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Published May 17, 2011

The Iberian lynx that prowls the grasslands of southern Spain. The Mediterranean monk seal swimming waters off Greece and Turkey. The Bavarian pine vole that forages in the high meadows of the Alps. These are among hundreds of European animal species - up to a quarter of the total native to the continent - that are threatened with extinction, according to a warning issued this month by the European Union. "Biodiversity is in crisis, with species extinctions running at unparalleled rates," said Janez Potocnik, the European Union's environment commissioner. The crisis is due to several factors, including loss of habitat, pollution, alien species encroachment, climate change and overfishing.

Ants are picky about their trees

Ants called Pseudomyrmex triplarinus live in hollow channels in the stem and trunk of Triplaris americana trees, where they take shelter and eat sugars, fats and proteins supplied by the tree. In return, they bite animals that try to eat the trees' leaves, and they prune away plants that grow near them. Now researchers have looked at how the ants distinguish a foreign plant from their own. The scientists, working in Peru, found that the ants consistently pruned foreign seedlings that sprouted near their tree. "These ants are very protective of their host tree," said Jorge M. Vivanco, an author of the study published in the journal Biotropica and a professor of biology at Colorado State University. "It doesn't matter if it's a human, an animal, an insect or another plant species - they're going to attack it."

Lizards that build with family in mind

Many animals build houses for their offspring, but no one thought lizards were among them. Now researchers have found that great desert skinks, lizards that live only in northern Australia, build and maintain elaborate tunneled homes, where they live in cooperative multigenerational family groups. The lizards, whose scientific name is Liopholis kintorei, build structures that are more or less permanent addresses. So far as is known, the elaborate home construction is unique among lizards, a group that contains at least 5,000 species, according to researchers, writing in PLoS One.

Heads going back to their homeland

Five hand-carved, 18th and 19th century human skulls have been returned to Indonesian officials at a New York ceremony. The decorated skulls from the Dayak tribe raised suspicion when they arrived at a mail facility in Newark, N.J., last summer. They had been shipped from Bali, Indonesia.