Seed-Saving & Science

The experiment is a multicentury attempt to figure out how long seeds can lie dormant in the soil without losing their ability to germinate. Derrick L. Turner/Michigan State University

Cara Giaimo has a talent linking science and history, and this article demonstrates it as well as any we have linked to from her. Saving seeds is favorite topic in our pages, so this is in good company:

One of the World’s Oldest Science Experiments Comes Up From the Dirt

Every 20 years under the cover of darkness, scientists dig up seeds that were stashed 142 years ago beneath a college campus. Continue reading

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

Fungi Identification Challenges

Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Thanks to Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield at the Guardian for this podcast episode about the wonders and perils of fungi-identifying:

Why is it hard to get our head around fungi? (part one) – podcast

…We often talk as if we know what species exist in the world – but we don’t. Continue reading

Beloved Beasts, Author Interview

Art from Beloved Beasts by Michelle Nijhuis. Illustration: Courtesy of Norton

My interest in the history of conservation started with the discovery of an archive full of hotel guide books from earlier centuries, which led to another archive full of data about one of the earliest publicly-funded conservation projects, which in turn led to my doctoral dissertation. My particular interest is in the history of both conservation and tourism and their co-evolution over the past century. And this interest seems to run in the family, which might explain where our family’s various entrepreneurial activities have emerged from. All along the way, science writers have been a favorite source of nourishment.  I can better understand Michelle Nijhuis‘s two-year hiatus from our pages  thanks to Rachel Fritts, Editorial Intern at Audubon magazine, in this author interview:

Capturing the Whole History of Conservationism—for Better and Worse

In her new book ‘Beloved Beasts,’ author Michelle Nijhuis chronicles a movement dedicated to the ‘preservation of possibility.’

The author, Michelle Nijhuis. Photo: Seed Photography

Veteran science journalist Michelle Nijhuis has been writing about conservation for more than two decades. Her work on topics ranging from climate change to humans’ relationships with other species regularly appears in publications such as the New Yorker and The Atlantic. In her hotly anticipated new book, released March 9, Nijhuis sets out to tell the definitive history of the effort she dedicated her career to chronicling.

Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction turns an exacting eye on the history of conservationism, emphasizing the movement’s interconnectedness and complexity. Nijhuis takes the reader on a journey through time, from the plains bisons’ brush with extinction in the 1800s, to the community conservancies preserving wildlife in modern-day Namibia. 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

Human Intervention, Hold The Judgement

A burrowing bettong, also known as the boodie, in the Australian Outback. COURTESY OF AWC

I have not acquired the book yet, but I have heard her discuss it and read an interview with her about it; the author has moved from reporting on extinction and climate phenomena to reporting on human intervention schemes that respond to those phenomena. The stories as told in the article below adhere to a claim Kolbert makes in her discussion with Ezra Klein, that as a journalist she is not in the judgement business:

Assisting Evolution: How Far Should We Go to Help Species Adapt?

An Australian project to help threatened marsupial species adapt to avoid predatory cats is among a host of ‘assisted evolution’ efforts based on the premise that it is no longer enough to protect species from change: Humans are going to have intervene to help them change.

The Dasgupta Review, An Important Milestone In Quantifying The Value Of Nature

Hats off to the UK for commissioning the study, and to Professor Dasgupta for completing it. Sometimes a profession, like economics, takes time to catch up with the real world. Better late than never, like the guide to investing in nature, we are happy to see academia putting rigor into the analysis of how valuable nature is. Seemed obvious, even without these new studies, but this is what it takes to counter the disinformation promoted by extraction-intensive industries and their investors:

The Dasgupta Review is an independent, global review on the Economics of Biodiversity led by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta (Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus, University of Cambridge). The Review was commissioned in 2019 by HM Treasury and has been supported by an Advisory Panel drawn from public policy, science, economics, finance and business. 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

Making A Better Carbon Chain

Animation by Megan McGrew/PBS Newshour

Thanks to Isabella Isaacs-Thomas and PBS Newshour for a look at our carbon chain through the lens of a scientist determined to making that chain more sustainable:

How this chemical engineer is hacking plastic production to promote sustainability

The products many of us purchase on a regular basis — the water bottles, clothes and, perhaps especially in the era of COVID, take-out containers from our local restaurants — are often plastic, disposable and bound to outlive us for generations. But the enormous amount of plastic waste that humans leave behind is a logistical and ecological nightmare, and experts say potential solutions must be approached from multiple angles, both for the planet’s sake and for our own. 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

Advances In Animal Migration Studies

Illustration by Shyama Golden

Sonia Shah, a science journalist and author of “The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move,” has provided a great summary of recent developments on the study of animal migration:

Animal Planet

An ambitious new system will track scores of species from space — shedding light, scientists hope, on the lingering mysteries of animal movement.

‘‘I’m going to do a set of coos,” Calandra Stanley whispered into the radio. The Georgetown ornithologist and her team had been hunting cuckoos, in an oak-and-hickory forest on the edge of a Southern Illinois cornfield, for weeks. Droplets of yesterday’s rain slid off the leaves above to those below in a steady drip. In the distance, bullfrogs croaked from a shallow lake, where locals go ice fishing in winter. Continue reading

Awesome Scientific Knowhow

toad

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

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

The Ministry For The Future, Reviewed In Yale Climate Connections

Yale Climate Connections is a nonpartisan, multimedia service providing daily broadcast radio programming and original web-based reporting, commentary, and analysis on the issue of climate change, one of the greatest challenges and stories confronting modern society.

Today, within the time I have enjoyed my first cup of coffee, I have made two discoveries: a new (to me) source for stories to share here (click the banner above to go to Yale Climate Connections) and a book review that gets me wondering whether science fiction is a genre I have time for after all (I thought not, but click the image below to go to the review for yourself).

(Kim Stanley Robinson inset photo: Gage Skidmore)

In The Ministry for the Future, his twentieth novel, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson creates something truly remarkable: a credible, very-near future in which humans effectively solve the problem of climate change.

Climate lukewarmers may be tempted to interpret this upbeat summary as support for their technological optimism. That would be a mistake. Though it ends well, the story Robinson tells is harrowing.

I first heard about the book yesterday in a conversation with the author:

The most important book I’ve read this year

How climate change will force humanity to rethink capitalism, borders, terrorism, and currency.

That conversation was also a kind of review, but it was not until I looked for more information about the book this morning, and found that review by Michael Svoboda, that I got thinking about the genre of science fiction, and the sub-genre of climate fiction.

One More Reason Why Native Plant Species, Not To Mention Insects, Matter

ENZO PÉRÈS-LABOURDETTE / YALE E360

As the curvy berm we started forming earlier this year, combined with 100+ newly planted trees, transition from wet season to dry season, we have been noticing an uptick in insects. While most of my early life experiences in Connecticut led me to believe that the world (or at least I) would be better off with fewer insects, I now think exactly the opposite. Last Sunday I had my first sighting of a bird (same species as our friend Daniel captured by camera in Guatemala a few weeks ago) that is likely here for some of those insects. That sighting alone would have been enough to convince me that more insects are better than fewer. Janet Marinelli‘s article in Yale Environment360 gives me more to ponder on this topic:

How Non-Native Plants Are Contributing to a Global Insect Decline

The impact of introduced plants on native biodiversity has emerged as a hot-button issue in ecology. But recent research provides new evidence that the displacement of native plant communities is a key cause of a collapse in insect populations and is affecting birds as well.

Zebra swallowtails are entirely dependent on pawpaw trees, which have leaves that are the butterflies’ larvae only source of food. COURTESY OF DOUGLAS TALLAMY

For years, Doug Tallamy sounded the alarm about the grave threat that plants introduced from abroad pose to native insects. By transforming native plant communities into so-called novel landscapes increasingly dominated by exotic species on which many insects cannot feed, the University of Delaware entomologist speculated, they imperil not only insects but also the birds and other animals that depend on insects for survival. Continue reading

What It’s Like To Be A Bird–Book, Author Interview & Master Class

We missed this book when it was published earlier this year, until now–an interview with its author about best birding practices caught our attention. The publisher has this to say about the book:

The bird book for birders and nonbirders alike that will excite and inspire by providing a new and deeper understanding of what common, mostly backyard, birds are doing–and why

“Can birds smell?” “Is this the same cardinal that was at my feeder last year?” “Do robins ‘hear’ worms?” In What It’s Like to Be a Bird, David Sibley answers the most frequently asked questions about the birds we see most often…

David Allen Sibley is also offering this online course in conjunction with 92Y:

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a bird? Can birds smell? Is that the same cardinal that was at your feeder last year? What are backyard birds doing and why? 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

Parasitism’s Charisma Deficit

The medicinal leech, Hirudo medicinalis, is one of the few parasites formally protected. Photograph: Stephen Dalton/Alamy

By the time I was welcoming guests to a place where they would experience them in the wild, I had become accustomed to leeches. I did not enjoy feeling them in my hiking boot or elsewhere on my body, but after a few times I stopped being freaked out by it. As unlikely as it sounds, I eventually found them fascinating, if not charismatic. I could appreciate their place in the ecosystem we were working to protect, but I could not bring myself to celebrate them in public. A photograph like the one above would not win them new friends but illustrations like the one below might help. Phoebe Weston’s article about the challenges of protecting parasites rings true:

Overlooked and unloved: how a global project could unlock the world of parasites

The tiny freeloaders may be considered disgusting by many but new research shows they are crucial in shaping ecosystems

A coloured aquatint from the early 19th century shows three women gathering leeches in a stream. Photograph: Wellcome Collection

The leech craze of the 1800s put parasites on the map. Collectors (usually women and sometimes old horses) would stand in ponds waiting for medicinal leeches to come and suck their blood. They were then picked off and sold for bloodletting.

The parasites were so popular that by the early 1900s they were nearly extinct, and there was a coordinated effort to save them. Even so, the European medicinal leech, Hirudo medicinalishas been labelled as near threatened on the IUCN red list since 1996, and remains one of the few parasites with formal protections. Continue reading

Beware Of “This Is Big” & Other Snappy Catchphrases

The Miniature Science series of ads, created last year by the very talented folks at BBDO on behalf of their client ExxonMobil, are snappy.

By now most people who pay attention to climate science are aware of ExxonMobil’s active role in creating doubt about the emerging facts that their own scientists established about mankind’s impact on climate. In addition to actors like that giant petrochemical company, there are also behind-the-scenes, complicit creatives who have provided essential messaging to strengthen the deception. In a new essay, Bill McKibben turns his attention to those folks, and expects accountability:

If money is the oxygen on which the fire of global warming burns, then P.R. campaigns and snappy catchphrases are the kindling. Illustration by Lia Liao

When “Creatives” Turn Destructive: Image-Makers and the Climate Crisis

Past sins are past no more: an overdue historical recalibration is under way, with monuments being pulled down, dorms renamed, restitution offered. People did things, bad things; even across the span of centuries, they’re being held to account, and there’s something noble about that. The Reverend Robert W. Lee IV, for instance, recently backed the removal of his famous ancestor’s statue from Richmond, Virginia. The memorial, he wrote, “is a hollow reminder of a painful ideology and acts of oppression against black people. Taking it down will provide new opportunities for conversations, relationships and policy change.” Such a response raises an uncomfortable question: What are we doing now that our descendants will need to apologize for? Might we be able to get ahead of the sin this time? Continue reading