Ant Respect

Common black ant (Lasius niger) workers and three queens.

Any given day in Costa Rica the number of insects one is likely to encounter is too great to count. Ants are not automatically loved, but they are respected. Brooke Jarvis, whose writing we saw primarily in the New Yorker previously, has spectacular photography to accompany her text in this New York Times article in the Science section:

Let Us Now Praise Tiny Ants

Even in the densest human habitations, there are orders of magnitude more ants than there are of us, doing the hard work of making our crumbs disappear.

 

It is telling, the entomologist Eleanor Spicer Rice writes in her introduction to a new book of ant photography by Eduard Florin Niga, that humans looking downward on each other from great heights like to describe the miniaturized people we see below us as looking “like ants.” By this we mean faceless, tiny, swarming: an indecipherable mass stripped of individuality or interest.

Daceton armigerum, male, from northern South America.

Intellectually, though, we can recognize that each scurrying dot is in fact a unique person with a complicated and interconnected life, even if distance appears to wipe away all that diversity and complexity. Continue reading

Iconic Geological Formations

Old Harry Rocks in Dorset. Photograph: Adam Wearing/Getty Images/500px

Thanks to the Guardian for this long read on rocks and the people who dedicate their lives to studying them, and informing we lay people about them:

Rock of ages: how chalk made England

Swathes of England’s landscape were shaped by the immense block of chalk that has lain beneath it for 100 million years. For a long time, even geologists paid it little heed – but now its secrets and symbolism are being revealed

The Seven Sisters cliffs in East Sussex, England. Photograph: eye35.pix/Alamy

On the British Geological Survey’s map, chalk is represented by a swathe of pale, limey green that begins on the east coast of Yorkshire and curves in a sinuous green sweep down the east coast, breaking off where the Wash nibbles inland. In the south, the chalk centres on Salisbury Plain, radiating out in four great ridges: heading west, the Dorset Downs; heading east, the North Downs, the South Downs and the Chilterns. Continue reading

Ancient Trees & Magnetic Field

Radiocarbon from a 42,000-year-old kauri tree in New Zealand helped unravel Earth’s last magnetic upheaval. JONATHAN PALMER

Science magazine is accessible for most lay readers, even if their articles occasionally include a word we have never heard of, such as paleomagnetist:

Ancient kauri trees capture last collapse of Earth’s magnetic field

Several years ago, workers breaking ground for a power plant in New Zealand unearthed a record of a lost time: a 60-ton trunk from a kauri tree, the largest tree species in New Zealand. The tree, which grew 42,000 years ago, was preserved in a bog and its rings spanned 1700 years, capturing a tumultuous time when the world was turned upside down—at least magnetically speaking. Continue reading

Under The Southern Ice

Antarctica has not featured in these pages as much as tropical places, where we mostly work. The closest my work has come to Antarctica was between 2008-2010 when I worked with entrepreneurs in the Magallanes region of Chile, which includes Antarctica. Even then, the portions of my work in Tierra del Fuego were still 600+ miles from the northern most point of the Antarctic Peninsula. By contrast my work in Yakutia took me within the Arctic Circle. But in both places my work was always above ground, and never brought me close to the scientists working below ice shelves. So, thanks to Mother Jones for this:

Antarctic Stunner: Mysterious Creatures Discovered Under a Half Mile of Ice

Scientists taking sediment samples found animals nobody thought could survive there.

Bivouacked in the middle of the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf—a five-hour flight from the nearest Antarctic station—nothing comes easy. Even though it was the southern summer, geologist James Smith of the British Antarctic Survey endured nearly three months of freezing temperatures, sleeping in a tent, and eating dehydrated food. The science itself was a hassle: To study the history of the floating shelf, he needed seafloor sediment, which was locked under a half mile of ice. Continue reading

Reform School For Cats

The study also found that bells on collars made no difference to the number of animals killed by a cat. Photograph: GluePromsiri/Getty/iStockphoto

I am a cat person by nature. I have lost count of how many cats I had as pets since early childhood and well into adulthood, but I do remember our last two cats from three decades ago. Boris, a black cat with a tip of white on his tail, learned to jump up into my cradled arms if I stood in front of him and made a certain noise. His sister Mimi was named for the plaintive mi-mi cry she made when she climbed up onto the bathroom sink and rubbed her mouth against the faucet head, wanting us to turn the water on to drip out so she could drink. They lived long lives as indoor cats who did no harm to anyone or anything (that we knew of).  But when we learned how many birds, among other wildlife, that cats kill per year we decided not to adopt any more cats; we switched to dogs. Now, all these years later, I am happy to see there is hope for reformed cat behavior:

Meaty meals and play stop cats killing wildlife, study finds

Millions of pet cats are estimated to kill billions of animals a year but grain-free food can change cat behaviour

Feeding pet cats meaty food and playing with them to simulate hunting stops them killing wildlife, according to a study. Continue reading

Migration Corridors & Conservation Priorities

Approximately 80 percent of all Lawrence’s goldfinches migrate through California’s Central Valley every spring. ALAN SCHMIERER/FLICKR

Thanks to Yale e360 for this note:

Tens of Millions of Birds Pass Through Just Two Western U.S. Corridors

California’s Central Valley and the Colorado River Delta host more than 82 million birds every year during the spring migration, according to a new study published in the journal Ornithological Applications. Continue reading

One More Eel Mystery Revealed

A Volta’s electric eel in the Xingu River in northern Brazil. L. Sousa

Our attention to eels is only occasional, but the mysteries keep coming.  The article contains an amazing video of this pack-hunting phenomenon. Thanks to Annie Roth for this:

Electric Eels Hunt in Packs, Shocking Prey and Scientists

The behavior, used by wolves and orcas to run down fast prey, is rarely seen in fish.

In August 2012, Douglas Bastos, then a graduate student at Brazil’s Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, was exploring a remote waterway in the Amazon rainforest when he came across a small lake teeming with electric eels. Continue reading

Awesome Scientific Knowhow

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If you can suspend judgement for a moment the awe is overwhelming:

CRISPR and the Splice
to Survive

New gene-editing technology could be used to save species from extinction—or to eliminate them.

Odin, in Norse mythology, is an extremely powerful god who’s also a trickster. He has only one eye, having sacrificed the other for wisdom. Among his many talents, he can wake the dead, calm storms, cure the sick, and blind his enemies. Not infrequently, he transforms himself into an animal; as a snake, he acquires the gift of poetry, which he transfers to people, inadvertently.

The Odin, in Oakland, California, is a company that sells genetic-engineering kits. The company’s founder, Josiah Zayner, sports a side-swept undercut, multiple piercings, and a tattoo that urges: “Create Something Beautiful.” He holds a Ph.D. in biophysics and is a well-known provocateur. Continue reading

Late 2020 Happy Whale News

Researchers said that the blue whale song that crackled through the team’s underwater recordings was unlike any they had heard. Robert Baldwin/Environment Society of Oman

Thanks to Katherine J. Wu for this, especially for sharing the recordings of the whale song, and the musical reference for how to think about the difference between this whale population’s song and the that of other whale populations:

A New Population of Blue Whales Was Discovered Hiding in the Indian Ocean

The whales in the group seem to sing a unique song.

Weighing up to 380,000 pounds and stretching some 100 feet long, the blue whale — the largest creature to have ever lived on Earth — might at first seem difficult for human eyes and ears to miss.

But a previously unknown population of the leviathans has long been lurking in the Indian Ocean, leaving scientists none the wiser, new research suggests. Continue reading

The Weight Of Humanity

Bill McKibben‘s Climate Crisis newsletter this week has an interesting segment on the total weight of things humans have made, mentioning the book to the right for visual reference. Turns out our stuff now weighs more than all living things on the planet. That is impressive, but not necessarily in a good way:

We are necessarily occupied here each week with strategies for getting ourselves out of the climate crisis—it is the world’s true Klaxon-sounding emergency. But it is worth occasionally remembering that global warming is just one measure of the human domination of our planet. We got another reminder of that unwise hegemony this week, from a study so remarkable that we should just pause and absorb it. Continue reading

Phenomenal Fungi Discovery

Spores of the parasitic fungus Strongwellsea acerosa. Infected hosts continue to function for days. Photograph: Faculty of Science/University of Copenhagen

The image above, on its own, would be a mystery calling to be explained. Phoebe Weston  has our attention again, this time with a story from the fungi universe:

Scientists find two new species of fungi that turn flies into ‘zombies

Insect-destroying fungi ‘may represent the next frontier for drug discovery’

A fly infected with the fungus Strongwellsea tigrinae. Spores are discharged through a hole in the abdomen. Photograph: Faculty of Science/University of Copenhagen

Two new fungi species that infect flies and eject spores out of a large hole in the insect’s abdomen “like small rockets” have been discovered in Denmark.

The new species, Strongwellsea tigrinae and Strongwellsea acerosa, are host-specific and rely on two species of Danish fly – Coenosia tigrina and Coenosia testacea, according to researchers at the University of Copenhagen. Continue reading

Olfactory & Gustatory Experiences, Better Understood

Butyric acid gives some cheeses their distinctively strong scent. Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

I had been putting off listening to this interview until I had the proper attention span. During the last two years I have worked to improve my understanding of the relationship between tastes and aromas (aka smells) of coffees, mirroring the work I did to better understand wines back in the day.  My patience was rewarded with a clear conversation that neither dumbed down nor over-complicated the relationship between olfactory and gustatory experiences. It made me think the book will be worth more than the purchase price:

…On why grass-fed beef tastes different than grain-fed beef

It’s absolutely true that the foods that animals eat in order to grow affect the way they taste when we, in turn, eat them as food. And in the case of grass and grain-fed animals, the difference is in the kinds of fat that they take in. So it’s not that we’re actually tasting grass or tasting grain when we detect the difference between the two. It’s actually the fact that the fats — the oils in grass — are very irregular molecules, and they tend to be broken down in the animal into particular fragments that are very characteristic of those original fats and oils. Continue reading

Lost & Found, Somali Sengi

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Researchers have spotted the Somali sengi, a relative of aardvarks and elephants, in Djibouti.
Steven Heritage/Duke University Lemur Center

We have used lost & found within post titles enough times since we started that maybe it should be a category. They are mostly happy surprise stories. More complicated than cute kitten videos, but worth the read. For now, our congratulations to the scientists who made the discovery and our thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for reporting this:

Tiny Elephant Shrew Resurfaces After More Than 50 Years On Lost Species List

For more than 50 years, the mouse-size Somali sengi was thought to be a lost species.

Turns out, it wasn’t. Continue reading

British Beekeeping Benefits

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Anne Rowberry, chair of the British Beekeepers Association, with some of her bees. Photograph: Sam Frost/The Guardian

Thanks to the Guardian for this report:

British apiarists knew it all along: honey is the bee’s knees

As a study trumpets the food’s medicinal properties, there’s a buzz about beekeeping in the UK

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Carly Hooper: ‘Bees are my life’. Photograph: Anita Parry

When honey made headlines this week as a better treatment for coughs and colds than antibiotics, beekeepers sat smugly by. “I’ve been saying this for ages,” says Carly Hooper, who has 12 hives near her home in Fleet, Hampshire, and a honey-based business.

The study, published in the journal BMJ Evidence Based Medicine, found that honey was a more effective treatment for coughs, blocked noses and sore throats than many remedies more conventionally prescribed. Continue reading

Remains of a Feast

Food and Beverage as conservation themes have been long time interests at this site, whether it be recreating ancient ales or maintaining the artisan ethos of ancient food ways.

I have to admit that the blend of cuisine and archaeology are equally fascinating; I would have been one of the first of the “curious passersby” at the feast described here. The article is behind a paywall, but worth the read.

A taste of antiquity: what’s it like to eat 2,500-year-old food?

How Fuchsia Dunlop sampled food from the tomb of a long dead king

The four sheep turned on their spits, wafting out rich aromas over the bleached Turkish landscape. Nearby, I stirred a vast potful of lentil stew over an open fire, lashed by smoke and sunlight. A long table in the yard was already laden with dishes: handmade hummus and fava bean paste, whole honeycombs, stacks of tandoor-baked bread and piles of pomegranates. Beyond it loomed the great burial mound of a ruler of the Phrygian kingdom who had died here in the eighth century BC — thought to be a historical King Midas or his father. Aided by a team of Turkish cooks and food experts, I was doing my best to recreate his funeral feast.

This wasn’t an idle exercise. In the 1950s, archaeologists from the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania had excavated the tomb, near the old Phrygian capital at Gordion. Although this King Midas was not the mythical man with the golden touch, they still found a treasure trove of bronze cauldrons, drinking bowls and clay pots in his burial chamber, including the largest Iron Age drinking set ever discovered. The vessels contained the physical remnants of a banquet the mourners had shared, but it was about 40 years before advances in science permitted chemical analysis of the residues.
This was done in the late 1990s by experts from the Penn Museum, led by Patrick McGovern, scientific director of its Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health, and author of Ancient Brews: Rediscovered & Re-created.

Using modern techniques such as infrared spectroscopy, liquid and gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, McGovern and his team examined the vestiges of both food and drink found in the bronze vessels. The mourners, they concluded, had shared an unusual brew made from a mixture of honey, grapes and barley — a sort of cocktail of mead, wine and beer. And although the researchers couldn’t be sure, they suspected it had also contained saffron because of the intense yellow colour of the residue (and because some of the finest saffron of the ancient world was produced in what is now Turkey).

The chemical detective work on the brown clumps of food matter showed these were the leftovers of a great stew made from lamb or goat that had first been seared over fire to produce caramelisation, then simmered with some kind of pulse (probably lentils) along with ingredients such as honey, wine, olive oil, fennel or anise and other herbs and spices. 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

Scientific Expeditions Then, Considered Now

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The HMS Challenger set sail from England in 1872 and changed the course of scientific history (Credit: North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy)

Thanks to the BBC for reminding us of the value of such voyages in earlier centuries, and their contributions to science, among other things:

HMS-Challenger: The Voyage That Birthed Oceanography

The 3.5-year voyage to the furthest corners of the globe reshaped marine science and permanently changed our relationship with the planet’s oceans.

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During the four-year journey, the ship uncovered many new species and shaped our understanding of the seas (Credit: LeeYiuTung/Getty Images)

In the foyer of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, England, stands a ship’s painted figurehead. It towers well above head height and depicts an armoured knight with a silver chest plate, a raised visor and a thick handlebar moustache. The knight’s eyes have a faraway gaze in them – and well they might. This wooden statue is the sole remnant of a square-rigged ship that once embarked on a three-and-a-half-year voyage to the furthest corners of the globe, reshaping marine science, unearthing all manner of underwater oddities and permanently changing our relationship with the planet’s oceans. The vessel’s name was HMS Challenger. Continue reading