Forest Health & The Ecosystem Services Provided By Mice

Dawn rises over a forest outside Orono, Me. Researchers want to understand what leads mice, voles and other small animals to bury seeds that become forests.

There really are coincidences that have nothing to do with the overreach of internet companies who see what you are reading in one place and put something in front of you instantly, and for a long time following, based on that first subject. In this case, I was reading about the endless quest for a better mousetrap, and then came upon this fascinating article about the ecosystem services that mice convey. This was as smile-inducing a juxtaposition as my reading has provided me lately. I hope I am correct that this pure chance and not some creepy algorithm, which would wilt my grin:

A deer mouse, temporarily captured for a behavioral test before being rereleased to the grounds of a study site at the University of Maine in late October.

Scientists are unearthing a quiet truth about the woods: Where trees grow, or don’t, depends in part on the quirky decisions of small mammals.

It’s easy to look at a forest and think it’s inevitable: that the trees came into being through a stately procession of seasons and seeds and soil, and will replenish themselves so long as environmental conditions allow.

Hidden from sight are the creatures whose labor makes the forest possible — the multitudes of microorganisms and invertebrates involved in maintaining that soil, and the animals responsible for delivering seeds too heavy to be wind-borne to the places where they will sprout. Continue reading

New Fracking Science

A shale gas drilling rig in St. Marys, Pennsylvania. AP PHOTO / KEITH SRAKOCIC

We thought the science of fracking’s dangers was already sufficiently clear, and now this (read Jon Hurdle’s entire story at Yale e360):

As Evidence Mounts, New Concerns About Fracking and Health

Two decades after the advent of fracking, a growing number of studies are pointing to a link between gas wells and health problems, particularly among children and the elderly. Researchers are now calling for new regulations restricting where wells can be located.

Almost 20 years after the adoption of hydraulic fracturing began to supercharge U.S. production of oil and gas, there’s growing evidence of a correlation between the industry’s activities and an array of health problems ranging from childhood cancer and the premature death of elderly people to respiratory issues and endocrine disruption. Continue reading

Wonders Of The Yucatán

In Calakmul and elsewhere, the fierce jaguar was worshiped as a deity. Ancient rulers and warriors adorned themselves with the animal’s skulls, skins, fangs and claws. Adrian Wilson for The New York Times

Several months ago when we confirmed our plans to attend a wedding in Merida, Mexico on November 5, Calakmul came to mind. We had already explored many famous Maya sites in Central America, most recently in Belize, not to mention Mexico, over the last three decades; and we have also been fortunate with big cat sightings.

We decided against extending our stay, choosing to spend a few days in Mexico City instead (I have been obsessed with Barragán in recent years, so seeing his former home and workshop there was a must). Charly Wilder‘s article in the New York Times, which I am only seeing now, makes me wonder when we will return to see what we neglected in the Yucatan:

The number of jaguars is growing in Mexico, especially in areas of the Yucatán Peninsula. Patryk Kosmider/Getty Images

Thanks to Mexican conservation efforts, the jaguar is making a comeback in the Yucatán Peninsula. A traveler ventures into its habitat in the tropical jungles surrounding an ancient Maya city.

From the top of the great pyramid of the ancient Maya city of Calakmul in the southern Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, you can see all the way to Guatemala. The jungle stretches out infinitely in every direction, an ocean of green punctuated only by the stepped pyramid peaks of two other Maya temples. Continue reading

Blue Carbon Collaboration

Scientists fixed bio-logger tags equipped with cameras on tiger sharks in the Bahamas to map the ocean’s seagrass meadows. Photograph: Diego Camejo/Beneath the Waves

We thank Laura Paddison for this underwater news, published in the Guardian, that has implication for climate change mitigation:

Scientists discover ‘world’s largest’ seagrass forest – by strapping cameras to sharks

New study, carried out using tiger sharks in the Bahamas, extends total known global seagrass coverage by more than 40%

Tiger sharks are notoriously fierce. The huge animals, which can grow to more than 16ft, are ruthless predators and scared of absolutely nothing – recent research found that while other shark species fled coastal waters during strong storms, tiger sharks “didn’t even flinch”.

But recently they have a new role that could help burnish their reputations: marine scientists. Continue reading

Tagging Technology Gives Godwit Game

A juvenile bar-tailed godwit has flown from Alaska in the US to Tasmania in Australia, covering a record 13,560kms without stopping. Photograph: Johnny Madsen/Alamy

Who’s got game in the bird world is not, strictly speaking, a phrase associated with ornithologists or what they do for a living. But sometimes, their news features what looks like competitive sport to the lay public. We have shared news of long-journey bird species on several occasions, and one that has the right stuff now stands out from the rest by virtue of tagging technology:

Bar-tailed godwit sets world record with 13,560km continuous flight from Alaska to southern Australia

Satellite tag data suggests five-month-old migratory bird did not stop during voyage which took 11 days and one hour to reach Tasmania

A juvenile bar-tailed godwit – known only by its satellite tag number 234684 – has flown 13,560 kilometres from Alaska to the Australian state of Tasmania without stopping, appearing to set a new world record for marathon bird flights. Continue reading

Banana Genome Science

Imagine if you had all of these bananas to pick from every day. Beatrice Sirinuntananon/Shutterstock

We did not search for banana ancestors while living in India. We just found as many varietals as we could to support the genetic stock. I have remained interested in doing the same ever since. They are more versatile than most people are aware, so the outcome of this scientific search matters:

Red or blue, squat or bulbous, seeded or seedless: Bananas have a lot of diversity and scientists have identified genetic signals of varieties that have not yet been found in the wild. guentermanaus/Shutterstock

The Search Is on for Mysterious Banana Ancestors

A new study shows that domesticated bananas have genetic markers tying them to three types of wild bananas that have not yet been found.

Bananas, it turns out, are not what we thought they were.

Sure, most, when ripe, are yellow and sweet and delicious slathered in peanut butter. Continue reading

Another Surprise From The Deep

Researchers with a giant sunfish at the marina in Horta in the Azores in December. Atlantic Naturalist

We do not tire of the ocean surprises; this one is of an entirely different magnitude:

A sunfish found near the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean weighed as much as an S.U.V. Scientists say it’s a sign that the sea’s largest creatures can live if we let them.

The fish, at more than 6,000 pounds, is about the weight of a Chevrolet Suburban S.U.V. Atlantic Naturalist

It was easy for scientists to have doubts when they were told that the carcass of a colossal fish had been found floating just off the coast of Faial Island in Portugal’s Azores archipelago in the Mid-Atlantic Ocean in December 2021.

People do tend to exaggerate when it comes to the size of fish after all. However, their skepticism lifted the moment they laid eyes on the fish. It was the biggest bony fish they had ever seen. In fact, it might have been the biggest anyone had ever seen. Continue reading

I Will Not Panic Over Leafminers

Charley Eiseman, a naturalist who conducts biodiversity surveys for conservation groups, became interested in leaf mines because of patterns like this one. It’s the handiwork of the moth Phyllocnistis populiella in a quaking aspen leaf (Populus tremuloides).

As soon as the sun is up, most days, I am outside. Even after 22 years working on this property I find surprises constantly. When Margaret Roach writes, I read; when she offers visual cues to complement her clear writing, all the better:

Leaf mines on columbine (Aquilegia) can be serpentine squiggles or blotches. Larvae of flies in the genus Phytomyza make these familiar markings when they feed between a leaf’s epidermal layers. Margaret Roach

Don’t jump to the conclusion that those mysterious marks are evidence of disease. They may be leaf mines or galls — and that’s a good thing.

During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, some of us mastered bread-baking (if we could get our hands on flour) or devoted ourselves to nurturing some new mail-order houseplant. Continue reading

Tree Core Samples & Age Estimations

Tree cores Harvard Forest

Core samples may hold clues to a forest’s response to climate change. Photos by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Juan Siliezar, staff writer for the Harvard Gazette asks and answers a question that we never tire of:

Want to know how cold it was in 1490? Ask a tree

Harvard Forest Senior Ecologist Neil Pederso

“We use tree cores to extract what I’ve been leaning toward calling the memory of the tree,” said Neil Pederson in the lab alongside core samples.

Sometimes getting to where you want to go is a matter of finding the right guide.

Four teams of researchers, led by Harvard Forest ecologists, searched for a patch of ancient trees deep in the woods of western Pennsylvania this summer as part of a project to study how climate changes affected trees over the centuries. One of the scientists had come across them 40 years earlier, but they appeared to have vanished. Just as the group was about to give up and move on they came across someone who gave them a valuable clue. Continue reading

Elephant Seals & Marine Sciences

Thanks to Sierra for this:

When Elephant Seals Become Ocean Researchers

Marine mammals unlock the secrets of climate and the Arctic

By Kate Golden

Illustrations by Masha Foya

ON A FEBRUARY MORNING at Año Nuevo Reserve on the coast of Northern California, hundreds of gray-brown elephant seals lay strewn, lumplike, all over the beach. It was hard to hear anything over the honks and shrieks of status jockeying and sex dramas. The north wind gusted to 35 knots and blew a river of fine sand into everyone’s faces. At a dense seal cluster near the water, researchers and students from the University of California, Santa Cruz, knelt over an 815-pound female whose stern had been labeled “X1” with Clairol bleach. Continue reading

On Those 20 Quadrillion+ Ants, Again

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

Counting the World’s Ants Requires a Lot of Zeros

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

Ant Mass Calculation

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

Ominous Humongous Fungus

The mushrooms of Armillaria ostoyae (or Armillaria solidipes), the species of honey mushroom that makes up Humongous Fungus (Getty)

We have linked to one Katherine J. Wu article in the past, and that was to share good news; and we linked to stories about humongous fungus a couple of times–not so much news as fascinating; this time there is an ominous implication to the fungus:

The Bigger This Fungus Gets, the Worse We’re Doing

Human actions have turned a usually beneficial fungus into a bringer of death.

Deep in the loamy soil of forests around the world, there exists a fungus called the honey mushroom that makes its living on death. A parasite that preys on weak trees, it sucks its victims dry of nutrients, then feasts on their postmortem flesh. Continue reading

Alerce, Fungi & Futures

Roots rise from shallow soil. Tomás Munita

The Valdivian Coastal Reserve was mentioned once in our pages, only in passing.

Tomás Munita

Strange, because if I was asked to name my favorite protected area on the planet it would be at or near the top of my list. The abundant but threatened alerce trees were part of the reason. A family story would explain more of why, and that is part of a larger work story that needs more attention another time.

A mushroom rises from the forest floor. Tomás Munita

The story below, featuring an adjacent protected area, stirs an intense place memory, and at the same time reveals much about a topic that was not on our radar at the time. And it says much about potential futures for that place. So, thanks to the New York Times climate correspondent Somini Sengupta (again and again) as well as photographer Tomás Munita:

Unearthing the Secret Superpowers of Fungus

Tomás Munita

In the fight against warming, a formidable ally hides just beneath our feet.

 — Toby Kiers took long strides across the spongy forest floor, felt the adrenaline rush in her veins and stopped at the spot she had traveled so far to reach. Into the ground went a hollow metal cylinder. Out came a scoop of soil.

Tomás Munita

Dr. Kiers stuck her nose into the dirt, inhaled its scent, imagined what secrets it contained to help us live on a hotter planet. “What’s under here?” she asked. “What mysteries are we going to unveil?”

The soil was deposited into a clear plastic bag, then labeled with the coordinates of this exact location on Earth. Continue reading

New (To Us) Creatures Of The Deep

A gummy squirrel – Psychropotes longicauda – is a type of sea cucumber. This specimen is 60cm long with red palps, or lips, with which it feeds on sediment on the ocean floor, 5,100m deep

Discoveries still happen, even as the earth burns. Creatures not previously known are being identified 5,000 meters below the surface of the ocean. Some do not even yet have a name:

A spiny sea creature on the ocean floor

Scientists find 30 potential new species at bottom of ocean

Natural History Museum scientists seek to unlock mysteries of deep sea but some fear activity will disturb diversity of the depths

Scientists have found more than 30 potentially new species living at the bottom of the sea. Continue reading

The Surprise Finding With Whale Sharks

Scientists made the discovery while studying whale sharks off Western Australia’s Ningaloo reef. Photograph: Simon J Pierce/PA

We have linked to stories involving whale sharks plenty of times, always knowing their size is impressive. Now this:

Whale sharks are world’s biggest omnivores, study finds

‘Everything we thought we knew may not actually be true,’ says fish biologist in response to finding

Researchers have made a surprising discovery about the dining habits of whale sharks, handing the largest fish in the sea another world title. Continue reading

Us & Them, Then & Now

A cartoon from the mid-1800s, using apparently sophisticated insects to satirise French society (Credit: Getty Images)

Thomas Moynihan, a research fellow at Forethought Foundation and St Benet’s College, Oxford University offers this entertaining treatment of how Western culture has seen and thought about its insect co-habitants of the planet.

Lubbock’s wasp, described by one journalist as “a little gentleman in a brown overcoat, with black and yellow nether garments” (Credit: Alamy)

How insect ‘civilisations’ recast our place in the Universe

When looking to other creatures for signs of intelligence, insects are rarely the most obvious candidates, but as the historian Thomas Moynihan writes, it wasn’t always so. What can the early-20th Century fascination with bug societies tell us about our own?

It is 1919, and a young astronomer turns a street corner in Pasadena, California. Something seemingly humdrum on the ground distracts him. It’s an ant heap. Dropping to his knees, peering closer, he has an epiphany – about deep time, our place within it, and humanity’s uncertain fate. Continue reading

Turtles & Tortoises & Negative Senescence

A giant Galápagos tortoise, only as old as it feels. Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

When I learn a new word–even if it is a word I cannot picture using in conversation but it represents a concept that is interesting and surprising, I consider that a good day. Jack Tamisiea, thanks for the science reporting here, and especially for the word senescence:

Tortoises and turtles don’t just live for a long time — they barely age while they live.

The black marsh turtles displayed negative rates of senescence, meaning their mortality risk decreased as they aged. iStock/Getty Images

For mammals like humans, aging is inevitable. No matter how many vitamins we take, skin sags, bones soften and joints stiffen over time. However, turtles and tortoises age more gracefully. Despite their wrinkled skin and toothless gums, species like Galápagos giant tortoises seem unscathed by the ravages of aging. Some show few signs of slowing down as they plod into their 100s.

To determine what drives these ageless wonders, two groups of researchers examined turtles, tortoises and their ectothermic, or coldblooded, brethren in a pair of studies published Thursday in the journal Science. Continue reading

Friday Feel-good Photos

Scientists named the giant tortoise Fernanda, after the Fernandina Island, a largely unexplored active volcano in the western Galápagos archipelago that she calls home. Photograph: Lucas Bustamante/PA

Every now and then it is time for nature photos. First, above, is from a story that surprises, from a place we love:

‘Fantastic giant tortoise’ species thought extinct for 100 years found alive

Identification of Galápagos tortoise celebrated by scientists as a big deal for island’s biodiversity

And then there are photos unconnected to any news stories, scientific or otherwise, submitted for us to enjoy by people from around the world:

A newly hatched green iguana rests on foliage in a terrarium at the Chennai Snake Park in Chennai, India.  Photograph: Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

Two are from India, our home for seven years. Monkey business was a constant theme.

Monkeys eat watermelons during the heatwave in New Delhi, India. Photograph: Rajat Gupta/EPA

Another from a place whose name has lots of meaning for us:

A jellyfish swims off the island of Ithaca, Greece
Photograph: Cor Kuyvenhoven/Ghost Diving/Reuters

See all the other photos here.

Deep Divers & Learning

Thanks to Stephanie Pain, Knowable Magazine and Smithsonian for this:

What Are Scientists Learning About the Deepest Diving Creatures in the Ocean?

Animals-turned-oceanographers are helping biologists find out what they do when they get to the cold, dark depths

Chilean devil rays swim in the Atlantic Ocean near the Azores. Reinhard Dirscherl / ullstein bild via Getty Images

There’s only one word for it: indescribable. “It’s one of those awesome experiences you can’t put into words,” says fish ecologist Simon Thorrold. Thorrold is trying to explain how it feels to dive into the ocean and attach a tag to a whale shark — the most stupendous fish in the sea. “Every single time I do it, I get this huge adrenaline rush,” he says. “That’s partly about the science and the mad race to get the tags fixed. But part of it is just being human and amazed by nature and huge animals.”

Whale sharks are one of a select group of large marine animals that scientists like Thorrold, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, have signed up as ocean-going research assistants. Continue reading