Wednesday, September 18, 2013

New Species of Legless Lizard Found at LAX

A bustling airport would hardly seem the place to find a new species of reclusive animal, but a team of California biologists recently found a shy new species of legless lizard living at the end of a runway at Los Angeles International Airport.

What’s more, the same team discovered three additional new species of these distinctive, snake-like lizards that are also living in some inhospitable-sounding places for wildlife: at a vacant lot in downtown Bakersfield, among oil derricks in the lower San Joaquin Valley and on the margins of the Mojave desert.

All are described in the latest issue of Breviora, a publication of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

“This shows that there is a lot of undocumented biodiversity within California,” Theodore Papenfuss, one of the scientists, was quoted as saying in a press release.

Papenfuss, an amphibian and reptile expert at Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, made the discoveries with James Parham of California State University, Fullerton.

“These are animals that have existed in the San Joaquin Valley, separate from any other species, for millions of years, completely unknown,” Parham said.

Legless lizards look a lot like snakes, but they’re different reptiles. The lizards are distinguishable from their slithery relatives based on one or more of the following: eyelids, external ear openings, lack of broad belly scales and/or a very long tail. Snakes, conversely, have a long body and a short tail.

Legless lizards, represented by more than 200 species worldwide, are well adapted to life in loose soil, Papenfuss said. Millions of years ago, lizards on five continents independently lost their limbs in order to burrow more quickly into sand or soil, wriggling like snakes. Some still have vestigial legs.

Though up to 8 inches in length, the creatures are seldom seen because they live mostly underground, eating insects and larvae, and may spend their lives within an area the size of a dining table. Most are discovered in moist areas when people overturn logs or rocks. It’s interesting to consider the LAX-based lizard’s life, considering all of that airplane rumbling overhead!

The researchers are now working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to determine whether the lizards need protected status. Currently, the common legless lizard is listed by the state as a species of special concern.

“These species definitely warrant attention, but we need to do a lot more surveys in California before we can know whether they need higher listing,” Parham said.

Papenfuss noted that two of the species are within the range of the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, which is listed as an endangered species by both the federal and state governments.

“On one hand, there are fewer legless lizards than leopard lizards, so maybe these two new species should be given special protection,” he said. “On the other hand, there may be ways to protect their habitat without establishing legal status. They didn’t need a lot of habitat, so as long as they have some protected sites, they are probably OK.”

Image: Theodore Papenfuss and James Parham/UC Berkeley

Original Story

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Butterflies on your mind?

Published: 15th September 2013 12:00 AM
Last Updated: 13th September 2013 11:11 AM
    Vijay Barve (Photo: Vinod Kumar T)
It was love at first sight. Vijay Barve remembers all too well, the first time he saw the pupa of a common crow butterfly. It was like a shiny gold pendant, glimmering on an oleander plant, he recalls. Before this, he had witnessed a butterfly lay eggs. And that was, probably, the moment that would direct the course of his life. The boy who had begun to observe the lifecycles of butterflies soon joined the ranks of bonafide butterfly lovers and made it his life’s mission to spread awareness about the ubiquitous, brightly winged insect.
It is hardly surprising that Vijay grew up to be a butterfly expert. Childhood comprised of weekend bird watching trips with parents who were avid nature lovers. Raised to admire and observe the natural world, Vijay’s nature education was quite thorough.
A master’s degree in computer science from Pune University, followed by a stint with a scientific and research organization FRLHT (Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Tradition), further cemented his closeness to nature. At FRLHT, Vijay was involved in the distribution mapping of medicinal plants. And with plants came butterflies as a particular butterfly makes its home only on a certain plant to lay eggs. Broadening his scope of interest, Vijay did a course in entomology from the Bombay Natural History Society, of which he is a life-long member.
In 2001, Vijay started the Butterfly India Yahoo group. This e-initiative gave a platform to butterfly lovers (it has 1,500 members at present) across the country to share pictures and information.
“We may have butterfly experts like Isaac Kehimkar, Krushnamegh Kunte, Peter Smetacek and many others in India, but it’s Vijay who brought us together,” says Kolkata-based butterfly specialist, Arjan Basu Roy. “If butterfly watching/photography has become a popular form of nature study in India, significant credit goes to him.” Vijay also launched DiversityIndia Yahoo group that focuses on small invertebrates.
Besides this, Vijay has also created and has been managing cyber communities of naturalists interested in different biodiversity such as SpiderIndia, DragonflyIndia, IndianMoths, AmphibianIndia, ReptileIndia, InsectIndia, InvertebrateIndia, WildflowerIndia, GernCareerIndia and GreenLifestyleIndia.
Things thus chugged along in the virtual world, until Vijay and his friends came up with the idea of butterfly meets. “It was sometime in 2004 when we had the first butterfly meet, one in Kerala at the Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary and another in Mumbai,” says Vijay. “Meets such as these fulfill a useful purpose—of bringing like-minded people together to do some fieldwork which led to sharing and learning techniques of identification, photography,” he explains. 
A job shift saw Vijay making his way to the University of Kansas, USA, where again he was able to coalesce his interest in biodiversity with his work. One experiment that he fondly remembers is the radio tagging of laboratory-raised monarch butterflies, a pioneering effort for sure. The monarch butterfly undertakes a spectacular migration, traversing thousands of kilometres from Canada to Mexico. “With our refined tracking system, we were able to track them for 10 miles,” he says.
Butterfly conservation, says Vijay, is essential. “The butterfly is an indicator species, it is sensitive to the environment. Greater numbers of butterflies in a region signify that the ecology is in good shape,” says Vijay, who lists the Blue Mormon butterfly as his favourite.
Vijay feels the best way to create interest in butterfly conservation is through the media and by constructing butterfly parks.

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