Feb 7
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In the News: Invasive harlequin driving ladybird declines

Native ladybird species in the UK and Europe are declining rapidly due to the spread of the invasive harlequin ladybird, according to scientists.

Photo of harlequin ladybird

Harlequin ladybird

Invasive alien

Native to Asia, the harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) has been introduced to many countries as a pest control agent, but is now spreading rapidly and has itself become a pest species.

Introduced to North America in 1988, the harlequin is now the most widespread ladybird on the continent, and the species has also invaded much of northwest Europe. It was first spotted in Belgium in 2001, and arrived in the UK and Switzerland in 2004.

Since the harlequin’s arrival, scientists have warned about its potentially harmful impacts on native ladybird species. However, new research published in the journal Diversity and Distributions has now measured the scale of these impacts and demonstrated a strong link between the spread of the harlequin and rapid declines in native ladybirds.

Photo of harlequin ladybirds, showing variation in the species

Harlequin ladybirds showing some of the colour variation in this species

Rapid declines

Led by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in the UK, the study was made possible by thousands of records submitted as part of “citizen science” projects that record ladybird observations across Britain, Belgium and Switzerland.

Using this data, the researchers found that in the five years following the harlequin ladybird’s arrival in the UK, seven out of eight native ladybird species declined. Similar declines were also found in Belgium and Switzerland.

Particularly badly affected was the two-spot ladybird (Adalia bipunctata), which is estimated to have declined by 44% in the UK and 30% in Belgium. It is now difficult to spot in some areas where it was once common.

Outcompeted

Like many other native ladybirds, the two-spot ladybird is smaller than the harlequin and likely to be outcompeted for food and habitat. The harlequin is also likely to prey on the eggs and larvae of native ladybird species. In addition, the harlequin ladybird may potentially be more toxic than native species, giving it better protection against predators.

Photo of harlequin ladybird in flight

Harlequin ladybird in flight

Speaking about the results, Helen Roy of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology said, “It’s a very real decline, which should be put amongst a whole other set of factors putting ladybirds in a more fragile situation.”

Such factors may include the intensification of agriculture and climate change.

The only UK species apparently unaffected by the harlequin’s arrival was the seven-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata), which is similar in size to the harlequin and not in such direct competition for habitat as other native species.

Photo of seven-spot ladybird eating aphids

Seven-spot ladybird feeding on aphids

Ecosystem impacts

The researchers have warned of potentially serious consequences if the harlequin ladybird continues to spread. Ladybirds play an essential role in ecosystems, keeping pests such as aphids in check. Although the harlequin ladybird also feeds on aphids, having just one species playing this role could make the overall ecosystem weaker.

Tim Adriaens of the Research Institute for Nature and Forest (INBO) in Belgium, said, “At the continental scale, the arrival of the harlequin could impact on the resilience of ecosystems and severely diminish the vital services that ladybirds deliver.”

Read more on this story at BBC News – Ladybird decline driven by ‘invading’ harlequin and at The Telegraph – Harlequin ladybirds threaten British species.

Find out more about how to record UK ladybird sightings at The Harlequin Ladybird Survey and UK Ladybird Survey.

View photos and videos of ladybirds on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

Dec 17
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ARKive Celebrates Flight

December 17th is the official anniversary of the first human flight in a powered, heavier-than-air plane, so to mark this historic event we have taken a look at how flight has been mastered by both animals and humans.

The Wright Flight

Little did the Wright Brothers know that when they boarded their muslin-covered, wooden plane on that December morning that they would be paving the way for aviation as we now know it. It is astounding to think how far air travel has come in the last 108 years. We now have planes that can carry over 500 passengers to the other side of the world, in extraordinary comfort in less than 24 hours, the prospect of which back in 1903 would have sounded like something fresh from the pages of a science-fiction novel!

Photo of the first successful flight of the Wright Flyer, by the Wright brothers.

First successful flight of the Wright Flyer, by the Wright brothers.

 

Animal Inspiration?

Animals conquered flight long before 1903, admittedly in a slightly different fashion. It has proved such a successful strategy that it has evolved independently four times in birds, bats, insects (and pterosaurs), and each of the extant groups is still going strong.

Photo of a Mauritian flying fox in flight

Bats are the only group of mammals to have evolved the ability to fly.

Bats are the second most diverse group of mammals and the only mammal to have developed true powered flight. Birds have the most species of any class of terrestrial vertebrates, and there are more species of insect than all other animals added together, so they must be doing something right!

Photo of a Harlequin ladybird in flight

Insects are the only class of invertebrate that can fly.

 

Glorious Gliders

The Wright Brothers started out building gliders before honing their designs and moving onto powered flight. Gliding is also a popular strategy in the natural world and can be seen in mammals including the northern flying squirrel. This nocturnal mammal glides between trees using a fold of skin that stretches between its wrists and ankles. This parachute effect allows it to travel up to 45 metres in a single glide, using its tail as a rudder.

Photos of the northern flying squirrel

The northern flying squirrel can glide as far as 45 metres.

 

Recipe For Success

So why was it that the Wright Brothers succeeded when so many others had tried and failed? The answer is quite simple; they had achieved both power and control, using a specially designed lightweight engine and controls that allowed the pilot to steer effectively. One of the best examples of powerful, controlled flight in birds has to be the kestrel. Kestrels hunt by sight and are able to hover perfectly still in mid air, even in heavy winds. Once they have locked their sights onto their prey they are able to dive to capture it with incredible accuracy.

Photo of a kestrel in flight

Kestrels exhibit both power and control in flight.

 

Did you know?

  • The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any bird, measured at over 3.5 metres, and spends the majority of its life in flight.
  • The bee hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world and has the smallest wingspan of any bird. It is capable of beating its tiny wings up to 80 times a second.
  • One of the heaviest flying birds is the kori bustard which can weigh as much as 20 kilograms.
  • The longest invertebrate annual migration is carried out by the monarch butterfly across North America.
  • The longest bird migration is undertaken by the Arctic tern which traverses the globe on its annual pole to pole journey, meaning it sees more sunlight each year than any other animal.

 

Photo of an Arctic tern adult feeding young

Arctic terns undertake the longest bird migration

Photo of a wandering albatross in flight against stormy sky with pair displaying in backgroud

The wandering albratross has a huge wingspan!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brilliant Biomimicry

The natural world has long been used as inspiration for technological advances, particularly with when it comes to flight. Leonardo da Vinci was a keen observer of the anatomy and flight of birds and even the Wright Brothers were thought to have studied pigeon flight. As our understanding of biomechanics and animal movement advances it will be exciting to see what’s next for biologically inspired engineering – here’s to seeing what the next 108 years bring!

Laura Sutherland, ARKive Education Officer

Mar 4
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In the News: New ‘zombie ant’ fungi discovered

Four new species of fungus have been discovered which infect carpenter ants, turning their victims into “zombies” by taking over their bodies before killing them in a place which is perfect for the fungus to spread its spores to new hosts.

Photo of carpenter ant cleaning antennae

A carpenter ant, Camponotus ligniperda. The newly discovered fungi each attack specific species in the Camponotus genus.

Sinister parasites

In a story that could come straight from a horror movie, Ophiocordyceps fungi (also known as Cordyceps) use enzymes to enter the body of their ant host, where the fungus begins to grow. The fungus releases chemicals which alter the ant’s behaviour, causing it to leave the colony and bite onto a leaf vein, securing it in a location which is ideal for fungal growth.

In perhaps its most sinister twist, the fungus then kills the ant and begins to sprout from its head, forming a pod of spores which are released into the forest to infect other ants.

Photo of bullet ant on leaf

The bullet ant, another species which can be infected by parasitic fungi.

New fascinating fungus discoveries

The four new fungus species were discovered as part of a study in the Atlantic forest in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Published in the journal PloS One, the study also found that the fungi have a back-up plan in case they fail to infect a new ant straight away. Spores on the ground are able to slowly grow a secondary spore that juts up from the forest floor and latches onto ants as they pass.

According to David Hughes, one of the researchers working on the study, “It’s a fabulously complex organism. There is a beauty to the whole thing, whether it is the chemicals at work that take over the ant, or the spores which try one strategy and then another to find a host on the forest floor.

Photo of leaf-cutter ants carrying leaves back to the nest

Leaf-cutter ants use fungi as food, cutting up leaves on which to grow the fungal ‘gardens’ on which they feed.

Each of the newly discovered species targets a different species of carpenter ant. Other types of Ophiocordyceps fungus may also infect a range of other invertebrates, including moths, grasshoppers, crickets, beetles and spiders.

View an amazing ARKive video of bullet ants infected with a parasitic fungus.

Find out more about these fungi on the BBC Wildlife Finder website.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

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