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The problem of wild animals as pets

Although the first animals we think of as life partners are dogs or cats, the truth is that unfortunately many people decide to have a wild or exotic animal at home. Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, sugar gliders, fennec foxes, meerkats, raccoons, monkeys… Is it possible to have a wild animal in good condition at home? What are the issues we can find? What wild mammals do people have as pets? We invite you to continue reading to find out.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A DOMESTIC ANIMAL AND A WILD ONE?

A domestic animal is an animal that has lived with humans for thousands of years. During the history of our species we have artificially selected these animals to obtain benefits, such as food, companionship or protection, like dogs, which have even co-evolved with us. Most domestic animals could not survive in the wild, as they would not know how to find food or would be easy prey for predators. Those who survive when abandoned, like some dogs or cats, cause serious problems to wildlife or even people.

 lobo perro dog wolf perro lobo
Some domestic animals, such as certain dog breeds (right), resemble their wild counterparts (wolf, left), which gives rise to the false idea that wild animals can be domesticated. Photo: unknown

And a wild animal? Many people confuse wild animal with ferocious or dangerous animal. A wild animal is an animal that has not been domesticated, that is, its species has not been in contact with people (at least not for thousands of years as the domestic ones). The fact that some wild animals are not dangerous (or not at all) for us, that they appear in series and movies, some celebrities own them and the desire to have a “special” animal at home, continues favoring the purchase-sale of these animals as pets.

monkey mono capuchino marcel ross friends
The character of Ross in the world-famous series ‘Friends’ had a capuchin monkey, which has to be donated when it reaches sexual maturity for aggressive behavior. Source

WHAT PROBLEMS DOES IMPLY TO HAVE A WILD ANIMAL AT HOME?

PROBLEMS FOR PEOPLE

The main reason why wild or exotic animals cause problems for humans is the lack of knowledge of the species: some have very specific diets that are practically impossible to reproduce in captivity. Others may live longer than the owner, be very noisy, occupy a lot of space, have nocturnal habits, transmit diseases or be poisonous. This results in maintenance difficulties and changes in  the behavior of the animal, until it becomes dangerous for its owner. The consequence is usually the abandonment of the animal, which will cause death, cause problems in nature or very high maintenance costs if they end up in a wildlife rescue center (according to Fundació Mona, keeping a chimpanzee costs 7,000 euros a year. Their life expectancy is 60 years: 420,000 euros in total for a single animal).

Raccoons undergo behavioral changes and may attack their owners. Source

Many species released in the wild end up being invasive, endangering the native ecosystems. If you want to know the difference between introduced and invasive species, read this post. To know the threats they pose to ecosystems, visit this post.

Do not forget that the purchase, sale and possession of many wild animals is totally illegal.

PROBLEMS FOR ANIMALS

Animals must live in an environment where their needs, both physical and mental, can be met. Although we put all our good intentions, give love and spend money keeping a wild animal, we  will never be able to reproduce their natural conditions. Lack of space, contact with other animals of their species, time searching for food, temperature conditions, humidity, light… the animal can not develop its normal behavior even if it is in the most optimal conditions of captivity.

The consequences that will suffer an animal that has not met their needs implies health problems (diseases, growth deficit…) and behavior (stereotypic-compulsive movements, self-injury, anxiety, aggression…).

A fennec fox, a carnivorous animal of the desert, in an evident state of illness. According to social networks, because he was being fed a vegan diet. According to its owner, Sonia Sae, because it is allergic to pollen despite following a vegan diet. Be that as it may, it is clear that the pollen amounts in Sahara have nothing to do with those of Europe. Source

Finally, the most serious consequence when we acquire a wild animal is that we are favoring the trafficking of animals, the death of thousands of them during transport to our house and even their extinction. Animal trafficking is the second cause of biodiversity loss on our planet, behind the destruction of habitats.

Slow loris are nocturnal and poisonous animals that are marketed as pets and, like mostof them, are transported under terrible conditions. Learn more about the calvary of slow lories visiting blognasua. Photo: Naturama

EXAMPLES OF WILD MAMMALS AS PETS

PRIMATES

Marmosets, slow loris, lar gibbons, chimpanzees, Barbary macaques… The list of primates that people have in captivity is almost infinite. One of the main mistakes people make when they want a primate as a pet is to believe that they have our same needs, especially in superior primates such as chimpanzees. Its expressions are also confused with ours: what the photo shows is not a smile of happiness and what the video shows is not tickling, but an attitude of defense (slow loris have poison in their elbows).

This chimpanzee is not smiling, he is scared. Photo: Photos.com

Many primates live in family groups and the offspring need to be with the mother the first years of life, so that just the simple fact of acquiring a little primate entails the death of all the adults of their family group and psychological problems for the animal. To know the extensive and serious problem of keeping primates in captivity, we strongly recommend reading this post.

SUGAR GLIDERS

Sugar gliders (Petaurus breviceps) resemble a squirrel, but in fact they are marsupials. They have a very specific diet (insects and their depositions, eucalyptus sap, nectar …), they live in the canopy of trees in groups from 6 to 10 individuals and move between the trees jumping up to 50 meters with a membrane that let them hover. They are nocturnal so they yell and call at night. It is evident that it is impossible to reproduce these conditions in captivity, so the majority of sugar gliders die due to nutritional deficiencies.

Sugar glider caged. Photo: FAADA

VIETNAMESE POT-BELLIED PIGS

Although they are a variety of a domestic animal, Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs (Sus scrofa domestica) are small when tey are young, but adults can weigh more than 100 kilos, so it is impossible to keep them in a flat. There have been so many abandonments and they have reproduced so much, that there are populations established in nature. They can reproduce with wild boars and it is unknown if the hybrids are fertile. There are no wildlife recovery centers or shelters for these pigs, so they continue to affect the native ecosystems.

Since actor George Clooney introduced a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig as a pet, the trend to own one quickly spread. Source

RACCOONS AND COATIS

Other mammals that, because of their pleasant appearance, some people try to have as pets. Raccoons (Procyon sp) develop aggressive behaviors when they do not having their needs covered, they are destructive to household objects and have a tendency to bite everything, including people. Currently in Spain and other countries it is illegal to acquire them and it is classified as an invasive species.

In addition to aggressiveness, one of the most common behaviors of raccoons is “theft”. Source

Coatis (Nasua sp) are related to raccoons and, like them, when they grow up they become aggressive if kept in captivity in a home. In Spain, their possession is also illegal.

coatí nasua
The coati, another friendly-looking mammal that can be dangerous. Source

MERKAATS

Merkaats (Suricata suricatta) are very social animals that live in colonies of up to 30 individuals underground in the South African savanna. They usually make holes in the ground to protect themselves and are very territorial. Therefore, having a meerkat at home or in a garden is totally unfeasible. In addition, the climatic conditions (high temperatures and low humidity) in which they are adapted are not the same as those of a private home.

As sugar gliders, their food is impossible to reproduce at home: snake meat, spiders, scorpions, insects, birds and small mammals… Like raccoons, they do not hesitate to bite and are very active animals.

Meerkat with a leash where you can see his fangs. Photo: FAADA

FENNEC FOX

This species of desert fox (Vulpes zerda) has also become trendy as a pet. Although its tenure is still legal, it has been proposed several times as an invasive species.

The main reason why you can not have a fennec at home are the desert climatic conditions to which it is adapted. Living in an apartment causes kidney problems and thermoregulation problems. Also, it is a nocturnal animal. Changes in their circadian rhythm cause them hormonal problems.

Fennec  fox in the desert. Photo: Cat Downie / Shutterstock

Like the previous two species, behavioral problems can turn up and become violent against the furniture or its owners.

ELEPHANTS, TIGERS …

Although it may seem incredible, there are people who have an elephant in the home garden and other people have felines, like tigers. At this point we do not think it is necessary to explain the reasons why these animals have not their needs met and the potential danger they pose to their owners and neighbors in case of escape.

Dumba, the elephant that lives in a home garden in Spain. Photo: FAADA

IN CONCLUSION

As we have seen, a wild animal in captivity will never have its needs covered to guarantee its welfare. Here we have presented the best known wild mammals that are kept as pets, but unfortunately the list does not stop expanding.

In order not to favor animal trafficking and cause unnecessary suffering during the life of the animal, avoid buying wild animals, inform yourself and inform the people around you, denounce irresponsible tenures and in case you already have one wild animal as a pet and you can no longer keep it, contact a recovery wildlife center and never abandon it into nature.

MIREIA QUEROL ALL YOU NEED IS BIOLOGY

 

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Known the Asian hornet or ‘assassin hornet’ in 5 steps

In recent years, reports of invasive species entering the Iberian Peninsula have grown at an alarming rate. One of the most recent cases is that of the Asian hornet, also known as the yellow-legged hornet and dramatically called ‘assassin hornet’, which is well-stablished in northern regions of the Iberian Peninsula and which has recently been confirmed to nest in the very center of Barcelona.

What do we know about this species? Why is it known as the ‘assassin hornet’?

1. Where does it come from and how did it get here?

The Asian hornet (Vespa velutina) is a social wasp native to the Southeast Asia. It was for the first time recorded in Europe in 2004, at southeast France, where it is currently well-spread. According to most of sources, it is believed that some founding queens accidentally arrived France inside boxes of pottery from China.

Some associations of beekeepers from the Basque Country confirmed the presence of the Asian hornet in the Iberian Peninsula in 2010. From that moment on, the Asian hornet started spreading toward other regions: it was recorded in Galicia in 2011, in Northern Catalonia and in some areas of Aragon in 2012, in some areas of La Rioja and Cantabria in 2014 and in Mallorca, in 2015.

Dynamic map by José Luis Ordóñez – CREAF

Meanwhile, this species spread toward Italy, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, Sweden and, occasionally, the United Kingdom. It presence in Japan and Korea, where it is an invasive species too, was confirmed some years before.

It was recorded for the first time in Catalonia in its northern comarques (‘counties’), specifically in Alt Empordà, and in 2015 almost 100 nests of this species had already been recorded. Nowadays, the Asian hornet is well-spread in Girona and Barcelona provinces.

On July 13th of this year (2018), the Generalitat de Catalunya (Government of Catalonia) confirmed the first record of an Asian hornet nest located in the very center of Barcelona city, close to one of the main buildings of the University of Barcelona; a few days before, it had also been detected in Vallès Oriental and Baix Llobregat.

2. How can we identify it?

The Asian hornet size varies between 2 and 3.5 cm, approximately. Queens and workers have a similar morphology except for their size, being workers smaller than queens.

This species can be recognized by the following morphological traits:

  • Thorax entirely black.
  • Abdomen mainly black except for its 4th segment, which is yellow.
  • Anterior half of legs, black; posterior half, yellow.
  • Upper part of head, black; face reddish yellow.
Dorsal and ventral view of Vespa velutina. Picture by Didier Descouens, Muséum de Toulouse, CC 3.0.

If you think you have found an Asian hornet and meant to notify authorities, first of all make sure it is the correct species. This is of special importance as some native species like the European hornet (Vespa crabro) are usually confused with its invasive relative, thus leading to misidentifications and removings of native nests.

Vespa crabro. Picture by Ernie, CC 3.0.

3. Why is it also called ‘assassin hornet’?

The Asian hornet is neither more dangerous, venomous nor aggressive than other European wasps. So, why is it dramatically called ‘assassin hornet’?

Larvae of this species feed on honeybees caught by adult hornets. Honeybees usually represent more than 80% of their diet, while the remaining percentage is compound of other arthropods. Adult hornets fly over hives and hunt the most exposed honeybees, even at flight. A single hornet can hunt between 25 and 50 honeybees per day. Hornets usually quarter them and get only the thorax, which is the most nutritious part.

In Asia, some honeybees have developed surprising defensive mechanisms to fight against their predators, like forming swarms around hornets to cause them a heat shock.

Take a look to this video to known some more about this strategy (caso of Japanese honeybees and hornets):

On the contrary, European honeybees have different defensive strategies that seem to be less effective against invasive hornets than they are against the European ones, which are also less ravenous their Asiatic relatives and their nests, smaller. In addition, the absence of natural predators that help to control their populations makes their spreading even more easier.

Several associations of both beekeepers and scientists from Europe have been denouncing this situation for years, since this invasive species is causing severe damages to both the economy (honey and crop production) and the environment (loss of wildlife -insects and plants- biodiversity) due to the decrease in wild and domestic honeybees.

4. How do their nests look like and what I have to do if I find one?

Asian hornets usually make their nests far from the ground, on the top of trees (unlike the European hornets, which never construct their nest on trees at great highs); rarely, nests can be found on buildings near non-perturbated areas or in the ground. Nests are spherical-shaped, have a continuous growth, a single opening in their superior third from which internal cells cannot be appreciated (in European hornet’s nests, the opening is in its inferior part and internal cells can be observed through it) and can reach up to 1 m height and 80 cm diameter. Nests are made by chewed and mixed wood fibers, leaves and saliva.

Nest of Asian hornet. Picture by Fredciel, CC 3.0.

If you find an Asian hornet nest, be careful and don’t hurry: don’t get to close to it (it is recommended to stay at least 5m far from the nest), observe and study the nest and observe if there are adults overflying it. If you find a dead specimen, you can try to identify it (REMEMBER: always staying far from the nest!). Anyway, the most recommendable thing is to be careful and call the authorities (in Spain, to the emergency phone number: 112).

5. There are preventive and management measures?

Currently, preventive and management measures proposed are the following:

  • Protocols for a more efficient detection of nests.
  • Early detection of the hornet by installing traps.
  • Constitution of an efficient communication net to provide information of the presence of this species between regions.
  • Removal of nests.
  • Capture of queens.
  • Improving the habitat quality to minimize the settlement of the Asian hornet and enhacing the settlement of native bees.
  • Study the possible introduction of natural enemies.

In the following link, you can download the PDF (in Spanish) made by the Spanish Government (2014) where these and more strategies are widely explained.

Citizen participation is a key point when fighting against the spreading of an invasive species; the same happens with the Asian hornet. Some associations of beekeepers, like the Galician Beekeeping Association (Asociación Gallega de Apicultura, AGA) and its campaign Stop Vespa Velutina, give educational conferences about this species and place traps to control their populations. Also, some students of the University of the Balear Islands have developed a mobile app to inform about the expansion of the Asian hornet.

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Although knowledge of this species has been improved, there is still much work to be done. We will see how its populations evolve in the coming years.

Main picture by Danel Solabarrieta on Flickr, CC 2.0.

 

How can you help biodiversity of the cities?

Towns and cities have increasingly become hostile to biodiversity. Fortunately, a few years ago there is a growing interest to make cities more friendly to the native fauna and flora. Discover what you can do for urban biodiversity!

HOW CAN YOU HELP BIODIVERSITY OF THE CITIES?

According to SEO BirdLife, 10% of the bird species that live in Spain are housed in urban environments. In fact, some of them, like the sparrow, depend on human presence. In spite of that, these species are in decline.

They also assure that urban birds in Spain have suffered a decrease of over 18% in the last 20 years. For the case of the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica), the loss amounts to 44% of its individuals.

promocionar biodiversidad urbana, biodiversidad urbana, golondrina común, hirundo rustica, biodiversidad ciudades, fauna ciudades
The barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) has lost 44% of its urban population (Picture: Ferran Pestaña, Creative Commons).

BENEFITS OF URBAN BIODIVERSITY FOR PEOPLE

Biodiversity in cities is positive for human beings, beyond the ornamental function, since it offers a set of very important services that improve our quality of life. In fact, the WHO recommends that in cities there are between 10 and 15 m2 of green areas per inhabitant and that the inhabitants have a green area less than 300 m from their house.

In addition to the benefits that nature has for human health and well-being, green areas cushion the temperature (important to reduce the effect of heat islands), purify the air and fix CO2. It is also responsible for the pollination of crops and, in general, to increase the resilience of the environment.

health benefits of nature, promocionar biodiversidad urbana, biodiversidad urbana, golondrina común, hirundo rustica, biodiversidad ciudades, fauna ciudades
Nature has a positive effect in the human health and wellness.

WHAT CAN WE DO FOR URBAN BIODIVERSITY?

Broadly speaking, to help the biodiversity of cities, we must:

  • Provide enough urban green areas in the cities and that they are distributed throughout the area.
  • Have urban green spaces connected between them and with the natural environment.
  • Generate diversity of habitats.
  • Do not plant invasive species.
  • Do not use chemical treatments.
  • If the green areas are illuminated, make sure it is not annoying for the fauna.

We must bear in mind that, if we have cats at home, we must consider if it is worth doing some of the actions we propose, since our feline friends are great predators and, rather than helping the fauna, we could be harming it.

PLANT TREES, BUSHES AND FLOWERS THAT PROMOTE BIODIVERSITY

Obviously, if we plant native trees or shrubs we will be favouring the biodiversity of our city. If we do not meet this first point and plant exotic invasives, we will be questioning the future of our area. In addition to this fact, we must add other considerations.

The trees or bushes that produce fleshy fruits, such as the olive tree (Olea europea), the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) or the lentisk (Pistacia lentiscus), will be able to sustain a part of the diet of some animals. The olive tree also generates holes, which may serve as a nest for some birds. If we look for species that bear fruit in winter, when conditions are more difficult due to the reduction of food, it will also be of great help.

promocionar biodiversidad urbana, biodiversidad urbana, biodiversidad ciudades, fauna ciudades, madroño, arbutus unedo
Trees with fleshy fruits promote the presence of food for many animals (Picture: Creative Commons).

Softwood trees, such as poplar (Populus), will allow some birds, such as the Iberian green woodpecker (Picus sharpei), to make holes in its trunk, which will cause that when leaving the nest other species can be installed. We can also leave dead trees standing for the Iberian green woodpecker to make its nest.

Combining deciduous and perennial trees will allow a refuge for wildlife throughout the year.

As for the plants, it is highly recommended to plant indigenous aromatic plants, which will attract a large number of pollinating insects. In the Mediterranean area, you can choose rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), lavender (Lavandula stoechas), savory (Satureja montana), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), sage (Salvia officinalis), basil (Ocimum basilicum)…

promocionar biodiversidad urbana, biodiversidad urbana, biodiversidad ciudades, fauna ciudades, lavanda, lavandula stoechas, plantas aromáticas
Indigenous aromatic plants will favour the presence of pollinators (Picture: Kurt Stüber, Creative Commons).

INSTALL NEST BOXES

If there were old trees in the cities (and in the natural areas), it would not be necessary to install nest boxes. The reason is that the old trees have holes, in which the chickadees, the tits, the owls, etc. make a nest. But not only can you install nest boxes for birds, you can also do them for bats, which are effective mosquito eaters.

promocionar biodiversidad urbana, biodiversidad urbana, biodiversidad ciudades, fauna ciudades, caja nido, herrerillo comun, Cyanistes caeruleus
Installing nest boxes will promote the presence of some birds, such as the Eurasian blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) (Picture: Creative Commons)

On the other hand, there are animals that use buildings to breed, such as the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), the kestrels, the crow (Corvus corax), the common swift (Apus apus), the common gecko (Tarentola mauritanica), etc. .

In general, in the Iberian Peninsula there are about 40 species of birds and a dozen mammals that can use nest boxes to breed and rest.

In this Grup Ecologista Xoriguer and VOLCAM Voluntariado Ambiental‘s guide you will find information about how to build yourself a nest box and other tips.

BUILD A INSECT HOTEL OR OTHER STRUCTURES FOR FAUNA

An insect hotel is a construction with a wooden structure that is full of different materials, such as natural cane, stones, tiles, bricks, pineapples, perforated wood or straw, which serve as a hiding, resting and breeding place for various species of insects.

Although you can buy them, we recommend you do it yourself with a little imagination. Collect these materials and about 6-7 wooden pallets and start to build a new home for solitary bees (solitary bees are not aggressive, unlike colonial ones), ladybugs (they will eat the aphid you have in your garden), lacewing, syrphids…

promocionar biodiversidad urbana, biodiversidad urbana, biodiversidad ciudades, fauna ciudades, hotel insectos, hotel insectos palets
Insect hotel with pallets (Picture: unknown author).

The construction of dry stone spirals with aromatic plants will also favour the presence of fauna, especially reptiles.

In a corner of your garden, you can leave a pile of trunks in the shape of a pyramid. You will see that in a while it will be colonised by mosses, fungi, xylophagous insects, lizards…

VEGETATION MAINTENANCE TASKS

All this is meaningless without sustainable maintenance of green infrastructure. What good is it to plant trees with fleshy fruits if we prune them in full fruition?

Here are some tips:

  • Do not prune in the time when the trees are in fruit, concentrate them during the winter.
  • Avoid pruning all trees and shrubs the same year.
  • Decrease the number of prunings and ask that they be less drastic. So there will be structures that can support large nests.
  • Do not remove all the leaves from the ground, since leaf litter allows the development of the invertebrate fauna and incorporates organic matter into the soil.
  • Do not use chemical pesticides or phytosanitary products. If you have a pest, use biological control systems against them.

ASK YOUR LOCAL ADMINISTRATION TO JOIN IN THE PROMOTION OF URBAN BIODIVERSITY

Some of these tips will be easy to implement, others will be less. In addition to applying it in your own home, ask your local administration to apply these principles. Together we will make towns and cities more sustainable in which biodiversity can also live!

In addition to the points already mentioned, local administrations can do some other tasks that are within their competence:

  • Naturalise artificial lakes. What if, instead of having ponds with crystal clear water, we took advantage of these points to favour the presence of amphibians, reptiles and aquatic vegetation?
  • Change lawns for natural meadows. What if instead of having large expanses of green grass, typical of northern Europe (where water is plentiful), we had spaces with different species of native flowers that attracted large numbers of pollinators and birds? Some birds, such as the zitting cisticola or streaked fantail warbler (Cisticola juncidis) or the European stonechat (Saxicola rubicola), make nests in the middle of meadows.
  • Reduce the mowing of the lawns (better done at the end of winter) and make differential mowing. What if instead of completely mowing the lawn we did it irregularly to allow the growth of spontaneous vegetation that attracted the invertebrates?
  • Plant in the tree clogs. What if instead of having tree clogs full of dog droppings we had them full of flowers that attract the insects that control the plagues of the tree that is planted in it?

Have we encouraged you to apply any of the measures we present? Tell us what you are doing to help urban biodiversity in the comments of this article.

(Cover picture: Kevin Cole, Creative Commons)

Insects feel through their antennae

Insects perceive their surroundings through different organs, among which antennae are some of the most important. Antennae appear in a lot of incredibly diverse shapes and sizes, and every group of insects develops one or more models. We encourage you to know more about their origin, functions and diversity through this post.

The origin of antennae

Antennae are paired sensorial appendages located in the anterior parts of insects’ body. Except for chelicerates (spiders, scorpions…) and proturans (non-insect hexapods), all arthropods, either crustaceans, hexapods (diplurans, springtails -Collembola- and insects), myriapods (centipedes and millipedes) and the extinct trilobites, have antennae when being adults.

In crustaceans, antennae appear in the two first head segments: a first pair known as primary antennae or antennules, and a longer second pair known as secondary antennae or just antennae. Usually, secondary antennae are biramous (that is, they have two main branches), even though some crustaceans have undergone ulterior modifications so antennae appear as uniramous appendages (with a single branch) or even get reduced.

Types of antennae in crustaceans. Picture obtained from Wikipedia (link).

However, the rest of arthropods only have a single pair of uniramous antennae. Hexapods (like insects), which seem to be closely related to crustaceans according to the pancrustacean model, seem to have just preserved the secondary pair of antennae typical of crustaceans.

According to some authors, antennae appear to be true appendages; that is, they would start to develop during the embryological development from a head segment the same way legs do. However, this segment would have evolved into a reduced and inconspicuous piece, now being unappreciable. Moreover, antennae can also regenerate like legs.

How do insects feel through antennae?

So, what does this title exactly mean?

Antennae are microscopically covered with tiny hairs known as sensilla, which are not related with hairs found in vertebrates since they are made of chitin (as the rest of insect’s cuticle) instead of keratin.

Picture above: antennae under electronic microscope. Picture below: detail of the sensilla. Both images taken from cronodon.com.

Despite being almost identical at the first sight, there are different types of sensilla: chemoreceptorial sensilla have an inner channel through which suspended molecules enter (e.g. pheromones), while mechanoreceptorial sensilla are retractable and move at the slightest pressure or when the insect changes its position with respect to the ground (in this case, these are called proprioceptor sensilla).

So, insects taste, smell, touch and communicate in part through antennae, thus allowing them to gather information about food sources, potential mates (pheromones), enemies, dangerous substances (e. g. a poisonous plant), nesting places and migratory routes (as in the case of the monarch butterfly). Other organs, such as legs, palpi and even the ovipositor (organ for laying eggs) sometimes have sensorial cells.

Inside and in the base of sensilla there are sensorial neurons connected to the insect’s brain; specifically, a brain region known as deutocerebrum. In chemoreceptorial sensilla, molecules bind with specific receptors that send nervous signals to the antennal lobe through the sensorial neurons. This lobe is somewhat like the olfactory bulb found in vertebrates.

Types of antennae in hexapods

Except for the proturans, which are wingless hexapods, diplurans, springtails (collembola) and insects develop different types of antennae. These are divided in two main groups:

  • Segmented antennae: springtails and diplurans. Each segment has an own set of muscles that moves it independently from the rest of the antenna.
  • Flagellate antennae: insects. Just the first segment located at the base of antennae in contact with the insect’s head (the scapus) has an own set of muscles, so the antennal movement depends entirely on this segment.

Parts of insects’ antennae

The three basic segments of insects’ antennae are the following:

Antenna of an inquiline wasp belonging to the genus Synergus (Hymenoptera). Picture by Irene Lobato.

1) Scape: basal segment that articulates with the insect’s head and the only one that has an own set of muscles. The scape is mounted in a socket called torulus.

2) Pedicel: the second antennal segment or the one that comes just after the scape. This segment has a relevant role since it contains the Johnston’s organ, which is a collection of sensory cells. This organ is absent in non-insect hexapods (springtails, diplurans).

3) Flagellum: the rest of antennal segments that form the antennae, which are individually known as flagellomeres. These flagellomeres are connected by thin membranes that allow them to move as a whole despite not having muscles.

Thousands of antennae!

From this basic pattern (scape + pedicel + flagellum), each group has developed numerous antennal models based on their lifestyle:

  • Aristate

These are very reduced antennae with a pouch-like shape and a small bristle that emerges from its third modified segment.

Example: a very extended model among flies (Diptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: picture of a fly of the family Sarcophagidae by JJ Harrison, CC 1.0.
  • Capitate

Capitate antennae have a club or knob at their ends.

Example: usually found in butterflies (Lepidoptera) and in some beetles (Coleoptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; middle: picture of a beetle of the species Platysoma moluccanum by Udo Schmidt, CC 2.0; left: a butterfly, public domain.
  • Clavate

Unlike the capitate ones, clavate antennae get progressively thicker in their ends.

Example: moths (Lepidoptera), carrion beetles (Silphidae, Coleoptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: beetle of the species Thanatophilus sinuatus (Silphidae) by Wim Rubers, CC 3.0.
  • Filiform

This is the simplest model of antennae: long, thin and made of equally sized and shaped segments.

Example: cockroaches (Blattodea), crickets and grasshoppers (Orthoptera), longhorn beetles (Cerambycidae, Coleoptera), bugs (Heteroptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: cockroach of the species Periplaneta americana by Gary Alpert, CC 3.0.
  • Flabellate

These are quite similar to pectinate and lamellate antennae (see below), but with thinner and flattener segments that make them to look like a folding paper fan; also, these thin projections occupy all the antenna, and not only the terminal segments as in lamellate antennae. This model is found in males of some insects, thus having a large surface for detecting pheromones.

Example: beetles (Coleoptera), wasps (Hymenoptera) and moths (Lepidoptera).

Beetle male of the genus Rhipicera. Picture by Jean and Fred, CC 2.0.
  • Geniculate

These are bent, almost like a knee joint. The first antennal segment (scape) is usually located before the joint. The rest of segments together are known as funicle.

Example: some bees and wasps, especially in chalcid wasps (Hymenoptera), weevils (Curculionidae, Coleoptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: picture of a parasitoid wasps of the species Trissolcus mitsukurii, public domain.
  • Lamellate

The terminal segments enlarge to one side in form of flat and nested projections, thus looking like a folding fan.

Example: beetles of the family Scarabaeidae (Coleoptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: picture of a beetle of the family Scarabeidae, public domain.
  • Moniliform

Unlike filiform antennae, the segments of moniliform antennae are more or less spherical and equally sized, thus giving these antennae a string of bead appearance.

Example: termites (Isoptera), some beetles (Coleoptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: picture of a termite by Sanjay Acharya, CC 4.0.
  • Pectinate

Segments have a lateral projection, so they look like combs.

Example: sawflies (Symphyta, Hymenoptera), parasitoid wasps (Hymenoptera), some beetles (Coleoptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: picture of a beetle of the family Lycidae by John Flannery, CC 2.0.
  • Plumose

Plumose antennae look like feathers as their segments have numerous thin branches. Having a bigger antennal surface allows them to detect more suspended molecules, like pheromones.

Example: mosquito (Diptera) and moth (Lepidoptera) males.

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: moth male of the genus Polyphemus by Megan McCarty, CC 3.0.
  • Serrate

Each segment is angled or notched on one side, thus making these antennae to look like saws.

Example: some beetles (Coleoptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: picture of a beetle of the family Chrysomelidae by John Flannery, CC 2.0.
  • Setaceous

These antennae are bristle-shaped, being thinner and longer in their ends. They are quite similar to filiform antennae, but thinner.

Example: mayflies (Ephemeroptera), dragonflies and damselflies (Odonata).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: picture of a dragonfly, public domain.
  • Stylate

Similar to filiform antennae, but the terminal segments are pointed and slender, looking like a style. The style can either have bristles or not.

Example: brachycerous flies (Diptera).

Left: picture by M. A. Broussard, CC 4.0; right: picture of a brachycerous fly of the family Asilidae by Opoterser, CC 3.0.

You can read more about the different antennal models here and here, or take a look to the antennal gallery by John Flannery.

Main picture by Jean and Fred, CC 2.0.

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If you know more antennal models or curious facts about insects’ antennae, feel free to share it with us by leaving a comment below!

How many species live on Earth?

On May 22nd, the International Day of Biological Diversity is celebrated worldwide, or in other words, the day of biodiversity, to commemorate the approval of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Did you know that we only know 15% of all the biodiversity on the planet? Discover more! 

HOW MANY SPECIES LIVE ON EARTH?

Before answering this question, it is important to understand the concept of biodiversity or biological diversity.

WHAT IS BIODIVERSITY?

Biodiversity is the  living beings on Earth and the natural patterns that make up, that is, the set of existing plants, animals and microorganisms. This biodiversity must be understood within each species, between species and ecosystems.

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THE CONVENTION ON BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY

The Convention on Biological Diversity, which was adopted in 1992 and has the ratification of 193 countries to date, has three main objectives: the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable participation of the benefits that derive from the use of genetic resources, in order to promote measures for a sustainable future.

The governments of the acceding countries meet every two years to examine progress, set priorities and adopt work plans.

According to the Convention, species, genetic resources and ecosystems should be used for the benefit of the human being, but without this implying a reduction in biodiversity. It also applies the precautionary principle, that is, when there is not enough scientific evidence to demonstrate the reduction or loss of biodiversity, it should not be used as a reason to postpone taking measures to deal with it. Thus, it is an instrument that promotes sustainable development.

SPECIES OF THE EARTH

To date, a total of 1.3 million species have been identified and described, but the truth is that many more live on Earth. The most accurate census, conducted by the Hawaii’s University, estimates that a total of 8.7 million species live on the planet.

If we take this figure as good, it means that we have described only 15% of all the organisms that live on Earth. To be more precise, we still have 86% of the terrestrial species to be described and 91% of the marine species.

To give an example of how far we are from knowing all the species, last year we identified a new species of primate: the orangutan of Tapanuli (Pongo tapanuliensis), which lives on the island of Sumatra (Indonesia).

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We only know 15% of all species on Earth (Picture: National Geographic)

In spite of these figures, the dance of numbers is important and the different investigations carried out give different values, reaching the point that some point out that there would be 100 million species.

What is clear is that we have a long way to go until we have a complete catalog of species. Worst of all, many of these unidentified species are becoming extinct before we discover them.

CLASIFICATION AND DISTRIBUTION OF THE SPECIES

Here we do not want to talk about the way species are classified, as we already did in this article on classification and phylogeny. Here we want to see how species are distributed in the different groups of living beings.

If we take the classification system of Margulis and Schwartz of organization of living beings in five kingdoms, according to Llorente-Bousquets, J and S. Ocegueda (2008), this is the distribution of the known species of the planet:

especies conocidas planeta tierra, biodiversidad, especies, planeta tierra
Distribution of known species on Earth

The predominant group is that of animals, representing 76% of all known species. Within animals, arthropods are the group with the most species, with about 1.2 million species (1 million of which are insect species), representing 86% of all known animals. Our group, the chordates, is light years away from this figure, since it is made up of some 61,000 species (4% of the species), being surpassed by that of the molluscs, with some 85,000 species.

artropodos, insectos, animales, biodiversidad, especies, planeta tierra
Arthropods are the biggest group of animals, with more than one million species (Picture: Pixabay, Creative Commons).

Plants represent 17% of the species studied, with approximately 292,000 species. These include different large groups: angiosperms (87% of species), gymnosperms (0.3%), ferns (4.3%) and bryophytes (9%).

WHAT IS THE CAUSE OF SPECIES EXTINCTION?

Human activities cause a decline in species because the principles of sustainable development are not always applied. Among these activities, the following should be highlighted:

  • Alteration and destruction of ecosystems. The destruction of the rainforest is an example. In many tropical areas, such as Southeast Asia, it is devastated with large areas of forest to plant the palm, from which the famous palm oil is extracted. This endangers a high number of species, among which there are orangutans. Avoid products with palm oil to avoid this situation! Another example is the fragmentation of rivers due to the construction of large dams, which prevents fish such as salmon, eel or lamprey to move freely between rivers and the sea.
orangutan, aceite de palma, indonesia, sureste asiático, biodiversidad, amenazas biodiversidad
Orangutan (Pongo sp.) victim of deforestation for the oil palm industry (Picture: unknown author).
  • Agricultural practices The abusive use of pesticides is causing the massive death of bees, insects essential for pollination and, therefore, for the provision of food. As we have seen before, agriculture needs land and, when it is not available, large areas are destroyed.
  • Hunting and exploitation of animals. Until not many years ago, there was a hunt for animals that were thought to be harmful to livestock, hunting or man, as in the case of the Iberian wolf. Trade in exotic species, collecting or capturing animals with supposedly curative properties are also threatening biodiversity.
lobo ibérico, biodiversidad, amenazas biodiversidad
Wolf corpses appeared in Asturias, Spain (Several sources).
  • Introduction of exotic species. When a species is introduced, voluntarily or involuntarily, in an area where it is not native it is called an exotic species. These compete for space and resources with the natives, so that local species are harmed. If, in addition, these new species displace the locals then they have an invasive behavior. In Hawaii, human activity and the introduction of new species such as the rat has caused the disappearance of 90% of native bird species.
  • Climate change. Climate change is responsible for the alteration of habitats and the conditions in which the species live. It causes bleaching of corals, expansion of epidemics, causes changes in the migration of species such as whales, increases sea level... and a long etcetera.
blanqueamiento corales, biodiversidad, amenazas biodiversidad, cambio climático, cambio global
Bleaching in American Samoa. The first picture (before) was taken in December 2014 and the second (after) in February 2015 (Picture: XL Catlin Seaview Survey).
  • Tourism. When tourism is carried out in a non-respectful manner with biodiversity or exceeding the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, nature may be affected. The solution is sustainable tourism.
  • Ignorance. Ignorance is the worst enemy for conservation. For this reason this blog was born, to raise awareness among its readers of the importance of preserving nature.

Are you a lover of nature and biodiversity? Share with us what you do to prevent threatening nature!

How would it be a world without bees?

In recent years, the idea of a world without bees has transcended numerous social and political spheres. The scientific community has been warning about the disappearance of bees during years without any consequence. But now, it has become an issue of major concern, acquiring a media relevance like never before. At the end of 2017, the EU decided to take matters into its own hands to prevent this tragic ending for bees.

Why would it be a problem that bees disappear from Earth? And which measures has the UE take in order to address this problem?

The DDT and Rachel Carson

The use of pesticides has been a common agricultural practice from the very beginning of agriculture. At the beginning, the use of organic chemicals derived from naturals sources, as well as inorganic substances such as sulphur, mercury and arsenical compounds, was very common. However, they eventually stopped being used due to their toxicity (especially, phytotoxicity). The growth in synthetic pesticides accelerated in the mid-twentieth century, especially with the discovery of the effects of DDT, which became one of the most widely used pesticides of all time. DDT became famous due to its generalist insecticidal effects and low toxicity to mammals and plants, being used to eradicate household pests, fumigate gardens and control agricultural pests.

Picture above: cover of a March 1947 brochure on DDT from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (source). Picture below: kids being showered with DDT during a campaing against poliomyelitis, which was believed to be transmitted by a mosquito (source).

DDT resulted to be very effective against insect vectors of deadly diseases such as malaria, yellow fever and typhus, thus becoming even more popular.

However, the overuse of this and other pesticides eventually began to cause severe human and environmental health problems, because some of these products started to contaminate soils, plants and their seeds, and to bioaccumulate within the trophic nets, finally affecting mammals, birds and fishes, among others. The indiscriminate use of pesticides and their effects were denounced by Rachel Carson through her most famous publication, “Silent Spring”, which was distributed in 1962.

Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson (source).

From Carson to the neonicotinoids

Since Carson denounced the abusive use of pesticides, the world has witnessed the birth of many new substances to fight crop pests. Since then, researches have focused on finding less toxic and more selective products in order to minimize their impact on both human and environmental health. Could we say it has been a success?

Yes… and no. Although their use stopped being so indiscriminate and famers started betting on the use of more selective products, there were still some open fronts. Fronts that would remain open until today.

Between 1980 and 1990, Shell and Bayer companies started working on the synthesis of a new assortment of pesticides to face the resistances that some insects have acquired to some of the most widely used substances those days: the neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically similar to nicotine; they effect the insect nervous system with a high specificity, while having a very low toxicity to mammals and birds compared to their most famous predecessors (organochlorides, such as the DDT, and carbamates). The most widely used neonicotinoid nowadays (and also one of the most widely used pesticides worldwide) is the imidacloprid.

However, far from getting famous for their effectiveness, the use of neonicotinoids began to get controversial for their supposed relationship with the disappearance of bees.

How do these pesticides affect bees?

For some years now (2006 onwards) the neonicotinoids are in scientists’ spotlight as one of the main suspects of the disappearance of bees. However, it has not been until now that something that scientists had been denouncing for years has finally been assumed: that neonicotinoids cause a greater impact than it was thought.

Dead bees in front of a hive. Public domain.

Unlike other pesticides that remain on plant surfaces, some studies state that neonicotinoids are taken up throughout their tissues, thus being accumulated in their roots, leaves, flowers, pollen and nectar. Also, that nearby fields are polluted with the dust created when treated seeds are planted and that plants derived from these seeds will accumulate a major amount of pesticide than sprayed plants (as it is explained in this publication of Nature). This causes bees (as well as other pollinating insects) to be exposed to high levels of pesticides, both in the crops themselves and in the surrounding foraging areas. These same studies have revealed with less support that these products may persist and accumulate in soils, which may affect future generations of crops.

Some of the negative effects on bees that have been related to neonicotinoids are:

In addition to the effects of neonicotinoids, other important causes must be taken into account: climate change, less food sources and changes in soil uses.

What would happen if bees disappear?

Colonial bees (like honeybees) are the most famous among bees. However, they only represent a mere portion within the great diversity of known bees, most of which have solitary life habits and build their nests inside small cavities. The ecological importance of solitary bees is equal to or greater than that of honey bees, but effects that neonicotinoids have on them are still poorly studied. Together, bees are among the most efficient pollinating organisms.

Solitary bee entering in its nest. Public domain.

According to this study carried out in German territory and published in POLS One at the end of 2017, a large part of flying insect diversity (including numerous pollinators) and up to 75% of their biomass have decreased in the last three decades due to the interaction of several factors. And if that was not enough, the authors say that these numbers can probably be extrapolated to other parts of the world.

What would happen if both colonial and solitary bees disappear?

  • Disappearance of crops. The production of many crops, such as fruit trees, nuts, spices and some oils, depends entirely on pollinators, especially on bees.
  • Decrease in the diversity and biomass of wild plants. Up to 80% of wild plants depend on insect pollination to reproduce, as it happens with many aromatic plants. A decrease in the vegetal surface would lead to serious problems of erosion and desertification.
  • Less recycling of soil nutrients. With the disappearance of the plants, the washing and deposition of soil nutrients would go down.
  • Less biological pest control. Some solitary bees are parasitoids of other solitary bees and other groups of insects (natural enemies); their absence could trigger the recurrence of certain pests.
  • Negative effects on higher trophic levels. The disappearance of bees could cause a decrease in the diversity and biomass of some birds that feed on pollinators.
  • Disappearance of bee-derived products, such as honey or wax.

The UE bans the use of neonicotinoids

Facing this reality, several governments have tried to limit the use of pesticides as a part of the measures to stop the decline of bee populations and the resulting economic losses. To give some examples, since 2006 the biomass of honey bees has decreased by 40% in the US, 25% in Europe since 1985 and 45% in the United Kingdom since 2010, according to data published by Greenpeace.

To date, the more restrictive measures limited the use of neonicotinoids in certain situations or seasons. But at the beginning of 2018, the EU, after preparing a detailed report based on more than 1,500 scientific studies carried out by the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), decided to definitively ban the use of the three most used neonicotinoids in a maximum period of 6 months in all its member states after demonstrating that they are harmful for bees: imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam.

Will the objectives of this report be accomplished? We will have to wait …

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Although slowly, the fight against the abusive use of pesticides is paying off. However, we will have to see if the gap left by some products is filled with other substances or if governments commit to adopt more environment friendly agricultural models.

Main picture obtained from [link].

Insulin: a point in favour for transgenics

Despite the arguments and positions against transgenics, it is undeniable that insulin is a great transgenic success. It is essential in some types of diabetes; and since it was discovered, the life expectancy of diabetics has increased more than 45 years. Therefore, let’s know in detail.

REMINDER OF GENETIC ENGINEERING

Genetic engineering allows to clone, that is, to multiply DNA fragments and produce the proteins for which these genes encode in organisms different from the one of origin. That is, if in an organism there is an alteration or mutation of a gene that prevents the genetic code from translating it into proteins, with the techniques of recombinant DNA a gene is obtained without the mutation in another organism. Thus, it is possible to obtain proteins of interest in organisms different from the original from which the gene was extracted, improve crops and animals, produce drugs and obtain proteins that use different industries in their manufacturing processes. In other words, through genetic engineering, the famous transgenics are obtained.

They offer many possibilities in the industrial use of microorganisms with applications ranging from the recombinant production of therapeutic drugs and vaccines to food and agricultural products. But, in addition, they have a promising role in medicine and in the cure of diseases.

And is that the result of obtaining a recombinant DNA, from it, will be made a new protein, called recombinant protein. An example of this is the case of insulin.

WHAT IS INSULIN?

Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas and with an important role in the metabolic process. Insulin comes from the Latin insulae, which means island. Its name is due to the fact that inside the pancreas, insulin is produced in the islets of Langerhans. The pancreas is related to the general functioning of the organism. It is located in the abdomen and is surrounded by organs such as the liver, spleen, stomach, small intestine and gallbladder.

Thanks to it we use the energy of the food that enters our body. And this happens because it allows glucose to enter our body. This is how it provides us with the necessary energy for the activities we must perform, from breathing to running (Video 1).

Video 1. Insulin, Glucose and You (Source: YouTube)

HOW DOES INSULIN WORK?

Insulin helps glucose enter the cells, like a key that opens the lock on the cell doors so that glucose, which is blood sugar, enters and is used as energy (Figure 1). If glucose cannot enter because there is no key to open the door, as with people with diabetes, blood glucose builds up. An accumulation of sugar in the blood can cause long-term complications. That’s why it’s important for diabetics to inject insulin.

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Figure 1. Picture of the funcioning of insulin in cells (Source: Encuentra tu balance)

WHY DO WE USE TRANSGENIC INSULIN?

First, the insulin obtained from animals such as dogs, pigs or cows was used. But although, above all, pork insulin was very similar to human insulin, it was not identical and contained some impurities. This fact caused rejection and, in some cases, allergies. In addition, to be obtained from the pancreas of pigs, for each pancreas only insulin was obtained for the treatment of 3 days (at more than the cost of care of the animal). The result was low performance and high costs.

But with recombinant DNA insulins, more is obtained at a lower cost. For this reason, currently, the original insulin is obtained from a human of genetic engineering, despite the fact that animal insulins are still a perfectly acceptable alternative.

Through genetic engineering, insulin has been produced from the E. coli bacterium. It was in 1978 when the sequence of the insulin was obtained and introduced inside the bacteria so that it produced insulin. This is how E. coli has gone from being a common bacterium to a factory producing insulin. Insulin is extracted from the bacteria, purified and marketed as a medicine.

The advantages of “human” insulin, obtained by genetic engineering, are the easy maintenance of bacteria, a greater quantity of production and with lower costs. More or more, the compatibility of this insulin is 100%, however there may be reactions due to other components.

On an industrial scale, the production of recombinant proteins encompasses different stages. These stages are fermentation, in which the bacteria are cultivated in nutritious culture media; the extraction to recover all the proteins inside, the purification, which separates the recombinant protein from the other bacterial proteins; and finally the formulation, where the recombinant protein is modified to achieve a stable and sterile form that can be administered therapeutically.

Each of the previous phases implies a very careful handling of the materials and a strict quality control to optimize the extraction, purity, activity and stability of the drug. This process can be simple or more complex depending on the product and the type of cell used. Although the complexity of the process would increase the final cost of the product, the value will not exceed the expense of isolating the compound from its original source to reach medicinal quantities, which is what we have shown with insulin. That is, producing human insulin has a lower cost than obtaining insulin from pigs.

Genetic engineering allows numerous potentially therapeutic proteins to be made in large quantities. Currently, there are more than 30 proteins approved for clinical use, in addition to hundreds of therapeutic protein genes that have been expressed at the laboratory level and that studies continue to demonstrate their clinical adequacy.

REFERENCES

  • Ramos, M. et al. El código genético, el secreto de la vida (2017) RBA Libros
  • Alberts, B. et al. Biología molecular de la célula (2010). Editorial Omega, 5a edición
  • Cooper, G.M., Hausman R.E. La Célula (2009). Editorial Marbán, 5a edición
  • Naukas
  • Vix
  • Main picture: UniversList

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