Alerce, Fungi & Futures

Roots rise from shallow soil. Tomás Munita

The Valdivian Coastal Reserve was mentioned once in our pages, only in passing.

Tomás Munita

Strange, because if I was asked to name my favorite protected area on the planet it would be at or near the top of my list. The abundant but threatened alerce trees were part of the reason. A family story would explain more of why, and that is part of a larger work story that needs more attention another time.

A mushroom rises from the forest floor. Tomás Munita

The story below, featuring an adjacent protected area, stirs an intense place memory, and at the same time reveals much about a topic that was not on our radar at the time. And it says much about potential futures for that place. So, thanks to the New York Times climate correspondent Somini Sengupta (again and again) as well as photographer Tomás Munita:

Unearthing the Secret Superpowers of Fungus

Tomás Munita

In the fight against warming, a formidable ally hides just beneath our feet.

 — Toby Kiers took long strides across the spongy forest floor, felt the adrenaline rush in her veins and stopped at the spot she had traveled so far to reach. Into the ground went a hollow metal cylinder. Out came a scoop of soil.

Tomás Munita

Dr. Kiers stuck her nose into the dirt, inhaled its scent, imagined what secrets it contained to help us live on a hotter planet. “What’s under here?” she asked. “What mysteries are we going to unveil?”

The soil was deposited into a clear plastic bag, then labeled with the coordinates of this exact location on Earth. Continue reading

Turtles & Tortoises & Negative Senescence

A giant Galápagos tortoise, only as old as it feels. Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

When I learn a new word–even if it is a word I cannot picture using in conversation but it represents a concept that is interesting and surprising, I consider that a good day. Jack Tamisiea, thanks for the science reporting here, and especially for the word senescence:

Tortoises and turtles don’t just live for a long time — they barely age while they live.

The black marsh turtles displayed negative rates of senescence, meaning their mortality risk decreased as they aged. iStock/Getty Images

For mammals like humans, aging is inevitable. No matter how many vitamins we take, skin sags, bones soften and joints stiffen over time. However, turtles and tortoises age more gracefully. Despite their wrinkled skin and toothless gums, species like Galápagos giant tortoises seem unscathed by the ravages of aging. Some show few signs of slowing down as they plod into their 100s.

To determine what drives these ageless wonders, two groups of researchers examined turtles, tortoises and their ectothermic, or coldblooded, brethren in a pair of studies published Thursday in the journal Science. Continue reading

Clues Trapped In Resin

Researchers describe this as the most complete fossilized crab ever discovered. Credit: Lida Xing/China University of Geosciences, Beijing

Crabs started as marine creatures, and eventually evolved into land creatures as well. How it happened is an essential question and resin may be the best clue:

Bad for 100-million-year-old crab, but good for scientists

Crustacean trapped in fossilized tree resin offers clues into evolution of creatures, when they spread

Artistic reconstruction of the new fossil dubbed Cretapsara athanata, “the immortal Cretaceous spirit of the clouds and waters.”
Artwork by Franz Anthony, courtesy of Javier Luque/Harvard University

Javier Luque’s first thought while looking at the 100-million-year-old piece of amber wasn’t whether the crustacean trapped inside could help fill a crucial gap in crab evolution. He just kind of wondered how the heck it got stuck in the now-fossilized tree resin? Continue reading

Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins Of What We All Need To See In Our Lifetime

book-christakis-blueprint.jpgThe blurb from his own university’s news service is enough to catch your attention:

Drawing on advances in social science, evolutionary biology, genetics, neuroscience, and network science, “Blueprint” attempts to show how and why evolution has placed us on a humane path — and how we are united by our common humanity.

For too long, the author contends, scientists have focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for aggression, cruelty, prejudice, and self-interest. But natural selection has given us a suite of beneficial social features, including our capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, and learning. Beneath all our inventions — our tools, farms, machines, cities, nations — we carry with us innate proclivities to make a good society.

There are not many reviews available yet, but here is one:

KIRKUS REVIEW

A social scientist looks at the good and bad sides of human character, arguing that we are evolutionarily inclined “to make a particular kind of society—a good one full of love, friendship, cooperation, and learning.”…

…A refreshingly optimistic view of our kind.

If, like me, you had previously only known of him due to this incident, the blurb and the review are catchy enough to warrant further attention. So I found an interview he recently gave (on a podcast I would not normally have sought out, but it was all I could find) and listening to him talk about it has made me want to find this book and have a read.

The Mystery of the Lorax: Solved

Dr. Seuss has held an important place in my life, stretching from my own childhood and into parenthood, and connecting the dots between the pure joy of reading and powerful messages keeps him at the top. So what fun to discover the story, species and science behind the inspiration for his most impactful books!

Who Was the Real Lorax? Seeking the Inspiration for Dr. Seuss

What inspired the creature who was “shortish and oldish and brownish and mossy?” The one who spoke in a voice that was “sharpish and bossy?” He spoke for the trees, yet he called them his own. All that he left “in this mess was a small pile of rocks, with the one word … ‘UNLESS.’”

In 1970, millions of people observed Earth Day for the first time, and the Environmental Protection Agency was born. Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” topped the charts.

And in La Jolla, Calif., Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, was fighting to keep a suburban development project from clearing the Eucalyptus trees around his home. But when he tried to write a book about conservation for children that wasn’t preachy or boring, he got writer’s block.

At his wife’s suggestion to clear his mind, they traveled to the Mount Kenya Safari Club, an exclusive resort where guests watched animals along Kenya’s Laikipia plateau.

And if you haven’t guessed by now, it was there that “The Lorax” took shape — on the blank side of a laundry list, nearly all of its environmental message created in a single afternoon. Continue reading

Environmental Progress Seen Through Bird Specimen Collections

FeatherDirt

Grasshopper sparrow specimens from 1907, top, and 1996. Credit Carl Fuldner and Shane DuBay

A fascinating story appears in the Science section of the New York Times this week. It is a reminder of the progress made over the last century in cleaning up the air in North America. Birds are key to the evidential trail in telling the story. The title is one of the most unappealing we have seen in ages, but science is not all sweetness and light:

The Dirty Secrets Saved in Dead Birds’ Feathers

Tucked away in the drawers of natural history museums across America’s Rust Belt, thousands of dead birds carry dirty secrets from America’s polluted past.

The specimens that were put away around the start of the 20th century are far grimier than the ones from more recent decades. And now, climate scientists and historians can thank museum curators for not having tidied them up before storing them. Continue reading