“So, like, what do you do every day?”
I get asked this often and I’m not always sure how to explain it to people without pictures at hand or infinite patience for follow-up questions. So, in this blog post, with the benefit of time to pick the right words and theoretically infinite space to write them out, I figured I would try to provide an adequate answer.
View from the field, a week or so ago
This, I feel, is the question at the crux of the what-do-you-do-every-day question. Why do you have to go to Kenya to do your work? Right, the bird you study is only found there, but why do you have to be out on the savanna everyday – can’t you just bring the birds back to the lab or study them in a zoo?
Of course, you can (nowadays, only with the right permits) and that is precisely what early zoologists did, collecting specimens – alive or dead – from around the world and bringing them back to examine them under microscopes or in aviaries in a rainy British country garden. While this may be convenient, it inevitably renders your conclusions about a bird’s diet or the adaptive nature of its plumage coloration suspect, because they are arrived at out of context. Without the bird having been examined in the environment it’s found in, with different factors that might affect its behavior and morphology in play, it is impossible to understand why it acts the way it does and why it is the way it is. Hence, fieldwork: observing and sampling critters in the wild. Continue reading
Giant panda feasting on some bamboo at Chengdu Research Base.
Reading this morning’s news about the giant panda being moved from “endangered” to “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, reminds me of my small stuffed (artificial) panda bear called Baboo and the backstory to getting him.
During my semester abroad in China two years ago, I made a trip to Sichuan province and visited the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. I had never seen a panda before and the opportunity to watch many of them (not only the giant panda, but also the red panda) was an opportunity I did not want to miss.
Whether it be inside or outside of our homes, ants are everywhere on land. The Pheidole drogon and Pheidole viserion worker ants, found in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea, are ones that have spines protruding from their thoraxes, an intimidating sight for anyone or anything trying to tangle with them. However, researchers suggest that the thorny-looking spine might instead be a muscular support for the ant’s over-sized head, which is used to crush seeds. Continue reading
You don’t have to be a romantic to appreciate the underwater rainbow canvas that is a coral reef and marvel at the fact that these organisms have been spotted exchanging an underwater embrace, a behavior researchers have termed “polyp kissing.”
A first-of-its-kind underwater microscope that can observe coral polyps at resolutions of up to 2 micrometers while still remaining a safe distance away allowed marine biologists to watch coral behavior in real time. Not only did they see two species of coral fighting for territory (a previously observed behavior), but also two corals entwine their gastrovascular openings in the act of “polyp kissing” (a previously unknown behavior). Continue reading
For most city dwellers, pigeons are just another speck in the hustle and bustle of urban life and are only truly noticed when they don’t move out of the way fast enough as you stride down the sidewalk. However, for environmental health scientist Rebecca Calisi from the University of California, Davis, pigeons are her primary focus and the basis of her research for potentially finding areas in cites with high level of contaminants dangerous to humans.
Sloths are my favorite arboreal folivore, which is just the short, scientific way of saying an animal that lives in trees and feeds only on leaves. Observing this placid-looking creature was and still is quite a novelty for visitors (and locals, like me) to Costa Rica given that its sluggish nature is uncommon for a arboreal vertebrate…and its adorable fuzziness is simply too cute not to stare at. To understand the rarity of this type of animal (arboreal folivores) better, a group of researchers from the University of Wisconsin traveled to Costa Rica and began to investigate the sloth’s adaptation to a slow lifestyle. Continue reading
Corvid Behaviors poster by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
“Meet the Bird Braniacs,” reads the header for three stories in the March-April issue of Audubon Magazine, highlighting the American Crow, Eurasian Jay, and Common Raven as especially smart species of bird (the three of them are Corvids, or members of the Corvidae family). In the different research projects covered in the Audubon pieces, the idea of empathy in birds is explored by Nicky Clayton at Cambridge University with Eurasian Jays; the problem of deterring Common Ravens from predating upon desert tortoises is a challenge for Tim Shields in the Mojave desert; and the general intelligence of the American Crow is studied by John Marzluff at the University of Washington. All the articles are quite interesting and worth a read online if you have the time. Below, a brief excerpt from the three essays, by Michael Balter, Alisa Opar, and Kat McGowan, respectively:
“I love you!” says Nicky. “I love you!”
“I love you!” says Lisbon.
Nicky Clayton has shoulder-length blonde hair and a posture that reflects her background in dancing. She is a scientist. She is very smart. Lisbon is a bird, a Eurasian Jay. He’s pretty smart, too. Like most Eurasian Jays, especially the males, Lisbon is also a good mimic. So it’s not clear whether he really loves Nicky, although he certainly likes it when she gives him a worm.
If he loves anyone, it’s probably Rome, his longtime mate. Lisbon and Rome, both eight years old, have been together since they were just two. They share a wired enclosure out here at the edge of Madingley, a peaceful, manicured English village a few miles west of Cambridge.
Clayton, 53, moved to Cambridge University about 16 years ago, around the time when she was becoming an international science superstar for her investigations into avian intelligence. As part of the deal, the university agreed to construct several aviaries at its Madingley annex according to Clayton’s specifications. They’re not fancy, but the birdcages include plenty of space for the captives to fly around, play, and mate, as well as special compartments where they collaborate with Clayton in state-of-the-art bird cognition experiments. Today the aviaries house about 70 birds, including Eurasian Jays, Western Scrub-Jays, and Rooks, all members of the corvid family. At night, the caws and kuks can be heard over much of the village.
“Habitat Degradation: Ocean Acidification” contains ocean pH data from 1998 to 2012. The decreasing pH is due to atmospheric carbon dissolving into the ocean, and creating carbonic acid, which means a more acidic ocean. PHOTO: Jill Pelto
“Habitat Degradation: Arctic Melt” shows Arctic sea ice data from 1980 to present. Rapid warming in the Arctic has caused the sea ice area to decline so quickly that species cannot adjust. PHOTO: Jill Pelto
Did you take these for just some stunning water colors? Well, these are hard data on climate change. An artistic expression of an ugly, oft overlooked truth. Jill Pelto, the artist, who graduated in December from the University of Maine with a degree in earth science and studio art, created these paintings based on graphs of data on the environmental effects of climate change.
The first tuatara hatchling has been born outside of its native New Zealand. PHOTO: Chester Zoo
Discoveries excite us, an event that defies all odds even more so. Like the hatching of this tuatara outside its native of New Zealand.
After decades of work by a dedicated team at Chester Zoo in England, the first tuatara hatchling has been born outside of its native New Zealand.
“Breeding tuatara is an incredible achievement,” says Isolde McGeorge, the zoo’s tuatara keeper since 1977. “They are notoriously difficult to breed and it’s probably fair to say that I know that better than most as it has taken me 38 years to get here.”
An elephant takes in a meal at Elephant’s World, Thailand. PHOTO: Jay Simpson
Our love for pachyderms has found multiple expressions on this blog. With us now journeying with Asian Oasis in Thailand and Kerala as home, this love links our efforts in both these lands, serving as common ground for all that we hope to do in tandem with nature. For all that we’ve penned on elephants, we’ve not stopped to think what or rather how much food keeps their giant souls (and stomachs) happy.
Both captive and wild elephants eat a lot, but what else would you expect from one of the largest land animals on the planet? Wild Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) can spend an average of 16-18 hours of every day eating. In the wild they forage for food, constantly searching for roots, small trees, bamboo, grasses, and any other edible plants.
A research programme aims to encourage partnerships between commercial fishermen and scientists
Fishermen in South Devon, UK, have turned their boats into “massive data platforms” for a citizen science study. They have become the first commercial fishers to gather data for the Secchi Disk Study, which is gathering data on the state of the oceans’ phytoplankton. To date, there is little scientific information on the health of the tiny marine plants that form the basis of global food chains. The data will also help fishermen manage stocks.
Are insects conscious beings, asks a new study. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
A recent survey suggests that, for most of us who have ever had a pet companion, it’s a no-brainer that mammals and birds are emotional creatures, sharing emotions with multiple species and not just their own. Yet despite the thousands of YouTube videos and hundreds of recent scientific studies presenting easily accessible evidence and examples, not everyone thinks so. It was only in 2012 that scientists finally agreed that nonhuman animals are conscious beings. It has only just been discovered that dogs display immensely complex, human-like emotions like jealousy, and that cows express positive emotions through the whites of their eyes. But what about insects?
Photonic crystals can manipulate light in the same way that a semiconductor like silicon can steer electrical current. PHOTO: Eli Nablonovich
The US physicist who first discovered “photonic crystals” which can repel, trap and steer light is to receive the Newton Medal, the BBC has revealed. This is the highest honor given by the Institute of Physics in London. Prof Eli Yablonovitch of the University of California, Berkeley, proposed and created the crystals in the 1980s. Photonic crystals are periodic dielectric structures that have a band gap that forbids propagation of a certain frequency range of light. This property enables one to control light with amazing facility and produce effects that are impossible with conventional optics. Butterfly wings and the colorful plumage of peacocks and some parrots all contain examples, which were only understood after Yablonovitch and his fellow physicists fully described photonic crystals in the 1980s.Even the chameleon was recently shown to produce – and control – its color using the shape of photonic crystals.
HowGood, an independent research organization based in New York City, may have answers for the food industry’s many scales of sustainability. PHOTO: ucla.edu
Are you a conscientious shopper? Do tags of ‘organic’, ‘locally sourced’, ‘homegrown’, ‘all-natural’, etc easily sway you and your shopping cart? Got questions that can better aid your shopping choices? Then HowGood is where you should stop by before you head to the check-out counter.
But if one apple touts organic certification, and an adjacent apple boasts local sourcing, which green reigns supreme? And what grocery store offers the singular scale for weighing the overall benefits? HowGood, an independent research organization based in New York City, has toppled the food industry’s many scales of sustainability to answer these questions through a more nuanced, easy to understand system.
The Okavango Delta is home to the largest-remaining elephant population and keystone populations of lion, hyena, giraffe and lechwe antelopes. It’s the size of Texas, and visible from space. PHOTO: James Kydd
What can one man do towards protecting the wild? For starters, your efforts could center around saving Africa’s last remaining wetland wilderness. Then, you could be so relentless in your mission that UNESCO includes your ‘battleground’ in its World Heritage List. Then, you keep at your preservation project until you meet the Minister of Environment and get him to sign a pact on protecting the river system. If that all sounds good to you, allow us to introduce explorer Steve Boyes who has done all of the above and pledged his life to the conservation of the Okavango River Delta.
Located in northern Botswana, this untouched 18,000 square kilometer alluvial fan is the largest of its kind, and is supplied by the world’s largest undeveloped river catchment — the mighty Kavango Basin. The Okavango Delta is home to the largest-remaining elephant population and keystone populations of lion, hyena, giraffe and lechwe antelopes. It’s the size of Texas, and visible from space.
Typical landscape mosaic of Barrio Nuevo
Isabel and I arrived safe and sound to Barrio Nuevo, Pichincha, Ecuador (0.224063°, -78.559691°) on May 21 to begin our study on a shade coffee agroforestry initiated seven years ago (see my blog for background info). We moved into the home of Juan Guevara, the local coffee promoter, and his family. It’s a simple concrete house with a kitchen and three bedrooms.After settling in, we spent a day with Juan going to the homes of various farmers growing coffee to introduce ourselves.
We spent the next three days conducting surveys with the coffee producers as well as visiting, evaluating, and mapping their coffee plots. As I expected, we quickly learned a lot about the problems with the shade coffee project that was implemented about seven years ago. Continue reading
Hey Raxa readers, I thought I’d share with you the process of putting up a camera trap in a tree, and also a couple of videos that I recorded with the camera trap. What adorable rodent did I get a great video of in a shade coffee plot? Take a look and find out! Continue reading