Species Discoveries Of 2021

Eurythenes atacamensis, a giant new crustacean endemic to the Peru-Chile ocean trench, identified by scientists in 2021. Photograph: Weston et al 2021

The work of species discovery continues, even as extinction continues unabated:

‘Hell herons’, metallic beetles, tiny shrimp – scientists have been busy describing unusual creatures despite Covid restrictions

Two newly described species of spinosaur dinosaurs discovered on the Isle of Wight, named ‘hell heron’ and ‘riverbank hunter’. Photograph: Anthony Hutchings

Six new dinosaurs, an Indian beetle named after Larry the cat, and dozens of crustaceans critical to the planet’s carbon cycle were among 552 new species identified by scientists at the Natural History Museum this year.

In 2021, researchers described previously unknown species across the tree of life, from a pair of giant carnivorous dinosaurs known as spinosaurs – nicknamed the “riverbank hunter” and “hell heron” – to five new snakes that include the Joseph’s racer, which was identified with the help of a 185-year-old painting. Continue reading

Historians As Climate Sleuths

The Leshan Giant Buddha in Sichuan, China, a relic of the Tang dynasty, which collapsed in 907 A.D. amid changes in the climate. ZHONG ZHENBIN / ANADOLU AGENCY / GETTY IMAGES

Thanks to Jacques Leslie

Climate Clues from the Past Prompt a New Look at History

A fragment from a sculpted stele, an artifact of the Akkadian Empire, which collapsed in the 22nd century B.C. amid a severe drought. MBZT VIA WIKIPEDIA

As scientists rapidly improve their ability to decipher past climate upheaval through ice cores and other “proxies,” historians are re-examining previous political and social turmoil and linking it to volcanic eruptions, prolonged droughts, and other disturbances in the natural world.

Joseph Manning, a Yale University professor of ancient history, likes to recall the moment when he was shown an advance copy of a scholarly paper that pinpointed the timing of major volcanic eruptions over the last 2,500 years. As he read the paper, “I literally fell off my chair,” he said recently.

Roman coins dating to 82 B.C. Lead from smelting such coins has been found in faraway ice cores, offering clues about Roman history. CARLOMORINO VIA WIKIPEDIA

Relying on new geochemical techniques for analyzing ice core sediment to determine the dates of ancient volcanic activity down to the year or even season, the paper, published in Nature in 2015, showed that major eruptions worldwide caused precipitous, up-to-a-decade-long drops in global temperatures. Continue reading

Tamil Nadu, Rice, Identity

In the early days of our posting here south Indian rice was a staple in our meals, and we knew that this now global foodstuff had a long history in other cultures. But it looks like the state neighboring where we lived may have found a clue to how much longer they have had rice in their diet:

An ancient rice bowl complicates the story of civilisation in India

In Tamil Nadu, archaeology is part of a contest over history and identity

Rarely can a spoonful of rice have caused such a stir. When M.K. Stalin, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, addressed the south Indian state’s legislature on September 9th, he celebrated a musty sample of the country’s humble staple. Carbon dating by an American laboratory, he said, had just proved that the rice, found in a small clay offering bowl—itself tucked inside a burial urn outside the village of Sivakalai, near the southernmost tip of India—was some 3,200 years old. This made it the earliest evidence yet found of civilisation in Tamil Nadu. The top duty of his government, the chief minister triumphantly declared, was to establish that the history of India “begins from the landscape of the Tamils”. Continue reading

Society for the Protection of Underground Networks

Hotspots of mycorrhizal fungi are thought to be under threat, from agriculture, urbanisation, pollution, water scarcity and changes to the climate. Photograph: Biosphoto/Alamy

We featured three articles by Fiona Harvey, Environment correspondent for the Guardian, each in 2016 on quite different topics, and then we did not see her again until today. Our attention to fungi has been constant since Milo got the topic started in 2011, and SPUN’s mapping project counts as good news:

World’s vast networks of underground fungi to be mapped for first time

Project aims to help protect some of trillions of miles of the ‘circulatory system of the planet’

Vast networks of underground fungi – the “circulatory system of the planet” – are to be mapped for the first time, in an attempt to protect them from damage and improve their ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide. Continue reading

Glass Origins

This glass fish was found in a fairly modest private house in Amarna, buried under a plaster floor along with a few other objects. It may once have contained ointment. The Trustees of the British Museum

We have featured stories about artisanal glass in the previous posts but this time the story is about the origins of the substance:

A Brief Scientific History of Glass

Featuring ingots, shipwrecks and an international trade in colors, the material’s rich past is being traced using modern archaeology and materials science

Blue glass ingots from the Uluburun shipwreck. Panegyrics of Granovetter / Flickr

Today, glass is ordinary, on-the-kitchen-shelf stuff. But early in its history, glass was bling for kings.

Thousands of years ago, the pharaohs of ancient Egypt surrounded themselves with the stuff, even in death, leaving stunning specimens for archaeologists to uncover. King Tutankhamen’s tomb housed a decorative writing palette and two blue-hued headrests made of solid glass that may once have supported the head of sleeping royals. His funerary mask sports blue glass inlays that alternate with gold to frame the king’s face. Continue reading

Thames Is Alive, Again

Species living in the Thames include seahorses and sharks. Photograph: ZSL

We will take good news where and how we can get it:

Seahorses and sharks living in River Thames, analysis shows

Zoological Society of London carries out most comprehensive survey since 1950s

Since 2003 there has been as steady increase in seal populations in the Thames estuary. Photograph: ZSL

Seahorses, eels, seals and sharks are living in the tidal Thames, according to the most comprehensive analysis of the waterway since it was declared biologically dead in the 1950s.

But scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), who carried out the work, warn that the 95 miles of the tidal Thames is suffering from rising nitrate levels as a result of industrial runoff and sewage discharges. Water levels and temperature are also rising as a result of global heating. Continue reading

Sign Up For McKibben

James Watt, at work in the small University of Glasgow workshop where he basically invented the fossil fuel era

I am trying to imagine getting tired of reading Bill McKibben’s constant flow of commentary and news, even though most of it is dismal. It would be like getting tired of paying attention to the environment, especially climate issues. Yesterday’s observations from Glasgow are particularly rewarding, and I hope you will consider subscribing to his newsletter:

Glasgow: where climate wreckage began

And where it’s definitely not going to end

I spent part of the morning wandering the gorgeous Victorian courtyards of the University of Glasgow (they would seem familiar to you—it’s where they shot the exteriors for the Harry Potter films), trying to find the university chapel where I was supposed to give a lecture. Instead of that august sanctuary, I stumbled across the James Watt building—and with it a poignant set of reminders about just how quickly we’ve managed to bring the world to the edge of ruin. Continue reading

Humanity & Melting History

A mask belonging to the Yup’ik people of Alaska emerging from the permafrost. It is one of more than 100,000 artifacts retrieved from Nunalleq, the site of a village that was attacked by rivals 350 years ago. University of Aberdeen

When I posted about this book yesterday I had the long arc of history on my mind all day, and now this:

As Earth Warms, Human History Is Melting Away

Climate change is revealing long-frozen artifacts and animals to archaeologists. But the window for study is slender and shrinking.

The Langfonne ice patch in Norway. Glacier Archaeology Program, Innlandet County Council

For the past few centuries, the Yup’ik peoples of Alaska have told gruesome tales of a massacre that occurred during the Bow and Arrow War Days, a series of long and often brutal battles across the Bering Sea coast and the Yukon. According to one account, the carnage started when one village sent a war party to raid another. But the residents had been tipped off and set an ambush, wiping out the marauders. The victors then attacked the undefended town, torching it and slaughtering its inhabitants. No one was spared. Continue reading

Clues Trapped In Resin

Researchers describe this as the most complete fossilized crab ever discovered. Credit: Lida Xing/China University of Geosciences, Beijing

Crabs started as marine creatures, and eventually evolved into land creatures as well. How it happened is an essential question and resin may be the best clue:

Bad for 100-million-year-old crab, but good for scientists

Crustacean trapped in fossilized tree resin offers clues into evolution of creatures, when they spread

Artistic reconstruction of the new fossil dubbed Cretapsara athanata, “the immortal Cretaceous spirit of the clouds and waters.”
Artwork by Franz Anthony, courtesy of Javier Luque/Harvard University

Javier Luque’s first thought while looking at the 100-million-year-old piece of amber wasn’t whether the crustacean trapped inside could help fill a crucial gap in crab evolution. He just kind of wondered how the heck it got stuck in the now-fossilized tree resin? Continue reading

Barefoot In The Park A Long, Long Time Ago

The Economist brought this to our attention with a brief mention that An old lake bed reveals evidence of America’s first inhabitants – They walked there at least 23,000 years ago. We followed that up with a search on the topic that led to this further detail in the Cornell Chronicle:

David Bustos/Provided. Thomas Urban conducts magnetometer survey of mammoth footprints at White Sands.

Earliest evidence of human activity in the Americas found

Provided. Footprints found at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, providing the earliest evidence of human activity in the Americas.

Footprints found at White Sands National Park in New Mexico provide the earliest unequivocal evidence of human activity in the Americas and offer insight into life over 23,000 years ago.

The footprints were formed in soft mud on the margins of a shallow lake that now forms part of Alkali Flat, a large playa at White Sands. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey dated these tracks using radiocarbon dating of seed layers above and below the footprint horizons. The dates range in age and confirm human presence over at least two millennia with the oldest tracks dating from around 23,000 years ago, Continue reading

How To Define Species

During the most recent ice age, glaciers divided an ancestral population of crows; one group became all-black carrion crows, the other hooded crows with gray breasts and bodies. Illustrations by François-Nicolas Martinet / Alamy

Protecting species from extinction has been a running theme in our pages over the years. Underlying these many stories was an assumption, at least on our part, that defining boundaries between species is settled science. We will no longer take that for granted:

Where Do Species Come From?

By studying crows, a German biologist has helped to solve a centuries-old mystery.

The evolutionary biologist Jochen Wolf was working from home when we first spoke, in April, 2020. Germany was under lockdown, and his lab, at Ludwig Maximilian University, in Munich, had been closed for weeks. Still, a reminder of his research had followed him from the office. “I have a crow nest right in front of me,” Wolf said, from his rooftop terrace. The nest was well hidden at the top of a tall spruce tree. Through the branches, Wolf could see a female crow sitting on her eggs. Continue reading

Books About Below The Deepest Most Of Us Will Ever Go

Chloe Niclas

Thanks to Robert Moor for these reviews:

The Wonders That Live at the Very Bottom of the Sea

Two new books, Edith Widder’s “Below the Edge of Darkness” and Helen Scales’s “The Brilliant Abyss,” explore the darkest reaches and all that glows there.

In the deep sea, it is always night and it is always snowing. A shower of so-called marine snow — made up of pale flecks of dead flesh, plants, sand, soot, dust and excreta — sifts down from the world above. When it strikes the seafloor, or when it is disturbed, it will sometimes light up, a phenomenon known, wonderfully, as “snow shine.” Vampire squids, umbrella-shaped beings with skin the color of persimmons, float around collecting this luminous substance into tiny snowballs, which they calmly eat. They are not alone in this habit. Most deep-sea creatures eat snow, or they eat the snow eaters.

Until fairly recently, it was widely believed that the deep seas were mostly devoid of life. For centuries, fishermen hauled in deep-sea trawling nets filled with slime, not knowing that these were carcasses. Some animals, adapted to the pressure of the deep, are so delicate that in lighter waters a mere wave of your hand could reduce them to shreds. The myth of the dead deep sea, known as the Abyssus Theory, was disproved by a series of dredging and trawling expeditions in the 19th century, including a German scientific expedition in 1898 that pulled up the first known vampire squid. But the misconception nevertheless lingered. In 1977, a geologist piloting a submersible near the mouth of a hydrothermal vent, and finding it swarming with creatures, asked the research crew up above, “Isn’t the deep ocean supposed to be like a desert?” Continue reading

Bioluminescent Distractions

A deep-sea shrimp spews bioluminescent chemicals at its predator, a viperfish. EDITH WIDDER

Nothing like bioluminescence to take your mind off of other things for a while. Thanks to Yale e360 for this:

A Scientist Reveals the Bioluminescent Magic of the Deep-Sea World

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, marine biologist Edith Widder talks about her pioneering research into the world of bioluminescent organisms in the deep oceans and warns of the dangers, from trawling to oil drilling, that imperil this hidden realm.

Atolla vanhoeffeni, a bioluminescent deep-sea jellyfish. EDITH WIDDER

Until recently, the depths of the world’s oceans remained almost entirely unexplored. But advances in submersible technology are increasingly giving scientists a window into this little-known universe. One of the leaders in this exploration is marine biologist Edith Widder, who has extensively studied bioluminescent, or light-producing, organisms that use this trait to communicate, defend themselves, and hunt in darkness. Among other things, Widder has worked with engineers to develop highly sensitive deep-sea light meters and special cameras, like the remotely operated Eye-in-the-Sea, which allow for real-time monitoring of the seafloor. Continue reading

To Build A Good Home, Sometimes You Need Pluck

We were aware that birds will build nests out of just about anything they can find, and sometimes in the strangest places. But how they get the material is less familiar, and in the article below is a video of a bird plucking fur from a fox, about as fun to watch as anything we have seen recently, so click through to the full story:

Sneaky Thieves Steal Hair From Foxes, Raccoons, Dogs, Even You

It’s simple: Mammals have hair or fur. Birds want it.

As anyone who has ever tried to eat french fries on a beach will attest, stealing is not an uncommon behavior among birds. In fact, many birds are quite skilled at bold and brazen theft. Continue reading

Mycology’s Expansive Boundaries

Paul Stamets. Credit: Trav Williams Broken Banjo Photography

In the media we scan for articles and podcasts to share here, some of the last year’s attention to fungi has been aimed at making them seem less alien by celebrating their very alien-ness. Up to now, this has all been earth-bound, but maybe that has been an arbitrary boundary. Thanks to Scientific American magazine for this conversation with the man who has been stretching fungi boundaries for much longer than we have been paying attention:

Future Space Travel Might Require Mushrooms

Mycologist Paul Stamets discusses the potential extraterrestrial uses of fungi, including terraforming planets, building human habitats—and providing psilocybin therapy to astronauts

The list of mycologists whose names are known beyond their fungal field is short, and at its apex is Paul Stamets. Educated in, and a longtime resident of, the mossy, moldy, mushy Pacific Northwest region, Stamets has made numerous contributions over the past several decades— perhaps the best summation of which can be found in his 2005 book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. But now he is looking beyond Earth to discover new ways that mushrooms can help with the exploration of space. Continue reading

Nature, Intervention & Protection

Discovery inspires.

Participation motivates.

Discovery + Participation + Organization =

Results

Click any of the images above to go to the website of this organization featured once before in our pages and now again in the article below. It will make more sense after reading the article. But do visit the site and consider volunteering. Take some kids along.

In New York, Kate Orff will use oyster reefs to mitigate storm surges. Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

Eric Klinenberg‘s work on the topic of libraries provided a sense of common cause. After featuring so many stories about libraries and librarians (my more recent personal anecdote was purposely brief so did not relay how many ways my local library impacted my young life, a topic for another day), his book summed up much of why the institution matters to us. And then some. Advocating for libraries was something a talented academic could do on a larger scale than we could in these pages, especially with publications like those. Bravo. And now this.

After lots of attention to rewilding in these pages, plenty of it related to urban landscapes, the same author that further illuminated our understanding about the value of libraries has convinced me of how much more there is to learn on this topic:

The Seas Are Rising. Could Oysters Help?

How a landscape architect is enlisting nature to defend our coastal cities against climate change—and doing it on the cheap.

On a windy afternoon in April, the landscape architect Kate Orff stood on the open walkway of a container crane, some eighty feet above the Red Hook Terminal, in Brooklyn, and the Buttermilk Channel, a tidal strait on the southeast side of Governors Island. Continue reading

Mysterious Appearances Of Non-Migratory Birds

Andrea Mantegna’s “Madonna della Vittoria” was completed in Italy in 1496. Art work from © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Rebecca Mead, whose last appearance in our pages was referred to just yesterday, explores a five-century old mystery involving birds that is a fun half-hour read, especially but not exclusively for bird nerds:

Where Did That Cockatoo Come From?

Birds native to Australasia are being found in Renaissance paintings—and in medieval manuscripts. Their presence exposes the depth of ancient trade routes.

Madonna della Vittoria,” by the Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna, must have looked imposing when it was first installed as an altarpiece in Santa Maria della Vittoria, a small chapel in the northern-Italian city of Mantua. The painting, which was commissioned by the city’s ruler, Francesco II Gonzaga, was completed in 1496, and measures more than nine feet in height. A worshipper’s eye likely lingered on its lower half—where the Virgin, seated on a marble pedestal, bestows a blessing on the kneeling, armored figure of Francesco—instead of straining to discern the intricacies of its upper half, which depicts a pergola bedecked with hanging ornaments and fruited vines. In the late eighteenth century, Napoleon’s forces looted the painting and transported it to the Louvre, where it now occupies a commanding spot in the Denon wing. Continue reading

Bombus Polaris, An Adaptive Winner

PHOTOGRAPH: KATIE ORLINSKY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

Arctic bumblebees came to our attention nearly five years ago, and this story below reminds us that while climate change is not a zero sum game–it is more like a game of perpetual loss, which is more like what we have witnessed with bees in general–there are some winning adaptations in some locations:

The Quest to Tally Alaska’s Wild ‘Warm-Blooded’ Bumblebees

Extreme environments offer them an unexpected paradise. Now researchers and conservationists want to get a head count.

“People don’t come to Denali and other parks in Alaska to look at bumblebees, but they should,” says Jessica Rykken, entomologist for Denali National Park and Preserve. The “Last Frontier” state may be known for supersized wildlife, from bears to moose, but on a smaller scale, the diversity of bumblebees (or bumble bees, depending on whom you ask) there is unusually high, and powers entire ecosystems. Continue reading

One Of The Most Mind-blowing Discoveries In The History Of 20th- And 21st-Century Ornithology

Whimbrel returning to Deveaux Bank for their night roost. Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times

We have not featured Deborah Cramer in our pages previously, but this seems like a fine time to start. She is a visiting scholar at M.I.T.’s Environmental Solutions Initiative and the author of the book to the right.  Accompanied by excellent photographs from Damon Winter as well as exceptionally lucid infographics, her interactive essay in the New York Times is a forceful plea for conservation of a sensitive bird habitat:

An Oystercatcher on the bank. Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times

Leave This Wondrous Island to the Birds

An ever-changing spit of sand on the Carolina coast is a haven for multitudes of shorebirds. But nature and humans threaten it.

ABOUT 20 MILES south of Charleston, S.C., at the mouth of the North Edisto River, a small, horseshoe-shaped sandbar rises above the water. The claim of land is tenuous on Deveaux Bank, about a half-mile offshore. At high tide, it’s three-quarters submerged. Deveaux’s sand is continually shifting as swirling currents build it up and wash it away. In some years, the island disappears altogether. Continue reading