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

Climate TRACE Coalition

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Like Skynet, but good! Shutterstock

Thanks to David Roberts, at Vox, for this news:

The entire world’s carbon emissions will finally be trackable in real time

The new Climate TRACE Coalition is assembling the data and running the AI.

There’s an old truism in the business world: what gets measured gets managed. One of the challenges in managing the greenhouse gas emissions warming the atmosphere is that they aren’t measured very well.

“Currently, most countries do not know where most of their emissions come from,” says Kelly Sims Gallagher, a professor of energy and environmental policy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. “Even in advanced economies like the United States, emissions are estimated for many sectors.” Without this information “you cannot devise smart and effective policies to mitigate emissions,” she says, and “you cannot track them to see if you are making progress against your goals.” Continue reading

Rock Dust Carbon Cure

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 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 fields could remove vast amounts of CO2 from air

It may be best near-term way to remove CO2, say scientists, but cutting fossil fuel use remains critical

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

Bee Surprises

HiveOur 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.

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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.

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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:

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Frank Bienewald/imageBROKER, via Alamy

Bumblebee Vomit: Scientists Are No Longer Ignoring It

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

Counting Turtles


Great Barrier Reef LogoAt 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:

COUNTING TURTLES IS A SCIENCE

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

Birds Caribbean Global Big Day Results

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.

BirdsCaribbean Takes Global Big Day by Storm, Despite COVID-19

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). Regionally1,051 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

Marine Biodiversity and Public Health

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 Genome Helps Fight Disease: Here’s How We Save It

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.

Continue reading

A Win for the Water

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.

SUPREME COURT LEAVES THE CLEAN WATER ACT INTACT

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

Mutation as a Positive

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.

‘A huge step forward.’ Mutant enzyme could vastly improve recycling of plastic bottles

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

Butterfly Farming’s Limits

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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:

What’s Wrong With Butterflies Raised in Captivity?

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

The Incredible Journey of Plants, Reviewed

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‘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:

The secret life of plants: how they memorise, communicate, problem solve and socialise

Stefano Mancuso studies what was once considered laughable – the intelligence and behaviour of plants. His work is contentious, he says, because it calls into question the superiority of humans

9781635429916I had hoped to interview the plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso at his laboratory at the University of Florence. I picture it as a botanical utopia: a place where flora is respected for its awareness and intelligence; where sensitive mimosa plants can demonstrate their long memories; and where humans are invited to learn how to be a better species by observing the behaviour of our verdant fellow organisms.

But because we are both on lockdown, we Skype from our homes. Instead of meeting his clever plants, I make do with admiring a pile of cannonball-like pods from an aquatic species, on the bookshelves behind him. “They’re used for propagation,” he says. “I am always collecting seeds.”

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Flower power … Mancuso’s team has shown that Mimosa pudica can retain learned information for weeks. Photograph: Alamy

Before Mancuso’s lab started work in 2005, plant neurobiology was largely seen as a laughable concept. “We were interested in problems that were, until that moment, just related to animals, like intelligence and even behaviour,” he says. At the time, it was “almost forbidden” to talk about behaviour in plants. But “we study how plants are able to solve problems, how they memorise, how they communicate, how they have their social life and things like that”. Continue reading

Ed Yong, Excellent Explainer

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Davis Huber

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:

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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.

Shipworms, Pasts & Futures

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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:

A Forest Submerged 60,000 Years Ago Could Save Your Life One Day

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.

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.

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

Cars & Carbon

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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:

Electric cars produce less CO2 than petrol vehicles, study confirms

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

Spring Tidings

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The vernal equinox falls on March 19 nationwide this year. It’s the earliest start to spring since 1896. This photo shows the Earth shortly before the moment of the equinox on March 20, 2019.
GOES-East/NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory

It is extra early, which seems none too soon from our point of view:

Spring Starts Today All Over America, Which Is Weird

Spring begins today in America. Good.

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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

Scent & Memory

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Illustration by James Taylor

Thanks to Colleen Walsh and the Harvard Gazette for this:

What the nose knows

Experts discuss the science of smell and how scent, emotion, and memory are intertwined — and exploited

Bioflourescing Amphibians

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A biofluorescing Cranwell’s horned frog. Jennifer Lamb and Matt Davis

Thanks to Joanna Klein, as always:

Salamanders and Frogs Hide a Glowing Secret

Many amphibians — possibly all of them — are biofluorescent, according to a new survey.

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A glowing dwarf siren… Jennifer Lamb and Matt Davis

Amphibians are half-landlubbers, half water-babies. They breathe through skin that is moist, warty, crested and in some cases, poisonous or hallucinogenic. Some wear dull, leaflike-camo patterns. Others sport Guy Fieri flames.

And as cute, gross, pretty, ugly, magical and witchy-named as these slip-sliding creatures may be, they’ve been hiding something in a secret, fluorescent world invisible to humans. Many amphibians, whether salamanders, frogs or their distant cousins — possibly all of them — glow, according to a survey published Thursday in Scientific Reports.

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Jennifer Lamb and Matt Davis

“There is still a lot out there that we don’t know,” said Jennifer Lamb, a biologist who conducted the research with Matt Davis, both at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. “This opens up this whole window into the possibility that organisms that can see fluorescence — their world may look a lot different from ours.”

The study paves the way for new research into how or why amphibians possess this special adaptation, which has potential applications in medical technology and conservation. Continue reading

McKibben’s Latest Venture

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A swarm of locusts north of Nairobi, Kenya, in January. The U.N. described an outbreak of desert locusts as a threat to food security. Photograph by Tony Karumba / AFP / Getty

We need more information, better quality information, and the most relevant information on climate issues. A newsletter, maybe? Bill McKibben is on it:

WELCOME TO THE CLIMATE CRISIS NEWSLETTER

We’re eight weeks into the new decade, and, so far, we’ve had the warmest January ever recorded. (Indeed, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that 2020 is more than ninety-eight per cent likely to be one of the five warmest years ever measured, with a nearly forty-nine-per-cent chance to set a new annual record.) We’ve seen the highest temperature ever measured on the Antarctic continent, and also record swarms of locusts descending on the Horn of Africa, a plague which scientists assure us will “become more frequent and severe under climate change.”

I’m calling this new newsletter—and welcome aboard—The Climate Crisis because this is what a crisis looks like. Continue reading

Field Expeditions, Panama, Ferns

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Student members of the Mamoní Valley Preserve Natural History Project, Jacob Suissa (left), Sylvia Kinosian, Brian Vergara, Jose Palacios, and Christian López examine the rhizome vasculature of a fern species during their first collection trip in the rainforest.

While most of our work between 1999 and 2019 was field work, once this platform started we distinguished field expeditions from our “regular work,” and Seth’s posts have dominated the expedition realm here. Today, with Seth in wintry New Haven in desk mode, my expeditionary imagination is instead fueled by the field expedition described below, on a topic not featured in these pages for seven years, so I am correcting the neglect:

Going where the diversity is

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Student researchers Ben Goulet-Scott (left), Sylvia Kinosian, and Jacob Suissa, reach the crest of a hill overlooking the Mamoní Valley Preserve while carrying 90 species of ferns on their backs.
Photos by Ben Goulet-Scott/Harvard University Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology

Last month, two graduate students from the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University traveled to one of the most species-rich landscapes in the world: a remote strip of tropical rainforest at the narrowest point in the Central American country of Panama.

Ben Goulet-Scott, a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) and a fellow in the Arboretum’s Hopkins Lab, and Jacob Suissa, OEB Ph.D. candidate in the Friedman Lab at the Arboretum, hope their research in the Mamoní Valley Preserve in Panama will increase our understanding of how biodiversity can persevere in the face of climate change, deforestation, and human disturbance.

200126PanamaExp26The 20-square-mile land conservancy on the isthmus separating Central and South America teems with life, making the condensed rainforest habitat a perfect location for their research project because of the vast number of known and potentially undiscovered species living there, Goulet-Scott said. Continue reading