Preparing For An Entangled Future

The Science section of the Guardian’s website has an article profiling an author and his new book (click above to find the book on the author’s website) that relate to a topic we care about as much as any we post about on this platform.

Shiitake mushrooms (Lentinula edodes) being home cultivated. Photograph: Gerry Bishop/Alamy

When Amie and Milo and I moved to Kerala, India in 2010 it was ostensibly for the sake of our client. But it was also for Milo. He was 16 years-old with a strong interest in mycology, and was motivated to translate his knowledge into practice. Within the first year he set up a small farming operation for culinary mushrooms.

Underground network: a wood-rotting fungal mycelium exploring and consuming a log. Photograph: Alison Pouliot

He was adept at explaining the importance of complex networks like those in the image to the left, and made me a believer: the future is fungal, for culinary, medicinal, and bio-remediation purposes. When restoration of this coffee farm started, I built a berm with logs at the core, expecting a mycelium network to develop, creating a healthy border for the shade trees planted.

These days Milo has his own forest tract to continue these pursuits and I keep a lookout for related stories of interest. Merlin Sheldrake has my full attention today:

The future is fungal: why the ‘megascience’ of mycology is on the rise

The study of fungi has long been overshadowed by more glamorous scientific quests. But biologist Merlin Sheldrake is on a mission to change that

Merlin Sheldrake is convinced fungi will play a crucial role in our growing understanding of the environment. Photograph: Cosmo Sheldrake

As a boy, Merlin Sheldrake really loved the autumn. In the garden of his parents’ house – he grew up a few moments from Hampstead Heath, which is where he and I are walking right now, on an overcast summer morning – the leaves would fall from a big chestnut tree, forming gentle drifts into which he liked nothing more than to hurl himself. Wriggling around until he was fully submerged, Sheldrake would lie there, quite content, “buried in the rustle, lost in curious smells”. As he writes in his wondrous new book, Entangled Life, these autumnal piles were both places to hide and worlds to explore. Continue reading

Bees’ Precise Proboscis

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Jiangkun Wei

Bees, in all their surprising ways, are important to humanity, so we share science about them. Our thanks to one of science writing’s most deft explainers, James Gorman, for one more insight. If only for the video, showing the precision of the bee’s ability to drink nectar, this article is worth a look:

A Honeybee’s Tongue Is More Swiss Army Knife Than Ladle

Once again, insects prove to be more complicated than scientists thought they were.

For a century, scientists have known how honeybees drink nectar. They lap it up.

They don’t lap like cats or dogs, videos of whose mesmerizing drinking habits have been one of the great rewards of high speed video. But they do dip their hairy tongues rapidly in and out of syrupy nectar to draw it up into their mouth. For the last century or so, scientists have been convinced that this is the only way they drink nectar. Continue reading

Smelling Without A Nose

Common blue butterfly in Weymouth, Dorset, UK. © Verity Hill

Common blue butterfly in Weymouth, Dorset, UK. © Verity Hill

Thanks to Alex Morss for this second opportunity to feature her work:

How can butterflies and moths smell?

How can butterflies and moth find food-plants and mates by smell if they don’t have a nose? Ecologist Alex Morss explains how they can sense with other parts of their body. Continue reading

Mysterious Eels

BookOfEelsThis book (click the image to the left to go to the publisher) has become an unexpected bestseller. The other times we have posted on the topic of eels, a couple of them were artistic in nature and the other were scientific in nature. I would not have predicted that a whole book on the topic was something I would want to read, let alone that a very sizable audience would develop. I would expect that if there were to be more than four posts mentioning eels in the nine years we have been posting, we might have covered the topic of aquatic agriculture. But, no.

BookOfEelsNPRWhen I listened to a conversation (click the image to the right to go to the podcast) with the author of The Book of Eels it reminded me that I had already read a review of the book by Brooke Jarvis a few months earlier. And that we should post more on eels The illustration adorning the review was fun. The opening paragraphs were compelling:

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The mysterious creature has attracted avid detectives since ancient times. Illustration by Jason Holley

In the spring of 1876, a young man of nineteen arrived in the seaside city of Trieste and set about a curious task. Every morning, as the fishermen brought in their catch, he went to meet them at the port, where he bought eels by the dozens and then the hundreds. He carried them home, to a dissection table in a corner of his room, and—from eight until noon, when he broke for lunch, and then again from one until six, when he quit for the day and went to ogle the women of Trieste on the street—he diligently slashed away, in search of gonads. Continue reading

Animals Having Fun

Thanks to Eric Vance for a fun and interesting read:

Where the Wild Things Play

The animal world is full of games. And tucked in among wrestling monkeys, belligerent birds and wily coyotes are lessons for us all.

As a sophomore in college I interned at a lab that studied dolphin behavior. The animals spent most of the year doing back flips and spraying water onto tourists at a theme park, then called Marine World Africa USA, just north of San Francisco. In their off months, they hung out with behavioral scientists who did experiments with them.

I quickly noticed a few things about dolphin research. One, it’s regularly interrupted by dolphin sex. Dolphins are dirty, dirty creatures. Two, despite this, it’s actually quite dull. Watching dolphins swim in circles eight hours a day gets old. And three, almost all dolphin experiments involve games and toys. Continue reading

The Little Things In Life

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At a time when microscopic phenomena are the cause of fear and loss, it is surprising and enlightening to read about microbial discoveries that could help answer some of the eternal questions about life, the universe, and everything.

The Last Place on Earth We’d Ever Expect to Find Life

Shipworms, Pasts & Futures

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Bailey Miller, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utah, dived off the Research Vessel E.O. Wilson to explore an ancient underwater cypress forest in the Gulf of Mexico off of Dauphin Island, Ala.

Thanks to JoAnna Klein, who now more than ever is appreciated for the reminder of the wonders of natural history:

A Forest Submerged 60,000 Years Ago Could Save Your Life One Day

Before this underwater forest disappears, scientists recently raced to search for shipworms and other sea life that might conceal medicine of the future.

An ancient log, home to shipworms, which may help researchers discover new medicines.

An ancient log, home to shipworms, which may help researchers discover new medicines.

DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala. — It was 6 a.m. at the dock on a Tuesday in December, and the weather did not look promising. Fog hovered over the water, and the engine of the Research Vessel E.O. Wilson rumbled.

Our ship disappeared into the mist, and by 7:30 the crew, a team of biologists, chemists and microbiologists, reached its destination. The sun lounged on obsidian water, masking a secret world where land and sea swap places, and past, present and future collide.

This is the underwater forest. Its unusual residents, shipworms and related marine organisms, could serve as incubators of unexpected medicines, churning out new lifesaving formulas and compounds that may not be found anywhere else on the planet. But first the group of scientists had to manage to dive 60 feet beneath the ocean’s surface to recover their unusual subjects, a task made more challenging by three days of uncooperative weather.

Another log recovered from the underwater forest.

Another log recovered from the underwater forest.

“Underwater forest” is not a metaphor — this is a not a coral reef or a sea grass bed that resembles surface woodlands but bona fide trees with roots and leaves. For thousands of years, this cypress grove — about two football fields long and five feet wide — lay silent, preserved within an oxygen-less tomb of sand and sediment. Then came Ivan.

In 2004, the hurricane, category 5 before making landfall, ripped through the Gulf of Mexico, with winds up to 140 miles per hour kicking up 90-foot waves. The storm scooped up nearly 10 feet of sand from the seabed, awakening the sleeping forest beneath. Continue reading

Scent & Memory

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Illustration by James Taylor

Thanks to Colleen Walsh and the Harvard Gazette for this:

What the nose knows

Experts discuss the science of smell and how scent, emotion, and memory are intertwined — and exploited

Bioflourescing Amphibians

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A biofluorescing Cranwell’s horned frog. Jennifer Lamb and Matt Davis

Thanks to Joanna Klein, as always:

Salamanders and Frogs Hide a Glowing Secret

Many amphibians — possibly all of them — are biofluorescent, according to a new survey.

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A glowing dwarf siren… Jennifer Lamb and Matt Davis

Amphibians are half-landlubbers, half water-babies. They breathe through skin that is moist, warty, crested and in some cases, poisonous or hallucinogenic. Some wear dull, leaflike-camo patterns. Others sport Guy Fieri flames.

And as cute, gross, pretty, ugly, magical and witchy-named as these slip-sliding creatures may be, they’ve been hiding something in a secret, fluorescent world invisible to humans. Many amphibians, whether salamanders, frogs or their distant cousins — possibly all of them — glow, according to a survey published Thursday in Scientific Reports.

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Jennifer Lamb and Matt Davis

“There is still a lot out there that we don’t know,” said Jennifer Lamb, a biologist who conducted the research with Matt Davis, both at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. “This opens up this whole window into the possibility that organisms that can see fluorescence — their world may look a lot different from ours.”

The study paves the way for new research into how or why amphibians possess this special adaptation, which has potential applications in medical technology and conservation. Continue reading

Fly Versus Fly

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A Jock Scott salmon fly, tied according to the original T.E. Pryce-Tannatt recipe.Timo Kontio

Having friends who fish using this technique, this is a tricky post to write. I knew little about the history of the lures used in fly fishing until yesterday. I learned a little something about this history that is as disturbing as the lures are admittedly beautiful. I have tried fly fishing and found it more difficult than any other outdoor activity I ever tried. I respect anyone with the talent required to catch fish this way. But now I wonder about the lures. Above is an extra feature from the episode of a podcast which, if you are a regular viewer of our daily bird feature, you will want to listen to. Click the image to go to that photo gallery for more, either before or after you listen to the podcast:

Victorian salmon flies are tied according to recipes that are up to 150 years old and call for some of the rarest feathers in the world. Our show this week is the story of what may be the greatest feather robbery of all time, a million dollars in rare birds, stolen from a British museum.

The community of people devoted to tying these kinds of flies doesn’t fish with them—they’re just for show. Many try to use feathers from the same species listed in the classic manuals. But because so many birds have been killed for so many reasons over the years, a lot of the most coveted species are now endangered or protected.

Below are some photos of salmon flies—the Durham Ranger, the Jock Scott, and the Sherbrook—and some of the birds referenced in the recipes used to make them.

The episode those photos support offers as well told a story as This American Life is known for, but for bird nerds it is especially rich. And for those who are yet to become bird nerds, it may be just the stimulus you need. To tie the most prized fishing fly, the most prized birds lose the ability to fly. :

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An “analytical diagram” illustrating the various parts of a Jock Scott salmon fly. 
George M. Kelson’s The Salmon Fly: How to Dress It and How to Use It (1895)

A flute player breaks into a British museum and makes off with a million dollars worth of dead birds.

Prologue

By Sean Cole

After hearing about the heist, Kirk Wallace Johnson gets sucked into the feather underground. He ends up discovering things that the people in charge of the theft investigation didn’t. Kirk’s book about the heist is called “The Feather Thief.” (7 minutes)

Ugly, Not Deadly

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Photo: Vangelis Aragiannis/Alamy

We do not like looking at them. They disrupt many otherwise pristine views of nature, in the most surprising places. And so the thought of them being dangerous to birds would be an easy stretch of the imagination. Thanks to Audubon for the clarification, that their danger to birds is just an act of imagination:

No, 5G Radio Waves Do Not Kill Birds

Here’s the truth behind a Facebook falsehood spreading across the internet.

On the internet, there is often a fine line between a healthy skepticism of new technologies and blatant misinformation. The recent claim that the radio waves from 5G cellular communication towers are causing mass bird die-offs is a perfect example of just how thin that line can be—and how quickly falsehoods can spread across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even in the comments of Audubon magazine’s stories.

The origin of this claim is as head-spinning as it is instructive, so let’s untangle the knot: Does 5G really kill birds, and if not, why are so many people shouting about it online? Continue reading

Questions, Answers & Plans For Managing Environmental Challenges

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Experts have identified oceans as a key battleground in the fight to protect humanity’s natural ‘life support system’. Photograph: Christian Loader/Alamy

The plan provides one possible answer, its execution is an important question:

UN draft plan sets 2030 target to avert Earth’s sixth mass extinction

Paris-style proposal to counter loss of ecosystems and wildlife vital to the future of humanity will go before October summit

Almost a third of the world’s oceans and land should be protected by the end of the decade to stop and reverse biodiversity decline that risks the survival of humanity, according to a draft Paris-style UN agreement on nature.

To combat what scientists have described as the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history, the proposal sets a 2030 deadline for the conservation and restoration of ecosystems and wildlife that perform crucial services for humans.

The text, drafted by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, is expected to be adopted by governments in October at a crucial UN summit in the Chinese city of Kunming. It comes after countries largely failed to meet targets for the previous decade agreed in Aichi, Japan, in 2010. Continue reading

Acts Of Kindness, Random & Otherwise

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Recent research has explored “helping” behavior in species ranging from nonhuman primates to rats and bats. To see whether intelligent birds might help out a feathered pal, scientists did an experiment using African grey parrots like these. Henry Lok/EyeEm/Getty Images

Thanks to Nell Greenfieldboyce, science correspondent at National Public Radio (USA), for summarizing findings about how some animals help one another. We are on the lookout for more stories of how, why, when acts of kindness happen, and if we need to turn to parrots for inspiration, no problem:

Polly Share A Cracker? Parrots Can Practice Acts Of Kindness, Study Finds

Parrots can perform impressive feats of intelligence, and a new study suggests that some of these “feathered apes” may also practice acts of kindness.

African grey parrots voluntarily helped a partner get a food reward by giving the other bird a valuable metal token that could be exchanged for a walnut, according to a newly published report in the journal Current Biology. Continue reading

Biophilia By Any Other Name

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LUISA RIVERA FOR YALE ENVIRONMENT 360

It is surprising that neither E.O. Wilson nor his biophilia concept is mentioned here, but still it is an interesting finding. Our thanks to Jim Robbins for sharing:

Ecopsychology: How Immersion in Nature Benefits Your Health

A growing body of research points to the beneficial effects that exposure to the natural world has on health, reducing stress and promoting healing. Now, policymakers, employers, and healthcare providers are increasingly considering the human need for nature in how they plan and operate.

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A park ranger leads a hike through the Kahuku unit of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. NPS PHOTO/JANICE WEI

How long does it take to get a dose of nature high enough to make people say they feel healthy and have a strong sense of well-being?

Precisely 120 minutes. Continue reading

Adaptive Re-Use, Puffin Style

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Tufted Puffin. Photo: Tom Ingram/Audubon Photography Awards

Thanks to Audubon Magazine we start 2020 with a short story about an adaptation that is not just pretty, but practical in more than one way:

Those Big Orange Bills Also Help Puffins Stay Cool After a Workout

Good for more than just attracting a mate, the clownish feature appears to keep the subpar fliers from overheating.

The puffin’s iconic orange bill might be its most recognizable feature, but it’s also quite functional, serving the charismatic seabird in all avenues of life. The bill’s large volume makes it a hefty food carrier, and its ultraviolet glow amps up puffins’ sex appeal. Now, scientists have identified yet another use of this dramatically curved bill: staying cool. Continue reading

Smart Bees

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Thanks to Discover Magazine’s Sarah White for bringing our attention to Three Studies Are Showing Bees’ Amazing Math Abilities, a story we had missed earlier:

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(Credit: Gemma Tarlach/DISCOVER)

Honeybees caused quite a buzz this year when three separate studies showed they possess some of the same mathematical abilities as humans, despite much tinier brains.

In February, research in Science Advances indicated honeybees could learn to add and subtract. To teach the bees arithmetic, cognitive scientists set up a Y-shaped box for the bees to fly through. When a bee entered the box at the bottom of the Y, it saw blue or yellow shapes. If the shapes were blue, the bees were trained to fly down an arm of the Y toward a picture with one additional shape to receive a sucrose reward; the other arm had a bitter drink instead. If the shapes were yellow, bees were rewarded for choosing the picture with one fewer shape…

Do Not Underestimate The Value Of Fly Brains

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Comprised of only around 100,000 neurons, the Drosophila fruit fly brain is capable of highly complex behaviors. Getty Images

This link is in the spirit of appreciating the value of the lowliest members of our day to day encounters with nature, and the role they play in helping scientists better understand phenomena important to humans. Thanks to Kevin Jiang and the Harvard Gazette:

Where we get our sense of direction

Experiments reveal how visual cues reorganize course-sensing neurons in fruit flies

Seafood’s Scientific Solution

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Mother Jones illustration; Getty

Companies like Impossible and its competitor Beyond Meat have gotten most of the attention in our pages for plant-based meat-like products, but when it comes to alternative seafood our stories have mainly focused on invasive species, or on farming kelp or on seaweed farming. Thanks to Mother Jones for stretching our attention to the alternatives to fresh caught or even farm-raised seafood that simulates the kinds of fish that have been over-harvested:

We Destroyed the Oceans. Now Scientists Are Growing Seafood in Labs.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Do you love burgers—but not the animal cruelty and environmental degradation that go into making them? I come bearing good news: Someday, you might be able to get your meat fix, without all that bad stuff. Scientists can now grow animal flesh, without raising—or in most cases killing—an animal. This food, called “lab-grown meat,” “cell-based meat,” “cultured meat,” “cultivated meat,” “clean meat,” or as comedian Stephen Colbert jokingly called it in 2009, “shmeat,” has set off a flurry of media attention in recent years. Dozens of lab-grown meat companies have materialized, most aiming to solve the problems associated with large-scale beef, pork, poultry, and seafood production.

Finless Foods, a 12-person food-tech startup founded in 2017 and based in Emeryville, California, claims to be the first company to focus on lab-grown fish, although a handful of other startups have since joined them. In October, 28-year-old Finless Foods co-founder Mike Selden gave me a tour of their facility, and I dished about it on the latest episode of the Mother Jones food politics podcast Bite:

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Selden and his co-founder Brian Wyrwas, both products of an agricultural biochemistry program at UMass Amherst, started the company, he says, to “make something good.” Continue reading

Cleaning Up Productivity

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Harvard scientists and landscapers are testing a new fertilizer that could reduce pollution in water supplies. Unsplash

Thanks to Caitlin McDermott-Murphy for this story about cleaning up our growing systems:

Ending ‘dead zones’

How a biofriendly fertilizer could offer a greener way to grow plants

Every year, a “dead zone” the size of Massachusetts sprawls across the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River, which travels through the nation’s farm belt, sweeps excess fertilizer and dumps the chemicals into the Gulf, where they feed rampant algae, deplete oxygen, and kill marine life.

Across the U.S., smaller versions of similar dead zones infect lakes, ponds, and rivers. In years with higher rainfall — like 2018 — Massachusetts’ Charles River collects enough pollutants from surrounding city streets, parking lots, and landscaped campuses to cause the water quality to drop. Unchecked algae growth, often the result of excess fertilizer, can damage marine, human, and even pet health: This year, several dogs died after swimming in water choked with toxic blue-green algae. Continue reading

Camera Trap Treasure

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A black bear mother with three cubs. Photo © TNC

Camera traps have proven valuable in the work we have been doing in Belize, India and elsewhere in the wilderness areas of the developing world. But equally important are the photos captured in areas closer to urban settlements. Thanks to The Nature Conservancy’s publication of these photos with the article below:

As a Nature Conservancy forester in Pennsylvania, Mike Eckley spends a lot of time assessing the health of woodlands. That means he spends as much time thinking about white-tailed deer as he does trees.

Many conservation biologists consider over-abundant deer to be an even bigger threat to eastern forests than climate change. Deer can fundamentally change the forest ecosystem, threatening everything from rare wildflowers to migratory songbirds. These deer also can cause deadly vehicle collisions, increase risk of Lyme disease, and cause significant agricultural and property damage.

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Two white-tailed deer boxing. Photo © TNC

Eckley educates hunting clubs and landowners on deer management issues, and recently co-edited a book on the topic. He also works to make sure the deer herd is healthy on Conservancy projects like the West Branch Forest Preserve, a 3,000-acre preserve in north central Pennsylvania. Continue reading