Diagram of a test project in Italy in which sea cucumbers cleaned up excrement from farmed mussels. GROSSO ET AL.
A topic that rarely, if ever, has made our pages, the sea cucumber’s moment in the spotlight has arrived:
A sea cucumber near Mindoro Island in the Philippines. IMAGEBROKER / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Are Sea Cucumbers a Cleanup Solution to Fish Farm Pollution?
Seafood farm operators are breeding and deploying sea cucumbers to vacuum up the massive amounts of fish waste that pose a major problem for their industry. It is part of an effort to redesign fish farms with multiple species so that they work more like natural ecosystems.
Sea bass at a fish farm in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Slovenia. WATERFRAME / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Off the coast of the Hawaiian Island of Kauai, an underwater metropolis bustles. Sea turtles glide lazily through the surf while schools of fluorescent yellow butterflyfish weave between basketball-size sea urchins and sharp corals.
But Dave Anderson isn’t distracted by the otherworldly charm of the coral reef — he’s here on a mission. Around 70 feet below the surface, he finds his prize: a red sea cucumber. Continue reading →
When a book like this comes along, take in what the review has to say, maybe read a second opinion, then go find a copy from any of the several independent booksellers offering it:
Deep-Sea Creatures of Bittersweet Orange and Metallic Opaline Green
In “The Bathysphere Book,” Brad Fox chronicles the fascinating Depression-era ocean explorations of William Beebe.
Wildlife Conservation Society Archives
Consider the siphonophore. An inhabitant of the lightless ocean, it looks like a single organism, but is actually a collection of minute creatures, each with its own purpose, working in harmony to move, to eat, to stay alive. They seem impossible but they are real. In 1930 William Beebe was 3,000 feet underwater in a bathysphere, an early deep-sea submersible, when he spotted a huge one: a writhing 20-yard mass whose pale magenta shone impossibly against the absolute blackness of the water. As you can imagine, it made an impression.
Wildlife Conservation Society Archives
“The siphonophore mind, Beebe thought, asks us to rethink our individuality, to consider our epidermis as only one way to measure the extent of our bodies,” writes Brad Fox in “The Bathysphere Book,” a hypnotic new account of Beebe’s Depression-era underwater exploration. “In that light, our furious competition, our back-stabbing and fights over resources, is nonsense. Better we work together, getting closer and closer, more finely attuned to each other’s needs until we are indistinguishable.” Continue reading →
A blue morpho butterfly sits on a leaf. A new study finds that butterflies likely originated somewhere in western North America or Central America around 100 million years ago. Kristen Grace/Florida Museum
It is almost a certainty that if you visit Costa Rica you will see the blue morpho fluttering by somewhere. And you may be in the location of its origin story:
Butterflies originated in North America after splitting from moths, new study suggests
Akito Kawahara remembers being eight years old when he went on a special tour of the insect collection at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He marveled at the vast array of pinned bugs before stopping in front of a large picture of the butterfly family tree.
A red lacewing butterfly perches on a plant. Rachit Pratap Singh
A number of spots on that tree, he saw, were curiously blank.
“Just looking at it, realizing that scientists at these museums still don’t know these basic things — I’ll never forget that day,” Kawahara says.
That moment sparked a lifelong passion in Kawahara to fill in those blanks and determine where these charismatic insects originated. Now, he’s gotten a little closer to an answer. His latest research shows that butterflies probably first flapped their wings in present-day western North America or Central America. Continue reading →
Bees are in a class by themselves as pollinators, a role that requires a sophisticated mind, says one expert. Photograph: Alamy
Stories about bees in our pages are the proverbial bees knees, again, this time with some information on their sense of the world:
‘Fringe’ research suggests the insects that are essential to agriculture have emotions, dreams and even PTSD, raising complex ethical questions
When Stephen Buchmann finds a wayward bee on a window inside his Tucson, Arizona, home, he goes to great lengths to capture and release it unharmed. Continue reading →
Whether to ward off predators or to exploit their victims, creatures can gain advantage by posing as different creatures. Illustration by Lou Benesch
When Elizabeth Kolbert reviews a book we know that at least the review is a must-read:
Why the Animal Kingdom Is Full of Con Artists
Some crows “cry wolf” to snatch food from their neighbors; some caterpillars trick ants into treating them like queens. What can we learn from beasts that bluff?
On April 20, 1848, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates set off for the Amazon on a boat named Mischief. The two young men—Bates was twenty-three, Wallace twenty-five—had met a few years earlier, probably at a library in Leicester, in England’s East Midlands. Both were passionate naturalists, and both were strapped for cash. (Neither had been able to afford university.) To finance their adventures, they planned to ship specimens back to London, where they could be sold to wealthy collectors.
For reasons that no one has ever been able to explain—but that many have speculated about—Wallace and Bates separated soon after they reached Brazil. In the decade that followed, Wallace amassed an immense trove of new species; lost most of them in a ship fire; set off again, for Southeast Asia; and, with Charles Darwin, discovered natural selection.
Bates, meanwhile, remained in Brazil. He sailed up the Tapajós, an Amazon tributary, and then up the Cupari, a tributary of the Tapajós. Travel in the region was often agonizingly slow; to get from the town of Óbidos to Manaus, a journey of less than four hundred miles, took him nine weeks. (At some point during the trip, he was robbed of most of the money he was carrying.) Bates would find a congenial town and spend months, even years, there, making daily forays into the surrounding rain forest. He tromped around in a checked shirt and denim pants, an outfit considered outré by the British merchants he encountered in Brazil, who wore their top hats rain or shine. Continue reading →
Some scientists warn of an insect apocalypse. The flying-insect community has been “decimated,” a research paper said. Illustration by Jochen Gerner
Insects were among the first regular features in these pages, thanks to Milo’s camera and personal interest. There were more when Seth worked in Costa Rica, followed by plenty of articles and editorials of various types, as well as my own discoveries while working outside. Looking back over those, I notice that caterpillars were featured only once, in a post on integrated pest management. So the following is a welcome addition to the mix:
The Devils River, in southwestern Texas, runs, mirage-like, along the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, through some of the most barren countryside in the United States. Access to the river is limited; unless you’re in a kayak, the only way to travel upstream is along a skein of rutted dirt roads. It was on one of these roads that, a few years ago, David Wagner noticed a shrub that seemed to him peculiarly filled with promise. Continue reading →
The large marble butterfly is now locally extinct in some places. Rick and Nora Bowers/Alamy
Insects matter, and our thanks to Catrin Einhorn for making it more clear why:
Are Butterflies Wildlife? Depends Where You Live.
A legal quirk leaves officials in at least a dozen states with little or no authority to protect insects. That’s a growing problem for humans.
It’s tough being an insect. They get swatted, stomped and sprayed without a thought. Their mere presence can provoke irrational panic. Even everyday language disparages them: “Stop bugging me,” we say. Continue reading →
Addressing the problem, some scientists believe, may require reimagining agriculture from the ground up. Illustration by Juan Bernabeu
Stephen Porder is Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, a Fellow in the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, and the Assistant Provost for Sustainability at Brown. Elemental is his new book looking at how life shapes Earth using basic elements we may take for granted. Read on to learn more about the book, and its wider relevance to other books now being published that discuss phosphorous.
Thanks, as always, to Elizabeth Kolbert for her book reviews, and in this case a nod to the Rich Earth Institute:
Phosphorus Saved Our Way of Life—and Now Threatens to End It
Fertilizers filled with the nutrient boosted our ability to feed the planet. Today, they’re creating vast and growing dead zones in our lakes and seas.
In the fall of 1802, the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt arrived in Callao, Peru’s major port, just west of Lima. Humboldt had timed his visit to coincide with a transit of Mercury, which he planned to observe through a three-foot telescope, in order to determine Lima’s longitude. He set up his instruments atop a fort on the waterfront, and then, with a few days to kill before the event, wandered the docks. A powerful stench emanating from boats loaded with what looked like yellowish clay piqued his curiosity. From the locals, Humboldt learned that the material was bird shit from the nearby Chincha Islands, and that it was highly prized by farmers in the area. He decided to take some home with him. Continue reading →
The Luxor Hotel’s “sky beam,” in Las Vegas, generates forty-two billion candlepower of light each night, confusing flying creatures that are drawn to its radiance. Illustration by Carson Ellis
We already linked to one review of it but this book seems worthy of at least two, and if at least one of them is by this essayist then probably two will be enough:
Is Artificial Light Poisoning the Planet?
A Swedish ecologist argues that its ubiquity is wrecking our habitats—and our health.
Among the many looming ecological disasters that terrify us today, one that only a handful of people have contemplated as sufficiently looming and terrifying is the loss of the bats in our belfry. Continue reading →
While sunlight gives electricity for the lights we need, there can be too much of a good thing. Thanks to Lisa Abend at the New York Times for this review:
A Manifesto for Loving the Darkness, and Not Metaphorically
Light pollution is disruptive to many species, from corals to bats to the humans who put up all those lights. “The Darkness Manifesto” urges us to reconsider our drive to dispel the dark.
Artificial lights disorient many species, including the grasshoppers that swarmed the powerful lights over the Las Vegas strip in 2019. Bridget Bennett/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Losing a connection to the night sky is losing our connection to nature, said Johan Eklöf, but it is also losing some of our history. “What we see now is the same sky as our ancestors were looking at and making up stories about.” Nora Lorek for The New York Times
The zoologist Johan Eklöf began to consider the disappearance of darkness in our brightly lit world in 2015, when he was out counting bats in southern Sweden. The surrounding grounds were dark, as they had been decades earlier when his academic adviser had tallied the bat populations in the region’s churches. In the intervening years, however, those churches — whose belfries are famously appreciated by the winged mammals — had been illuminated with floodlights. “I started to think, how do the bats actually react to this?” Eklöf says. Continue reading →
Scientists at San Diego-based Genomatica, which is developing a plant-based nylon. GENOMATICA
We have been watching and waiting for this range of products to have their day, and Jim Robbins delivers an up to date account that gives hope:
From Lab to Market: Bio-Based Products Are Gaining Momentum
A 3D-printed house made from sawdust and other timber industry waste by the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center. UNIVERSITY OF MAINE
Propelled by government investment and shareholder demand, manufacturers are pushing to get bio-based products into the marketplace. These new materials — made from plants, fungi, and microbes — aim to replace those that contain toxins and are difficult to recycle or reuse.
In the 1930s, the DuPont company created the world’s first nylon, a synthetic polymer made from petroleum. The product first appeared in bristles for toothbrushes, but eventually it would be used for a broad range of products, from stockings to blouses, carpets, food packaging, and even dental floss.
Nylon is still widely used, but, like other plastics, it has environmental downsides: it is made from a nonrenewable resource; its production generates nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas; it doesn’t biodegrade; and it sheds microfibers that end up in food, water, plants, animals, and even the clouds.
Laminated timber beams and floors used in the construction of Ascent, a 25-story apartment building in Milwaukee. THORNTON TOMASETTI
Now, however, a San Diego-based company called Genomatica is offering an alternative: a so-called plant-based nylon made through biosynthesis, in which a genetically engineered microorganism ferments plant sugars to create a chemical intermediate that can be turned into nylon-6 polymer chips, and then textiles. The company has partnered with Lululemon, Unilever, and others to manufacture this and other bio-based products that safely decompose. Continue reading →
PHOTOGRAPH: YUKIKO YAMAMOTO/GETTY IMAGES
We knew that the intersection between renewable energy and birds can be problematic, so we thank Emma Foehringer Merchant for this look at one initiative to address it:
“This is one of the least smelly carcasses,” said Todd Katzner, peering over his lab manager’s shoulder as she sliced a bit of flesh from a dead pigeon lying on a steel lab table. The specimens that arrive at this facility in Boise, Idaho, are often long dead, and the bodies smell, he said, like “nothing that you can easily describe, other than yuck.” Continue reading →
Bobbi Wilson holds her collection of spotted lanternflies as she is honored at the Yale School of Public Health on Jan. 20. Andrew Hurley/Yale University
A young person doing their part, on their own, to help with an environmental scourge. Hats off to that. The unneighborly act aside, this is a story to celebrate (thanks to National Public Radio, USA) and an extra bravo to Yale University for their part in it:
Nine-year-old Bobbi Wilson may be in the fourth grade, but last month the Yale School of Public Health held a ceremony honoring the budding scientist’s recent work. Continue reading →
The American west has told the rewilding story from multiple perspectives, and this book to the right makes a special place for the she-wolf in that story, according to this review in Inquisitive Biologist:
The wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 are some of the best-studied mammals on the planet. Biological technician and park ranger Rick McIntyre has spent over two decades scrutinizing their daily lives, venturing into the park every single day. Where his previous books focused on three notable alpha* males, it is ultimately the females that call the shots and make the decisions with lasting consequences. This book is a long overdue recognition of the female wolf and continues this multigenerational saga. Continue reading →
We appreciate Conor Feehly’s article in Discover, expanding our understanding of and ability to measure the intelligence of our co-inhabitants on this planet:
How Intelligence Is Measured In The Animal Kingdom
As understandings of human intelligence evolve, so, too, do understandings of animal intelligence.
Human beings — with our big brains, technology and mastery of language — like to describe ourselves as the most intelligent species. After all, we’re capable of reaching space, prolonging our lives and understanding the world around us. Over time, however, our understanding of intelligence has gotten a little more complicated. Continue reading →
Ants in Escazu
The earthworm in the photo above had been in a bag of soil where a coffee seedling started germinating earlier this year. I was moving the seedling from its small “starter” bag to a larger one, and the earthworm jumped out, wriggling under the nearby supplies I was working with. I did not see it again until it was too late. Since earthworms are good for soil, and we are in the early stages of a soil regeneration project, I was sorry to see the worm lose its life. This particular species of ant is currently everywhere on the property where we are re-planting coffee. I have not seen so many of this type of ant at any point in the last 22 years on this property, and their shocking abundance made me think of that new ant study. Normally we do not repeat sharing of news stories here, unless new information has come to light. It has only been a couple days, but I must share more on the study because my planting work is keeping the subject in front of me, and the photos in this article are that good.
Leaf cutter ants in Costa Rica. The researchers sampled 1,300 locations around the world, estimating ant abundance in different environments in areas such as forests and steppes. Bence Mate/Nature Picture Library, via Alamy
Rebecca Dzombak, who authored this article for the New York Times, will be on our radar from now on:
Weaver ants engaged in teamwork. Sunthorn Viriyapan/Alamy
There are 20 quadrillion ants worldwide, according to a new census, or 2.5 million for every living human. There are probably even more than that.
Male leaf cutter ants on the move over the Sonoran Desert in search of females and to make more ants. Norma Jean Gargasz/Alamy
Right now, ants are scurrying around every continent except Antarctica, doing the hard work of engineering ecosystems. They spread seeds, churn up soil and speed up decomposition. They forage and hunt and get eaten. You may not know how much you rely on them. Continue reading →
In this photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, yellow crazy ants are seen in a bait testing efficacy trial at the Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in December, 2015. An invasive species known as the yellow crazy ant has been eradicated from the remote U.S. atoll in the Pacific. Robert Peck/AP
The mass of ants on earth is not a topic we have considered, but there is not too much surprise at reading this news:
The number of ants on Earth has a mass greater than all birds and mammals combined
For every human on Earth, there are estimated to be about 2.5 million ants — or 20 quadrillion in total.
A new study published by researchers at both the University of Hong Kong and University of Würzburg in Germany attempts to count the total number of ground-dwelling and tree-dwelling ants. Continue reading →