sites such as Shuwaymis, Jubbah, Hanakiya, large numbers of Oxen are depicted, with flat backs and exaggerated horns. These resemble European Wild Cattle, Bos primigenius, an Animal not known after the Neolithic climate shift, which occurred about 7900 years ago in northern Arabia, and led to a shift from a cool, humid climate to a hot, arid one.

Long-horned flat-back Oxen from the  Neolithic Shuwaymis site in the north of Saudi Arabia. Evidence of the presence of Wild Oxen in Arabia. Khan & Al-Jabrin (2023).

Petroglyphs of Cattle in Saudi Arabia represent at least three separate climatic phases, which each phase associated with images of different sizes, styles, and execution techniques, which has enabled the development of a chronology for such art, which links Animal type to climate shifts.

Earliest known image of Long-horned Cow, Bos primigenius, from Saudi Arabia dated to about 9000 BC. This image located at the Neolithic Jubbah, site in the north of the country. Superimposed on the Cow is a Camel figure of much later period. There is a difference of several thousand years between the two Animals; representing two climatic phases; cool and humid (Cow) and hot and dry conditions (Camel). Khan & Al-Jabrin (2023).

The style of the rock petroglyphs at Wadi Bajdha suggests that the art dates from the Chalcolithic Period, about 3500 BC. At this time people in the area had domesticated Cows and Goats, and engaged in small-scale hunting along with the hunting of Ibex. Camels did not appear in Arabia until the Bronze Age (along with Date Palms), and are absent from the Wadi Bajdha art. 

A pregnant Cow. A small baby can be seen inside the mother Cow, a firm indication of a domesticated Cow. Domesticated small horned and flat back Cattle are found on several sites in northern and southern Arabia representing the middle phase of Chalcolithic domesticated Cows, around 3500 BC. Khan & Al-Jabrin (2023).

The left corner of the Wadi Bajdha panel depicts a number of large, Chalcolithic-style Cows, as well as several Ibex, and some Horse riders with lances. These appear to have been made by artists from different periods, who took care not to overlap the art, as well as some tribal symbols. Battles between riders armed with lances was common among Bedouin tribes into the recent past.

The third phase in the art gallery represented by Camel and pre-Arabic Thamudic inscriptions in addition to Horse riders with long lances in fighting attitude drawn by the people representing the last phase of rock art in this gallery. Khan & Al-Jabrin (2023).

The Wadi Bajdha art shows apparently domesticated Cattle, including a pregnant female with a baby inside, but no images of Camels, suggesting that this art is Chalcolithic in origin. The site is likely to have has good living conditions during this interval, supporting a permanent or semi-permanent population, who presumably left as the climate continued to get hotter and drier. Many other rock art sites in Saudi Arabia show similar combinations of Human and Animal figures, and appear to have been abandoned after short periods of occupation. This suggests that the population of Saudi Arabia has been largely nomadic for much of its history, inhabited by groups who moved regularly depending on the availability of water. 

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Evidence for Indonesian Songbirds being traded on TikTok.

Wild-caught Songbirds are traded across Southeast Asia to be kept as pets or ornaments, released in ceremonies, and, particularly, to be used in singing competitions. This is considered to be a significant threat to many species, to the extent that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared an Asian Songbird Extinction Crisis in 2017, with Indonesia considered to be the critical hotspot for this activity. The advent of the internet has provided Songbird dealers with ample new opportunities to reach potential customers, through sites such as the online marketplace OXL. The trade in wildlife (and other illegal goods) via online marketplaces can be fast moving and difficult to address, as dealers will often quickly move to a new website once conservationist or law enforcement agencies become aware of their activities.

In a letter to the journal Oryx published on 21 July 2023, Sicily Fiennes of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds, and Silvi Dwi Anasari and Novi Hardianto of Kausa Resliensi Indonesia, report that the TikTok platform is being used by traders in in protected and threatened species of Indonesian Birds.

TikTok has about 110 million users in Indonesia. The site joined the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online in 2021, and subsequently released guidelines which stated that t ‘any content that depicts or promotes the poaching or illegal trade of wildlife is not allowed on our platform and will be removed when identified’. The site claims that 74% of such content is taken down before it is observed by a single viewer, but some well documented breaches of this have occurred, including the promotion of exotic pets in the US, some of which may have been sourced illegally, and the organisation and promotion of Badger persecution in the UK.

Fiennes et al. report an example of at Greater Green Leafbird, Chloropsis sonnerati, being offered for sale on TikTok. Greater Green Leafbirds are currently considered to be Endangered under the terms of terms of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, and are protected under Indonesian Law. However, the species remains a popular pet across Java. 

An example TikTok post that depicts wild songbird trade in Indonesia. Cak ijo is shorthand for cucak ijo, the trade name for Leafbirds (Chloropsis spp.), PH, paruh hitam (black beak); jamin jantan (guaranteed male, although the photo could show either a juvenile male or an adult female of the Greater Green Leafbird, Chloropsis sonnerati); 450 ecer implies 450 000 Indonesian Rupiah (about UK£24 or US$30); WA is shorthand for WhatsApp. The telephone number and the name of the shop has been obscured.

The online trade in Songbirds presents a range of new challenges for conservationists monitoring the trade in Indonesia. Dealers are clearly incentivised to use such platforms, which give a perception of anonymity, and enable them to reach a wider potential customer base, thereby securing higher sales prices. Fiennes et al. are able to demonstrate that such dealers are able to flout TikTok's guidelines, and recommend that wildlife trade monitoring programs pay more attention to TikTok and other emerging platforms.

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Sunday 30 July 2023

Igai semkhu: A new species of Titanosaur from the Latest Cretaceous of Kharga Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt.

The last three decades have seen a great improvement in our understanding of the Dinosaurs, and other terrestrial Animals, inhabiting the Gondwana supercontinent during the Latest Cretaceous (Campanian–Maastrichtian). A large number of new Dinosaur species have been described from South America, India, Pakistan, Madagascar, and even Antarctica. However, two significant regions of Gondwana, Africa and Australia, still have very poor fossil records from this time, making it hard to understand the biogeographical connections between the faunas of these regions and that of other parts of the world. The Campanian–Maastrichtian Dinosaur record of mainland Africa is exceptionally poor, with a very limited amount of material known and most of that comprising of very fragmentary material and isolated skeletal elements, of limited use for morphological or phylogenetic studies.

The most complete Dinosaur fossil from the Latest Cretaceous of Africa is the Titanosaurian Sauropod Mansourasaurus shahinae, from the Campanian Quseir Formation of the Dakhla Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt. This is a partial skeleton comprising the craniomandibular, postcranial axial, appendicular, and possible dermal elements, though many of the bones are significantly deformed, which makes interpreting these remains challenging. The partial hind limb of another Titanosauriform Sauropod has been reported from Maastrichtian phosphatic deposits in the Ouled Abdoun Basin of Morocco, and Sauropod fossils from the Latest Cretaceous of Kenya and Jordan (which lies on the Arabian Peninsula, still part of Africa in the Cretaceous). Furthermore, two species of Titanosaur, Rukwatitan bisepultus and Shingopana songwensis, have been described on the basis of partial skeletons from the Upper Cretaceous Namba Member of the Galula Formation of southwestern Tanzania, which may be Campanian or a little older. Numerous isolated Sauropod bones have also been reported from the Namba Member. 

Most of these fossils were discovered in the first two decades of the twenty first century, however, another, as yet undescribed, Titanosaur is known from a partial skeleton recovered from the Quseir  Formation  of  the Kharga Oasis in 1977, by a field team from the Technische Universität Berlin. Although briefly mentioned in several publications in the 1990s, no formal description of this skeleton or attempt to place it within a broader phylogenetic analysis has ever been published. Although this specimen is fragmentary, and many of the elements are distorted, it is the second-most complete Dinosaur skeleton from the Latest Cretaceous of Africa.

In a paper published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology on 20 July 2023, Eric Gorscak of the Department of Anatomy at Midwestern University, Matthew Lamanna of the Section of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Daniela Swartz and Verónica Díez Díaz of the Museum für Naturkunde at the Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions-und Biodiversitätsforschung, Belal Salem of the Department of Geology at Benha University, the Mansoura University Vertebrate Paleontology Center, and the Department of Biological Sciences and Ohio Center for Ecological and Evolutionary Studies at Ohio University, Hesham Sallam, also of the Mansoura University Vertebrate Paleontology Center, and of the Institute of Global Health and Human Ecology at the American University in Cairo, and Marc Filip Weichmann of the Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe, present a formal description of the Kharga Oasis Titanosaur.

The skeleton was discovered by Werner Barthel and Ronald Böttcher of the Technische Universität Berlin in November 1977, collected in 27 plaster jackets, and returned to Berlin, where it remained overlooked for the next two decades. Barthel's records of the excavation show that the skeleton was damaged during the process, due to insufficient use of preservatives. In the 1990s the skeleton was transferred to the Institut für Paläontologie of the Freie Universität Berlin (where it was studied by Marc Filip Weichmann as the subject of his diploma thesis, as part of a wider transfer of palaeontological material collected in the Western Desert. In 2008, the Freie Universität Berlin abandoned its vertebrate palaeontology program, and the specimen was tranferred to the collection of the Museum für Naturkunde, along with a large number of other fossils from the Cretaceous of Egypt and Sudan. Gorscak et al. re-examined the specimen in 2017, finding that most of the material observed by Weichmann in the 1990s was still present, although some skeletal elements had received further damage, most of which has since been repaired, using photogrammetric records made by Weichmann during his study, and the left tibia had gone missing, although the records made of this bone by Weichmann during his study still exist.

Based upon the available material, Gorscak et al. describe the specimen as a new species, Igai semkhu, where 'Igai' was a deity worshipped in the region around the Dakhla and Kharga oases from at least the Old Kingdom to the Pharaonic Late Period, whose name is thought to mean something like 'Lord of the Oasis', and 'semkhu' means 'the forgotten', making 'Igai semkhu' 'the forgotten Lord of the Oasis', a reference both to its place of origin and the long period it sat overlooked in the collections of various institutions.

The skeleton comprises five fragmentary dorsal vertebrae, partial left coracoid, partial left ulna, three left metacarpals (I, IV, and V), the proximal part of the left pubis, both tibiae (a partial right and the complete and well-documented but currently missing left, Vb-634), the left fibula, and three metatarsals (left I, left and right II). Numerous other elements were apparently present when the skeleton was discovered, but are not missing and have not been observed by any members of the team.

Location of discovery and quarry map of Igai semkhu (Vb-621–640). (A) Map of Egypt showing the location of the town of Baris in the Kharga Oasis region, denoted by orange star; (B) satellite image from Google Earth Pro of the research areas south of Baris with approximate quarry location indicated by orange star; (C) quarry map showing disposition of skeletal elements in situ with currently missing and/or obliterated elements in grey; and (D) skeletal silhouette with elements described shown in orange. Abbreviations: cor, coracoid; dv, dorsal vertebra; fib, fibula; mtcI, metacarpal I; mtc IV, metacarpal IV; mtc V, metacarpal V; mtt I, metatarsal I; mtt II, metatarsal II; pub, pubis; tib, tibia; ul, ulna. Gorscak et al. (2023).

The dorsal vertebrae of Igai semkhu lack hyposphene-hypantrum articulations, and its ulna has a prominent olecranon process, both of which mark it out as a Titanosaur. The fragmentary nature of the material, combined with the fact that many of the elements are distorted, prevent a very detailed reconstruction of the specimen, but it is estimated to have been about 10-15 m in length in life, and either mature or very close to maturity. This makes it slightly larger than Mansourasaurus shahinae, which is estimated to have been 8-10 m in length.

A phylogenetic study recovered both Igai semkhu and Mansourasaurus shahinae as Saltosaurids. This is interesting, as Saltosaurids are otherwise absent from Africa, while in Europe almost all Titanosaurs from the Latest Cretaceous are Saltosaurids, and of similar size to Igai semkhu and Mansourasaurus shahinae, implying a link between the Sauropod fauna of Egypt and that of Europe in the Latest Cretaceous. In sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar, in contrast, there appears to have been a wider range of Titanosaur groups, matching the more diverse faunas of the Americas, and many species appear to have grown far larger than their Egyptian and European relatives.

Maximum clade credibility tree for variable-rates tip-dated Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of Igai semkhu within Titanosauria. Numbersat nodes represent posterior probabilities (posterior probabilities at or above 50% are in bold), light gray bars at each node represent 95% highest posterior density of each node age. African terminal taxa are denoted in bold. Time scale is in units of millions of years. Abbreviations: Aeol, Aeolosaurini; Eutitan, Eutitanosauria; Lith, Lithostrotia; Rinc, Rinconsauria; Salt, Saltasauridae; Titan, Titanosauria. Gorscak et al. (2023).

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Saturday 29 July 2023

Survey reveals 27% growth in Bhutan's Tiger population.

A survey carried out by the Forest and Park Services Department of the Royal Government of Bhutan in 2021-22 has found that the current population of adult Bengal Tigers, Panthera tigris tigris, in the country is 131, a 27% increase since the last such survey was carried out in 2015. The species appears to be breeding at different altitudes within the country, suggesting that the increase in population is related to a genuine ecological recovery.

A Tiger imaged by a camara trap in Bhutan during the 2021-22 survey. Forest and Park Services Department of the Royal Government of Bhutan.

Tigers are currently considered to be Endangered under the terms of terms of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, with the global population estimated to have declined between 53% and 68% between 1996 and 2014, and a range contraction of more than 50% during the past three generations. Tigers are solitary Big Cats requiring large territories and a supply of suitable prey, ideally Deer or Wild Pigs, to survive. As such they are highly vulnerable to habitat loss, as well as conflict with Humans, as many farmed Animals fall within the prey-size range of Tigers.

The current and former range of the Tiger. IUCN Cat Specialist Group.

Tigers were once found in Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Singapore, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam, however, they are now extinct in Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Pakistan, Singapore, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Indonesia, and Nepal have implemented rigorous monitoring and conservation plans for Tigers since the last ICUN assessment of the global population in 2015, with Bhutan, India, and Nepal all subsequently reporting rises in their Tiger populations.

A family of Tigers imaged by a camara trap in Bhutan during the 2021-22 survey. Forest and Park Services Department of the Royal Government of Bhutan.

The conservation of large predatory Animals such as Tigers is very much dependent on the co-operation of local populations. Tigers are known to take a large number of domestic Animals as prey in Bhutan, but the number of reprisal attacks is surprisingly low. Some of this can be attributed to a culture of respect for nature, however, a survey carried out by the World Wildlife Fund in Trongsa District, which lies entirely within the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park in the northeast of the country, found that people were concerned by the rise in the Tiger population, citing fears about livestock losses, and reporting that living close to the Big Cats is in itself stressful. The government of Bhutan has established Tiger Conservation Committees in several parts of the country, to encourage stewardship of the species, manage Human-Tiger conflicts, and provide livestock insurance, and the World Wildlife Fund is urging the government to set up more such committees, as well as planning to carry out similar surveys in other parts of the country.

A representative of the World Wildlife Fund interviewing a villager about attitudes to Tigers in Trogsa District, Nepal. Tashi Phuntsho/WWF-Bhutan.

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Elaborate Roman mosaic uncovered at Mérida in the Extremadura Region of western Spain.

Students from the Escuela Profesional Barraeca II del Ayuntamiento have uncovered a large and elaborate Roman mural while carrying out excavation work at the Huerta de Otero archaeological site in the city of Mérida in the Extremadura Region of western Spain, according to a press release issued by the Mérida Ayuntamento on 26 July 2023.

Partial view of a Roman mosaic uncovered by students from the Escuela Profesional Barraeca II del Ayuntamiento at Mérida in the Extremadura Region of western Spain. Mérida Ayuntamento.

The multi-coloured mosaic covers an area of about 30 m², and has a central motif depicting the head of Medusa within an octagonal medallion, surrounded by four Peacocks, within a wider square with a variety of images of Fish, Birds, Jellyfish, masks, and geometric shapes. The mosaic is thought to have been associated with a sixth century AD bathhouse.

The central Medusa motif of the Huerta de Otero mosaic. Mérida Ayuntamento.

The Huerto de Otero site was discovered in 1976, when some preliminary exploration work was carried out, but full scale excavations did not begin until 2019, when a joint project by the Mérida Ayuntamento and the Consorcio y el Instituto de Arqueología de Mérida was set up to manage the site. Fifteen students from the Escuela Profesional Barraeca II del Ayuntamiento began working on the project in September 2022, as part of a work-placements scheme which is credited with gaining 85% of the school's students a job in their chosen field.

One of the Peacocks surrounding the central Medusa motif of the Huerta de Otero mosaic. Mérida Ayuntamento.

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Friday 28 July 2023

Typhoon Doksuri makes landfall in China, after leaving at least 39 people dead in the Philippines.

Typhoon Doksuri made landfall in Fujian Province, China, on the morning of Friday 28 July 2023, after claiming at least 39 lives as it passed across the Philippines earlier this week. The dead in the Philippines include a mother, her child, and two other children that were in the same house when it was buried by a landslide at Baguis in Benguet Province, on Wednesday 26 July. Landslides are a common problem after severe weather events, as excess pore water pressure can overcome cohesion in soil and sediments, allowing them to flow like liquids. Approximately 90% of all landslides are caused by heavy rainfall. These combined often lead to catastrophic flooding in areas hit by tropical storms.. Also in Benguit Province a 17-year-old was killed in a lamdslip triggered by heavy rains. In Isabela Province, a woman selling bread from a bicycle cart was killed by a falling tree. The majority of those who lost their lives, however, were on a ferry travelling town of Binangonan on Luzon Island and the smaller island of Talim, which capsized about 50 m after setting sail. Thirty people have now been confirmed dead following this incident, with many more still missing.

The MV Princess Aya, which capsized shortly after leaving the port of Binangonan on Luzon Island on Thursday 27 July 2023. The vessel overturned after encountering strong winds associated with Typhoon Doksuri, killing at least 30 passengers. The ferry is believed to have had about 70 people onboard when it sank, despite being licenced for only 40. The captain and engineer of the vessel have been arrested and may face charges. Rappler.

After passing over the Philippines Typhoon Doksuri swept to the south of Taiwan, brining with it winds gusting at up to 191 km per hour, and rains of up to 70 mm. Around 4000 people were evacuated from vulnerable areas as a precaution, and all internal and most international flights were grounded as a precaution. In the event there have been no major damage or casualties reported, although about 15 700 houssholds temporarily lost their power. In Fujian Province around 400 000 people were evacuated from areas deemed at risk, all boats were required to return to port as a precaution, and almost all transport services were suspended. No casualties have been reported in Fujian, and the only significant damage was to a sports stadium, which lost part of its roof.

Waves associated with Typhoon Doksuri battering the coast of Fujian Province, China, on Thursday 27 July 2023. Wei Peiquan/Xinhau/AP.

Tropical storms are caused by the warming effect of the Sun over tropical seas. As the air warms it expands, causing a drop in air pressure, and rises, causing air from outside the area to rush in to replace it. If this happens over a sufficiently wide area then the inrushing winds will be affected by centrifugal forces caused by the Earth's rotation (the Coriolis effect). This means that winds will be deflected clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the southern hemisphere, eventually creating a large, rotating Tropical Storm. They have different names in different parts of the world, with those in the northwest Pacific being referred to as typhoons.

The formation of a tropical cyclone. Natural Disaster Management.

Despite the obvious danger of winds of this speed, which can physically blow people, and other large objects, away as well as damaging buildings and uprooting trees, the real danger from these storms comes from the flooding they bring. Each drop millibar drop in air-pressure leads to an approximate 1 cm rise in sea level, with big tropical storms capable of causing a storm surge of several meters. This is always accompanied by heavy rainfall, since warm air over the ocean leads to evaporation of sea water, which is then carried with the storm. These combined often lead to catastrophic flooding in areas hit by tropical storms. 

The formation and impact of a storm surge. eSchoolToday.

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