February 18, 2021

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NEED TO KNOW

NEW ZEALAND

Natural Invasions

The kakapos are beautiful, fascinating birds.

They are the biggest species of parrot, weighing almost nine pounds, according to the Natural History Museum at Tring. They can live for 90 years. Most interestingly, they do not fly, behaving more like badgers that root around on the ground unless they are climbing trees to eat berries.

“A bird that is about as un-bird-like as it is possible for a bird to be,” said British actor Benedict Cumberbatch in this BBC video.

Unfortunately, these creatures that live exclusively in New Zealand are almost extinct. The arrival of humans, the Maori, who are the original inhabitants of the former British colony, coincided with the kapapos’ decline as their meat and feathers became prized. Europeans hastened their demise, bringing cats, rats and other creatures that devoured the poor birds’ eggs. Conservationists put the last remaining birds on remote islands where strict controls make sure no other predatory critters move there.

New Zealand leaders might be able to bring the kakapo back to the mainland if their plan to eradicate all invasive predator species in the country by 2025 works, however.

As part of Predator Free 2025, experts are traversing the island with traps to eliminate stoats, a kind of short-haired weasel, for example. Autopsies of the cute but vicious stoats regularly reveal bird feathers. They and other predators kill perhaps 25 million native birds annually, reported National Public Radio.

“For me, what’s really hit home is just how bad the stoats are,” said New Zealand Department of Conservation Biodiversity Director Amber Bill in an interview with the Washington Post. “We can’t ever return birds like kakapo.”

The program has had successes. Kiwi, another peculiar bird native to New Zealand, have increased their numbers in the Kaitake Range mountains as predators have been reduced, local news website Stuff reported.

The government admits that it needs help to reach its goals. Officials have called for new technology and other products to help kill the pests, wrote Scoop, a New Zealand-based news outlet. The New Zealand Herald proposed new genetic research to help make the predators disappear.

Writing in the Guardian, environmentalist Tame Malcolm said New Zealand should turn to Maori knowledge to help catch the pests. They figured out that cinnamon used in a trap when the kawakawa plant is bearing fruit is the best way to catch invasive possums, for example.

Feral cats are not on the list of verboten species so far. Their feces kill rare local dolphins. It’s also not clear how officials plan to rid the island of small invasive pests like Australian spiders.

It’s hard to change nature when you are a part of it.

WANT TO KNOW

NIGERIA

A Terrible Routine

Unknown gunmen kidnapped 42 people, including 27 students during an attack on a boarding school in north-central Nigeria Wednesday in what has become a terrible routine for Africa’s most populous nation, Reuters reported.

The attackers stormed the institution in the Kagara district in Niger state overnight, killing one student in the attack.

President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the attack and sent security chiefs to coordinate rescue operations.

Northern states have been plagued by such kidnappings by armed groups for years, and it remains unclear who perpetrated the latest abduction.

The Islamist Boko Haram group is known for carrying out similar kidnappings in the past, including the 2014 abduction of more than 270 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok. About 100 kidnapped girls remain missing to this day.

The latest kidnapping comes two months after gunmen abducted nearly 350 boys in the northwestern Katsina state. The boys were later rescued by the security forces.

Buhari’s government has been criticized for its handling of national security amid rising insecurity and kidnappings in the country.

In January, the president appointed a new military high command.

UNITED KINGDOM

For Science and Humanity

The British government on Wednesday approved a first-of-its-kind study that will expose young and healthy volunteers to COVID-19 in an effort to better understand the virus, the Independent reported.

The Human Challenge study will include up to 90 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 30 who are at a lower risk of developing severe symptoms from the coronavirus.

The volunteers will be exposed to the first coronavirus variant that reached Britain in March 2020 and will be closely monitored by scientists for 24 hours a day throughout the study.

The research will help doctors better understand how the immune system reacts to the virus Sars-CoV-2 and help develop better treatments and vaccines for the future.

Once the study is completed, scientists are planning to conduct other studies, including testing the virus on vaccinated volunteers, as well as exposing them to other new variants that have emerged across the globe.

Human Challenge studies have been used in the past to accelerate the development of treatments for a number of diseases, including malaria, typhoid and flu.

LIBYA

Ten Years Later…

Libyans on Wednesday celebrated the 10th anniversary of the revolution that ousted and killed longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi, despite fears of insecurity and economic hardships amid a global pandemic, Africa News reported.

In 2011, Libyans took to the streets against Gaddafi’s regime, shortly after mass protests led to the overthrow of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in what became known as the Arab Spring.

Since then, however, Libya has been plagued by conflict and split into two regions controlled by warring rival governments, each backed by foreign nations.

In October, United Nations-led talks ended the hostilities between the rival factions and established the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, which earlier this month appointed an interim government, according to the Associated Press.

The newly appointed administration is tasked with leading the country through national elections in December and upholding the terms of the cease-fire deal, which include the withdrawal of foreign forces in Libya.

Currently, there are at least 20,000 mercenaries and foreign fighters in Libya, according to the UN.

DISCOVERIES

Heave-Ho!

The basic pulley system has done wonders for engineering, but humans aren’t the only ones to use it.

Spiders use pulleys too, but not for construction purposes, according to New Scientist.

Researchers Gabriele Greco and Nicola Pugno discovered that some species of spiders use their webs as pulleys to catch larger prey and prevent them from escaping.

In their paper, the duo recorded how five captive spiders of the Theridiidae family immobilized cockroaches that were 50 times larger than the arachnids.

Theridiidae are usually found in human homes and are known for their tangled webs.

Researchers observed that the small predator would use its bodyweight to make its silk threads tauter before attaching them to their prey. This method would prevent the silk from stretching during lifting.

The spider would then continuously attach more threads to its prey until it was suspended in the air without any possibility of escape.

“In the end, all these threads create enough tension to lift the prey, and that is when the spider wins,” said Greco. “Then the prey cannot escape because it cannot grab the surface below.”

The authors suggested that the spider’s sophisticated method has allowed them to have an outsized impact on their ecosystems by eating bigger animals than mere bugs.

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COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 27,826,815 (+0.25%)
  2. India: 10,950,201 (+0.12%)
  3. Brazil: 9,978,747 (+0.57%)
  4. UK: 4,083,092 (+0.31%)
  5. Russia: 4,066,164 (+0.31%)
  6. France: 3,573,638 (+0.71%)
  7. Spain: 3,107,172 (+0.35%)
  8. Italy: 2,751,657 (+0.44%)
  9. Turkey: 2,609,359 (+0.28%)
  10. Germany: 2,362,364 (+0.41%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours