The Science Of Camouflage

This is more science-y than is our custom, but Nature magazine has been appreciated on this platform as a source of intriguing findings about creatures from time to time, so here goes:

Cuttlefish wear their thoughts on their skin

Elaborate video system tracks how pigment cells controlled by neurons generate complex patterns of camouflage.

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Cuttlefish are masters of quick-change camouflage, thanks to skin cells that act as coloured pixels. Credit: Pasquale Vassallo/Getty

Cuttlefish are masters at altering their appearance to blend into their surroundings. But the cephalopods can no longer hide their inner thoughts, thanks to a technique that infers a cuttlefish’s brain activity by tracking the ever-changing patterns on its skin. The findings, published in Nature on 17 October1, could help researchers to better understand how the brain controls behaviour.

The cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) camouflages itself by contracting the muscles around tiny, coloured skin cells called chromatophores. The cells come in several colours and act as pixels across the cuttlefish’s body, changing their size to alter the pattern on the animal’s skin.

The cuttlefish doesn’t always conjure up an exact match for its background. It can also blanket itself in stripes, rings, mottles or other complex patterns to make itself less noticeable to predators. “On any background, especially a coral reef, it can’t look like a thousand things,” says Roger Hanlon, a cephalopod biologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “Camouflage is about deceiving the visual system.” Continue reading

Lost & Found, Apples & Ciders

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The Harrison apple tree that Thomas Vilardi found near Newark in the fall of 2015. “I knew I had seen apples on a tree,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to find a Harrison.” Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Thanks for this article to Rachel Wharton, who is batting 1000 for our taste in food writing:

Finding Lost Apples and Reviving a Beloved Cider

George Washington was among the many fans of Newark cider, a long-missing treat now being recreated by a former ad man on a mission.

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Charles Rosen, left, and Cameron Stark in the new taproom they opened last week at Ironbound Hard Cider in Asbury, N.J. It will serve limited-edition ciders made by Mr. Stark, the head cider maker.CreditBryan Anselm for The New York Times

ASBURY, N.J. — Ironbound Hard Cider may seem an odd name for the business Charles Rosen has built here on 108 acres in central New Jersey. The farm, where a new taproom offers pastoral views of the still-ripening fruit, doesn’t appear to share much with the Ironbound, an industrial neighborhood 50 miles to the east in Newark.

Yet they do have common roots, thanks to four very old apple varieties now growing on Mr. Rosen’s land.

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Mr. Vilardi and Fran McManus at the old apple tree he found three years ago. An apple expert connected him to Ms. McManus, who had written an article about Newark cider in 2010. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Mr. Rosen, the former chief executive of a Manhattan advertising agency that promoted Svedka vodka and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, wants to reintroduce Newark cider, an 18th- and 19th-century alcoholic drink once famously compared to Champagne.

Newark cider was both a point of pride and big business for the region — requested by name, reportedly lauded by George Washington and produced by dozens of Newark-area cideries with acres of orchards. The secret wasn’t a recipe, but the blending of a quartet of superior apples born in the region: Campfield, Poveshon, Granniwinkle and Harrison, the most celebrated of the four.

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The 1- and 2-year-old apple trees in Ironbound Hard Cider’s nursery include the Harrisons shown here and Poveshons, a New Jersey-born variety thought to be extinct until 2015. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

As a result of urbanization and then Prohibition, when many of the nation’s remaining cider orchards were destroyed, Newark cider hasn’t been made for at least a century. But after years of planning and planting — not to mention the accidental discovery of two lost apple trees and the investment of what Mr. Rosen called “100 percent of all the money I ever had in my entire life” — Ironbound Hard Cider is on the precipice of bringing it back. Continue reading

110 Million Years And Counting

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In a village near Watamu, Kenya, a sea turtle accidentally caught by a fisherman was turned over to Local Ocean Conservation. Credit Amy Yee

These creatures have been around forever, more or less. Survived everything that nature threw at them over the epochs. Until mankind and its addiction to plastic. And now it is clear their days are numbered, so any initiative anywhere that tries to slow the clock and keep the species going, we are happy to hear about it and share on this platform. Thanks to Amy Yee for bringing this to our attention:

Rescuing Sea Turtles From Fishermen’s Nets

An organization on the coast of Kenya tries to persuade local residents to help return the trapped reptiles to the ocean, rather than sell their meat and shells for a living.

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A green sea turtle trapped in a gill net. Scientists estimate the global green turtle population has declined 50 to 70 percent since 1900. Credit Jeff Rotman/Science Source

WATAMU, Kenya — The young hawksbill turtle was accidentally caught in a net in the Indian Ocean off Kenya’s coast.

The fisherman called Local Ocean Conservation, a nonprofit based in the town of Watamu that is the only turtle rescue and rehabilitation center on the East African seaboard. The hawksbill, critically endangered in this region, was a mere seven pounds; adults can weigh up to 160 pounds.

X-rays showed that the reptile’s intestinal tract was clogged with plastic. Hogaar, as Local Ocean named her, floated and couldn’t dive. Gas had built up in her innards after she had eaten small pieces of plastic mistaken for food such as jellyfish. Local Ocean staff members placed Hogaar in a rehab pool and gave her laxatives. She passed feces laced with shreds of packaging and had little appetite. After more than four months at Local Ocean, Hogaar died. A necropsy revealed her gut was also full of sharp shards of white, blue and pink plastic and tangles of blue and gray string.

Turtles are reptiles that have existed for at least 110 million years and survived the mass extinction that killed off dinosaurs. But today, sea turtles worldwide are threatened with extinction. And it’s estimated that only one of 1,000 turtle eggs laid survive to adulthood. Continue reading

Forests, Deforestation & Climate Change

Trees cleared in the western Amazon region of Brazil in September 2017. CARL DE SOUZA / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

If you have been following the news recently, you may have noticed a report that indicates the urgency from climate change is greater than scientists previously thought. Everyone who cares has been digesting the science and we appreciate every effort to clarify what the science is saying. Fred Pearce, writing for Yale e360, has this:

Conflicting Data: How Fast Is the World Losing its Forests?

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Forest cut to make way for an oil palm plantation in Papua, Indonesia in April 2018. ULET IFANSASTI / GREENPEACE

The latest UN report on climate says reducing deforestation is crucial to slowing global warming. But researchers must first reconcile two contradictory sets of statistics on tree loss in order to determine whether promises made by nations to protect and restore forests are on target.

The world is losing trees faster than ever. An area the size of Italy disappeared last year. Or did it? New research suggests three-quarters of those lost forests may already be regrowing. That hardly means we are out of the woods. Fighting climate change and protecting biodiversity still needs a global campaign to reforest the planet. But it does suggest that, given the chance, nature will do much of the work. Continue reading

Billion Oysters And Counting

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Our school programming puts students at the center of the movement to restore oysters to New York City waters. Explore our Billion Oyster Classroom program, currently in 70+ New York City schools, and high school at the Harbor School.

Every week or so since we started this platform in 2011 we have had too many opportunities to highlight water-based ecological challenges and they seem to outnumber solutions. But it has been our goal to balance the highlighting, neither hiding our head in the sand nor claiming false equivalence between bad news and good.

Given all the challenges facing our oceans and waterways we are always heartened to hear of another initiative that involves collaboration between enterprise, youth and civic organizations. Click the image above or the one to the right to see what the Billion Oyster Project is doing in this regard.   Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for bringing this initiative to our attention:

Oysters On The Half Shell Are Actually Saving New York’s Eroding Harbor

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The shells are trucked over to Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood and once a month are brought en masse to Governors Island in the heart of the New York Harbor. Billion Oyster Project has collected more than 1 million pounds of oyster shells so far. Courtesy of Agata Poniatowski

Across New York City, more than 70 restaurants are tossing their oyster shells not into the trash or composting pile, but into the city’s eroded harbor. It’s all part of Billion Oyster Project’s restaurant shell-collection program.

The journey from trash to treasure begins after an oyster half shell is turned upside down and left on an icy tray. Once discarded, it joins hundreds of thousands of other half shells collected in blue bins and picked up (free of charge) from restaurants five days a week by Billion Oyster Project’s partner, The Lobster Place, a seafood supplier. The shells are trucked over to Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood and once a month are brought en masse to Governors Island in the heart of the New York Harbor, just yards away from both Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. There, rolling shell hills sparkle in the sun while “curing” out in the elements for one year, a process that rids them of contaminants.

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Oysters at Zadie’s Oyster Room, one of the New York City restaurants participating in Billion Oyster Project’s shell-collection program.
Courtesy of Morgan Ione Yeager

The shells then get a final cleaning and are moved to Billion Oyster Project’s hatchery at the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, a public high school on Governors Island that offers technical and vocational training in the marine sciences. In an aquaculture classroom’s hatchery, student-grown oysters produce larvae in an artificially induced springtime environment. In one to two weeks, each larvae grows a “foot” — a little limb covered in a kind of natural glue — and then is moved to a tank full of the “cured” restaurant shells, which serve as anchors for all of those sticky feet. This phase is critical: If larvae can’t find a place to attach, they die. One reclaimed shell can house 10 to 20 new live oysters, depending on shell size. Continue reading

Helping Coral Repopulate

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Valérie Chamberland and Erik Houtepen look for signs of spawning in grooved brain coral colonies. EXPOSURE LABS

Thanks to Michelle Nijhuis, whose science writing we have been following since 2014 but up to now mostly in another magazine we source from; this is as fine as it comes:

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EXPOSURE LABS

Valérie Chamberland swims like a dolphin, quickly and fluidly, and for most of the past hour she has been darting through the warm, shallow water off the Caribbean island of Curaçao. Now, she is dangling upside down, hovering above a pillow-sized brain coral. Her rubber fins twitch steadily overhead, and as she sips air from the aluminum tank on her back, a stream of bubbles rises from her regulator’s mouthpiece.

The reef spread below Chamberland isn’t one of those flashy, fluorescent gardens seen in calendar photos and nature documentaries. Only a few dozen yards from shore, it lies almost literally in the shadows of a stone jetty, a busy casino, and a Denny’s restaurant. The waters that surround it are murky, and most of its corals are brown and lumpy, sparsely accessorized with bright-purple vase sponges and waving, rusty-red sea fans. Continue reading

For The Love Of Baobab!

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Selbe Dione and her sister harvesting baobab leaves to cook with couscous in the countryside of western Senegal.CreditCreditTomas Munita for The New York Times

Thanks to Dionne Searcey for reminding me of the first time I encountered one of these trees, which happened to be in Senegal (so why have we not featured Senegal more in these pages?) and was the location for the first field course I taught for Cornell focused on sustainable development. For the love of baobab, so to speak, I am more sensitive than ever to the ravages of palm oil plantations:

Across Senegal, the Beloved Baobab Tree Is the ‘Pride of the Neighborhood’

Baobabs have endured for centuries as essential cultural symbols. But increasingly, they are threatened by climate change, urbanization and a growing population.

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In Dakar, baobabs blend into the cityscape, like this one in the center of a taxi garage near a freeway on ramp. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times

DAKAR, Senegal — Wide, awkward baobab trees blend into the cityscape of Dakar, the busy capital of Senegal, almost without notice.

Drivers wash a fleet of taxis parked beneath one giant tree near a freeway on ramp. Rusting cars with open hoods are parked in a mechanic’s shop under the shade of another. A leathery trunk is a community billboard, with ads nailed to it for a plumber and an apartment for rent.

Aliou Ndour stood on a crowded corner, pulled out his phone and scrolled past the pictures of friends and family to another precious photo: the baobab in his home village.

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One of the largest baobab trees in Senegal is in the Fatick region, southwest of the capital. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Fat baobabs, some more than half a millennium old, have endured across Senegal, passed over for lumber largely because their wood is too brittle and spongy for use in furniture. Baobab leaves are mixed with couscous and eaten, the trees’ bark stripped to make rope, their fruit and seeds used for drinks and oils.

Something else has helped preserve these giants: They are beloved.

“This,” said Adama Dieme, craning his neck to look up at the spread of branches of the baobab on his block, “is the pride of the neighborhood.”

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Children playing over a fallen baobab in southwestern Senegal. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times

But baobabs, like many of the region’s trees, are in jeopardy, threatened by the same forces upending numerous facets of society — climate change, urbanization and population growth.

West Africa has lost much of the natural resources once tied so closely to its cultural identity. Poaching has stolen most of its wildlife; lions, giraffes and desert elephants are sorely endangered.

Huge swaths of forest are being razed to clear space for palm oil and cocoa plantations. Mangroves are being killed off by pollution. Even wispy acacias are hacked away for use in cooking fires to feed growing families. Continue reading

Nature Lovers Versus Nature Lovers Versus Reality

In just under half an hour, hear a very complex question answered (or not) from two very compelling, and very different perspectives:

Into the Woods with Scott Carrier

In Montana’s Yaak Valley, a hiking trail that cuts through a grizzly-bear habitat pits nature lover against nature lover in an unwinnable fight over the environment.

Science Writing, A Genre That Keeps Improving, Is The Best Way To Explain A Conservation Paradox

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Eric Nyquist

Two years of working in southern Chile taught me just enough about the complexity of this particular issue (among the many complex issues in our practice)to appreciate the article below by Emma Marris, who we already knew to be provocative, enough that she could challenge Bill McKibben two minutes into her TED talk, and does so convincingly. The primary reason I appreciate this article, is the same reason this platform has showcased the best of this genre of writers over the years. Scientists, translated into regular language we non-scientists can understand:

When Conservationists Kill Lots (and Lots) of Animals

Invasive species are sometimes trapped, poisoned, and shot in large numbers to save native species from extinction. Some scientists say the bloodshed isn’t worth it.

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Eric Nyquist

The desert of south-central Australia is crenellated with sandstone hills in shades of ivory, crimson, and apricot. The ground is littered with dead trees and tree limbs, big hunks of transparent mica, dried cow dung, and thousands of stone spearheads and blades made by the Aboriginal people who lived here for tens of thousands of years—and live here still. Around the few water holes are the doglike tracks of dingoes, wild canines that were brought to Australia thousands of years ago and are now the country’s top predators.

I have come to the Evelyn Downs ranch, on the famously remote highway between Adelaide and Alice Springs, to meet Arian Wallach, a conservationist who thinks there is too much killing in conservation. Wallach has come to this massive 888-square-mile ranch because it is one of the few places in Australia where people aren’t actively killing wild animals. Tough, outback Herefords share the landscape with kangaroos, wild horses, wild donkeys, camels, emus, cats, foxes, native rodents, dingoes, and very large antediluvian-looking reptiles called perenties. Of the animals on this list, dingoes, cats, foxes, horses, camels, and donkeys are all killed in large numbers throughout Australia—but not here. Wallach has convinced the owners to experiment with a more hands-off approach. Continue reading

Saving Species With SavingSpecies

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GigaPan technology, developed for NASA’s Mars mission, combines dozens of digital images to create high resolution panoramas.Credit Image by Stuart Pimm

saving-species-logo-long-small-1.pngThanks to Kathryn McManus for bringing SavingSpecies to our attention through this excellent review of their work based on the experience that she and her daughter had with its founder, Dr. Pimm:

Saving Hummingbirds Is One Small Step in Saving the Planet

High in the Andes Mountains in Colombia, a reforestation project led by SavingSpecies works to protect one of the world’s most renowned bio hot spots.

merlin_143901342_d0359165-6129-404f-855b-d2d4fb6614dc-superJumboWESTERN ANDES CLOUD FOREST, Colombia — Just before sunrise on a crisp summer morning high in a rain forest in Colombia’s Western Andes, the renowned ecologist Stuart Pimm gathered his research team over breakfast and made final plans for that morning’s journey to install motion-sensor cameras to monitor hummingbirds.

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Andrea Kolarova, a student from Duke, sets up a camera with help from Alexandra McManus, 11. Michael LaPorte

My daughter, Alexandra, 11, a student at Saxe Middle School in New Canaan, Conn., had also been invited to participate in the Colombia project, which is how I found myself for two weeks this summer living in a cabin in this remote mountainous territory. Although not far from the town of Jardin, which is about two and a half hours from Medellin, it takes a slightly harrowing hourlong ride in an ATV along a dirt switchback road to get here.

Ms. Kolarova’s hummingbird research will be used by Dr. Pimm’s organization, SavingSpecies, which he founded in 2007 to combat global warming using money he was awarded as a recipient of the Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences a year earlier. SavingSpecies works with local organizations around the world to buy land with the goal of restoring forests that have been destroyed, often because of logging, agricultural expansion, mining and oil extraction, and protecting the species that are under threat as a result.

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The ecologist Stuart Pimm describes the dangers of deforestation as a warming climate drives species like hummingbirds to move to higher land.Credit Image by Duke University

Continue reading

The Oldest Animal We Know Of

Organically preserved Dickinsonia fossil from the White Sea area of Russia.

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Thanks to Ed Yong for this:

A 558-Million-Year-Old Mystery Has Been Solved

Scientists have finally confirmed that a weird ribbed oval called Dickinsonia is an animal.

Organically preserved Dickinsonia fossil from the White Sea area of Russia.

Dickinsonia fossilILYA BOBROVSKIY / AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY

While it sits in place, petrifying, waiting, the world around it changes. The Earth’s landmasses merge into a single supercontinent before going their separate ways. In the ocean, animal life explodes; for the first time, the world is home to eyes, shells, and mouths. Living things invade the land, coating it first in thin films of moss and lichens, and then covering it in huge forests. Insects rise, into existence, and then into the skies. A dinosaur empire rises and falls. Mammals finally take over, and one of them—a human by the name of Ilya Bobrovskiy—finally unearths the fossilized ribbed oval from its resting place. Continue reading

Protecting Nature & Defying The Odds

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On a game drive in Akagera. Shannon Sims

Thanks to Shannon Sims for this story of a refuge defying the odds:

A Rwandan Game Park Defying the Odds

Despite modest tourism numbers, Akagera National Park is a success story in the making, particularly considering that, like its host country, it survived catastrophe.

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A velvet monkey and her baby in Akagera National Park. The Rwandan park is a success story, despite modest tourism numbers. Credit Ben Curtis/Associated Press

The road through Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda was blocked. Two giraffes had positioned themselves smack in the middle of the dirt road and were rubbing their necks together. In the car, with a driver and a guide, my cell service was long gone; there was nothing to do but sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

Right around this time of year, to the east of Rwanda’s borders, in Tanzania and Kenya, big packs of tourists are stumbling over each other to get the perfect photo of a scene like this. They’re driving through protected areas like Serengeti National Park and the Maasai Mara National Reserve in caravans of Land Rovers, each packed so tightly that peoples’ binocular straps get tangled up. It makes sense: the animal migrations that occur in this part of the world these months are rightly considered by many to be the greatest natural show on earth. Continue reading

One More Reason To Eliminate As Much Plastic As You Can From Your Daily Routines

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A green sea turtle off the eastern coast of Australia. Researchers estimate that more than half of all sea turtles have ingested plastic debris. Credit Kathy Townsend

Thanks to Karen Weintraub for this stark reminder, one of countless examples, of why so many places, and some big companies and many individuals are doing their best to get plastic out of daily routines:

Just a Few Pieces of Plastic Can Kill Sea Turtles

A new study shows that especially for young turtles, ingesting just a little more than a dozen pieces of plastic in the ocean can be lethal.

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Plastics removed from the intestine of a sea turtle. The study found that half of juvenile turtles would be expected to die if they ingested 17 plastic items. Credit Kathy Townsend

All over the world, sea turtles are swallowing bits of plastic floating in the ocean, mistaking them for tasty jellyfish, or just unable to avoid the debris that surrounds them.

Now, a new study out of Australia is trying to catalog the damage.

While some sea turtles have been found to have swallowed hundreds of bits of plastic, just 14 pieces significantly increases their risk of death, according to the study, published Thursday in Scientific Reports.

Young sea turtles are most vulnerable, the study found, because they drift with currents where the floating debris also accumulate, and because they are less choosy than adults about what they will eat.

Worldwide, more than half of all sea turtles from all seven species have eaten plastic debris, estimated Britta Denise Hardesty, the paper’s senior author and a principal research scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Tasmania. “It doesn’t matter where you are, you will find plastic,” she said. Continue reading

Omnivore’s Dilemma In A Shark Species

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A bonnethead shark in the shallows of Florida’s Pine Island Sound. Credit Getty Images

Thanks to Veronique Greenwood for this:

The Omnivorous Sharks That Eat Grass

Diminutive bonnethead sharks are the first omnivorous sharks known to science, which could change our understanding of what some sharks eat.

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After researchers caught bonnethead sharks for study, they received a daily meal consisting of a wad of seagrass wrapped in a piece of squid, resembling a large inside-out sushi roll. Credit Samantha Leigh

Sharks are not known for their taste for greenery. But at least one species of shark enjoys a salad of sea grass as well as the prey it hunts.

The bonnethead shark, a diminutive species that reaches up to 3 feet in length, lives in the shallow sea grass meadows off both coasts of the Americas. It eats small squid and crustaceans ferreted from the swaying underwater fronds. But, researchers who have carefully monitored everything going in and out of captive bonnetheads say in a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B that they also eat large quantities of seagrass. The grass isn’t just passing inertly through the sharks’ guts. They extract nutrition from it just as they do from the meaty portion of their diet. These sharks must, therefore, be reclassified as omnivores — the first omnivorous sharks known to science. Continue reading

Superpods & Ocean Heroes

OHeroes.jpgThis National Public Radio (USA) story led us to the video above, and then the source website, where we discovered several initiatives that are worth a closer look:

Ocean action: In 2017, Carmel-by-the-Sea’s City Council voted to require that restaurants stop using single-use plastic straws and utensils and instead provide only compostable to-go serviceware—and only upon request. The law took effect in the spring of 2018. The impetus came from a group of fifth-grade students from Carmel River Elementary School. They spoke at community forums and Carmel City Council meetings to advance the idea. Mayor Steve Dallas later credited them with playing a pivotal role in getting the ordinance enacted. “When it finally passed, the students were ecstatic,” says teacher, Niccole Tiffany, of her students. “It was a big lesson on the power of kids’ voices in actively creating change.” (Read more of her story here)

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Thanks to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for programs that inspire local citizens, especially youth, to environmental activism like this:

Saving Our Seas One Sip at a Time with “No Straw November”

Ocean action: Shelby O’Neil, a high school student from San Juan Bautista, created a successful campaign called “No Straw November,” asking people to pledge not to use plastic straws for one month. She’s earned national exposure through the Martha Stewart Living magazine and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. She convinced Alaska Airlines to ditch plastic straws and toothpicks on all its flights (a story picked up by Fortune magazine). Shelby was even flown to the headquarters of Delta Airlines to promote her campaign; spoke at Dreamforce, the annual user conference hosted by Salesforce.com in San Francisco; and won unanimous California Coastal Commission support for “No Straw November.” But she didn’t stop there. “For a Girl Scout Gold Award, I created a nonprofit called Jr Ocean Guardians,” says Shelby, “teaching younger schoolchildren the importance of the oceans and how they can help.” Continue reading

Author of Extreme Conservation, Interviewed

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We recommend this interview in the Atlantic, with the author of the book above, a veteran conservationist reckoning with his career studying animals in the most extreme places on Earth:

In the winter of 2011, Joel Berger and his colleague Marci Johnson happened upon a ghostly Arctic death scene. Body parts and tufts of brown fur poked out of a frozen lagoon. This was all the biologists could find of a herd of 55 musk oxen they had been following.

The cause of mass mortality, they later determined, was an ice tsunami, the result of an unusual storm that slammed seawater and ice into the lagoon where the unfortunate musk oxen stood. Berger is a conservationist who works in some of the most hostile environments in the world, and he studies the enigmatic species, like musk oxen, that live there. His new book, Extreme Conservation, chronicles his career in Alaska, Siberia, Namibia, Tibet, Mongolia, and Bhutan. He is now a biologist at Colorado State University and a senior scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society. Continue reading

The Future Is Bright, And Getting Brighter

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The future is bright, in one alarming way. Ed Yong explains, in his latest story The Very Hot, Very Hungry Caterpillar (anyone with children or grandchildren, or who has read books to a younger generation will appreciate the title) that climate change will help insects thrive. While that may be interesting for biodiversity it has implications for humans worth considering now, before too late:

Since the dawn of agriculture, humans have been unwillingly nourishing insects by growing plants that they then devour. Their mandibles consume somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of crops produced around the world. And these losses are likely to grow as the world slowly warms.

By looking at how insects will respond to rising temperatures, a team of researchers led by Curtis Deutsch and Joshua Tewksbury have calculated how rice, maize, and wheat—which provide 42 percent of humanity’s calories—will fare as the globe heats up. The results aren’t pretty.

They estimate that the portion of these grains that’s lost to insects will increase by 10 to 25 percent for every extra degree Celsius of warming. Continue reading

Eye of the Beholder

The Berlin-based florist Ruby Barber of Mary Lennox created some of her signature cloud arrangements with once-neglected weeds. A composite of individual arrangements, from left, of weeping amaranth and fresh and dried wild grasses; an abundant gathering of the once-humble smoke bush, now a fashionable challenger to traditional hothouse flowers; and Queen Anne’s lace. Credit Photograph by Guido Castagnoli. Flowers styled by Mary Lennox

Ralph Waldo Emerson may have written that a weed is just “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered,”  but another way of stating it is that a weed “is a plant growing in the wrong place”. The current revalorization of the “common weed”– aesthetically, culinarily and nutritionally — dovetails beautifully with much of what we highlight on this site.  Thanks to Ligaya Mishan of the NYTimes for the refocus.

How the Common Weed Has Grown on Florists (and Chefs)

From the flower arrangement to the plate, this is the era of the formerly unwanted plant.

A WEED IS UNWANTED: That is its definition. It is a plant that we have deemed to have no value because it contributes nothing to our life, neither nourishment nor beauty. Why should it help us when it doesn’t need us to survive, its seeds borne on the idlest gust, taking root and thriving in even the cruelest terrain? It stands wholly apart from human civilization, hardy and self-sustaining, mocking our hegemony, claiming the earth as its own. Worse, it is a predator, stealing resources — real estate, sunlight — from the plants we do value and rely on, crowding them out, threatening their existence and, by extension, ours.

A weed is never singular but an army. Its legions sweep across land like the Golden Horde, “always three steps ahead of the gardener, traveling underground, seeding by the million, smothering all in their path,” says the British writer and landscape designer Isabel Bannerman. Her husband and partner, Julian Bannerman, frames it slightly less savagely: The garden “is a bit like having a party. What we call weeds are the uninvited guests.” And in the Swedish writer and illustrator Elsa Beskow’s picture book “The Flowers’ Festival,” originally published in 1914 as “Blomsterfesten i Tappan,” they appear as exactly that, a rabble of thistles, chickweed, nettles and burdock, “scoundrels and beggars and ragamuffins” all, consigned to a ditch outside the garden to glower while the violets and orchids revel. “But we’re flowers, too,” the weeds roar.

But their time has come. Continue reading

Roots Of Biodiversity

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Alexandre Antonelli references the International Plant Names Index to identify specimens.
Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Our practice was born in Costa Rica, so we sometimes may appear partisan when it comes to celebrating the sciences related to biodiversity. Costa Rica has impressive credentials in that realm, especially relative to its size as a country. But we are very clear on the fact that it would take dozens of Costa Rica-sized biodiversity hotspots to match the scale of the Amazon region, and it is no surprise that studies like those of these scholars are carried out with Amazonian data:

The Amazon as engine of diverse life

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“Most evolutionary research focuses on how new species form. But we want to understand how whole ecosystems evolve,” said Alexandre Antonelli.
 Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

A recent study says that many of the plants and animals that call Latin America home may have had their roots in the Amazon region.

The study, co-authored by Harvard Visiting Scholar Alexandre Antonelli and an international team of researchers, says that a dynamic process of colonization and speciation led to the formation of the American tropics, which is the most species-rich region on the planet. The study is described in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We were astonished to detect so much movement across such different environments and over such large distances,” said Antonelli, the study’s lead author. “Up until now, these natural dispersal events were assumed to be quite rare. Our results show how crucial these events have been in the formation of tropical America’s unique and outstandingly rich biodiversity.” Continue reading

Local Knowledge Aids Scientific Understanding

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In a perfect dovetail with yesterday’s nod to one science writer, today we nod to the contributions of ancestral ways in helping scientists better understand the life cycles of forests. Thanks to Richard Schiffman for this interview:

Lessons Learned from Centuries of Indigenous Forest Management

CMPeters_web.jpgIn an interview with Yale Environment 360, botanist Charles M. Peters discusses how, in an era of runaway destruction of tropical forests, the centuries-old ecological understanding of indigenous woodland residents can help point the way to the restoration of damaged rainforests.

Over centuries, even millennia, indigenous communities have developed interdependent systems of agriculture and forestry that are uniquely suited to the ecological requirements of the land they inhabit. Yet even today, says Charles M. Peters, the Curator of Botany at the New York Botanical Gardens, that skill and knowledge often remain unacknowledged, with some government officials and conservationists arguing that indigenous communities should sometimes be excluded from protected lands that are part of their historical territory.

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Members of the Kenyah Dayak indigenous group conducting forest surveys in Western Borneo in the early 1990s. CHARLES PETERS

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Peters — author of the recently published bookManaging the Wild: Stories of People and Plants and Tropical Forests — discusses what he has learned from 35 years of working with indigenous forest communities; explains how indigenous farming, even slash-and-burn agriculture, can actually improve forest health; and reflects on the need to enlist indigenous groups as allies in the struggle to preserve and restore tropical forests. Continue reading