With Gene-Altering Schemes, Be Careful What You Wish For

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The short-tailed weasel, or stoat, decimated native bird populations after it was introduced to New Zealand. Altering the genes of invasive animals might save threatened species, scientists said, but could also have devastating consequences. Credit DeAgostini, via Getty Images

Two days ago we were intrigued by the notion; today, not so much. Is it a cat fight between two of the science writers most often linked to in these pages? Or perhaps it is an example of how scientific consensus is built:

‘Gene Drives’ Are Too Risky for Field Trials, Scientists Say

In 2013, scientists discovered a new way to precisely edit genes — technology called Crispr that raised all sorts of enticing possibilities. Scientists wondered if it might be used to fix hereditary diseases, for example, or to develop new crops.

One of the more intriguing ideas came from Kevin M. Esvelt and his colleagues at Harvard University: Crispr, they suggested, could be used to save endangered wildlife from extinction by implanting a fertility-reducing gene in invasive animals — a so-called gene drive. Continue reading

How Many Trees On This Planet?

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The scientific journal Nature is not one of our regular sources for stories here, but when the Science section of the Times points out a good story, we listen. To our surprise, even the Real Estate section of the Times can point out must-read stories from Nature (the slide show is worth the click):

Time to Put the Garden to Bed?

There are 422 living trees for every human on Earth — 3.04 trillion overall — and during a couple of weeks each fall, a person can feel plainly outnumbered. Is it possible that a trillion of those trees have deposited their leaves in the front yard? And why are so many of them still green? Continue reading

New Zealand, Invasive Species & Gene Editing

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Thanks to Ed Yong and his editors at The Atlantic for this story on one country’s approach to rats:

New Zealand’s War on Rats Could Change the World

The nation wants to eradicate all invasive mammal predators by 2050. Gene-editing technology could help—or it could trigger an ecological disaster of global proportions.

The first thing that hit me about Zealandia was the noise.

I was a 15-minute drive from the center of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, but instead of the honks of horns or the bustle of passersby, all I could hear was birdsong. It came in every flavor—resonant coos, high-pitched cheeps, and alien notes that seemed to come from otherworldly instruments. Continue reading

Nature’s Silence Is Golden

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Yesterday’s post, linking to an article from the same source, combines with this one to confirm that some venerable members of the “mainstream media” see an audience (us, for example) for green-leaning reporting. Then we found this, about a remarkable Norwegian silence-hunter who has gone to the ends of the earth; and now finds himself in the East Village of New York City. Instead of featuring that story, this one below is must-read on the topic of quietude:

Lessons in Stillness From One of the Quietest Places on Earth

In the wilderness of Washington State’s Hoh Rain Forest, a poet searches for the rare peace that true silence can offer.

THE OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK stretches down coastal Washington and east toward Seattle on a thumb of land known as the Olympic Peninsula, some 60 miles long by 90 miles wide. Around a three-hour ride by car from Seattle, it feels much farther, as if you have passed into an otherworldly realm. Within it are volcanic beaches scattered with the remains of massive Sitka spruces, evergreen-crowded mountains, broad, flat valleys and the Hoh Rain Forest, through which 12 miles of hiking trails and the glacier-formed Hoh River run. The Park, in total nearly a million acres, is home to what may be the most complex ecosystem in the United States, teeming with big-leaf maples, lichens, alders, liverworts, Monkey flowers, licorice ferns, club mosses, herbs, grasses and shrubs of remarkable abundance. Today, thanks to federal protections, it is home to some of the largest remaining stands of old-growth forest in the continental U.S. Continue reading

The Business of Arctic Anti-Stewardship

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The upper Colville River and headwaters on Alaska’s North Slope | Joel Sartore

Screen Shot 2017-11-11 at 8.40.28 AMThanks to Christopher Solomon, contributing editor at Outside magazine, for this important story published in the New York Times. The interactive element highlighting each ecosystem, followed by migration visuals drive home the extremity and unprecedented nature of the policies that the federal government of the United States of America is now promoting.

America’s Wildest Place Is Open for Business

Screen Shot 2017-11-11 at 8.42.01 AMSeveral years ago a mapping expert pinpointed the most remote place in the Lower 48 states. The spot was in the southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, 20 miles from the nearest road. Roman Dial read the news and wasn’t much impressed. To him, 20 miles — the distance a hungry man could walk in a long day — didn’t seem very remote at all.

Mr. Dial is a professor of biology and mathematics at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, and a National Geographic explorer. He decided to figure out the most remote place in the entire nation. His calculations led him to the northwest corner of Alaska, where the continent tilts toward the Arctic Ocean. The spot lay on the Ipnavik River on the North Slope, 119 miles west of the Haul Road (otherwise known as the Dalton Highway), which brings supplies and roughnecks to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay. Continue reading

Bats & Social Mechanisms Of Learning

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The social and vocal interactions of a colony of fruit bats competing for position in a sleeping cluster. By LEE HARTEN on Publish DateOctober 31, 2017. Photo by Mickey Samuni-Blank.

Yesterday’s topic touched on a taboo of sorts, but in the interest of furthering our understanding of one of the most remarkable organisms on the planet; today, likewise, thanks to Steph Yin for her note on creatures sometimes considered creepy but whose environmental services are remarkably valuable:

Teaching Bats to Say ‘Move Out of My Way’ in Many Dialects

I was raised by grandparents who spoke only Mandarin, so I did not speak English until I went to preschool in Philadelphia. There, guided by English-speaking teachers and surrounded by toddlers babbling in loose English, I adopted the new language quickly.

Young bats may not be so different. Continue reading

Oregon’s Underground Economy

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A forest floor dark honey fungus, or Armillaria ostoyae. The “Humongous Fungus,” living beneath the soil in Oregon sends these fruiting bodies, or mushrooms, above ground to disperse spores. Credit Arterra/UIG, via Getty Images

The Science section of the New York Times is a dependable source of occasionally brilliant ecological findings (amidst the more common overdoses of dark and dreary news) and this one helps start a new week on solid ground:

The Humongous Fungus and the Genes That Made It That Way

A new genetic analysis reveals the tactics that helped fungi in the Armillaria genus get so good at expanding and killing host plants.

Thousands of years ago, two microscopic spores spawned and created a monster. It grew — up to three feet a year — sending out dark, gnarly, threadlike organs called rhizomorphs that explored the subterranean darkness, foraging for food. Now it’s a nebulous body, a tangled mat beneath the Oregon soil that occupies an area the size of three Central Parks and may weigh as much as 5,000 African elephants.

Its scientific name is Armillaria ostoyae, but you can call it The Humongous Fungus. It’s the largest known terrestrial organism on the planet, according to the United States Forest Service.

Continue reading

Biodiversity From Another Perspective

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ILLUSTRATION BY LUISA RIVERA/YALE E360

Thanks to Jim Robbins at Yale 360 for this:

Beyond Biodiversity: A New Way of Looking at How Species Interconnect

In a development that has important implications for conservation, scientists are increasingly focusing not just on what species are present in an ecosystem, but on the roles that certain key species play in shaping their environment. Continue reading

Jane Goodall Then And Now

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A preview of the film. By NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC on Publish DateOctober 18, 2017.Image courtesy of Internet Video Archive. Watch in Times Video »

Several of us contributing to this platform have had the opportunity to meet her, and can attest to what Melena Ryzyk says below. There really are not sufficiently powerful words to describe her, but we link out to those stories that try.  It may be that photography or film offer the best medium for understanding and more fully appreciating her work. Click above for the trailer, or click the title below to read the review of this film, high on our list for viewing:

Jane Goodall’s Unparalleled Life, in Never-Before-Seen Footage

If you ever meet Jane Goodall and well up with overwhelmed joy, you won’t be alone. “I make everybody cry,” said Dr. Goodall, the primatologist and conservationist. “The Jane effect.” Continue reading

Regenerating Biodiversity Is Hard Work In The Best Of Circumstances

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Jon Asgeir Jonsson, who works for a private forestry association, with larch saplings in western Iceland.

It’s never easy being green, but especially millennia after deforestation. Thanks to Henry Fountain and the New York Times:

Vikings Razed the Forests. Can Iceland Regrow Them?

GUNNARSHOLT, Iceland — With his flats of saplings and a red planting tool, Jon Asgeir Jonsson is a foot soldier in the fight to reforest Iceland, working to bring new life to largely barren landscapes.

The country lost most of its trees more than a thousand years ago, when Viking settlers took their axes to the forests that covered one-quarter of the countryside. Now Icelanders would like to get some of those forests back, to improve and stabilize the country’s harsh soils, help agriculture and fight climate change. Continue reading

Keep National Parks Safe, Know Your Chocolate

Choc.jpgThe rise in artisanal cacao farming, as we have noted on occasion, can have important implications for conservation. Whether you are a chocoholic or just a casual dabbler in the sweet bi-product of cacao, this report deserves your attention (click on the image to go to the source):

Chocolate is everywhere. It is the afternoon pick-me-up, the sensual indulgence, the accoutrement to seduction. Lovers gift truffles, skiers sip on rich hot chocolate, and connoisseurs savor the tiniest, richest bite of single origin dark chocolate. The ancient Aztecs believed that chocolate was an aphrodisiac, and the emperor Montezuma was reported to gorge himself on chocolate in advance of his trysts. Continue reading

Pumas Are Not Such Loners After All

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Adult female with young male coming in (without collar) to her kill. Mark Elbroch/Panthera/Science

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this latest news on one of our favorite species:

Supposedly solitary pumas actually hang out with their fellow big cats quite often, frequently coming together and hissing and snarling before settling down to share a delicious elk carcass.

That’s the startling discovery made by scientists who recently tracked 13 pumas — also called mountain lions or cougars — and set up cameras at kill sites. They recorded dozens of peaceful social interactions between these elusive felines. Continue reading

Empathic Survival Strategy

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Photograph courtesy the author

Finally, the author we link out to with frequency (respectfully and affectionately noting her role in highlighting doom on the horizon), has offered a photo of herself in the setting of one of her stories. It is a cave with a story to tell, and while the story is not one we want to hear it is one we must ponder. That is why we keep linking out to her writing.

This is among her best short offerings, written originally to be a speech, with the creature below featured in compelling manner:

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A Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog. Photograph by Brian Gratwicke / Flickr

The Fate of Earth

Humanity’s survival on this planet seems more uncertain than ever. But what happens when we look at ourselves through other creatures’ eyes?

By 

Yesterday evening, at Manhattan’s New School, the New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert delivered the second annual Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture on the Fate of the Earth, an event established by the Nation Institute in honor of the late Jonathan Schell, a longtime New Yorker staff writer, and named for “The Fate of the Earth,” a series of articles that Schell wrote for the magazine in 1982 and later published as a book. Kolbert’s remarks have been edited for length. Continue reading

Seeds of Change

Lebanese workers at the seed bank in Terbol. Mr. Shehadeh’s organization, Icarda, moved operations out of Syria after the war broke out. Credit Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

How a Seed Bank, Almost Lost in Syria’s War, Could Help Feed a Warming Planet

TERBOL, Lebanon — Ali Shehadeh, a seed hunter, opened the folders with the greatest of care. Inside each was a carefully dried and pressed seed pod: a sweet clover from Egypt, a wild wheat found only in northern Syria, an ancient variety of bread wheat. He had thousands of these folders stacked neatly in a windowless office, a precious herbarium, containing seeds foraged from across the hot, arid and increasingly inhospitable region known as the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of farming.

Mr. Shehadeh is a plant conservationist from Syria. He hunts for the genes contained in the seeds we plant today and what he calls their “wild relatives” from long ago. His goal is to safeguard those seeds that may be hardy enough to feed us in the future, when many more parts of the world could become as hot, arid and inhospitable as it is here. But searching for seeds that can endure the perils of a hotter planet has not been easy. It has thrown Mr. Shehadeh and his organization, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, or Icarda, squarely at a messy intersection of food, weather and war.

Icarda, though it received no state funding, was once known as a darling of the Syrian government. Based in Aleppo, its research had helped to make Syria enviably self-sufficient in wheat production. But a drive to produce thirsty crops also drained Syria’s underground water over the years, and it was followed by a crippling drought that helped to fuel the protests that erupted into armed revolt against the government in 2011.Icarda, in turn, became a casualty of the war. By 2014, the fighting drew closer to its headquarters in Aleppo and its sprawling field station in nearby Tal Hadya. Icarda’s trucks were stolen. Generators vanished. Most of the fat-tailed Awassi sheep, bred to produce more milk and require less water, were looted and eaten. Mr. Shehadeh and the other scientists eventually sent out what they could — including a few of the sheep — and fled, joining half the country’s population in exile. Continue reading

Thanks, Trees

A female tree lobster specimen. Scientists have learned that the Ball’s Pyramid stick insect and the Lord Howe stick insect are variations of the same species. CreditRohan Cleave/Melbourne Zoo, Australia

Thanks to Joanna Klein and the Science section of the New York Times:

A Stick Insect. A Tree Lobster. Whatever You Call It, It’s Not Extinct

A genetic analysis showed that a stick insect found on another island was the same species as one that had been wiped out by rats on Australia’s Lord Howe Island.

The tree lobster, one of the rarest insects on Earth, has lived a rather twisted life story.

Scientifically known as Dryococelus australis, this six-inch-long stick bug with a lobster-esque exoskeleton once occupied Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand. Continue reading

Being Better For Bees

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Richard Coy inspects one of his hives near Burdette, Ark. Honey production at this location fell by almost half this year — which he attributes to the drifting of weedkiller dicamba to nearby flowering plants. Dan Charles/NPR

By coincidence two days in a row we have encountered important stories related to bees–yesterday’s more inspirational and this one more troubling:

There is one small field on Michael Sullivan’s farm, near the town of Burdette, Ark., that he wishes he could hide from public view.

The field is a disaster. There are soybeans in there, but you could easily overlook them. The field has been overrun by monsters: ferocious-looking plants called pigweeds, as tall as people and bursting with seeds that will come back to haunt any crops that Sullivan tries to grow here for years to come.

“I’m embarrassed to say that we farm that field,” Sullivan says. “We sprayed it numerous times, and it didn’t kill it.”

Pigweeds, which have become resistant to some well-known herbicides, infest a soybean field in northwestern Arkansas. Dan Charles/NPR

These weeds have become resistant to Sullivan’s favorite herbicides, including glyphosate, which goes by the trade name Roundup.

Yet the rest of Sullivan’s farm is beautiful. As farmers like to say, the fields are “clean.” There is not a weed to be seen. Continue reading

Minnesota Bee Atlas & Citizen Science

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Agapostemon virescens, a sweat bee native to Minnesota. Photo © John Flannery / Flickr through a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

We have met and heard of plenty other skeptics of citizen science, and the conversation is always interesting; we of course enjoy hearing of conversion stories. Thanks to Meredith Cornett and Cool Green Science for this:

On Bee-ing

Science is my day job. Has been for more than two decades. So why would I want to also participate on an amateur basis?

For years I scoffed at the very notion of “citizen science.” I dismissed it as cumbersome, unreliable, and yielding data of questionable quality at best. In short, I was sniffy about the whole thing, and kept it at arm’s length. I was not alone. In fact, many of my colleagues dismissed citizen science as mostly a feel-good endeavor. Continue reading

Know The Glow Of Worms & Caves

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A cave of glowworms

It has been quite some time since we linked out to an Ed Yong story, and title notwithstanding this is as good as they come:

The Most Beautiful Death Trap

The ethereal allure of a cave full of glowworms masks a sinister purpose and a weird origin story.

At first, they look like stars. I see them as I gaze upward at the ceiling of a flooded, pitch-black cave—hundreds of blue pinpricks. As my eyes habituate to the darkness, more and more of them resolve, and I see that they are brighter and more densely packed than any starry field. And unlike the night sky, these lights don’t appear as a flat canvas, but as a textured one. Some are clearly closer to us than others and they move relative to each other, so the whole tableau seems to undulate gently as our boat sails beneath it. These lights are not astrological, but entomological. They are produced by insects called glowworms. Continue reading

Unlikely Underdog Progress

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The Burmese star tortoise was declared functionally extinct in the early 2000s, but conservation efforts have helped the species make a comeback. Credit Eleanor Briggs

Thanks to Steph Yin for news out of Burma, of all places:

Slow and Steady, a Tortoise Is Winning Its Race With Extinction

The Burmese star tortoise was almost history.

By the early 2000s, the natives of central Myanmar’s deserts had dwindled to such low counts in the wild that ecologists declared them functionally extinct. Continue reading

Respect For The Praying Mantis

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A praying mantis outfitted with 3-D glasses during an experiment to determine whether the insects see in three dimensions. The conclusion: absolutely. Credit Newcastle University