* Associated Press in Jakarta * The Guardian, Monday 13 April 2009
An orang-utan from the newly found population in Borneo. Photograph: AP
Conservationists have discovered a new population of orang-utans in a remote area of Indonesia, giving a rare boost to one of the world's most endangered great apes.
A team surveying mountainous forests in eastern Borneo counted 219 orang-utan nests, indicating a "substantial" number of the animals, said Erik Meijaard, of the US-based charity The Nature Conservancy.
"We can't say for sure how many," he said, but even the most cautious estimate would indicate "several hundred at least, maybe 1,000 or 2,000 even".
The team of ecologists encountered an adult male, which angrily threw branches as they tried to take photographs, and an adult female and her offspring.
There are an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 orang-utans left in the wild, 90% of which are in Indonesia and Malaysia.
The animals' rainforest habitat is being destroyed at alarming rates to make way for lucrative palm oil plantations. Indonesia and Malaysia are the world's top producers of palm oil, which is used in the food and cosmetics industries. Demand for the oil as a "clean-burning" fuel has accelerated in the US and Europe.
That a significant orang-utan population exists in eastern Borneo appears to be due to the steep topography, poor soil and general inaccessibility of the rugged limestone mountains shielding the area from development, said Meijaard.
Most populations are small and scattered, making them vulnerable to extinction, said Biruté Mary Galdikas, a Canadian scientist who has spent nearly four decades studying the animal in the wild.
"So yes, finding a population that science did not know about is significant, especially one of this size," she said, noting that those found on the eastern part of the island represent a rare subspecies, the black Borneon orang-utan.
The 700 sq miles (2,500 sq km) of rainforest escaped the fires started by plantation owners and farmers that devastated the surrounding forests in the late 1990s.
Conservationists say the next step will be working with local authorities to protect the area and others outside Indonesia's national parks. A previously undiscovered population of several hundred of the apes was found recently on Sumatra.
"That we are still finding new populations indicates that we still have a chance to save this animal," said Paul Hartman, who heads the US-funded Orang-utan Conservation Service Programme, adding it was not all "gloom and doom".
Newly Discovered Iron-breathing Species Have Lived In Cold Isolation For Millions Of Years
A cross-section of Blood Falls showing how micorbial communities survive. (Credit: Zina Deretsky / NSF)
ScienceDaily (Apr. 17, 2009) — A reservoir of briny liquid buried deep beneath an Antarctic glacier supports hardy microbes that have lived in isolation for millions of years, researchers report April 17 in the journal Science.
The discovery of life in a place where cold, darkness, and lack of oxygen would previously have led scientists to believe nothing could survive comes from a team led by researchers at Harvard University and Dartmouth College. Their work was funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA, and Harvard's Microbial Sciences Initiative.
Despite their profound isolation, the microbes are remarkably similar to species found in modern marine environments, suggesting that the organisms now under the glacier are the remnants of a larger population that once occupied an open fjord or sea.
"It's a bit like finding a forest that nobody has seen for 1.5 million years," says Ann Pearson, Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. "Intriguingly, the species living there are similar to contemporary organisms, and yet quite different -- a result, no doubt, of having lived in such an inhospitable environment for so long."
"This briny pond is a unique sort of time capsule from a period in Earth's history," says lead author Jill Mikucki, now a research associate in the Department of Earth Sciences at Dartmouth and visiting fellow at Dartmouth's Dickey Center for International Understanding and its Institute of Arctic Studies. "I don't know of any other environment quite like this on Earth."
Chemical analysis of effluent from the inaccessible subglacial pool suggests that its inhabitants have eked out a living by breathing iron leached from bedrock with the help of a sulfur catalyst. Lacking any light to support photosynthesis, the microbes have presumably survived by feeding on the organic matter trapped with them when the massive Taylor Glacier sealed off their habitat an estimated 1.5 to 2 million years ago.
Mikucki, Pearson, and colleagues based their analysis on samples taken at Antarctica's Blood Falls, a frozen waterfall-like feature at the edge of the Taylor Glacier whose striking red appearance first drew early explorers' attention in 1911. Those "Heroic Age" adventurers speculated that red algae might have been responsible for the bright color, but scientists later confirmed that the coloration was due to rust, which the new research shows was likely liberated from subglacial bedrock by microorganisms.
Because water flows unpredictably from below the glacier at Blood Falls, it took Mikucki a number of years to obtain the samples needed to conduct an analysis. Finally, in the right place at the right time, she was able to capture some of the subglacial brine as it flowed out of a crack in the glacial wall, obtaining a sample of an extremely salty, cold, and clear liquid for analysis.
"When I started running the chemical analysis on it, there was no oxygen," she says. "That was when this got really interesting. It was a real 'Eureka!' moment."
The fluid is rich in sulfur, a geochemical signature of marine environments, reinforcing suspicions that the ancestors of the microbes now beneath the Taylor Glacier probably lived in an ocean long ago. When sea level fell more than 1.5 million years ago, they hypothesize, a pool of seawater was likely trapped and eventually capped by the advancing glacier.
The exact size of the subglacial pool remains a mystery, but it is thought to rest under 400 meters of ice some four kilometers from its tiny outlet at Blood Falls.
Mikucki's analysis showed that the sulfur below the glacier had been uniquely reworked by microbes and provides insight into how these organisms have been able to survive in isolation for so long.
The research answers some questions while raising others about the persistence of life in such extreme environments. Life below the Taylor Glacier may help address questions about "Snowball Earth," the period of geological time when large ice sheets covered Earth's surface. But it could also be a rich laboratory for studying life in other hostile environments, and perhaps even on Mars and or Jupiter's ice-covered moon, Europa.
Mikucki and Pearson's co-authors are David T. Johnston and Daniel P. Schrag at Harvard, Alexandra V. Turchyn at the University of Cambridge, James Farquhar at the University of Maryland, Ariel D. Anbar at Arizona State University, John C. Priscu at Montana State University, and Peter A. Lee at the College of Charleston.
1. Jill A. Mikucki, Ann Pearson, David T. Johnston, Alexandra V. Turchyn, James Farquhar, Daniel P. Schrag, Ariel D. Anbar, John C. Priscu, and Peter A. Lee. A Contemporary Microbially Maintained Subglacial Ferrous "Ocean". Science, 2009; 324 (5925): 397 DOI: 10.1126/science.1167350
Time Record Of Marine Species Formation In The Baltic Sea
Fucus radicans (at top), evolved from a bladder wrack (Fucus vesiculosus) - at bottomFucus radicans (at top), evolved from a bladder wrack (Fucus vesiculosus) - at bottom. (Credit: Lena Kautsky)
ScienceDaily (Apr. 20, 2009) — Four years ago researchers at the University of Gothenburg and Stockholm University discovered a new species of seaweed in the Baltic Sea. New studies reveal that this species may have formed only 400 years ago, making this seaweed species unique.
In 2005 researchers at the University of Gothenburg and Stockholm University discovered a new species of seaweed. The species, which was named Fucus radicans, evolved from a bladder wrack (Fucus vesiculosus) ancestor from the Baltic Sea.
Detailed studies of Fucus radicans show that, from an evolutionary perspective, it was formed extremely rapidly: the species was formed less than 2,500 years ago, and probably as recently as about 400 years ago. This discovery is one of few examples of extremely rapid species formation. The results also show that new species can also be formed in the relatively young and species-poor Baltic Sea.
“We are now working on understanding how the species was formed. Fucus radicans is very common in the Baltic’s Gulf of Bothnia, and we want to understand its significance to the ecosystem,” said Ricardo Pereyra, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg’s Department of Marine Ecology.
1. Ricardo T Pereyra, Lena Bergstrom, Lena Kautsky and Kerstin Johannesson. Rapid speciation in a newly opened postglacial marine environment, the Baltic Sea. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 31 March 2009 DOI: 10.1186/1471-2148-9-70
RANGERS in Kenya's Hellsgate National Park have spotted an albino buffalo, the first of its kind ever recorded in the wildlife rich country, park officials said.
"This is the first time that an albino buffalo has been found in our parks and it's a great day for nature and animals lovers," said Nelly Palmeris, senior warden at Hellsgate.
The three-month-old calf, spotted within a large herd, has a very light brown coat, and is easily distinguished from other buffalos.
Its lighter colour will make it a more noticeable target for predators, park officials said.
The cultural stigma against albinos, both animal and human, among the Maasai pastoralists that live near the park could also create a threat.
"The African community and especially Maasais associate albinos with bad omens," Palmeris said. "We are just coming from a bad drought and the Maasai might associate the famine with this buffalo and kill it."
She added that rangers have enhanced security around the herd to ensure the Maasai do not attack the unique mammal.
The calf was not spotted for months after its birth because its herd was largely confined to obscure, shaded areas to mitigate against recent drought conditions.
While the rare sighting is a first for Kenya, albino buffaloes have been spotted in several other countries.
About 200 new species of frogs have been identified in Madagascar, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The result suggests that the total number of amphibian species on the island, and perhaps in the world, has been seriously underestimated:
Sadly no "new" polar bears but a few interesting critters anyway:
A new species of frog, Boophis aff elenae, was identified this week. Scientists found more than 200 new species of frogs in Madagascar but a political crisis is hurting conservation of the Indian Ocean island's unique wildlife, a study showed Photograph: HO/Reuters
Giant panda cubs at the Bifengxia Panda breeding centre in Sichuan. Construction began this month on new facilities, which will cost 1bn yuan (£100m), to replace the world's largest giant panda breeding centre, the Wolong nature reserve, destroyed in last May's earthquake in China Photograph: /Dan Chung
A zookeeper feeds a newborn white-eared night heron at a zoo in Nanning, China. The bird was born on 3 May by artificial incubation. The white-eared night heron is listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources red list as one of the world's most endangered species Photograph: China Daily/Reuters
World's largest colony of endangered turtles found off west Africa
Discovery of up to 40,000 leatherback sea turtles may see species removed from critically endangered list
* David Adam * guardian.co.uk, Monday 18 May 2009 15.47 BST
A female leatherback digs into the beach to lay her eggs on the coast of Gabon. Photograph: Michael Nichols/NGPL/Getty Images
The world's largest colony of leatherback sea turtles has been identified by scientists, raising hopes that the giant creature may not be as endangered as previously thought. A new survey [PDF] has revealed that Gabon, west Africa, has between 15,730 and 41,373 female turtles using its nesting beaches.
Matthew Witt of the University of Exeter, who led the research, said: "We knew that Gabon was an important nesting site for leatherback turtles but until now had little idea of the size of the population or its global ranking. We are now focusing our efforts on working with local agencies, to coordinate conservation efforts to ensure this population is protected against the threats from illegal fisheries, nest poaching, pollution and habitat disturbance."
Concern for the leatherback grew after populations in the Indo-Pacific crashed by more than 90 percent in the 1980s and 1990s. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species as critically endangered globally, with numbers of females thought to be as low as 34,000, but detailed population assessments in much of the Atlantic, especially Africa, had not previously been carried out. The new research is published in the journal Biological Conservation.
The survey, led by the University of Exeter with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), counted nests and nesting females during three nesting seasons between 2002 and 2007. They found 79% of nesting happens within national parks and other already protected areas.
Angela Formia of the WCS, said: "These findings show the critical importance of protected areas to maintain populations of sea turtles. Gabon should be commended for creating a network of national parks in 2002 that have provided a sanctuary for this endangered species as well as other rare wildlife."
Rare white seal caught on camera Matt Walker Editor, Earth News
A white southern elephant seal has been spotted on a sub-Antarctic beach.
It is the first confirmed sighting of such an animal.
Eared seals, which include sea lions and fur seals are more usually seen sporting unusual colours, but not true seals, a group which includes elephant seals.
Details of the seal, which has creamy white fur but normal brown eyes and nose, have been published in the journal Polar Biology.
"It's quite something in a species which is well-known," says Ryan Reisinger of the University of Pretoria in South Africa, one of the researchers who discovered the animal on Marion Island.
For example, southern elephant seals from many colonies were hunted for decades within the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In more recent times, scientists have also extensively studied the animals. "Yet this is the first confirmed case of leucism in the species," says Reisinger.
The white seal, a young female, is leucistic, rather than albinistic.
Albino animals lack pigment in just their eyes, or in their eyes, skin and hair, and they inherit the condition. Leucistic animals have little pigment and appear white all over, but with dark coloured eyes.
The white seal has a uniformly creamy white coat of fur, with normal dark brown eyes and nose. Its whiskers, eyebrows and fingernails on its flippers are also light coloured compared to the species' usual dark colour.
"To our knowledge, we're the first to provided detailed evidence of such an animal anywhere," says Reisinger.
The research team sighted the white seal on 23 August 2008 on Whale Bird beach on Marion Island, which lies in the sub-Antarctic region of the Indian Ocean. On 30 August, the researchers saw the seal again and got close enough to confirm its leucism, tag it and take a skin biopsy.
They estimate the animal was between one and two years old, and was likely born either on nearby Prince Edward Island or further afield on Iles Crozet.
Reisinger says it's impossible to say precisely how rare the animal is. "We can't put it in terms of one in a million, or one in a hundred thousand."
But he and his colleagues have been monitoring and tagging elephant seals for years on the island without having seen one. While there have been a few rare previous records of lighter coloured elephant seals, none have been confirmed as leucestic.
The researchers were actually on the look out for leucestic Antarctic fur seals when they spotted the white elephant seal.
Antarctic fur seas are usually grey and brown, but numerous white Antarctic fur seals have been spotted before. Last year five unusually coloured Antarctic fur seals were seen on Livingston Island, including one partially leucistic pup that had fur like a tiger's stripes and another piebald individual, the first time such coat patterns have been seen.
In February 2007, researchers also spotted the first known leucestic South American sea lion on the coast of Paso Shag, near the Magellan Strait in Chile.
Rare deer reveals signs of life Matt Walker Editor, Earth News
One of the world's most elusive mammals has revealed itself.
Footprints and scat belonging to the Visayan spotted deer have been found deep in the Philippines jungle.
Less than 300 of the deer are thought to remain, confined to just two islands, making it one of the most vulnerable of all mammals.
The discovery proves a small population survives in the wild, despite the ongoing threat to its survival from hunting and deforestation.
An expedition team led by Craig Turner and James Sawyer decided to explore the inner forests of the North Negros Natural Park (NNNP) on Negros Island in the Philippines.
The park is considered an important biodiversity hotspot, yet it's one of the most vulnerable forest ecosystems in the world, with only 16,500h of forest remaining in a park of more than 80,000h.
It is also one of the least explored of all tropical forests.
"We held an ambition to access the interior and undertake the first biological exploration," says Turner, an environmental consultant who for years helped organise conservation work on the fringes of the park.
So after five years of planning, Turner, Sawyer and colleagues in the Philippines founded an organisation called the Negros Interior Biodiversity Expedition to do just that. A number of conservation organisations helped fund the trip, including the Negros Forests and Ecological Foundation Inc, Coral Cay Conservation and the Zoological Society of London.
At the start of April, they entered the interior. As well as surveying for new species, the expedition team kept a particular eye out for the Visayan spotted deer ( Rusa alfredi ), also known as the Philippine spotted deer. One of three deer species native to the country, it holds the distinction of possibly being the rarest deer in the world.
After three days of walking, the team found what they were looking for, stumbling across several sets of tracks along the edge of a river.
Three days later, the team then found evidence of where the deer had been feeding on young palm trees. Being so far apart, the two discoveries suggest that more than one group of Visayan spotted deer survive in the park.
Over the following days, the team also found two piles of deer scat in a natural clearing, at a site where they hoped to trap bats. The scat lay in small piles of 20 to 30 pellets with a trail of deer footprints leading away.
The team can be confident they found signs of life of the Visayan spotted deer because it is the only deer species living on Negros island. There are also few other large mammals on the island that could have left such signs.
"Other species such as the Visayan warty pig and civets have distinctly different scat," Turner says.
His team were thrilled by the discovery.
The last major survey of the Visayan spotted deer, conducted back in 1991, found that even then it had become extinct over 95% of its former range. The Visayan spotted deer is endemic to the Visayan islands of the central Philippines, but while it once lived on seven, it now survives on two, Negros and Panay. The two populations have been seperated for thousands of years, with no confirmed sighting of the deer on Negros since the mid-1990s.
"It has been assumed that the species persists in the NNNP but no scientific proof has been presented in recent years, and very little field work has been completed on this species," says Turner.
"This discovery confirms they are surviving, but doesn't tell us they are thriving."
As well as the deer, the expedition also discovered some unusual plants, including ground orchids and pitchers, and numerous bird and frog species which they hope to investigate further.
Droppings put penguins on the map By Jason Palmer Science and technology reporter, BBC News
Emperor penguins cluster together on breeding grounds for months at a time
Scientists have located 38 emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica by using satellites to look for stains from the animals' droppings.
It is impossible to track the penguins themselves using standard satellite imaging because they are too small.
However, penguins cluster for up to eight months on sea ice; as their guano builds up it leaves a reddish-brown mark on sea ice that is easier to spot.
The survey of colonies is published in Global Ecology and Biogeography.
"We were mapping one of our bases on an ice shelf, and we knew there was a penguin colony close to there," said Peter Fretwell, a geographer at the British Antarctic Survey.
"I was using a satellite image as a backdrop for the map and it happened to have a reddish-brown stain on one of the creeks that was a possible location for the emperor penguin colony."
"It was quite a lucky find because just a few months beforehand, we had made a mosaic of these satellite images of the whole of Antarctica, so we could go round and track all the colonies."
Comparing their satellite image stains with the known locations of emperor penguin colonies, the team identified 10 previously unknown colonies, and found that six known colonies had recently moved a significant distance.
Six more known colonies had disappeared altogether.
"We know that emperor penguins rely on sea ice to breed - like the polar bears in the Arctic depend on sea ice for their hunting. Although the sea ice at the moment is reasonably stable, we know that in future decades it will decrease rapidly," Mr Fretwell added.
"We need to know where they are and to assess how many there are before we can really work out how threatened they are by climate change."
Bustard breeds in wild for first time in Britain for 200 years
Chicks from Europe's most threatened bird species hatch in secret location on Salisbury plain
* Steven Morris * guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 2 June 2009 20.00 BST
A bustard on Salisbury Plain - part of a programme to reintroduce the birds back into Britain. Photograph: David Kjaer/RSPB/PA
For the first time in almost 200 years the great bustard — the heaviest flying bird and one of Europe's most threatened species — has successfully bred in the wild in the UK.
At least three chicks have hatched at two sites on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, although the exact spots are being kept secret to protect the birds.
The birth of the chicks has been greeted with joy by the team that has been trying to reintroduce the bird to the UK for many years. In 2004, forty chicks were brought from Russia to their new home on Salisbury plain.
David Waters, founder and director of the Great Bustard Group, said: "This is a tremendous step forward for the great bustard reintroduction project, the wildlife of the UK, great bustards and for me. It has been a hard struggle to get this far. I am exhausted and nearly broke, but to see great bustards breeding after an absence of 177 years is brilliant."
In May a female great bustard was observed incubating a clutch of eggs. A few days ago they hatched and two chicks were seen following their mother and being fed. A day later another female was seen feeding a chick.
Mark Avery, the RSPB's conservation director, said: "This fantastic news marks another chapter in the struggle to bring back England's lost wildlife. Establishing a new population here should ensure a brighter future for this globally threatened bird."
The last wild great bustard chick to hatch in the UK was in 1832, when a female was seen with a single chick in Suffolk. The reintroduction programme began in 2004 with annual releases of between six and 32 birds bred in southern Russia.
When the chicks are about six weeks old they are imported into the UK and after a period of quarantine they are released on to Salisbury Plain. The first known nest from this project was in 2007, and there was at least one further nest in 2008. However, the eggs from these clutches were found to be infertile, most likely because of the young age of the males.
Waters added: "The great bustard is a slow bird to mature, so it has been a long wait to get this far, but this could not be speeded up. A small UK population of about 18 birds has been built up, but it is only when this population begins to produce its own young and becomes self-sustaining that the project can be judged as successful. The indications are extremely positive."
The RSPB says that until the end of the 18th century, great bustards were widely distributed in England on open chalk downland, grassy heaths and agricultural land. The intensification of agriculture caused numbers to decline and, because they were a prized game bird, heavy persecution led to their extinction.
Great bustard fact file
• Great bustards (Otis tarda) are the heaviest flying birds in the world with weights of over 20kg reported.
• The males are much larger than the females and the sexes live apart for most of the year. The males perform a mating ritual by showing the undersides of all their feathers. The spectacle is visible for huge distances and the females are attracted to the largest and heaviest males.
• After mating, the females carry out all the nesting, incubation and chick rearing activities without the help of the males.
• Great bustards are long-lived birds with males living for more than 20 years. Though the chicks are vulnerable to a range of predators, adult birds have few, if any, predators.
• Through hunting and agricultural intensification the range of the great bustard has been much reduced since the second world war. Populations in Europe occur in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic as well as Spain and Portugal. They are also to be found in Ukraine, Russia, Mongolia and China.
• The extinction in the UK is understood to have been brought about by changes in agriculture which led to both the collection and the destruction of eggs and by the habits of ornithologists who desired to collect specimens for their collections.
Biologist Discovers Pink-winged Moth In Chiracahua Mountains
Lithophane leeae. (Credit: Bruce Walsh)
ScienceDaily (June 12, 2009) — University of Arizona biologist Bruce Walsh has identified a new species of moth in southern Arizona. Normally, this is not a big deal. The region is one of the most biologically rich areas in the country and collectors have been finding hundreds of new species for decades. This one, however, is different.
Walsh is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and a member of the UA's BIO5 Institute. He is best known in the science community as an authority on plant and animal breeding, having written one of the leading textbooks on the subject.
His work also spans several departments and programs, including statistics, applied math, insect science and genetics. He also teaching biostatistics in the UA Zuckerman College of Public Health and has worked with trial attorneys on interpreting DNA evidence. Collecting moths is a hobby.
His new discovery is Lithophane leeae. Walsh found it in the Chiracahua mountains east of Tucson, and reported it in the journal Zoo Keys.
Lithophane moths are members of the noctuid family, which often are dull colored. Walsh's moth, in contrast, is bright pink. He also named it after his wife, Lee, who has an affinity for the color.
Walsh discovered L. leeae while collecting one evening at Onion Saddle, at about 7,700 feet in the Chiracahuas. Collecting involves illuminating a sheet with mercury vapor lamps. Moths are attracted by the lights and will land on the sheet.
"This large moth flew in and we didn't think much of it because there is a silk moth very much like it, a Doris silk moth that feeds on pines that has dark wings with pink on the hind wings. It's fairly common there."
On closer inspection, though, the moth, a female, appeared to be an entirely different species from an entirely different family. Walsh said it currently is the only known individual.
Scientists are generally reluctant to identify a new species based on one individual, but L. leeae appears so distinct from others that Walsh said it is highly unlikely that it is an aberration of an existing species. A DNA barcode later confirmed it as a distinct species.
Walsh said he is confident there are bound to be more. "If this thing is flying at the top of the Chiracahuas, it's probably pretty common," he said.
Finding it is another matter because moths like Lithophane tend to over-winter at higher elevations, hibernating when there is snow on the ground and flying off at the first signs of spring. Walsh said bats are the primary predators of moths, and so if the insects can make it through the winter, when bats hibernate, they will likely do well as the weather gets warmer.
As to why L. leeae hasn't been found before, Walsh theorized that his specimen simply emerged late from hibernation when it was caught. Another theory is that it could be a stray from another mountain range in the region. He said there are a number of species that fly early in the summer and are rare in collections and not often seen in most years.
"We can now add L. leeae to this group of large, but quite elusive, species," he said.
Newly Discovered Snow Roots Are 'Evolutionary Phenomenon'
ScienceDaily (June 11, 2009) — It may not be the Yeti, but in a remote region of the Russian mountains a previously unknown and entirely unique form of plant root has been discovered. Lead Scientist Professor Hans Cornelissen and his Russian-Dutch team describe this finding June 11 in Ecology Letters.
The root belongs to the small alpine plant Corydalis conorhiza and unlike normal roots, which grow into soil, they extend upward through layers of snow. Given this novel behaviour, the scientists have termed them 'snow roots'.
"This is a completely new discovery," says Cornelissen, an associate professor of ecology at VU University in Amsterdam. "Snow roots are thus far unknown and a spectacular evolutionary phenomenon."
The team made their discovery high up in the Caucasus Mountains, where the ground remains covered in snow for much of the year. As the snow melted at the height of summer the scientists noted that C. conorhiza plants were surrounded by a filigree network of above-ground roots, stretching uphill and to each side for around 50cm. During the spring and perhaps also winter, these roots extend into the surrounding snow and during the summer they die and decompose, which may explain how they had remained undiscovered.
C. conorhiza also possesses normal roots which anchor the plant to the ground and take up nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen. Cornelissen's team hypothesise that the additional snow roots allow C. conorhiza to take nitrogen directly from the snow. Many mountain plants take up nitrogen from melted snow soaking into the ground only after snow melt. However an impenetrable ice crust prevents C. conorhiza from doing this, therefore the plant is forced to depend upon the snow roots.
To test the hypothesis a small amount of fertiliser, heavily enriched with an uncommon isotope of nitrogen (15N), was added to the snow surrounding C. conorhiza plants. Days later the team discovered various sections of the plants contained high concentrations of 15N, including the snow roots, tubers and the leaves which had appeared after snow melt. In contrast, a species of dandelion growing close to the C. conorhiza plants did not possess any 15N. Further study confirmed the roots are anatomically very different from normal soil roots, making them specifically adapted for the fast uptake and transport of nitrogen.
"These roots help the plant to 'feed' on nutrients in snow before the plant shoots appear above the surface in the growing season", explained Cornelissen. "This gives the plant an advance on other plant species, which can only take up nutrients through roots in the soil during the very short growing season."
1. Onipchenko et al. New nitrogen uptake strategy: specialized snow roots. Ecology Letters, 2009; DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2009.01331.x