Rare white kiwi survives surgery

The world’s only known white kiwi has survived surgery to remove stones from her gizzard, reports a New Zealand Wildlife Centre.

Over a week ago, rangers noted that Manukura, the six-month-old chick, was off her food.

X-rays revealed that two large stones were obstructing the chick’s guts.

In two separate operations, vets at Wellington Hospital in New Zealand used lasers to successfully break apart the rocks.

Pukaha Mount Bruce, New Zealand’s North Island wildlife centre, where Manukura lives, reported that the bird’s heart slowed suddenly during the surgery giving the operating team “a bit of a scare”.

But the little white bird pulled through and is recovering in isolation from other animals.

Kiwis, like other birds, swallow stones to help them digest their food. But Manukura, it seems, swallowed more than she could stomach.

Manukura, a North Island Brown Kiwi, is the 13th kiwi hatched in captivity at the centre this year.

:: Read original here ::

Plant has evolved a specialist bird perch

New research sheds light on the world’s most specialised bird perch.

The researchers suspect that the vertical, branchless stem of a South African plant – locally called the Rat’s Tail – has evolved to encourage pollinating birds to visit its flowers.

The birds hang upside down from this perch and fertilise the plant when they thrust their beaks into the red flowers to drink nectar.

The international team reports the findings in the Annals of Botany.

Plants go to great lengths to attract animals to pollinate them; they seduce insects, birds and small mammals with colourful, shapely, sweet-smelling flowers.

Some plants even wave at passing pollinators.

On first seeing the deep red, long-tubular flowers of Babiana ringens in 2003, botanist Spencer Barrett from the University of Toronto, Canada, suspected that he was dealing with a plant that was pollinated exclusively by birds.

But the position of the flowers at the base of the plant perplexed him.

Most birds avoid feeding on or close to the ground to keep clear of ground-dwelling predators; plants reliant on bird-pollination tend to keep their flowers up high.

Dr Barrett and his colleague Bruce Anderson from University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, wondered if the curious perch-like structure had evolved to give pollinating birds a foothold from which to feed.

Crouching among the shrubs of the Cape of South Africa, binoculars in hand, Dr Barrett and his team confirmed that the flowers were exclusively pollinated by sunbirds.

“When we saw a bird visiting we were completely enchanted,” said Dr Barrett.

Relaxed selection

Still unconvinced that the stick-like protrusion had evolved as a perch, the team set about to gather further evidence.

They set out to look at the full distribution of B. ringens across the Cape, and found that in the east, where sunbirds have a greater variety of flowering plants to choose between, B. ringens‘ perches were smaller than in the west, where plants can rely on regular visits from sunbirds.

Dr Barrett suspects that in the absence of pollinating birds, the plants do not need to invest in maintaining the perch, and so it shrinks over many generations – an example of what is called relaxed selection.

With time, this branch might return to its ancestral form, which the researchers suspect was a central stem with flowers at its top, much like many of B. ringens’close relatives.

“It’s a fascinating piece of work,” said plant biologist Professor Simon Hiscock from the University of Bristol.

This study poses questions about the influence of pollinators on the structures of flowers and on plants’ reproductive strategies, he added.

:: Read original here ::

Safe Sex, Duck Style

Male mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) are famous for their long, spiraling genitalia. Now scientists have discovered that they have something else to crow about. Mixing duck ejaculate with a common bacteria, Escherichia coli, researchers have found that mallard duck semen kills bacteria. Semen from males with more colorful bills harbored the greatest antibacterial activity, killing up to three times more bacteria than those with duller bills, the team reports online today in Biology Letters. The finding suggests that female ducks may be drawn to brightly colored males not just because they’re more flashy, but because they spread fewer germs through sexual intercourse.

:: Read original here ::

Does Bird Flu + Swine Flu = Superflu?

What do you get if you cross bird flu with the 2009 pandemic human virus, widely known as swine flu? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t funny. A new study predicts that swapping genes between the avian and human influenza viruses may result in an even more dangerous flu.

The human influenza virus H1N1 that caused the 2009 flu pandemic, and H9N2, an avian influenza virus that is endemic in bird populations in Asia, are close cousins—close enough that they can swap genes if they find themselves in the same cell, resulting in new viruses that are a patchwork of the parent strains. Scientists suspect that some gene combinations may result in a particularly potent form of flu and ignite a pandemic in humans. But because these viruses are more likely to meet in the lungs of an Asian chicken farmer than under the nose of a virologist, researchers find it difficult to predict which gene combinations might be the most virulent and contagious.

So instead of waiting and seeing, researchers have played matchmaker and thrust the two viruses together in a test tube. A team in China generated 127 hybrid viruses and injected each one into lab mice. More than half of the hybrids were as good as their parent strains at infecting the mice, and eight of them proved to be more pathogenic, the team led by Jinhua Liu of the China Agricultural University in Beijing reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“These are important experiments”, says virologist Peter Palese of Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, who was not involved in the work. The viral hybrids that the Chinese team has identified are the ones that scientists might want to watch out for worldwide, he says. If these strains were recognized early, governments could launch a speedier response.

Creating highly virulent viruses in the lab is controversial, says virologist Ab Osterhaus of the Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. “[But] I don’t think we should shy away from these experiments. … The more information we have, the better,” he says.

He explains, however, that the hybrids that are the most virulent in mice will not necessarily be the most dangerous in humans, nor the most contagious. “Mice mirror, to a certain extent, what happens in humans,” he says, but they are not perfect model animals. Liu agrees. He plans to investigate how contagious his new viral blends are in guinea pigs and ferrets—animals whose respiratory system better reflects our own feverish battle with flu.

:: Read more here ::

Why Some Penguins Wear a Blue Tuxedo

Feeling small and blue today? Eudyptula minor goes through its whole life that way. This Australian bird—the smallest of all penguins at around 30 cm high—sports a notable blue tint in its feathers, hence its common name, the Little Blue Penguin. Using high-powered microscopes, researchers have now discovered that nanometer-sized fibers in the bird’s wing feathers provide the unusual blue hue. Made from keratin, the same material as human hair, these nanofibers are packed together like bundles of uncooked spaghetti, the team reports online today in Biology Letters. The penguin’s color is due to blue light that is scattered when it hits the fibers, while all other wavelengths of light just pass through the feathers. This is a new mechanism for giving feathers a blue color, the authors say; similar nanofibers are found in the blue skin of other birds, such as Emus, but those fibers are made of collagen. What advantage the colorful feathers provide for Little Blue remains unknown, but they certainly aren’t being caught dead in the same black and white tuxedo as most of their relatives.

:: Read original here ::