SCIENCE

Researchers with the Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos and the American Bird Conservancy are keeping eyes and ears on the long-whiskered owlet in Peru.
Researchers with the Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos and the American Bird Conservancy are keeping eyes and ears on the long-whiskered owlet in Peru. (Associated Press)
Monday, March 26, 2007

Ladybug Taint: Not Fine in Wine

Ladybugs are well known to gardeners as a great natural tool to control aphids and other pests. But a new study has shown that the spotted insects have a less-appealing side: They produce a foul-smelling liquid that is increasingly being found in wines. There's even a name for it -- "ladybug taint."

The smell, which connotes green bell peppers or roasted peanuts, is produced by ladybugs as a defense mechanism. The chemicals they release, in a class of compounds called methoxypyrazines, are found in other animals and plants, but Jacek Koziel of Iowa State University said ladybugs are loaded with them. "Even tiny amounts can be detected by the human nose," he said.

His team used a gas chromatograph and a panel of volunteer "sniffers" to identify the odors from about 300 ladybugs of the species Harmonia axyridis. Batches of five bugs were sealed in test tubes and the odors were analyzed, revealing 28 distinct smells. Four chemicals were found to be associated with the ladybug odor.

This type of ladybug has been spreading rapidly across the Midwest because some tasty new prey -- the invasive soybean aphid -- has also become widespread. Winemakers report greater concentrations of ladybugs in their vineyards and on harvested grapes. Apparently the bugs are being mixed into the fermenting grape juice by accident.

Koziel's study was presented at last week's national meeting of the American Chemical Society.

-- Marc Kaufman

Pocket-Size Owl Appears in Peru

It has been more than 30 years since conservationists in Peru first caught a long-whiskered owlet in their nighttime bird nets, introducing to the birding world one of the smallest, and cutest, owls on the planet. Since then, just a handful of the wide-eyed, wispy-browed mini-owls have been trapped by researchers working in that country's mountainous frontier, and none had been seen flying in the wild -- until now.

In February, the intensely private and presumably threatened bird got over its shyness and made multiple appearances before birders working to preserve its remote habitat, which is among the richest areas of avian biodiversity in the world.

Birders hope that the owlet's recent appearances will bolster efforts to expand a recently created 4,000-acre private sanctuary there, which is home to hundreds of rare and endangered bird species.

Researchers with the Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos and the American Bird Conservancy, who are leading conservation efforts there, believe there are fewer than 1,000 of the owls, and perhaps as few as 250. With the help of foundation grants, the organizations have been buying tracts of land in a wooded region that abuts a much larger government preserve.


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