An article by Clive Thompson we linked to in 2016 makes me wonder why today is the first time we are sharing his work since then. I remember reading a review of his book last year but did not see a fit with the themes we tend to focus on here. Urban trees, for one example, feature in our pages frequently. And trees more broadly speaking have probably been featured more than any other topic due to our mission. So our appreciation to the Atlantic for publishing this, and an added thanks for the excellent photographic accompaniments:
Arborists are planting trees today that must survive decades of global warming. The health, comfort, and happiness of city dwellers hang in the balance.
City trees lead difficult lives. A lot of things are trying to kill them, particularly the trees planted on sidewalks: Tightly compacted soil with high alkaline content makes it harder for them to absorb nutrients. Tiny plots of land admit very little rainwater. They’ve got dogs peeing on them, people dropping cigarette butts nearby, and cars belching pollution.
“We’re talking about trees that are very vulnerable,” says Navé Strauss, the head of street-tree planting for New York City. His team manages the planting of new trees on streets and public rights of way; there are more than 666,000 street trees in the city, and the team plants about 16,000 new ones annually. For decades, New York arborists have tended to prefer “tough,” hardy species that thrive well against adversity—such as the London planetree, which sports grayish bark and big, maple-like leaves that offer sidewalks tons of shade.
But lately, Strauss has been looking for trees that can handle an even tougher challenge: climate change.
In the past century, the United States has heated up as much as 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit. Continue reading
The Bobcat Fire burns through the Angeles National Forest in Southern California on September 17. KYLE GRILLOT/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Stephen J. Pyne, more than an expert on fire–if you have heard the term Pyrocene, thank him–gives a primer here worth your time if you want the scary stuff in perspective. Wonky in a powerfully good way, still accessible and clear:
By suppressing all wildfires and incessantly burning fossil fuels, humans have upset the role that fire has historically played in providing ecological balance. We need to rethink our view of fire and accept its presence by changing how we manage lands and plan our communities.
There is a paradox at the core of Earth’s unraveling firescapes.
The fires are seemingly everywhere, and everywhere more feral. They are burning from the Arctic to the Amazon, from New South Wales to the West Coast. They are visible, and their smoke projects their presence in the form of immense palls well removed from the flames. But equally significant are the fires that aren’t happening.
The Earth is a fire planet, the only one we know. It has held fires as long as plants have lived on land. Removing fire from landscapes that have co-evolved or co-existed with it can be as ruinous as putting fire into landscapes that have no history of it. The fires we don’t see — the fires that should be there and aren’t — are an index of ecological loss, like imposing a drought on a normally lush landscape.
We have too many bad fires — fires that kill people, burn towns, and trash valued landscapes. We have too few good ones — fires that enhance ecological integrity and hold fires within their historic ranges. At the same time, with the incessant burning of fossil fuels, we have too much combustion on the planet overall.
How did fire’s presence on Earth become so deranged? Continue reading
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 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
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:
For more than 50 years, the mouse-size Somali sengi was thought to be a lost species.
Turns out, it wasn’t. Continue reading
Thanks to Eric Vance for a fun and interesting read:
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 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:
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.
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
Like Skynet, but good! Shutterstock
Thanks to David Roberts, at Vox, for this news:
Crushed basalt is applied to an arable field in Norfolk as part of the research programme of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation. Photograph: Dr Dimitar Epihov
At first glance, this seemed like a headline from a satirical news site, but it is serious:
Spreading rock dust on farmland could suck billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air every year, according to the first detailed global analysis of the technique.
The chemical reactions that degrade the rock particles lock the greenhouse gas into carbonates within months, and some scientists say this approach may be the best near-term way of removing CO2 from the atmosphere.
The researchers are clear that cutting the fossil fuel burning that releases CO2 is the most important action needed to tackle the climate emergency. Continue reading
Our bee obsession on this platform has many explanations, but my personal motivation for following the science of bees goes back to a summer in the late 1970s when I worked for a beekeeper. I cleared brush and vines from the forest edge to make way for more bee-friendly plantings. I worked within sight of a dozen active bee colonies in boxes where I could see buzzing swarms constantly. I learned to be calm around them from the man who tended them. He used a poncho, a mask, and a smoker when opening the boxes to remove honey, but other times walked among them with no protective gear. To my surprise the resins from Toxicodendron radicans–poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac–did more harm to me than the bees I worked around. In fact, I was never stung by those bees. Not once.
Which explains why when we finally had the chance to start our own bee colony I was all in. Above is a bee box, with found objects inside, above and below it. The bees inside had nested at the top of our house so we had a beekeeper extract them. He gave them this new home in a location where we have been clearing brush to make way for coffee planting. The old table had been in the chicken coop and the mysterious disk was on the roadside headed for recycling. One month later now, very happy bees.
Above is a small sampling of the vines and brush I have been clearing from the land near that hive. History may not repeat, but sometimes it rhymes. As it happens, on my arm I have some of the same toxins from vines like those 40 years ago. The clearing work started in March and is nearing completion to make way for several hundred shade trees and several thousand coffee plants.
One section of this clearing has already received twenty banana plants, based on the practice of our friends at Hacienda la Amistad. These make excellent companions to the coffee and are pollinated by bats, so provide another kind of ecological service too complex to discuss in a post primarily about bee surprises.
So, with all that in mind I was very happy to come across the story below by Cara Giaimo. Her work first appeared in our pages last October, then again a few months ago–both times related to birds. Somehow I missed this short article on bees from earlier this year, and I thank her for it now for making me laugh when there is not enough other news to laugh about:
Frank Bienewald/imageBROKER, via Alamy
Regurgitation is an important consideration when it comes to the process of pollination.
The bumblebee is a discerning nectar shopper. When choosing which flowers to gather the sticky substance from, it might consider a plant’s distance, the shape of the petals and how sugar-rich the nectar is. Continue reading
At first glance, it looks like art. As most great nature photography, whether amateur or taken by professionals, often does. But this is tech-driven professional science. Thanks to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation for this primer:
So how do you count more than 64,000 turtles at once?
With drones – and now we have the science to prove it.
Our Raine Island Recovery Project researchers are investigating the best way to count all the turtles at the world’s largest green turtle nesting area. The highly respected PLOS ONE journal has just published their findings (see the paper). Continue reading
Happy to see the results and first post from Birds Caribbean about the various teams’ contributions to the 2020 Global Big Day. Looking forward to reading the highlights of all the teams.
The biggest birding day of the year — Global Big Day —took place on Saturday May 9, 2020. More than 50,000 people from around the world joined in to record their sightings. Close to 300 participants from throughout the West Indies recorded 345 different species of birds! Cuba had the most species by country (135) followed closely by the Bahamas (126) and Puerto Rico (125). Regionally, 1,051 checklists were submitted, 205 more than last year. That’s an incredible achievement — way to go birders!
Birders from Cuba looking great with their BirdsCaribbean buffs in Zapata Swamp on Global Big Day. We will share more about the birding experiences on the different teams in a second blog post
This year was quite a different experience as much of the world remains under stay at home orders or is following social distancing guidelines. Certainly many of the great open spaces that are go-to spots for birders were not open to the public for safety reasons. Nevertheless, eBird recorded a 32% participation increase from Global Big Day 2019 and more than 120,000 eBird checklists were submitted. Continue reading
Ocean ecosystems are rich sources of compounds used in medicine. Photo by Bob Embley/NOAA.
Life within the world’s oceans have an ineffable beauty that will always defy the limitations of our discoveries. If we ever needed reasons beyond that acknowledgement, then here are timely examples of the interconnected nature of life on earth and reasons to protect our oceans and the biodiversity within them.
The ocean plays a surprising role in fighting COVID-19. With death and infection numbers escalating daily, the World Health Organization has made it clear that countries need to do three things to successfully fight this pandemic: test, test and test.
The dramatic increase in demand for testing has drawn renewed attention to the ocean’s genetic diversity. This “ocean genome” is a rich source of anti-viral compounds. In particular, enzymes from a remarkable hydrothermal vent bacterium have been key to the technology in virus test kits, including those used to diagnose COVID-19. Similarly, a protein derived from a coral reef red alga around the Canary Islands has been valuable in the fight against the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, an illness caused by a coronavirus closely related to the one responsible for COVID-19.
This renewed attention to the genetic diversity of ocean organisms also brings conservation and equity concerns — the subject of two recent research papers commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel). This research has found that multiple threats face the ocean genome, jeopardizing opportunities for new commercial and scientific uses. At the same time, there is an unbalanced relationship between low- and middle-income countries that are home to most marine biodiversity and higher-income countries, which possess the research capacity, technology, infrastructure and finances to develop marine biotechnology.
These recent papers lay out a clear list of actions that governments and marine researchers can take to safeguard the ocean genome and share its benefits equitably.
A turtle surfaces offshore of Kahekili Beach Park, Maui, Hawaii. COURTESY OF DON MCLEISH
It seems like a fitting Earth Day celebration that the U.S. Supreme Court voted to block the Trump Administration’s attempts to roll back the EPA Clean Water Act.
Today the Supreme Court issued its opinion in County of Maui v. Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund siding with clean water advocates that point source discharges to navigable waters through groundwater are regulated under the Clean Water Act.
The following is a statement from David Henkin, Earthjustice attorney who argued the case defending clean water:
“This decision is a huge victory for clean water. The Supreme Court has rejected the Trump administration’s effort to blow a big hole in the Clean Water Act’s protections for rivers, lakes, and oceans.
“We will have to return to the lower court to confirm this, but we fully expect that Maui County’s sewage plant will be required to get a Clean Water Act permit as a result of the Court’s decision today. That permit will require the County to protect the ocean from sewage discharges in a way it has refused to do to date.
“We are glad the Court has recognized the importance of protecting clean water for all Americans.”
The court held that the Clean Water Act “require[s] a permit if the addition of the pollutants through groundwater is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge from the point source into navigable waters.” In other words, the Clean Water Act prohibits unpermitted discharge of pollution “into navigable waters, or when the discharge reaches the same result through roughly similar means.” In doing so, the Court rejected the Trump administration’s polluter-friendly position in the clearest of terms: “We do not see how Congress could have intended to create such a large and obvious loophole in one of the key regulatory innovations of the Clean Water Act.” Continue reading
Green plastic bottles ready for recycling
In addition to all the creative ways that people recycle and upcycle plastics, we appreciate when scientific collaboration is brought to the forefront, as in the example here. We thank Science Magazine for highlighting the story.
Recycling isn’t as guilt-free as it seems. Only about 30% of the plastic that goes into soda bottles gets turned into new plastic, and it often ends up as a lower strength version. Now, researchers report they’ve engineered an enzyme that can convert 90% of that same plastic back to its pristine starting materials. Work is underway to scale up the technology and open a demonstration plant next year.
“This is a huge step forward,” says John McGeehan, who directs the center for enzyme innovation at the University of Portsmouth and who was not involved with the work.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is one of the world’s most commonly used plastics, with some 70 million tons produced annually. PET bottles are already recycled in many places. But the current approach has problems. For starters, recycling companies typically end up with a broad mix of different colors of the plastic. They then use high temperatures to melt those down, producing a gray or black plastic starting material that few companies want to use to package their products.
Instead, the material is typically turned into carpets or other low-grade plastic fibers that eventually end up in a landfill or get incinerated. “It’s not really recycling at all,” McGeehan says.
To get around this concern, scientists have searched for enzymes in microbes that break down PET and other plastics. In 2012, researchers at Osaka University found one such enzyme in a compost heap. Continue reading
Sylvain Cordier/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Images
Costa Rica pioneered butterfly farming in the 1990s, and it has been an important export ever since. It is an export oriented to botanical gardens and other natural attractions where butterflies can be released by the thousands in enclosures; it is also an export that feeds the hunger of collectors. It is not a cure-all as Elizabeth Preston, on our radar again after five years, notes:
A study suggests that monarchs bred by enthusiasts were less fit than those that started as caterpillars in the wild.
Monarch butterflies look delicate, but they need to be super-tough to survive their annual migrations. The monarchs of eastern North America may travel thousands of miles to their winter home in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains. And, increasingly, they’re not making it, a problem that has been blamed on habitat loss, climate change and pesticides.
In an effort to boost the struggling insect’s numbers, some butterfly enthusiasts buy monarchs raised in captivity or breed their own, then set them free. But research published Wednesday in Biology Letters shows that captive-born monarchs are weaker than wild ones — adding evidence to the arguments of those who warn that releasing them does more harm than good. Continue reading
‘You need to imagine a plant as a huge brain’ … the plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso. Photograph: Alessandro Moggi
Thanks to Amy Fleming for this book review:
A little over seven years ago the great science writer Ed Yong first came to my attention, and he has featured dozens of times in these pages ever since, never failing to enlighten me. When I saw his recent work on giraffes in the Atlantic I neglected to post it here, but I am correcting that now. It is important work, and I now know he has taken leave from his book-writing assignment from which that story is derived. He has taken leave so he can explain to us something much more pressing. I learned that in his conversation here:
I recommend listening to him talk about reporting his most recent work, which he says is the most important work he has done to date.
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:
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.
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.
“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
A Mini Electric car next to the production line at the BMW plant in Cowley, near Oxford. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images
When the smoke clears, we will need to get back to key environmental issues. Thanks to the Guardian for this news, in that regard:
Finding will come as boost to governments seeking to move to net zero carbon emissions
Electric vehicles produce less carbon dioxide than petrol cars across the vast majority of the globe – contrary to the claims of some detractors, who have alleged that the CO2 emitted in the production of electricity and their manufacture outweighs the benefits.
The finding is a boost to governments, including the UK, seeking to move to net zero carbon emissions, which will require a massive expansion of the electric car fleet. A similar benefit was found for electric heat pumps. Continue reading
It is extra early, which seems none too soon from our point of view:
Spring begins today in America. Good.
On the equinox, day and night are roughly equal everywhere on Earth. The date varies because the 365-day calendar doesn’t perfectly line up with the motion of the Earth around the Sun. Encyclopaedia Britannica/Universal Images Group via Getty
Perhaps you are mildly surprised to learn that March 19 is the first day of spring. Perhaps you learned as a child that the spring equinox — when day and night are roughly the same length — occurs on either March 20 or March 21.
Indeed, the equinox has historically fallen on one of those dates. This is the first time in 124 years the first day of spring has occurred on March 19 nationwide, irrespective of time zone — even the graphics on the National Weather Service’s website have yet to catch up with the new reality.
So, how did we end up with an extra-early spring? Continue reading