Natural history discoveries from two years of Nature Notes

It is now two years since we launched our Nature Notes article category, designed to provide a home for Natural History observations. The response has been extraordinary, with over 200 Nature Notes submitted – clearly there was untapped demand for a place to publish natural history! To celebrate, we look back at 10 Nature Notes that caught the eye of our editors and represent the breadth of the papers we have received.

Shocking behaviour from electric eels

Electric eels are normally solitary predators, but this Nature Note documents an unexpected observation of social hunting in large groups of over 100 individuals. Over several years Douglas Bastos and colleagues at the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazôni in Brazil observed and videoed groups of eels herding fish into shallow water and taking it in turns to attack them with shocks. How many other animals assumed to have just a single foraging strategy practice novel behaviors yet to be observed by naturalists? This work attracted plenty of attention from the general public, including this article in the New York Times – perhaps unsurprising when the authors provided a number of excellent videos demonstrating the novel behavior!

Bobcat vs. python

Burmese pythons have become a well-established invasive species in the Florida Everglades, causing serious concerns about their impact on native species. In their native habitat predation of python nests is almost unheard of, perhaps unsurprisingly considering females usually attend the nest. It was assumed this would be equally true in Florida, but this report from Andrea Currylow of the South Florida Field Station in Everglades National Park Florida and colleagues suggests this might not be the case. The authors set up a camera to monitor a python nest as part of a larger project. To their surprise, over a period of several days the camera filmed a bobcat attacking the nest and successfully eating eggs – despite the intermittent presence of the almost 14 foot long female. This report has led others to speculate whether, if this behavior is common, bobcats may provide some help in controlling populations of the invasive python. This was another paper to capture the imagination of the general public, with media coverage including The National Geographic and The New York Times.

Entire photo-documented sequence from 01 June 2021–09 September 2021

The real life of Drosophila

Drosophila, C. elegans, Arabidopsis: model species like these have been the basis of so many important scientific discoveries. Yet it is surprising how little we know of the lives of these species in the wild. In this paper Juliano Morimoto & Zuzanna Pietras provide the first measurements of Drosophila melanogaster larval density under natural conditions. In an accompanying article for Nature Ecology and Evolution Dr Morimoto notes that without this kind of data from the wild the conditions under which Drosophila are kept in the laboratory are essentially guesses, and argues eloquently against considering natural history observations as a lower form of science than hypothesis driven research.

A novel cleaning mutualism

Cleaning mutualisms are a particularly fascinating example of positive interactions between animal species. In this Nature Note, Brendah Nyaguthii of the University of Eldoret, Peter Njoroge of the National Museums of Kenya, & Damien Farine of the University of Oxford observed a black cheeked waxbill cleaning a dik-dik in Mpala Research Centre in Kenya. This cleaning mutualism is distinctive due to the very small size of both bird and mammal and that the dik-dik appears to be actively posing for the bird; distinct from other bird-mammal interactions which often appear passive from the mammals perspective.

A bowhead whale in the eastern North Pacific

In May 2016, two members of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation, Ernest A. Mason & Ernest V. Mason, observed a juvenile bowhead whale in Caamaño Sound, British Columbia, Canada. This sighting occurred over 2000 km southeast from the nearest known range for this species and is the only known sighting of the bowhead whale in the eastern North Pacific. Having been connected with Jared Towers & James Pilkington of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the four authors formally documented the unique sighting in this Nature Note. They speculate the distribution of these whales could be changing as climate change reduces the extent of sea-ice coverage.

A cryptic pollinator of a unique plant

As the only known ephipytic gymnosperm, Zamia pseudoparasitica is a unique and important species; yet we know very little about its ecology. Using camera traps at three locations in Western Panama, Claudio Monteza-Moreno and colleagues at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, provide the first evidence of the identity of the species pollinating this plant. While a number of species were recorded visiting plants, the main seed disperser seems to be the Northern olingo, a relative of the raccoon.

Mass mortality of salmon linked to heatwave

As the effects of climate change increase, documenting potential effects on wildlife becomes ever more important – including ‘anecdotal’ one-off events. Peter Westley of University of Alaska Fairbanks documents a mass die-off of migrating spawning salmon during a heatwave. “The summer of 2019 will forever be burned in the consciousness of Alaskans” says Westley, referring to the record-shattering July and August heat. Alerted by local people via social media, Westley and his team surveyed the Koyukuk River, guided by two local knowledge holders, a father and son, who have lived the entirety of their lives on the river. They counted over 1000 dead salmon in a 275km stretch of the river, with the evidence supporting the high temperatures as the cause of the mass-mortality. What long-term effect increasing temperatures will have on the annual – and crucial to the Alaskan ecosystem – salmon spawning run remains to be seen, but observations such as this are vital to monitoring such effects.

Spider traps frog

While rare, a number of spider species have been reported to prey on vertebrates. However these interactions seem mostly to be opportunistic. That makes this report, of a spider potentially deliberately trapping and feeding on an amphibian, so intriguing. During unrelated fieldwork, Thio Rosin Fulgence and colleagues at the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar happened across an instance of a spider consuming a frog; notably this took place inside a ‘retreat’ built by the spider through weaving two leaves together. The authors speculate that the spiders may build these retreats as a trap in which to lure shelter-seeking frogs.

Extinction of a rare cat in the USA?

The jaguarundi is a small, cryptic, understudied relative of the puma historically ranging all the way from Argentina through to South Texas. However the last confirmed jaguarundi sighting in Texas was in 1986. Jason Lombardi and colleagues at Texas A&M University-Kingsville report that during an 18 year camera-trap study juguarundi were never detected in Texas. Conversely the survey’s camera-traps in northern Tamaulipas, Mexico detected a number of jaguarundi. Based on this, the authors conclude that the jaguarundi must be considered extirpated in the United States. Such a confirmation is vital to inform future recovery plans for the species.

Camera trap images of jaguarundi recorded in Mexico

Seabirds on an epic journey

A number of our Nature Notes have provided novel data on the movement patterns of migrating birds. An especially remarkable example was provided by Autumn-Lynn Harrison and colleagues at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. They tracked the migration of three closely related species of jaeger (or skua for European readers) all of whom breed in the same location in the Canadian Arctic; however where they migrate to at the end of the breeding season had previously been a mystery. The results  were remarkable, both in terms of distance travelled and in diversity of locations: from the same breeding ground, the Parasitic jaeger travelled south to Central America, the Pomarine jaeger west across the Arctic Ocean to East Asia and the Long-tailed jaeger travelled around the South African Cape to Madagascar. The estimated annual travel distance for these birds was over 40,000km.

Credit also to the authors for summarising their results to the public in this excellent cartoon, written in the language of the local Inuktitut people:

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