Russkaya Arktika National Park Expanded

Big sky can be seen above Tegetthoff Island.
Photograph by Cory Richards, National Geographic Creative

We have lots of land conservation news going on right now (just scroll down), which can only be a good thing, and is perfect timing given the US National Park Service centennial. Jocelyn will be posting a close-up feature of a park later today, but first I invite you to imagine a new arms race between Russia and the United States – not of weapons, but rather in the sphere of conservation through protected national park expansion. President Obama just quadrupled the area of marine national monument Papahānaumokuākea, and now Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of Russia expanded the island region of Russian Arctic National Park by over eighty percent. In this case, I say, the more friendly competition the better! Brian Howard reports on the Russian expansion:

Made up of more than 190 islands, Franz Josef Land is a mostly uninhabited area that is encased in sea ice for much of the year. Yet the rocky, glaciated islands are home to stunning biodiversity. The newly expanded park will protect habitat for such species as the Atlantic walrus, bowhead whale, polar bear, narwhal, and white gull.

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Podcast: The Magic of Salt

Yuya Shino / Reuters via The Atlantic

Almost exactly five years ago, I quoted Mark Kurlansky’s book focused on the history of an Atlantic fish species, Cod. I knew he’d written another book on the history of salt, but haven’t read it yet. With a podcast episode from Gastropod that was featured in The Atlantic recently, I got a nice summary of the subject and learned even more about the current issues revolving around sodium.

Salt is a magical substance. It reduces bitterness, enhances sweetness, boosts flavor, and preserves perishable foods. Without it, we would die: The human body can’t make sodium, but our nerves and muscles don’t work without it. It was considered rare until quite recently, so it’s hardly surprising that, throughout history, salt has been the engine behind empires and revolutions. Today, there’s a new battle in the salt wars, between those who think that we eat too much of it and it’s killing us—and those who think most of us are just fine. Join us for a serving of salt, seasoned with science, history, and a little politics.

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Elephant Footprint Land

We know how much an Asian elephant eats, but until today we didn’t know the biodiversity footprint of African elephants – that is, the literal biodiversity in the footprints left by these massive animals as they walk around, hopefully avoiding beehives. John Platt reports for Scientific American on the ecosystem engineers’ effects from walking:

When you weigh upwards of 6,000 kilograms, you tend to leave a trace of yourself wherever you walk. That’s definitely the case with African elephants (Loxodonta africana), which, according to new research, is actually a boon for dozens of other, much tinier, species.

As discussed in a paper published this week in the African Journal of Ecology, elephant feet play an important ecological role in Uganda, and probably in other countries. As elephants walk through the forest, they leave deep footprints behind them. These footprints then fill up with water, creating little foot-shaped microhabitats for at least 61 different microinvertebrate species from nine different orders.

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America’s Only Full-time Tea Taster

The “Green Giant” mechanical tea harvester, one of only a few in the world, does the manual work of 500 people. Wayne’s View Photography/Courtesy of Charleston Tea Plantation


A Munnar tea estate in Kerala, India, where tea leaves are picked by hand. Photo by Milo Inman.

The two photos and their implications offer a pretty big contrast, but what they have in common is Camellia sinensis, the tea plant.  Continue reading

Another Night Excursion at Chan Chich

A Northern Potoo on a tall exposed limb seen during the outing

A few nights ago we went out on another night drive, to look for nocturnal animals. Seeing wildlife in the dark is always a challenge, and one has to be prepared to come back relatively empty-handed, especially in comparison to a lengthy jaguar sighting. This second time around, we saw fewer birds and just one mammal apart from deer: a young gray fox, but it was still a very pleasant ride through the forest at night, feeling the cool breeze and looking up to see the stars.

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Rhode Island’s Offshore Wind Turbines Completed

One of five turbines that make up the Block Island Wind Farm, the first offshore wind farm in the United States, off the Rhode Island coast. Credit Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

Less than a month ago we shared the story in WIRED about the Block Island Deepwater Wind farm, and now, construction is finished! That may seem like trivial news to Europeans with coastline who have been enjoying offshore wind power for years now, but given that this is the first project of its kind in the US, it’s an exciting sign of progress to come in renewables for a nation with one of the largest carbon footprints. Justin Gillis reports for the New York Times:

BLOCK ISLAND, R.I. — The towering machines stand a few miles from shore, in a precise line across the seafloor, as rigid in the ocean breeze as sailors reporting for duty.

The blades are locked in place for now, but sometime in October, they will be turned loose to capture the power of the wind. And then, after weeks of testing and fine-tuning, America’s first offshore wind farm will begin pumping power into the New England electric grid.

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Fantastic Fantasy Maps Generated By Code

Different steps in the creation of a code-generated map that mimics real-world coastal landscape formation by erosion. Images by Martin O’Leary

There is no shortage of posts on maps here, but only one has been focused on the maps published in fantasy or fiction novels to set the scene. Two others have been linked to conservation, with one formatted in an amusing way. Then there’s my series on Icelandic cartography, starting in 1585 and continuing through 1849, then 1875, and finally 1906. But this is the first I hear about realistic fantasy maps created every hour by a bot – or computer program – coded by glaciologist Martin O’Leary and then tweeted on Twitter. And you can even go through the steps yourself and create a map of your making on his website! Betsy Manson writes for NatGeo:

As you travel northeast along the shore of southern Nimrathutkam, the first town you’ll encounter is Ak Tuh, followed by Nunrat and Nrik Mah before you reach the coastal city of Tuhuk, the largest urban area in the region of Mum Huttak.

If these sound like places out of a fantasy novel you read as a teenager, you’re not far off. Nimrathutkan is the result of an automated map generator that was inspired by those novels. The map bot, created by glaciologist Martin O’Leary of Swansea University in Wales, combines imaginary place names with fake terrain to produce fantasy worlds, tweeting a new one every hour from the Twitter account @unchartedatlas.

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Chan Chich Spider Monkeys

Pretty much any time you walk out in the woods at Chan Chich Lodge, at some point during your hike you should be able to hear the rocking branches that are a sign of either spider monkeys or howler monkeys moving or eating in the treetops. And if you’re lucky, the swinging simians might stop and watch you with an uncannily familiar curiosity (or boredom), interrupting their normal activity for a minute or two before continuing on their way.

During the period in which we observed the family of three in the video above, the father yawned at least nine times, while the mother did so at least five times. Continue reading

Community Food Systems Minor at Cornell

Compost demonstration in the Dedza region, Malawi. Photo by Catherine Hickey via

Classes are starting at Cornell University around now, and there’s a new minor in town: Community Food Systems, a multidisciplinary study housed within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Developmental Sociology. With elective courses from three categories (ethical and epistemic perspectives; ecological perspectives; and agricultural perspectives) in wide-ranging departments like philosophy, natural resources, economics, and anthropology, the minor also includes a required practicum with a community-based organization that works on “just, equitable and environmentally sound” food systems. Krisy Gashler writes for the Cornell Chronicle:

Scott Peters, professor of Development Sociology, said the minor has been a years-long process of discussion among faculty, staff and community partners, and was developed through the Food Dignity project, a 5-year, $5 million grant from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiativeand support from a Cornell Engaged Curriculum development grant.

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Slacklining in Rio

Image of Giovanna Petrucci via

I wrote about slacklining last year, as James did the year before that, but we were nowhere near the class of skill practiced by professional slackers like those in Rio de Janeiro, where lots of young people go to the beaches and enjoy the relatively new sport in a much more acrobatic fashion than the simple balancing I’ve been doing in back yards and college campuses. Anna Jean Kaiser reports on the world champion of slacklining, an eighteen-year-old girl who practices in her hometown at Ipanema Beach:

RIO DE JANEIRO — Bouncing in the air above the sand of Ipanema Beach, not an Olympic venue in sight, is one of the most remarkable athletes in the world who has nothing to do with the Rio Games. Her name is Giovanna Petrucci, and her acrobatics rival those of the gymnasts and divers competing across this city.

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Op-Ed: US National Protected Lands at Risk

From the New York Times, president of the Wilderness Society Jamie Williams writes an opinion editorial titled “Don’t Give Away Our Wildlife Refuges.” Perhaps given the global crisis I read the final word as refugees accidentally, so I was expecting something else entirely – maybe animals that are displaced by climate change. Instead, I learned that there is a relatively strong segment of the US Congress and state legislatures that are constantly trying to undermine the country’s system of public protected lands, sometimes in ways that could lead to the park or refuge’s destruction:

Tucked into the fiscal relief package for Puerto Rico this spring was a provision to give away a national treasure that belongs to all Americans — 3,100 acres of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. The proposal had nothing to do with the economic recovery of Puerto Rico. But it would have handed an important victory to extremists in Congress and state legislatures who want to grab national lands and turn them over to the states to be sold or leased.

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Feeding Fish with Methane?

Our last post on farmed fish revolved around grubs – dried black soldier fly larvae – as an alternative and more sustainable feed in aquaculture. Today I learned about yet another method for feeding fish that doesn’t involve catching wild fish or using petroleum-reliant grains, and actually helps control a problematic greenhouse gas, methane. Kristine Wong writes for Civil Eats, a website that acts as a “daily news source for critical thought about the American food system”:

Wild seafood is disappearing rapidly and many consumers have turned to farmed fish as a way to help reverse the trend. But finding a sustainable source of food for carnivorous fish such as salmon and tuna—which rank as the second and third most popular types of seafood in America—has been a persistent challenge for aquaculture producers.

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Adjutant Storks and their Conservation Brigade

A rag picker looks for valuables among a group of Greater Adjutant Storks in a garbage dump site near Deepor Beel Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam. Photo by Ritu Raj Konwar, via The Hindu

Looking at the photo above, you may not see much to like in the Greater Adjutant, a type of stork found primarily in northern India and parts of Cambodia. But these big birds are important scavengers in their ecosystem, helping to break down dead animals. In this way they’re like vultures, a similarly-maligned group of relatively unattractive birds. As you’ll read below, many rural communities in India historically did not welcome the Greater Adjutant, which is classified as endangered by the IUCN. But storks, like other large avian families such as vulture and cranes, are not doing too well on a global scale: of the nineteen species of stork, the IUCN labels fifteen of their population trends as decreasing; four are endangered, while two are near-threatened and three are vulnerable. All of which makes the news from the state of Assam in India even more heartening:

On a cloudy day in July, in a remote village in northeastern India, Charu Das excitedly imitates the awkward movements of a stork with her hands.

In a few months, the greater adjutant stork—called hargilla, which means “swallower of bones” in Sanskrit—will descend on this hamlet, situated in Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley, to breed in large numbers.

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Car-sharing Greatly Reduces Carbon-Output

Image via

I’ve never owned a car myself, because friends and family have always had one. While a student at Cornell, a couple of my friends used the Zipcar service, and that’s something I’d have used if I didn’t have the opportunity to borrow a car or share a ride with housemates for grocery shopping every other week (when I didn’t bike or bus to the store instead). But you don’t need to do any math to realize that a car-sharing service is almost certainly going to result in a reduction of carbon dioxide output, even if it’s not as environmentally friendly as biking or taking public transportation. Conservation Magazine reports on a new study quantifying the use of the Car2go service in five cities over three years:

Car-sharing is quickly gaining popularity in cities around the world. Proponents say that it’s a green way to get around town. In a report published in July, researchers calculated car-sharing’s precise impact by analyzing the car-share service car2go in five North American cities. Each car2go eliminated up to 11 privately-owned vehicles from the roads and prevented 10 to 14 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, they found.

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You’ve Seen Bird Cams – How About a Salmon Cam?

Resolution is low, probably due to poor internet where the fish is and where I am, but you can see a coho, just like they say you might when watching the cam!

Resolution is low, probably due to poor internet where the fish is and where I am, but you can see a coho, just like they say you might when watching the cam!

We’ve shared various of the “bird cam” projects here before: websites, often run by universities like Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, that host a live-streaming video of a nest somewhere so that people around the world with internet can tune in to the parent or chicks’ activities at any time of day. In some circles, similar videos of cats are also available. Now, not necessarily for the first time but at least the first I’ve heard of personally, there’s a live-streaming site of a real-life stream owned by The Nature Conservancy (I’m surprised their blog writers didn’t pun their way into that one). Matt Miller and Chris Babcock write about the new Salmon Cam:

Welcome to Salmon Cam, where you can enjoy the underwater happenings of a California salmon river throughout the day, on your computer or device.

The Salmon Cam is located in a tributary creek on The Nature Conservancy’s Shasta Big Springs Ranch. The camera is powered on in daylight hours (currently between 7 am and 7 pm Pacific time). Throughout the season, it will provide a view of migrating Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout.

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