Shipworms, Pasts & Futures

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Bailey Miller, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utah, dived off the Research Vessel E.O. Wilson to explore an ancient underwater cypress forest in the Gulf of Mexico off of Dauphin Island, Ala.

Thanks to JoAnna Klein, who now more than ever is appreciated for the reminder of the wonders of natural history:

A Forest Submerged 60,000 Years Ago Could Save Your Life One Day

Before this underwater forest disappears, scientists recently raced to search for shipworms and other sea life that might conceal medicine of the future.

An ancient log, home to shipworms, which may help researchers discover new medicines.

An ancient log, home to shipworms, which may help researchers discover new medicines.

DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala. — It was 6 a.m. at the dock on a Tuesday in December, and the weather did not look promising. Fog hovered over the water, and the engine of the Research Vessel E.O. Wilson rumbled.

Our ship disappeared into the mist, and by 7:30 the crew, a team of biologists, chemists and microbiologists, reached its destination. The sun lounged on obsidian water, masking a secret world where land and sea swap places, and past, present and future collide.

This is the underwater forest. Its unusual residents, shipworms and related marine organisms, could serve as incubators of unexpected medicines, churning out new lifesaving formulas and compounds that may not be found anywhere else on the planet. But first the group of scientists had to manage to dive 60 feet beneath the ocean’s surface to recover their unusual subjects, a task made more challenging by three days of uncooperative weather.

Another log recovered from the underwater forest.

Another log recovered from the underwater forest.

“Underwater forest” is not a metaphor — this is a not a coral reef or a sea grass bed that resembles surface woodlands but bona fide trees with roots and leaves. For thousands of years, this cypress grove — about two football fields long and five feet wide — lay silent, preserved within an oxygen-less tomb of sand and sediment. Then came Ivan.

In 2004, the hurricane, category 5 before making landfall, ripped through the Gulf of Mexico, with winds up to 140 miles per hour kicking up 90-foot waves. The storm scooped up nearly 10 feet of sand from the seabed, awakening the sleeping forest beneath. Continue reading

Photos From Wild Places

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A fox pounces on a mouse in the snowy hills on the border of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Photograph: Johnny Krüger/Mediadrumimages

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Thirteen rescued slow loris have been released in the Batutegi protected forest conservation area in Lampung, Sumatra, after undergoing medical care and rehabilitation at a specialist primate centre in Bogor, West Java.
Photograph: Reza Septian/International Animal Rescue

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An immature bald eagle tries to hunt a plastic duck on the frozen Quidi Vidi lake in St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. It was seen picking up and trying to take a bite out of the bath toy, before tossing it away.
Photograph: David Howells/SWNS

See the whole collection here.

From The Lab Of Ornithology

Continuing the theme, our thanks to our friends at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and especially its director, for this message. It came in an email, but click the image above to go to the Lab’s website where the message continues with the resources you will also find below:

Birds Can Be Beacons of Hope

A Message from Our Director

Dear Friend,

March is normally the month when my wife Molly and I head to central Florida where, every year since 1972, I have studied Florida Scrub-Jays. Things are quite different this year, with the entire world hunkering down for an extended fight against the spread of COVID-19.

Even though I’m sticking close to home for now, I am comforted to know the scrub-jays are there, pairing up under the bright Florida sun, lining new nests with palmetto fibers, unperturbed by the tremendous human ordeal around them.

I often talk about the power of birds, but this year they take on an even more powerful meaning. They enliven our days, brighten the trees, serenade in our backyards and city parks, and bestow us with so much joy and hope, all bundled together in feathers and lively personalities.

Like everyone around the world, we at the Cornell Lab are adjusting to new routines. We’ve also spent recent days scouring our brains and our servers for ways to help—in some small way—people who find their daily lives upended.

If you’re a teacher prepping for a new kind of remote class, we’ll send you ideas. A parent or grandparent whose kids are on an unexpected “spring vacation”? They can play our games and learn. Are you a bird watcher with extra time on your hands—or an inveterate traveler now homebound? We can bring birds and bird song into your home—or let you explore the farthest reaches of the world in sounds and images.

A core part of our mission is to help people celebrate the wonder of birds. We do it because you (and we) love birds, are amazed by their powers, and even gain solace from them and a deep, clean breath of hope.

Together we’ll all get through this. In the meantime, whenever you may need a moment of respite, we invite you to explore, enjoy, wonder, replenish, and spark hope with the resources we have to share.

With my best wishes

John W. Fitzpatrick, Director
Cornell Lab of Ornithology Continue reading

Roadside Wildflowers In The UK

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Traffic passing pyramidal orchids and other wildflowers along the A354, near Weymouth, Dorset. Photograph: http://www.pqpictures.co.uk/Alamy

A dose of this kind of news, taken daily, is surely good for mental hygiene:

Salmon & Earth’s Fate

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Mark Kurlansky first came to my attention thanks to Seth, whose post I riffed on.  Then Seth pointed this out, and I have been on the lookout ever since. And today I was rewarded when listening to the author discuss his new book. Click any image below to go to that interview.

Web_Large-SALMON_006_campbell Pink salmon school in the deep pools of the Campbell River, before venturing farther upstream to the spawning beds. British Columbia. (Credit: Tavish Campbell) Continue reading

Bioflourescing Amphibians

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A biofluorescing Cranwell’s horned frog. Jennifer Lamb and Matt Davis

Thanks to Joanna Klein, as always:

Salamanders and Frogs Hide a Glowing Secret

Many amphibians — possibly all of them — are biofluorescent, according to a new survey.

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A glowing dwarf siren… Jennifer Lamb and Matt Davis

Amphibians are half-landlubbers, half water-babies. They breathe through skin that is moist, warty, crested and in some cases, poisonous or hallucinogenic. Some wear dull, leaflike-camo patterns. Others sport Guy Fieri flames.

And as cute, gross, pretty, ugly, magical and witchy-named as these slip-sliding creatures may be, they’ve been hiding something in a secret, fluorescent world invisible to humans. Many amphibians, whether salamanders, frogs or their distant cousins — possibly all of them — glow, according to a survey published Thursday in Scientific Reports.

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Jennifer Lamb and Matt Davis

“There is still a lot out there that we don’t know,” said Jennifer Lamb, a biologist who conducted the research with Matt Davis, both at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. “This opens up this whole window into the possibility that organisms that can see fluorescence — their world may look a lot different from ours.”

The study paves the way for new research into how or why amphibians possess this special adaptation, which has potential applications in medical technology and conservation. Continue reading

To Helen, Just Two Words

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Among New York chefs, there is, reportedly, a thriving black market in fresh yuzu smuggled from Japan.Photograph from World Discovery / Alamy

Thank you:

NOTHING COMPARES TO YUZU

I suffer terribly from what you might call a paralysis of wonder. When I become the custodian of something truly marvellous, notably beautiful, or a little bit rare, I worry so much about using it for a sufficiently special purpose that, more often than not, I fail ever to use it at all. My kitchen, in particular, is a graveyard of reverent neglect: a golden bottle of sunflower oil, pressed by monks in an ancient Georgian monastery, long past rancid; a little jar of barbecue sauce folded into my palms years ago by a grizzled pitmaster in Tennessee; a desiccated hunk of white truffle tucked in molding white rice; bags of international potato chips hanging on far beyond their sell-by dates. Continue reading

Forest Alchemy

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Antony van der Ent

Thanks to Ian Morse for the most surprising twist on the mythological possibilities of the philosopher’s stone:

Down on the Farm That Harvests Metal From Plants

Hyper-accumulating plants thrive in metallic soil that kills other vegetation, and botanists are testing the potential of phytomining.

Some of Earth’s plants have fallen in love with metal. With roots that act practically like magnets, these organisms — about 700 are known — flourish in metal-rich soils that make hundreds of thousands of other plant species flee or die.

Slicing open one of these trees or running the leaves of its bush cousin through a peanut press produces a sap that oozes a neon blue-green. This “juice” is actually one-quarter nickel, far more concentrated than the ore feeding the world’s nickel smelters. Continue reading

Rewilding Considered, And Reconsidered

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The Scots pines near Glenfeshie. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Rewilding continues to intrigue me, as it has since my first introduction to the concept and the practice. Thanks to Christopher de Bellaigue for this long-read addition to the intrigue:

The end of farming?

For decades, the way we farm has been degrading land and destroying wildlife. Now there’s a revolution coming – but is it going to create more problems than it solves?

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John Cherry of Weston Park Farms inspects and smells the soil in one of his fields. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

In the last years of the 20th century, Glenfeshie, a 17,000-hectare estate in the Scottish Highlands, was in steep decline. Decades of overgrazing by deer had reduced its hillsides to clipped lifelessness. Denied the protection afforded by tree roots, the banks of the River Feshie were losing soil each time it flooded, the water depositing silt downstream. Those few Scots pines that had survived the browsing of the deer were nearing the end of their lives; soon there would be no seed source for the next generation. Continue reading

Eyes On Prize, Do Not Get Numbed

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An elephant herd in Kenya. PIETER RAS / 500PX / GETTY IMAGES

Thanks to Yale e360 for the reminder that, as trouble rumbles, there is more need than ever for keeping our eyes on the prize:

Psychic Numbing: Keeping Hope Alive in a World of Extinctions

The litany of lost species can be overwhelming, leading to what has been called “psychic numbing.” But as the recovery of species from bald eagles to humpback whales shows, our actions do matter in saving species and the aliveness and beauty they bring to the world. Continue reading

Overflowing With Perspective, Lacking Optimism, But Looking Forward

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Giraffes in the Maasai Mara game reserve. Shrinking habitats and industrial pesticides have caused populations to plummet in recent years. Photograph by Guillaume Bonn

Jon Lee Anderson, who I am sourcing here for the third time, gives us perspective on Richard Leakey, who surprisingly was only mentioned once previously in nine years on this platform. Both men know their respective worlds. There is plenty of perspective among both, not much optimism, but a determined look forward:

CAN THE WILDLIFE OF EAST AFRICA BE SAVED? A VISIT WITH RICHARD LEAKEY

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The paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey is pessimistic about the future of Kenya’s wildlife. Photograph by Mickey Adair / Getty

The week before Christmas, Richard Leakey, the Kenyan paleoanthropologist and conservationist, celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday. He is lucky to have reached the milestone. A tall man with the burned and scarred skin that results from a life lived outdoors, Leakey has survived two kidney transplants, one liver transplant, and a devastating airplane crash that cost him both of his legs below the knee. For the past quarter century, he has moved around on prosthetic limbs concealed beneath his trousers. In his home town of Nairobi, Leakey keeps an office in an unlikely sort of place—the annex building of a suburban shopping mall. His desk and chair fill most of his cubicle, which has a window that looks onto a parking lot. The space has no adornments other than two framed photographs, each sharply symbolic of the parallel interests that have absorbed most of his adult life: the world of extinct prehistoric hominids and the contemporary natural environment that is being pushed toward extinction by humankind.

In one of the photographs, Leakey is three decades younger, a trim man wearing a dark suit and standing amid a group of senior Kenyan officials, including then President Daniel arap Moi, who are gathered next to a pile of elephant tusks. It is a snapshot from 1989, when, as the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, Leakey oversaw the public burning of several tons of poached elephant ivory. At the end of the nineteen-seventies, there were an estimated quarter of a million elephants in Kenya, but, when the photograph was taken, only sixteen thousand were left. Leakey wanted to stigmatize the ivory trade by treating poached tusks in the same way that police treated cocaine seized from drug traffickers. His publicity-seeking gambit worked, making global headlines and leading the way for an international ivory ban that went into effect that same year. The killing of elephants went down for a while as well, allowing Kenya’s herds to recover. Today, Kenya has a relatively stable population of about thirty-five thousand elephants.

Continue reading

Field Expeditions, Panama, Ferns

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Student members of the Mamoní Valley Preserve Natural History Project, Jacob Suissa (left), Sylvia Kinosian, Brian Vergara, Jose Palacios, and Christian López examine the rhizome vasculature of a fern species during their first collection trip in the rainforest.

While most of our work between 1999 and 2019 was field work, once this platform started we distinguished field expeditions from our “regular work,” and Seth’s posts have dominated the expedition realm here. Today, with Seth in wintry New Haven in desk mode, my expeditionary imagination is instead fueled by the field expedition described below, on a topic not featured in these pages for seven years, so I am correcting the neglect:

Going where the diversity is

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Student researchers Ben Goulet-Scott (left), Sylvia Kinosian, and Jacob Suissa, reach the crest of a hill overlooking the Mamoní Valley Preserve while carrying 90 species of ferns on their backs.
Photos by Ben Goulet-Scott/Harvard University Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology

Last month, two graduate students from the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University traveled to one of the most species-rich landscapes in the world: a remote strip of tropical rainforest at the narrowest point in the Central American country of Panama.

Ben Goulet-Scott, a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) and a fellow in the Arboretum’s Hopkins Lab, and Jacob Suissa, OEB Ph.D. candidate in the Friedman Lab at the Arboretum, hope their research in the Mamoní Valley Preserve in Panama will increase our understanding of how biodiversity can persevere in the face of climate change, deforestation, and human disturbance.

200126PanamaExp26The 20-square-mile land conservancy on the isthmus separating Central and South America teems with life, making the condensed rainforest habitat a perfect location for their research project because of the vast number of known and potentially undiscovered species living there, Goulet-Scott said. Continue reading

Functioning Ecosystems Are Key To Our Future

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“How do we feed the nine billion?” Fiennes said. “Through functioning ecosystems.” Photograph by Siân Davey for The New Yorker

The title of this post, paraphrasing the subject of the profile below, states the obvious. Sometimes, that must be. Thank you, Sam Knight:

CAN FARMING MAKE SPACE FOR NATURE?

After Brexit, the obsessions of Jake Fiennes could change how Britain uses its land.

One day last summer, Jake Fiennes was lost in a cloud of butterflies. He was on a woodland path near Holkham Beach, on the north coast of Norfolk. Every decade or so, ten million painted-lady butterflies, which are orange, black, and white, migrate to Britain from tropical Africa. The hot summer meant that it was a bumper year for native species, too, and the painted ladies mingled with red admirals, peacocks, and common blues, feeding on bushes set back a few yards from the path. “Just sat in a haze of flittering, fluttering butterflies,” Fiennes told me later. “I was in awe. These flowers were just exploding.” Continue reading

Heroics & Urban Birds

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A black kite, a carnivorous scavenger, flying over the Ghazipur area of New Delhi. Black kites are a common sight in the city, but are often fatally injured by the flying of paper kites.

We will take heroics wherever we can find them:

Meet the Bird Medics of New Delhi

Two brothers have given everything to treat raptors injured by a popular pastime.

By Photographs by 

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Kite-flying became a symbol of national pride after India gained independence from Britain in 1947.

NEW DELHI — Sitting in his basement, below the crowded dirt roads of Wazirabad village, Mohammad Saud leaned over the body of an injured black kite.

The room was cramped, its walls chipping blue paint, the noise from the streets above drowned out by the whir of a fan. Mr. Saud stared at the bird in front of him for a couple of seconds, then gently folded its wing over with a gloved hand. At least two bones, four tendons and two muscles had been snapped. The bird’s head tilted back limply, eyes cloudy. Mr. Saud adjusted his glasses with the crook of his elbow, then stated the obvious: “This is a gone case. Nothing can be done.”

Mr. Saud placed the kite back into a thin cardboard box. As he did so, Salik Rehman, a young employee of Mr. Saud, reached into a different cardboard box and pulled out another black kite. This bird’s right wing was wrapped in a gauze bandage stained with dried blood and pus. Mr. Saud examined it briefly. Another gone case, he concluded; it would have to be euthanized. Continue reading

Please Let Your Dandelions Bolt

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Each dandelion head has up to 100 individual flowers. Photograph: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images

So many challenges, so many unanswered questions about why bee colonies are collapsing. In the realm of how to help, the UK has a new notion:

Help bees by not mowing dandelions, gardeners told

Plants provide key food source for pollinators as they come out of hibernation

Gardeners should avoid mowing over dandelions on their lawn if they want to help bees, according to the new president of the British Ecological Society.

Dandelions – which will start flowering in the UK this month – provide a valuable food source for early pollinators coming out of hibernation, including solitary bees, honey bees and hoverflies.

Each dandelion head contains up to 100 individual flowers, known as florets, which contain nectar and pollen. There are 240 species of dandelion in the UK. Continue reading

Fly Versus Fly

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A Jock Scott salmon fly, tied according to the original T.E. Pryce-Tannatt recipe.Timo Kontio

Having friends who fish using this technique, this is a tricky post to write. I knew little about the history of the lures used in fly fishing until yesterday. I learned a little something about this history that is as disturbing as the lures are admittedly beautiful. I have tried fly fishing and found it more difficult than any other outdoor activity I ever tried. I respect anyone with the talent required to catch fish this way. But now I wonder about the lures. Above is an extra feature from the episode of a podcast which, if you are a regular viewer of our daily bird feature, you will want to listen to. Click the image to go to that photo gallery for more, either before or after you listen to the podcast:

Victorian salmon flies are tied according to recipes that are up to 150 years old and call for some of the rarest feathers in the world. Our show this week is the story of what may be the greatest feather robbery of all time, a million dollars in rare birds, stolen from a British museum.

The community of people devoted to tying these kinds of flies doesn’t fish with them—they’re just for show. Many try to use feathers from the same species listed in the classic manuals. But because so many birds have been killed for so many reasons over the years, a lot of the most coveted species are now endangered or protected.

Below are some photos of salmon flies—the Durham Ranger, the Jock Scott, and the Sherbrook—and some of the birds referenced in the recipes used to make them.

The episode those photos support offers as well told a story as This American Life is known for, but for bird nerds it is especially rich. And for those who are yet to become bird nerds, it may be just the stimulus you need. To tie the most prized fishing fly, the most prized birds lose the ability to fly. :

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An “analytical diagram” illustrating the various parts of a Jock Scott salmon fly. 
George M. Kelson’s The Salmon Fly: How to Dress It and How to Use It (1895)

A flute player breaks into a British museum and makes off with a million dollars worth of dead birds.

Prologue

By Sean Cole

After hearing about the heist, Kirk Wallace Johnson gets sucked into the feather underground. He ends up discovering things that the people in charge of the theft investigation didn’t. Kirk’s book about the heist is called “The Feather Thief.” (7 minutes)

Invasive Python Hunting Season

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A Florida Wildlife Commission employee captures a Burmese python during the kickoff event for the Florida Python Challenge in Sunrise, Florida, on 10 January. Photograph: Joe Cavaretta/AP

We first started paying attention to invasive species here. Since then, every year, we pay more and more attention, especially to the pythons in the Everglades. It is that time of year:

Florida hunters capture more than 80 giant snakes in Python Bowl

Annual challenge encourages the public to catch as many of the invasive giant snakes that decimate native wildlife as possible

Most visitors to the mosquito-infested swamps of the Florida Everglades are happy to leave again quickly: a half-hour airboat ride and photograph of a basking alligator is usually enough to satisfy the curiosity of any tourist keen to return to the theme parks and beaches – or sports events – of the sunshine state’s more traditional attractions. Continue reading

Weeds Are Not Automatically Enemies

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Credit: NPR

We missed this when it was first posted, but on this topic never too late to share:

VIDEO: Dandelions Aren’t Just Weeds. You Can Fry Them, Too

Some may think of dandelions as just unwanted weeds, but expert forager and nutritionist Debbie Naha says “a weed is just a plant growing where you don’t want it to.”

Naha loves to collect and eat dandelions when they bloom in the spring and again in early fall, when the days begin to shorten.

Some may also think of dandelions as those white puffballs whose seeds you can blow away like a candle on a birthday cake. The puffball is also considered a dandelion — it’s what the yellow flower matures into after a few days. But these aren’t especially good to eat. Continue reading

Alternative Glitter In The Amazon

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Edmilson Estevão climbs a mature cacao tree to pick the fruit. Photograph: João Laet/The Guardian

In the Authentica shops our featured chocolates are artisanal in terms of production, and both companies are leaders in their own ways–sourcing, packaging, etc.–in terms of sustainability. We are just now tasting chocolates from a third possible supplier, one that farms the cacao organically and is in control of all stages of production and packaging–from farm to bar as they say. When we have their product on our shelves, you will be the first to know, right here. Since our thoughts are already on this topic, special thanks to the Guardian for this story that helps better understand the many ways in which cacao can create a brighter future:

Cacao not gold: ‘chocolate trees’ offer future to Amazon tribes

In Brazil’s largest indigenous reserve thousands of saplings have been planted as an alternative to profits from illegal gold mining

The villagers walk down the grassy landing strip, past the wooden hut housing the health post and into the thick forest, pointing out the seedlings they planted along the way. For these Ye’kwana indigenous men, the skinny saplings, less than a metre high, aren’t just baby cacao trees but green shoots of hope in a land scarred by the violence, pollution and destruction wrought by illegal gold prospecting. That hope is chocolate.

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Cacao seeds, which are dried and roasted to make chocolate. Photograph: João Laet/The Guardian

“We want to plant and develop income for the community,” says Júlio Ye’kwana, 39, president of the Ye’kwana people’s Wanasseduume association, which came up with the idea. “And it is not destructive for the forest.” Continue reading

Ugly, Not Deadly

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Photo: Vangelis Aragiannis/Alamy

We do not like looking at them. They disrupt many otherwise pristine views of nature, in the most surprising places. And so the thought of them being dangerous to birds would be an easy stretch of the imagination. Thanks to Audubon for the clarification, that their danger to birds is just an act of imagination:

No, 5G Radio Waves Do Not Kill Birds

Here’s the truth behind a Facebook falsehood spreading across the internet.

On the internet, there is often a fine line between a healthy skepticism of new technologies and blatant misinformation. The recent claim that the radio waves from 5G cellular communication towers are causing mass bird die-offs is a perfect example of just how thin that line can be—and how quickly falsehoods can spread across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even in the comments of Audubon magazine’s stories.

The origin of this claim is as head-spinning as it is instructive, so let’s untangle the knot: Does 5G really kill birds, and if not, why are so many people shouting about it online? Continue reading