Fishing for fun takes a massive bite out of marine life : Research Highlights

North Atlantic Monster Shark Tournament.

A shark is weighed in New Bedford, Massachusetts, as part of the North Atlantic Monster Shark Tournament. Recreational shark hunting accounts for a growing proportion of shark catches. Credit: Maddie Meyer/Getty

Conservation biology

31 January 2020

Hobbyists’ harvest of sharks and rays has soared, and catch-and-release is no solution.

The volume of fish caught recreationally more than tripled in the 60 years to 2014, and a recent uptick in recreational shark hunting is damaging fragile populations.

The United Nations agency that documents fishing statistics almost exclusively monitors commercial fisheries. To quantify the impact of pleasure fishing, Dirk Zeller at the University of Western Australia in Crawley and his colleagues reconstructed the amount of fish caught annually in 125 countries. The researchers analysed reports from events such as fishing jamborees and gathered data on factors such as the number of licensed recreational fishers per state to scale up to a global estimate.

The results showed that recreational catches increased from about 280,000 tonnes in the mid-1950s to around 900,000 tonnes in 2014. The hunting of sharks and rays for fun has been rising more steeply than other forms of recreational fishing since 1990, and now accounts for up to 6% of recreational catches worldwide. Although shark hunters often release the fish, a previous study of hammerhead sharks found that the majority of fish that were hooked and released died before reaching reproductive age.

Front. Mar. Sci. (2020)

A father holds his infant daughter and smiles at her as she smiles back

Well hello, cutie pie! The sing-song tones of parentese promote babies’ language development. Credit: Getty


04 February 2020

Formal instruction in ‘parentese’ might seem unnecessary, but researchers find that coaching caregivers leads to chattier children.

Baby talk can sound silly, but the simple, high-pitched speech that adults use when speaking to infants and toddlers could help children to learn new words.

Scientists know that hearing parentese — slow, melodic speech featuring exaggerated vowels — can boost infants’ language skills. These abilities are important predictors of a child’s success in school.

To study how coaching parents in parentese affected their children’s language learning, Naja Ferjan Ramírez, Sarah Roseberry Lytle and Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington in Seattle asked the families of 71 US infants to record themselves interacting with their babies at 6, 10, 14 and 18 months of age. The researchers assigned 48 families to coaching sessions that included tips for language-learning activities.

Over a year, coached parents increased their use of parentese by 21%, whereas parents who weren’t coached increased it by 12%. At 18 months, children of coached parents produced an average of about 2,200 vocalizations in 12 hours, nearly 40% more than infants whose families didn’t receive coaching.

Cuban farmer travelling in a loaded donkey drawn cart.

A farmer and cart in Cuba, where small-scale and conservation-minded agricultural practices might account for the cleanliness of the nation’s rivers. Credit: Karen Brodie/Getty


04 February 2020

The island’s waterways have lower levels of fertilizer-linked pollution than the Mississippi River in the United States.

Despite centuries of colonization and agriculture, Cuba’s rivers are in good health.

Sugarcane and cattle farming on the island date back to the late fifteenth century. To measure water quality in Cuba’s rivers today, Paul Bierman at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Rita Hernández at the Cienfuegos Center for Environmental Studies in Cuba and their colleagues sampled water in 25 river basins in central Cuba. This is the first time in more than 60 years that scientists from Cuba and the United States have joined forces to study the island’s hydrology.

More than 80% of the samples had levels of Escherichia coli bacteria that exceeded international standards for recreational use. The bacteria are indicators of faecal contamination, and probably came from the cattle that graze on many riverbanks.

Despite the island’s history of large-scale agriculture, the rivers studied had much lower levels of dissolved nitrogen — an indicator of fertilizer use — than did the Mississippi River Basin in the United States. The researchers speculate that this is due to Cuba’s transition to smaller-scale, more sustainable farming practices since the 1990s.

Smoke and ash is seen rising from the crater of Mount St Helens.

Mount St. Helens erupts in 2004. Painstakingly restored analogue tapes document the volcano’s 1980 eruption, which killed 57 people. Credit: John Pallister/USGS/Getty


04 February 2020

Scientific sleuthing uncovers data from the run-up to a massive blast at Mount St. Helens.

Decades-old analogue tapes have yielded unprecedented details of earthquakes that shook Mount St. Helens in the months leading up to its cataclysmic eruption in 1980.

The eruption of the volcano in southwestern Washington State was the deadliest in modern US history. In the months before the eruption, a handful of seismic stations monitored the shaking of the ground around the volcano, but the stations saved data only sporadically.

Analogue tapes of seismic recordings languished in storage for years until 2005, when Stephen Malone at the University of Washington in Seattle retrieved the tapes and began the slow process of recovering the data stored on them. Malone hunted for old equipment on which to play the tapes, and baked some of them to stabilize their protective coating. In the end, he recovered a near-continuous record of quakes for the two-month period that shows how magma was moving in the ground beneath the volcano.

The new data hold no hints that a big eruption was on the way. But scientists could use them to better understand how the ground rumbles around and beneath an active volcano.

Actor Michael J. Fox poses in the press room at the 89th annual Academy Awards.

Actor Michael J. Fox, who was only 29 when he was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease, has become a public face of the illness. Credit: Jason LaVeris/Getty


03 February 2020

Scientists pinpoint molecular changes that could help to reveal people at risk of developing the disease before age 50.

Parkinson’s disease that develops in young and middle-aged people might be caused by cellular abnormalities present since birth.

About 10% of Parkinson’s cases are diagnosed in people who are 21 to 50 years old, among them film star Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed at age 29. To find molecular markers of this ‘young-onset’ Parkinson’s, Clive Svendsen at the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute in Los Angeles, California, and his colleagues reprogrammed blood cells from 22 people with young-onset Parkinson’s to make stem cells, which were then grown into brain cells.

These cells contained a build-up of α-synuclein proteins, thought to be toxic to neurons, and dysfunctional lysosomes, cellular structures that would normally clear the unwanted proteins. Because the problems could be traced back to the stem cells, the researchers suspect that the study participants were born with defective cellular machinery.

The researchers found that the drug PEP005 efficiently reduces the accumulations of α-synuclein in both cultured cells and the brains of live mice.

E.coli bacterium, SEM.

Escherichia coli bacterium. Bioengineering can turn E. coli bacteria into efficient chemical factories. Credit: Steve Gschmeissner/SPL


31 January 2020

Bacteria churn out chemical bounty after researchers tinker with genes for longevity and cell division.

Genetic engineering can transform Escherichia coli bacteria into tiny ‘factories’ that efficiently produce valuable chemicals — and have a small carbon footprint.

Microbial factories that turn renewable feedstocks such as simple sugars into ethanol or other useful commodities have been touted for their sustainability. But their productivity depends on many factors, including the lifespan of the bacteria themselves.

Liming Liu and his colleagues at Jiangnan University in Wuxi, China, singled out specific genes associated with ageing in E. coli. By deleting these genes or boosting their activity, the team changed the microbes’ lifespan to optimize their yield of two products.

The researchers found that reducing the number of times E. coli cells divide during their lifetime allowed the bacteria to produce 50% more of a biodegradable polymer. By contrast, when the scientists instead extended the microbes’ overall lifetime, the bacteria could produce high concentrations of butyrate, a compound used in pharmaceuticals and by the food and beverage industry, among others.

Water effect on morphogenesis of lotus leaves.

Don’t just lie there: lotus leaves atop long stems curve and ripple without the vertical support of the water’s surface. Credit: Fan Xu


29 January 2020

Scientists explore why some lotus leaves lie smooth and flat, but others are deeply ruffled.

Floating lotus leaves retain their flat, circular shape thanks to the water that supports them.

The leaves of a young lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) lie flat on the surface of ponds and lakes, with only small ripples forming at the edge. But long stems often push the leaves of full-grown plants above the water’s surface. Such leaves typically have a wavy, warped appearance.

Fan Xu and his colleagues at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, modelled the physics of lotus leaves and found that those sprouting from long stems experience a critical amount of strain that causes the leaves to warp as they grow. But floating leaves experienced vertical support from the water, allowing them to stay mostly flat and to form wrinkles on only the edges.

The team confirmed these findings with experiments on sheets of rubber cut to the shapes of different leaves. When lying on water, the rubber leaves experienced only slight buckling on the edges. But when removed from water and suspended in the air, the entire leaf became warped.

Stomach cancer, light micrograph.

People with gastric cancer (tumour, top left) in their families had a lower risk of developing the disease after taking drugs that wipe out ulcer-causing bacteria. Credit: Biophoto Associates/SPL


29 January 2020

Eradication of the microbe that causes gastric ulcers has a potentially life-saving side effect.

Ridding the gut of the ulcer-causing bacterium Helicobacter pylori could prevent stomach cancer in people with a family history of the disease.

H. pylori infects more than half of all people, and has been linked to peptic ulcers and gastric cancer, which kills more people worldwide than all but two other cancers. Il Ju Choi at the National Cancer Center in Goyang, South Korea, and his colleagues studied 1,676 people with H. pylori infection who had a close relative with stomach cancer. Half of the participants received a placebo. The other half received a cocktail of antibiotics, which eradicated H. pylori in most but not all of the participants who took the drugs

About 9 years later, 1.2% of participants who had been treated with the cocktail had developed stomach cancer, compared with 2.7% of those who had received the placebo. Stomach cancer occurred in only 0.8% of those whose H. pylori population had been eradicated, compared with 2.9% of those who remained infected.

Micoquian stone tool (9.5 cm long) used as a meat knife by Neanderthals at Chagyrskaya Cave.

This meat-cutting knife was found with Neanderthal fossils in the Altai Mountain foothills in Russia. Credit: IAET


27 January 2020

Stone tools found in a Siberian cave hint at a rugged intercontinental journey.

A rich trove of fossils and stone tools in a Siberian cave suggests Neanderthals made an extraordinary 3,000-kilometre trek from Europe to colonize central Asia about 60,000 years ago.

Neanderthals have been found at numerous sites in Europe and western Asia, but the origins of Siberian populations have been elusive. Kseniya Kolobova at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk, Richard Roberts at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and their colleagues unearthed 74 Neanderthal fossils and 90,000 stone tools and other artefacts at Chagyrskaya Cave in Siberia’s Altai Mountains. The researchers argue that the tools closely match the style of Neanderthal tools found in Crimea and northern Caucasus, suggesting the Chagyrskaya Neanderthals originated in eastern Europe.

The tool analysis supports a 2019 DNA study suggesting that a Neanderthal from Chagyrskaya Cave was more closely related to Neanderthals from Europe than to Neanderthals at Denisova Cave, located 100 kilometres east of Chagyrskaya. The Neanderthal remains at Denisova Cave are more than 100,000 years old, and probably represent an earlier wave of migration.

Flames rise from an experimental forest fire in Canada’s remote Northwest Territories.

Forest fires blazing across western Canada in 2018 released air pollution that drifted all the way to the northeastern United States. Credit: Stefan Doerr

Atmospheric science

27 January 2020

Air quality in the United States’ most populous city reached unhealthy levels thanks to incoming smoke from wildfires and agricultural burning.

Dirty air that blanketed New York City in the summer of 2018 has been traced to its source: fires in two North American regions, one of them more than 4,000 kilometres away.

Drifting smoke carries small particles that can harm human health. To see how this might affect a major urban area, Drew Gentner and his colleagues at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, analysed air quality in and around the New York City region in August 2018. They found that pollution levels were high enough to trigger an air-quality alert in mid-August and another towards the end of the month.

The scientists modelled the origins of the air parcels that settled over New York City during those periods. The air mass that set off the first alert had passed over western Canada, where wildfires were burning. The air mass behind the second alert had passed over agricultural fires in the southeastern United States.

As climate change makes wildfires more common, officials need to prepare for the health effects of smoke on cities — even when fires are thousands of kilometres away.

A wooded area with deforestation is seen in the Serrania del Chiribiquete, Colombia.

Logging has cut into the core of Colombia’s Chiribiquete National Park, the world’s largest tropical rainforest national park, since guerrilla fighters moved out of the region. Credit: Handout/Reuters

Conservation biology

24 January 2020

The rebels’ departure from their rainforest strongholds triggered mass deforestation.

The Colombian government’s 2016 peace agreement with guerrilla fighters who hid in the jungle came at an environmental cost: rainforests previously deemed too dangerous to enter are now being destroyed.

During the five-decade-long conflict between the government and the FARC rebel group, guerrillas scattered land mines across their strongholds and threatened intruders with violence. Such measures led developers to avoid FARC territory, a phenomenon termed ‘gunpoint conservation’.

To quantify the peace agreement’s environmental effects, Paulo Murillo-Sandoval at Oregon State University in Corvallis and his colleagues collected satellite images of Colombia’s rainforest taken every 16 days from 2010 to 2018. They found that in the first two years after the agreement was signed, the average amount of land deforested per year in a previously rebel-controlled area was 50% greater than during the preceding four years. In protected areas, such as national parks, the disturbed area increased by 187% as ranching and coca cultivation spread after the treaty’s signing.

The authors say that rainforest conservation efforts should take local social concerns into account to avoid more untoward effects.

Partially excavated and restored ancient ruins of Herculaneum, Ercolano, Italy.

Ash from Mount Vesuvius buried both the Roman city of Herculaneum (pictured) and the better-known Pompeii. Credit: Getty


23 January 2020

Remains found at a city near Pompeii present opposing narratives of how people perished in the AD 79 eruption.

Some of Mount Vesuvius’s victims might have died more slowly than previously thought after the eruption’s hot gases and ash engulfed them nearly two millennia ago.

Vesuvius brought death not only to Pompeii, but also to nearby Herculaneum, a neighbouring city where the remains of 340 people have been found on the beach and in nearby boathouses. Researchers have long thought that those victims died instantly as their soft tissue vapourized.

After analysing the ribs of 152 victims, however, Tim Thompson at Teesside University in Middlesbrough, UK, and his colleagues found that the crystalline structure of the bone and the remaining collagen did not show the expected signs of exposure to high temperatures. The researchers say that the individuals in the boathouses were suffocated and baked rather than vapourized.

But in a separate finding, Pier Paolo Petrone at the University of Naples Federico II in Italy and his colleagues report that a Herculaneum victim’s skull contained brain tissue that had turned into a hard, glass-like substance. That finding and an analysis of nearby charred wood suggest the person was subjected to extreme temperatures that would have vapourized human tissues, Petrone and his colleagues say.

Photographs of human brain organoids in cell culture dishes.

Model brains in a dish are helping scientists to probe the human forebrain, the seat of complex abilities such as language. Credit: Pașca Lab/Stanford University


23 January 2020

Brain models in a dish offer clues to molecular signals involved in the human forebrain’s development.

The human brain contains billions of cells with a wide variety of functions, and how this intricate network forms during development has intrigued neuroscientists for decades. Researchers have now used lab-grown brain tissue to peer — in real time — into the development of the forebrain, the part of the brain that controls higher mental functions, including cognition and language.

Using human stem cells as a starting material, William Greenleaf and Sergiu Pașca at Stanford University in California and their colleagues grew pea-sized brain organoids that recreate features of some of the regions in the human forebrain. The researchers then set out to identify the molecular signals that guide the fate of specific cells.

The team found several proteins that seem to regulate the development of specific types of brain cell — from star-shaped cells that support and protect neurons to neurons that transmit signals to other neurons. The authors also mapped an elevated genetic risk for autism spectrum disorder to the precursors of non-neuronal cells called glia and to a group of fully developed neurons in the forebrain.

Thwaites Glacier.

Seismographs across Antarctica sensed vibrations created by icebergs breaking free from Thwaites Glacier (pictured). Credit: NASA/OIB/Jeremy Harbeck

Climate sciences

22 January 2020

Calving events at Thwaites Glacier, which is shedding vast amounts of ice, are detected from up to 1,600 kilometres away.

Seismic ‘icequake’ data might allow scientists to study ice loss from a notoriously unstable glacier in Antarctica.

Thwaites Glacier in fast-melting West Antarctica has the potential to contribute more than half a metre to global sea-level rise. But Thwaites’s melt rate depends on how and when new icebergs calve, or break away, from the glacier — a process that’s not easily observed.

Paul Winberry at Central Washington University in Ellensburg and his colleagues used vibration data from seismographs at seven stations across West Antarctica to identify a large potential calving event. Satellite imagery from the days and hours surrounding this seismic activity confirmed the team’s suspicions: the icequakes had been caused by new icebergs sloughing off the glacier’s front.

Similar techniques have been used to study ice loss in Greenland and other parts of Antarctica, but this is the first time that seismic monitoring has identified a calving event at Thwaites. The researchers say the method could help them to understand why the glacier is losing ice at such an alarming rate.

Barlangi Hill, site of the Yarrabubba impact in Western Australia.

Barlangi Hill marks the site of the buried Yarrabubba crater, which lies roughly 600 kilometres northeast of Perth in Australia. Credit: Graeme Churchard (CC BY 2.0)


21 January 2020

Collision with a huge object more than 2 billion years ago might even have altered the planet’s climate.

A crater in Australia that was carved out by an incoming space rock has been dated to 2.23 billion years old, making the scar the oldest known impact crater on Earth.

Geological activity has obliterated most of the planet’s ancient crust, leaving scientists with little information about Earth’s early history. One of the few remaining chunks of old crust lies in Western Australia, which is where researchers discovered a buried impact crater that they reported in 2003. They suspected that the feature, which they named Yarrabubba crater, could be one of Earth’s oldest impact craters, but could not tell its exact age.

Timmons Erickson at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and his colleagues measured the amounts of uranium and lead in the 70-kilometre-wide crater’s minerals. The results show that Yarrabubba is older than a 2-billion-year-old impact crater in South Africa.

The researchers speculate that if the incoming meteorite hit ice or water, it could have vaporized massive amounts of water. This vapour could have warmed the planet and helped to bring it out of a global deep freeze that drew to a close around that time.

Artist impression of giant sloth.

Giant ground sloths (artist’s impression) might have travelled in family groups, according to analysis of a trove of sloth fossils. Credit: Alamy


20 January 2020

Fossils hint that families of the hulking animals could have gathered at an Ice Age waterhole.

The bones of 22 giant ground sloths that probably died en masse have been found at an Ecuadorian fossil site, offering insights into the lives of these long-gone, three-tonne herbivores.

Previous research has focussed on the evolutionary tree of giant ground sloths and their modern kin. Seeking to understand the animals’ behaviour, Emily Lindsey at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum in Los Angeles, California, and her colleagues analysed 575 bones, all excavated from the Tanque Loma site in southwestern Ecuador, of the sloth species Eremotherium laurillardi.

The team found that the animals ranged from juveniles to full-grown adults, hinting that these Ice Age behemoths might have travelled in herds. The site, which has been carbon dated to roughly 18,000 to 23,000 years ago, features copious remains of the beasts’ digested food.

Ground sloths found at other fossil sites died after becoming mired in asphalt seeps. But the authors hypothesize that the Tanque Loma animals might have been gathered in a drying waterhole — as modern-day hippopotamuses do — when they perished of thirst or disease.

Yingwuzhou wetland.

The extensively restored Yingwuzhou wetland (pictured) in Shanghai, China, emits less methane than a nearby wild wetland. Credit: Xuechu Chen


16 January 2020

Restoration and strict controls help a saltwater marsh in China to absorb greenhouse gases.

A restored and carefully managed wetland on the Chinese coast is a much larger carbon sink than a natural marsh nearby.

Since 1970, 35% of global wetland habitat has disappeared, largely owing to human activity. Researchers say that wetlands restoration is crucial for both maintaining biodiversity and combating climate change.

Jianwu Tang at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Xuechu Chen at East China Normal University in Shanghai and their colleagues measured the flows of three powerful greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — in two coastal marshes in Shanghai. The first marsh was relatively untouched; the second had been restored by planting local vegetation and installing erosion controls.

The team found that the rehabilitated wetland took up more carbon dioxide and emitted much less methane than the natural one. As a result, the restored habitat has the net effect of soaking up twice as much carbon as the natural marsh.

The authors call for similar restorations of degraded wetlands to store carbon.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the restored wetland had the net effect of absorbing 13 times more carbon than the natural wetland.

Worker opening wooden whisky cask in whisky distillery.

Casks of whisky in a distillery. Isotopes released by twentieth-century nuclear tests have helped to expose young whisky disguised in old bottles. Credit: Getty


16 January 2020

Carbon-14 dating reveals that an ‘antique’ Scotch is roughly 150 years younger than claimed.

Swindlers can make a killing by passing off recently distilled whisky as old and rare Scotch, but the fallout from nuclear bombs can expose such fakery.

Bidders pay dearly for a wee dram of antique Scotch; one bottle fetched more than US$1 million in 2018. To foil counterfeiters, Gordon Cook at the University of Glasgow, UK, and his colleagues capitalized on twentieth-century nuclear-bomb tests, which added large amounts of the isotope carbon-14 to the atmosphere. Carbon-14 is absorbed by living things and decays at a known rate, which means that an organic sample — such as the barley distilled into whisky — can be accurately dated by measuring how much of its carbon is carbon-14.

The team collected samples of whisky with known production dates and measured the samples’ ratios of carbon-14, -13 and -12. The researchers then compared carbon-14 measurements from unverified booze with measurements from definitively dated samples — and found multiple imposters. One drink that was purported to be from 1863 was actually made between 2007 and 2014.

Retinal scar caused by a Toxoplasma gondii infection, or toxoplasmosis.

A retina scarred by infection with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which goes quiet when triggered by a gene called BFD1. Credit: Paul Whitten/SPL


16 January 2020

The toxoplasmosis parasite can hide in a person’s organs after infection and re-emerge years later.

About one-quarter of the world’s population is chronically infected with an inactive form of the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which when active can cause blindness and even death. Now, researchers have found a genetic switch that helps Toxoplasma to hide from the immune system and remain in the body for life.

Infected cat poo and undercooked food can both spread Toxoplasma. After infection, some Toxoplasma parasites convert into inactive forms called bradyzoites that reside harmlessly in the body, and many people never realize that they are carriers. But bradyzoites can re-activate and cause symptoms, which pose the biggest threat to individuals with weakened immune systems.

Sebastian Lourido at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and his colleagues identified a gene called BFD1 that seems to be necessary for Toxoplasma to enter the semi-dormant state. Parasites lacking BFD1 could not become bradyzoites, and therefore could not create Toxoplasma-filled pods in the brains of mice. Providing the BFD1 gene to these parasites was sufficient to turn them into inactive forms.

The researchers say that targeting BFD1 could help to prevent and treat Toxoplasma infections.

3D rendering of GPS satellite in orbit around Earth.

Most satellites (artist’s impression of a GPS satellite, pictured) can’t be refuelled, but placing craft in optimal orbits could save large amounts of propellant. Credit: Alamy


16 January 2020

A four-satellite network takes advantage of forces that would hamper other spacecraft.

Engineers have discovered orbits that allow satellites to harness forces that would disrupt other craft — making it possible for a four-craft constellation to monitor almost the entire globe at once.

Calculations in the 1980s showed that it is theoretically possible for four satellites to constantly observe all of Earth. But substantial amounts of propellant, an expensive resource, would be needed to maintain the required orbits, in part to correct for forces such as the gravitational pull of the Moon and the Sun.

Lake Singh at the Aerospace Corporation in Chantilly, Virginia, and his colleagues created an algorithm to look for orbits that maximize satellite coverage while taking into account forces that are usually disruptive. Sifting through five million simulated orbits, the algorithm found configurations that exploit these forces to keep a four-craft system in check. One such arrangement would cover 86% of Earth’s surface; another, 95%. Both would use 60% less propellant than existing systems with similar coverage.

The gains could allow mission operators to save money or to extend satellite flights, say the authors.


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