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

Biggest Plant On Earth

The Posidonia australis seagrass meadow in Shark Bay, Western Australia. Photograph: Rachel Austin/UWA

We have posted several times about the world’s largest living thing. Since fungi are a different category of life, that leaves room for something to be classified as the largest living plant. Thanks to Graham Readfearn for this Guardian article pointing out to us what that thing is, and where:

The plant’s spread can be seen in this aerial view of Shark Bay. Photograph: Angela Rossen

Scientists discover ‘biggest plant on Earth’ off Western Australian coast

Genetic testing has determined a single 4,500-year-old seagrass may have spread over 200 sq km of underwater seafloor – about 20,000 football fields

About 4,500 years ago, a single seed – spawned from two different seagrass species – found itself nestled in a favourable spot somewhere in what is now known as Shark Bay, just off Australia’s west coast. Continue reading

Will More Forests Cool The Planet Fast Enough?

Thanks to Fred Pearce, who we normally link to at Yale e360, for The Forest Forecast, an article in the current issue of Science magazine:

Climate change could lead to a net expansion of global forests. But will a more forested world actually be cooler?

These are strange times for the Indigenous Nenets reindeer herders of northern Siberia. In their lands on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, bare tundra is thawing, bushes are sprouting, and willows that a generation ago struggled to reach knee height now grow 3 meters tall, hiding the reindeer. Surveys show the Nenets autonomous district, an area the size of Florida, now has four times as many trees as official inventories recorded in the 1980s. Continue reading

Proto-Peat In The Arctic

PHOTOGRAPH: SANNA PIILO

We have posted enough times about the importance of protecting peat, but this is the first we hear the question Carbon-Rich Peat Is Disappearing. But Is It Also Growing? Our thanks to Matt Simon at Wired for this one:

PHOTOGRAPH: SANNA PIILO

Scientists have discovered “proto-peat” forming in the Arctic as the Earth naturally sequesters carbon, but it could take centuries to mature.

THANK PEAT FOR that scotchy flavor of Scotch whisky: The muck forms in Scotland’s bogs, when layer after layer of dead vegetation resists decay and compresses into fuel, which is burned during scotch distillation. But you can also thank peat for helping keep our planet relatively cool, as all that muck—which is particularly common across the Arctic—traps a tremendous amount of carbon that would otherwise heat the atmosphere. Continue reading

The World’s Largest Living Thing

The world’s largest living thing is a stealthy parasite that lives mostly underground and beneath the bark of infected trees in a pale, stringy fungal network. COURTESY MIKE MCWILLIAMS

Thanks to Milo‘s interest in fungi, which we found infectious, we learned years ago what the world’s largest living thing is. We used to feature more stories from Atlas Obscura, but this is the first in a few years:

What the World’s Largest Organism Reveals About Fires and Forest Health

The Humongous Fungus is most visible when it produces the edible and tasty honey mushroom, but the season is brief and doesn’t happen every year. PETER PEARSALL, USFWS/PUBLIC DOMAIN

In Oregon, the Humongous Fungus plays a complex role in an ecosystem reshaped by humans.

UNDER THE BLUE MOUNTAINS OF Oregon lurks something massive and prehistoric. Yet the largest recorded organism on Earth, weighing more than 200 blue whales and dwarfing even Pando, Utah’s famous grove of quaking aspens, is nearly invisible to the untrained eye. It’s a single, genetically identifiable specimen of honey mushroom, or Armillaria ostoyae, that has been growing for thousands of years. Continue reading

Indigenous Knowhow & Conservation

Prof Ian McNevin said ‘the scale of Indigenous oyster harvesting is extraordinary’, and compared it to contemporary commercial oyster farms. Photograph: Orjan F Ellingvag/Corbis/Getty Images

Some of us writing in these pages have been fans of oysters primarily for their culinary value (living in France, and then later in Croatia, could create such bias). But we have posted more frequently about the resiliency that oysters have come to represent in the search for protection against climate impact. Here is some more on that topic, intersecting with another theme we pay frequent attention to:

Precolonial First Nations oyster fisheries sustained millennia of intense harvests, study shows

Researchers in Australia and North America say management of oyster reefs should incorporate Indigenous knowledge

Oyster fisheries in Australia and North America survived for up to 10,000 years prior to colonisation, sustaining First Nations communities even under intense harvest, according to new research. Continue reading

Innovative Illustration & Atmospheric Pressure

Source: Geophysical Research Letters.

Whenever we see advances in innovative illustration to better our understanding of phenomena, natural or otherwise, we note it here. Atmospheric pressure is something most of us have heard countless times, but not necessarily stopped to think what it is. Among other things, it is important. Also, it is understandable. If you have a couple minutes, watch this accessible animation of a natural phenomenon that does not get enough attention, and read the accompanying text:

‘It’s Super Spectacular.’ See How the Tonga Volcano Unleashed a Once-in-a-Century Shockwave.

By Aatish Bhatia and Henry Fountain

Produced by Aatish Bhatia and Sean Catangui

As shown in this visualization, based on a simulation created by Ángel Amores, a physical oceanographer at the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies in Majorca, Spain, the shockwave took about 36 hours to circumnavigate the globe, spreading out in concentric rings from the volcano known as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai and traveling at the speed of sound. The simulation was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters in March. Continue reading

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers In Louisiana

Comparison of photographs taken of apparent ivory-billed woodpeckers in Louisiana from this study (A, D), with a colorized ivory-billed woodpecker, also from Louisiana (B), and a pale-billed woodpecker taken in Central America (C). Photograph: The Guardian

The title of this post should have a question mark at the end of it, or should be considered clickbait. For bird nerds this is likely not even news. But it is important in terms of natural history in general. Ivory-billed woodpeckers have been mentioned a couple of times in our pages; but the chance of seeing one these days was considered to be zero. We can now hope we were wrong about that:

Back from the dead? Elusive ivory-billed woodpecker not extinct, researchers say

An expedition to the forests of Louisiana say extinction of bird, last definitively seen in 1944, has been exaggerated

In terms of elusiveness, it is the Bigfoot or Loch Ness monster of the bird world, so rare and undetectable that the US government declared it extinct last year. But the ivory-billed woodpecker is, in fact, still alive and pecking in the forests of Louisiana, a team of researchers has claimed. Continue reading

A New Knife Worthy Of Our Attention

Knives are the oldest type of manufactured tool, and they’re still evolving. Karsten Moran for The New York Times

I last posted on the topic of knives earlier this year, partly because the onetime blacksmith apprentice in me felt compelled to salute the skillset, but mainly because the mission behind the knife-making in that case was worth promoting.

Otherwise, culinary utensils do not get much attention in our pages. Ceiba being the celebrated exception to that general rule–wooden culinary utensils, but no knives. Derrick Bryson Taylor offers us a good reason to revisit this neglect:

Knives are humanity’s oldest tool, dating back millions of years. A group of scientists in Maryland have produced a version made of hardened wood, which they say is sharper than steel.

More than 60 years ago in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Julia Child, one of America’s most emulated chefs, described the necessity of decent, reliable kitchen equipment. Continue reading

Vagrancies Better Appreciated

A Stellar’s sea eagle, native to East Asia. Design Pics Inc./Alamy

These two themes, birds and their various forms of adaptation, make Marion Renault’s article These Birds Aren’t Lost. They’re Adapting a perfect fit for sharing here as an excerpt, and recommending that you read the story where it was published:

Bird-watchers love to see vagrants, or birds that have traveled far outside their range. But scientists say they have a lot to teach us in a world facing ecological change.

From what we can tell, the Steller’s sea eagle trekking across North America does not appear homesick.

The bird has strayed thousands of miles from its native range in East Asia over the last two years, roving from the Denali Highway in Alaska down to a potential sighting South Texas before moving eastward and back north to Canada and New England. Its cartoonish yellow beak and distinctive wing coloration recently attracted crowds of rapt birders to Maine before turning up on April Fools’ Day in Nova Scotia. Continue reading

Octopus As White Whale

Bret Grasse, a manager of cephalopod operations at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., with his charge, a lesser Pacific striped octopus.

Yesterday, a story about a small and late victory for whales. Today, a small victory for our other favorite sea creature, in the form of a search for the white whale equivalent among octopus:

A lab in Massachusetts may have finally found an eight-armed cephalopod that can serve as a model organism and assist scientific research.

From a first batch of seven wild Octopus chierchiae, Mr. Grasse and his colleagues have raised over 700 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The tank looked empty, but turning over a shell revealed a hidden octopus no bigger than a Ping-Pong ball. She didn’t move. Then all at once, she stretched her ruffled arms as her skin changed from pearly beige to a pattern of vivid bronze stripes.

“She’s trying to talk with us,” said Bret Grasse, manager of cephalopod operations at the Marine Biological Laboratory, an international research center in Woods Hole, Mass., in the southwestern corner of Cape Cod. Continue reading

Tracking Disappearing Species

Researchers work through taxonomic keys to determine whether they had just caught a Hills’ horseshoe bat in Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park.Photograph by Jon Flanders / Courtesy Bat Conservation International

Disappearing species as a topic in these pages has taken many forms. Hunters of disappearing species, less so. My exposure to this topic is limited to one project that Seth participated in. But the fact that Seth also had experience on a different type of project in Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park made this article particularly of interest. Carolyn Kormann, once again, thank you:

The Hunt for a Lost Bat

The obsessive people who track down disappearing species are their own variety of rare—sparsely found across a wide geographic range, in all sorts of habitats.

In January, 2019, a multinational team of biologists set out into the rain forest of southwestern Rwanda, in search of a near-mythical bat that they thought might be extinct. Continue reading

How Do We Love Thee, Forests, Let Us Count The Ways

Forests, such as this one in Indonesia, do lmore than just store carbon. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

It may sound obvious, but until now it was not quantified: The world’s forests do more than just store carbon, new research finds

New data suggests forests help keep the Earth at least half of a degree cooler, protecting us from the effects of climate crisis

The world’s forests play a far greater and more complex role in tackling climate crisis than previously thought, due to their physical effects on global and local temperatures, according to new research. Continue reading

Why We Care About Octopus

Photo: Brandon Cole

We care about octopus for many reasons and there is plenty to learn about why. This article will make you want to know more about these creatures. Sy Montgomery, writing in Orion Magazine, is the best illuminator:

Deep Intellect

Inside the mind of the octopus

ON AN UNSEASONABLY WARM day in the middle of March, I traveled from New Hampshire to the moist, dim sanctuary of the New England Aquarium, hoping to touch an alternate reality. I came to meet Athena, the aquarium’s forty-pound, five-foot-long, two-and-a-half-year-old giant Pacific octopus. Continue reading

If You Happen To Be In London

Museum number: BP.1079
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London, courtesy Frederick Warne & Co Ltd.

Do you have the inclination of switching from city life to rural? I, for one, made the switch and have no inclination to ever live in a city again. Occasional visits are fine. But as the theme song from a tv show of my youth had it “…keep Manhattan, just give me that country life…”.

My reason for thinking about this today is related to the book on the right. Whether or not you are a fan of her books, you might find the case of Beatrix Potter’s life choices worthy of consideration. Rizzoli has published this book to accompany an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Our appreciation to Anna Russell for describing both, and adding plenty of detail about the author’s life, in this article:

The Secret Life of Beatrix Potter

A new book and an exhibition on Potter, who wrote “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” use letters, sketches, and a coded journal to capture an author who delighted in the detail and humor of the natural world.

Many teen-agers will go to great lengths to keep their diaries private—I kept a little key for mine in a wooden jewelry box, which I guarded jealously—but the children’s book author Beatrix Potter took it to an extreme. Continue reading

Octopus Intelligence Illustrated

Octopuses were seen carrying plastic items around while ‘stilt-walking’. Photograph: Serge Abourjeily

It is not how we would prefer to understand them, or for these animals to demonstrate intelligence, but here are some examples of how they adapt to our discarded stuff:

Bottles, cans, batteries: octopuses found using litter on seabed

The most common interaction recorded was using rubbish as shelter. Photograph: Edmar Bastos

Creatures seen using discarded items for shelter or to lay eggs, highlighting ‘extreme ability to adapt’

Whether it’s mimicking venomous creatures, or shooting jets of water at aquarium light switches to turn them off, octopuses are nothing if not resourceful. Continue reading

Understanding That Recent Bird Crash

When news reports about this unusual event reached us, time was short. We did not have time to read any details, and now it is clear that waiting for science to comment was a useful delay.

Thanks to Juan Siliezar for the explanation:

iStock

Those birds that crashed and died? It wasn’t fumes

After internet theorists react to viral video, Harvard researchers answer with science

You’ve probably seen the video — or at least heard some chirpings about it.

Footage from a security camera in Cuauhtémoc, a city in Chihuahua, Mexico, shows a massive flock of migratory birds swooping down like a cloud of black smoke and crashing onto pavement and the roof of a house. Continue reading

Stenophylla, A Coffee With Real Potential & Poster Child For Food Diversity

Our thanks to Dan Saladino, a food journalist and author of Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them as well as recipient of a James Beard Award for food journalism.

He offers an inside look at a relatively unknown coffee varietal with potential, and at the same time, an argument in favor of diversity, in his article Edible Extinction: Why We Need to Revive Global Food Diversity:

A Khasi farmer growing millet in Meghalaya, India.

A Khasi farmer growing millet in Meghalaya, India. NORTH EAST SLOW FOOD & AGROBIODIVERSITY SOCIETY

The Green Revolution helped feed a surging global population, but at the cost of impoverishing crop diversity. Now, with climate change increasingly threatening food supplies, the need for greater agricultural resilience means restoring endangered crop and food varieties.

Stenophylla beans up close. RBG KEW; KLAUS STEINKAMP / ALAMY

In August 2020, inside the cupping room of a London roastery, a team of botanists and baristas gathered to taste a coffee species that most believed had been lost forever. It was an important moment. Coffee experts had spent years searching in West Africa for the few remaining trees of this species, even issuing “wanted posters” to farmers asking if they had seen it. Continue reading