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    How whales sing without drowning, an anatomical mystery solved

    Download the Nature Podcast 22 February 2024The deep haunting tones of the world’s largest animals, baleen whales (mysticetes), are iconic. But how the songs are produced has long been a mystery. Whales evolved from land dwelling mammals, which vocalize by passing air through a structure called the larynx — a structure that also helps keep food from entering the respiratory system. However, toothed whales such as dolphins do not use their larynx to make sound, instead they have evolved a specialized organ in their nose. Now a team of researchers have discovered the structure used by baleen whales — a modified version of the larynx. Whales like humpbacks and blue whales are able to create powerful vocalizations but their anatomy also limits the frequency of the sounds they can make and depth at which they can sing. This leaves them unable to escape anthropogenic noise pollution that occurs in the same range.Article: Evolutionary novelties underlie sound production in baleen whalesSubscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.Never miss an episode. Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app. An RSS feed for the Nature Podcast is available too. More

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    Why citizen scientists are gathering DNA from hundreds of lakes — on the same day

    The LeDNA project will disperse hundreds of volunteers to sample environmental DNA from the world’s lakes.Credit: K. Deiner

    In a first-of-its-kind project, researchers are tapping into the power of citizen science to collect DNA samples from hundreds of lakes worldwide. Not only will the resulting cache of environmental DNA (eDNA) be the largest ever gathered from an aquatic setting in a single day — it could yield a fuller picture of the state of biodiversity around the globe and improve scientists’ understanding of how species move about over time.
    Rare bird’s detection highlights promise of ‘environmental DNA’
    Scientists are increasingly using eDNA — which is shed by all organisms — to evaluate the presence of species in a given environment. Researchers have shown that it can be cheaply and efficiently extracted from water1, soil2, ice cores3 and filters from air-monitoring stations4. It has even been used to detect endangered species that haven’t been spotted for years, including a Brazilian frog species (putatively assigned to Megaelosia bocainensis) that researchers thought went extinct in the 1960s5.Kristy Deiner, an environmental scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich who leads the massive lake project, says that eDNA represents a “paradigm shift” in how scientists monitor biodiversity. Deiner’s research group has already received applications from more than 500 people across 101 countries to participate in collecting eDNA from their local lakes and shipping the samples to ETH Zurich.These global-scale projects are “really what the eDNA community needs”, says Philip Francis Thomsen, an environmental scientist at Aarhus University in Denmark and a volunteer for the lake project.“By involving citizens, we not only increase the geographical scope of our sampling but also foster a sense of public ownership and awareness regarding global biodiversity issues,” says Cátia Lúcio Pereira, the project’s coordinator, who works with Deiner at ETH Zurich.A boon for biodiversityAlthough eDNA is generally considered to be a boon for biodiversity monitoring, researchers recognize that it’s not perfect. For instance, DNA from a particular site might come from a species that just briefly passed through the region, rather than living there. And researchers don’t have a clear understanding of how factors such as microbial ingestion of the DNA, high temperatures and ultraviolet radiation degrade the genetic material once it has been shed, or how those factors might alter the list of species detected.Deiner acknowledges the limitations, but says that eDNA-monitoring technology has come a long way since it was first used decades ago. She and her team have a plan to carefully handle the samples they receive, extract their genetic material and amplify the plant and animal DNA to detect the presence of species.“We’re more fine-tuning things now,” Deiner says.

    Source: LeDNA.

    Deiner also doesn’t necessarily see the transfer of eDNA from one region to another as a negative thing — it could even be used to her advantage. She began studying how eDNA moves in rivers about ten years ago. The genetic material, she suggests, could flow from soil, down rivers and into lakes, making these watery pools the ideal location to sample from to get an idea of the species diversity of an entire region, or catchment.Her project — called LeDNA, which stands for lake eDNA — aims to prove that the eDNA from a lake represents not just lake-dwelling species, but also terrestrial animals that live along the rivers that feed into the lake and around the lake itself. It will also examine the differences in species richness between geographical regions, and try to decipher how species in various habitats might be interacting with one another.Local samplingDeiner’s research group recruited volunteers for LeDNA through a combination of social media, networking with other eDNA researchers and reaching out to citizen-science groups. The recruits will be assigned a lake near them from a curated list of 5,000 around the globe.“We really worked hard to try and reach a lot of these areas so that the sample is truly a global effort,” Deiner says.
    Accidental DNA collection by air sensors could revolutionize wildlife tracking
    Although the team hasn’t finalized the lakes that it will sample, it hopes to include about 800, says Lúcio Pereira (see ‘Sampling sites’). The researchers also say that they have mostly finished their recruiting phase, although they still want more volunteers in Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.Once assigned a lake, volunteers will receive instructions and a water-sampling filter. They will all aim to gather their samples on the same day — 22 May, which is the International Day for Biological Diversity — although there is a flexible two-week window for collection if they need it.Francis Thomsen points out that hundreds of people taking samples might lead to issues with data quality, depending on how closely they each follow the set protocols sent to them. Sampling eDNA, however, is easier to standardize than other biodiversity-monitoring methods, in which surveyors typically have to locate and identify individual species in person, he says.Lúcio Pereira says that the team recognizes the possible threat to data quality, but that the volunteers will all have identical sampling kits and in-depth training on the sampling protocol.A perk of participating in the project, particularly for eDNA scientists, is that local partners will be able to use their data in their own research, as well as contribute to LeDNA publications. “What’s cool about this is it’s participatory,” says Rachel Meyer, director of the California eDNA programme, which is run by University of California researchers and matches volunteers with scientists to collect eDNA samples across the state. The data is there “if people want it”, she says, “and there’s plenty of incentive to want it”. More

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    It’s time for countries to honour their million-dollar biodiversity pledges

    More than 40% of migratory species are declining, according to a United Nations report. Sanderlings breed in the Arctic before travelling to North and South America.Credit: Getty

    Earlier this month, conservationists and biodiversity scientists received some rare, good news at the first meeting of a much-anticipated fund for projects aimed at preserving Earth’s biodiversity. The Global Biodiversity Framework Fund (GBFF) will provide grants for projects that protect biodiversity, especially in countries with a high variety of marine and terrestrial life, as measured by a global biodiversity index (see go.nature.com/3wekupz). So far, five nations — Canada, Germany, Japan, Spain and the United Kingdom — have pledged money to the tune of US$219 million.At the meeting on 8 and 9 February, the GBFF’s co-chairperson, Costa Rica’s former environment and energy minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, called the fund’s establishment “one of his proudest and most significant moments”, and he urged other countries to support the initiative, too. They should — and fast.
    The ‘Bill Gates problem’: do billionaire philanthropists skew global health research?
    Research suggesting that urgent action is needed to stem biodiversity loss is regularly published. The latest warnings come from the United Nations’ first report that looks at the state of the world’s migratory species — billions of birds, fish, insects, mammals and reptiles travel thousands of kilometres each year for food or to breed (see go.nature.com/4bxrmag). Published on 12 February by the UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, the report reveals that 44% of migratory species are declining, and that 22% of them are threatened with extinction. There is no time to lose.The launch of a global public fund for biodiversity is rare. The GBFF’s parent fund, the Global Environment Facility in Washington DC, was established more than three decades ago with an initial endowment of $1 billion. Between 2022 and 2026, it plans to distribute $840 million between 45 projects related to biodiversity, climate, international waters and land degradation.But the GBFF has an extra purpose: to help countries to achieve targets for slowing down and, eventually, halting the decline in global biodiversity. These targets, agreed at a UN biodiversity meeting (COP15) in Montreal, Canada, in December 2022, are collectively known as the Kunming–Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. One goal is to protect and restore 30% of the world’s land and seas by 2030.
    Can the world save a million species from extinction?
    These UN-mediated funds are just one source of biodiversity funding. In 2019, private and public sources contributed between $78 billion and $143 billion, according to a landmark 2021 review of biodiversity economics for the UK government (see go.nature.com/49fe686). But even this is a fraction of the up-to $967 billion needed annually to achieve the 2030 targets, according to a study of biodiversity financing (G. A. Karolyi & J. Tobin-de la Puente Financ. Manage. 52, 231–251; 2023). And that means the $219 million that countries have promised to the GBFF is, perhaps literally, a drop in the ocean.Other wealthy countries must contribute, too. More than two years ago, China established the Kunming Biodiversity Fund, worth $235 million. Yet this fund is still not operational. It needs to be allocated to projects as soon as possible. And the United States, too, should contribute an amount to the GBFF that reflects the size of its economy. In 2022, the US Agency for International Development contributed $383 million to biodiversity conservation programmes worldwide.Returns on investmentThe fact that the GBFF is committed to providing grants, not loans is important. But this might also be one of the reasons why current pledges are not being translated into funds that can be distributed. Climate funds, for example, are given mostly as loans and not grants. They support renewable energy projects, for instance, or factories that make electric batteries — meaning that international donors could expect to make money on what are essentially investments. By contrast, biodiversity funds that support projects to protect wetlands for migratory birds or manage agricultural lands in nature-friendly ways often do not provide returns — at least not in terms of cash. This is partly because current economic systems fail to see the value that a healthy planet provides through biodiversity and ecosystem services.
    The answer to the biodiversity crisis is not more debt
    To help increase the pot of money, the GBFF will accept funding from philanthropic foundations — an increasingly important source of environment and development grants. Getting such foundations to contribute to international public funds is not easy, and it’s good to see GBFF advocates working on persuading them. Foundations will need to give up some of their autonomy in deciding on which projects will receive a grant. But they should see the invitation to participate in the GBFF as a benefit, rather than a burden. The fund’s global nature means that more biodiversity projects can receive grants. This could help more parts of the planet and greater numbers of people than when projects are funded by a foundation on its own. Having foundations participate in international public funds can only be a good thing, especially at a time when they are in the spotlight for a perceived lack of accountability.Getting nearly 200 countries to reach an agreement on the make-up of any new institution, and then getting donors to fund it, is one of the hardest parts of multilateral policymaking. The architects of the GBFF should be congratulated on getting their fund off the ground and securing an early round of pledges. It’s now time to translate words into action. More

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    From the archive: river pollution, and a minister for science

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    Build global collaborations to protect marine migration routes

    Migrations of marine species such as whales, eels and sea turtles are some of the largest in the world. Identifying, monitoring and maintaining ecological corridors is one focus of the Kunming–Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which was adopted in 2022 at the United Nations COP15 biodiversity summit, chaired by China.
    Competing Interests
    The authors declare no competing interests. More

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    I listen to the sounds this remote wetland makes to learn its rhythms

    I am an ecologist from Zimbabwe, but I’ve been based at the National University of Lesotho in Maseru for more than 13 years. In the picture, I am standing in a stream that runs through the Bokong Nature Reserve, part of Lesotho’s first UNESCO biosphere reserve, designated in 2021.Lesotho is a mountainous, landlocked kingdom in southern Africa. Its high-altitude wetlands supply the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which delivers water to the Vaal River System in South Africa, generating both income and hydroelectric power for Lesotho. The electricity lines in the background of this photo are part of that.I study the delicate ecological balance that keeps these areas functioning properly: the wetlands trap water when it rains and release it gradually during dry periods. An important part of this is to map the vegetation, animals and general environmental conditions, and how they change over time.One of our projects monitors the soundscapes of these areas to identify the animals that live here. We leave our sensitive recording equipment in the field for weeks at a time. This is especially helpful because, although this site is just 180 kilometres from my university in the capital of Lesotho, it can take up to four hours to drive here.The data sets we gather are huge, and although we do listen to the recordings, we mainly use software to help us analyse the data. We want to compare our recordings between seasons, between dawn and dusk and between day and night, to understand the rhythms of the ecosystem. We also compare our recordings from different wetland types. High-altitude areas are susceptible to climate change and, in my view, it is the greatest threat these protected wetlands face.Listening to the recordings makes me happy because I enjoy hearing a variety of sounds, especially the singing of different birds. In a small country such as Lesotho, there are so many knowledge gaps to fill — it’s one of the benefits of being a researcher here. More

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    I took my case to Nepal’s highest court to improve conservation

    An advocate for endangered species both inside and outside the courtroom, Kumar Paudel tracks pangolins in central Nepal.Credit: Greenhood Nepal

    As a child born and raised in Sindhupalchowk, a remote, hilly district northeast of Kathmandu, Kumar Paudel had heard plenty of stories about wildlife smuggling. The region is home to a major trade route exploited by smugglers trafficking wildlife from Nepal to China. He had seen people rapidly amass wealth through illegal trade of red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus), pangolins and red pandas (Ailurus fulgens).In 2010, while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in environmental science at Amrit Campus in Kathmandu, Paudel often encountered news about wildlife poaching, especially that of the endangered greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis). He and his friends organized political protests and rallies, which resulted in improved parliamentary investigations into controlling wildlife poaching. Encouraged by their success, he co-founded Greenhood Nepal, a non-profit conservation organization based in Kathmandu that is dedicated to saving the country’s endangered flora and fauna. Paudel spoke to Nature about his study of the illegal wildlife trade, and how interviewing people who had been incarcerated for wildlife crimes inspired him to take his cause to Nepal’s highest court.What led you to visit prisons as part of your conservation research?When I started my master’s programme at the School of Environmental Science and Management in Kathmandu in 2012, I was already advocating for wildlife through public forums, writing newspaper opinion pieces and organizing outreach events. For my thesis, I connected all of these experiences to the smuggling cases in my home town, to explore the illegal trade route.But reaching out directly to traders involved in an illegal business was challenging. I opted to visit prisons and talk with people serving sentences for wildlife poaching. I had a lot of questions: who were these people? Where do they come from? I later realized that most of them hailed from remote, marginalized communities, were from low-income families and lacked basic education. Many of them underestimated the social cost that their imprisonment would have on their families.How did your master’s research evolve into advocacy?While attending a wildlife-crime conference in South Africa in 2015, I met Jacob Phelps, a wildlife-trade researcher at Lancaster University, UK. Phelps was impressed that I was visiting prisons, and he advised me to expand the research into a nationwide study. I sampled seven prisons in the country and carried out in-depth interviews with 116 incarcerated people.Visiting prisons and listening to the life stories of the people there helped me to connect with them and understand their struggles. In August 2016, I saw a preview of a television interview in which a former prime minister of Nepal displayed a large tiger pelt at his residence. The disparity struck me — the poorer people in prison had been convicted for their roles in the illegal wildlife trade, but the powerful could showcase parts of endangered animals on national television with no consequences.What did you do about it?I went to social media to ask for answers from enforcement agencies. I learnt that Nepal’s law clearly states that possession of wildlife parts without a registered licence is as illegal as trading protected animals. The law required any person possessing any protected wildlife parts to register them with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. Surprisingly, when I checked in 2016, not a single person had done so.

    Paudel teaches an Indigenous community in Chitwan, Nepal, about pangolin conservation.Credit: Greenhood Nepal

    I repeatedly followed up with the Ministry of Forest and Environment, the Nepal Police and the Central Investigation Bureau. An officer at the environment ministry threatened me, saying that he could get me arrested if I kept pursuing the issue. I have to be honest: as a young researcher, I was scared. But after two years of getting no concrete answers, I sought legal action.How did you prepare for a court battle?Because I had been following up for nearly two years, I had a lot of evidence. I found an environmental lawyer — Padam Bahadur Shrestha, based in Kathmandu — who helped me to refine the petition and file it with the Nepal Supreme Court.I knew that getting results out of the court system would be a frustrating process. I had heard about people who had waited decades for a decision. But I had no other options. My case garnered significant attention from lawyers and the public, because one of the judges who was supposed to hear it owned several wildlife parts.My case went through 14 deferrals over five years. Last May, the Supreme Court finally heard my case. In my petition, I claimed that the government did not keep track of individuals who owned wildlife parts, and that the government was enforcing laws inequitably. The court acknowledged that my claim was valid and requested written answers from the government.What arguments came up in the case?The court extensively discussed one crucial matter: how law-enforcement bodies can intervene in matters related to people’s cultural beliefs. In Nepal, there is rich cultural diversity, and wildlife parts can hold cultural, religious and ancestral values. I defended my stance by emphasizing that, despite the parts’ symbolic meaning, wildlife is an important aspect of our biodiversity. Bringing the wildlife parts under a legal framework should help to deter illegal smuggling without hurting their historical and cultural significance.What was the government’s response? Did the ruling change how wildlife laws are enforced?The government acknowledged the failure to keep records of wildlife-part ownership. The court directed the government to take a proper accounting of who possessed such parts, including evidence for those in legal possession. It ordered the confiscation of illegally owned parts.Although the issue has been politicized because it involved powerful people, the ruling set a precedent for the regulation of wildlife-trade crimes. The decision also supports enforcement officers, enabling them to pursue powerful figures if needed. The court order brings thousands of illegal wildlife parts under enforcement, regardless of who owns them.What’s next for you?I plan to continue working in conservation science and social justice, whether through courtroom battles or documentation of threatened species. Although conservation science is my main focus, I recognize the importance of translating theoretical discussions into the laws and policies that dictate how society operates. I hope that my case sets an example that there are times when researchers can transcend academic boundaries. More

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    Cancer’s power harnessed — lymphoma mutations supercharge T cells

    Download the Nature Podcast 07 February 2024 In this episode:0:46 Borrowing tricks from cancer could help improve immunotherapyT-cell based immunotherapies have revolutionized the treatment of certain types of cancer. However these therapies — which involve taking someone’s own T cells and reprogramming them to kill cancer cells — have struggled to treat solid tumours, which put up multiple defences. To overcome these, a team has taken mutations found in cancer cells that help them thrive and put them into therapeutic T cells. Their results show these powered-up cells are more efficient at targeting solid tumours, but don’t turn cancerous themselves.Research article: Garcia et al.11:39 Research HighlightsHow researchers solved a submerged-sprinkler problem named after Richard Feynman, and what climate change is doing to high-altitude environmental records in Switzerland.Research Highlight: The mystery of Feynman’s sprinkler is solved at lastResearch Highlight: A glacier’s ‘memory’ is fading because of climate change14:28 What might the car batteries of the future look like?As electric cars become ever more popular around the world, manufacturers are looking to improve the batteries that power them. Although conventional lithium-ion batteries have dominated the electric vehicle market for decades, researchers are developing alternatives that have better performance and safety — we run through some of these options and discuss their pros and cons.News Feature: The new car batteries that could power the electric vehicle revolution25:32 Briefing ChatHow a baby’s-eye view of the world helps an AI learn language, and how the recovery of sea otter populations in California slowed rates of coastal erosion.Nature News: This AI learnt language by seeing the world through a baby’s eyesNature News: How do otters protect salt marshes from erosion? ShellfishlySubscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.Never miss an episode. Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app. An RSS feed for the Nature Podcast is available too. More