Cleaning Up Productivity

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Harvard scientists and landscapers are testing a new fertilizer that could reduce pollution in water supplies. Unsplash

Thanks to Caitlin McDermott-Murphy for this story about cleaning up our growing systems:

Ending ‘dead zones’

How a biofriendly fertilizer could offer a greener way to grow plants

Every year, a “dead zone” the size of Massachusetts sprawls across the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River, which travels through the nation’s farm belt, sweeps excess fertilizer and dumps the chemicals into the Gulf, where they feed rampant algae, deplete oxygen, and kill marine life.

Across the U.S., smaller versions of similar dead zones infect lakes, ponds, and rivers. In years with higher rainfall — like 2018 — Massachusetts’ Charles River collects enough pollutants from surrounding city streets, parking lots, and landscaped campuses to cause the water quality to drop. Unchecked algae growth, often the result of excess fertilizer, can damage marine, human, and even pet health: This year, several dogs died after swimming in water choked with toxic blue-green algae. Continue reading

Camera Trap Treasure

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A black bear mother with three cubs. Photo © TNC

Camera traps have proven valuable in the work we have been doing in Belize, India and elsewhere in the wilderness areas of the developing world. But equally important are the photos captured in areas closer to urban settlements. Thanks to The Nature Conservancy’s publication of these photos with the article below:

As a Nature Conservancy forester in Pennsylvania, Mike Eckley spends a lot of time assessing the health of woodlands. That means he spends as much time thinking about white-tailed deer as he does trees.

Many conservation biologists consider over-abundant deer to be an even bigger threat to eastern forests than climate change. Deer can fundamentally change the forest ecosystem, threatening everything from rare wildflowers to migratory songbirds. These deer also can cause deadly vehicle collisions, increase risk of Lyme disease, and cause significant agricultural and property damage.

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Two white-tailed deer boxing. Photo © TNC

Eckley educates hunting clubs and landowners on deer management issues, and recently co-edited a book on the topic. He also works to make sure the deer herd is healthy on Conservancy projects like the West Branch Forest Preserve, a 3,000-acre preserve in north central Pennsylvania. Continue reading

My Summer Research Project: Bird Diversity in Gishwati Forest, Rwanda

Gishwati Forest of Gishwati-Mukura National Park

Two weeks ago I promised an update from the field, and after completing the necessary government permits and preparing for work in the forest, I’m finally ready to write about the summer project that the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies requires of its Master of Environmental Management candidates. We can choose between completing an internship or independent research, and I opted for the latter, since I wanted the experience of designing my own field season and collecting data for scientific analysis for peer-reviewed publication, pursuing a subject that I’m both personally and academically interested in: tropical bird conservation. Now, with the generous support I’m grateful to receive as a fellow of the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies (YIBS), Yale’s Tropical Resources Institute (TRI), and the University of Rwanda’s Center for Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management (CoEB), I’ve started my project exploring a subset of montane avifauna distribution in the Albertine Rift.

Continue reading

Village Weavers at Lake Ihema, Akagera National Park

On the shore of almost any body of water in Akagera National Park in the east of Rwanda, trees festooned with balls of dried grass are a common sight, although what will often draw your attention to these trees first is not the strange vegetation, but the cacophony of a dozen or more weaver birds chattering away as they bring strands of grass to build these nests, display to potential mates, or warn of possible predators. The species featured here, the Village Weaver Ploceus cucullatus, is a fairly common bird in this region, and entertained us with their craft on the day that we visited Lake Ihema, the second largest lake in Rwanda after Lake Kivu to the west.

Continue reading

Audubon Honors Women Of Birding World

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From left: Judith Mirembe, Kimberly Kaufman, Leticia de Mello Bueno, Molly Adams. Photos, from left: Esther Ruth Mbabazi, Camilla Cerea/Audubon, Jayme Gershen, Eva Deitch

It would never have occurred to me to think about this, but I am fine with the surprise:

When Women Run the Bird World

For decades female birders have been the silent majority. Now they’re starting their own movements to transform a privileged culture.

On the surface, birding might seem like neutral ground—an activity that any curious, nature-loving person can enjoy, regardless of age or gender. Go on a hike with your local ornithological club and at least half the attendees will be women. Circle the marsh with your binoculars and you’ll probably see a woman doing the same.

But female birders don’t always feel comfortable in the field, even with the rising awareness around #MeToo. Many of us keep on despite frequent put-downs and hostility, enduring dismissive comments about our knowledge and in the worst cases, sexual harassment. I’ve had men touch my hips to correct my perfectly fine birding stance. A ranger at a national wildlife refuge winked and told me about his “big, loaded gun.” My friends have been propositioned in parks and stalked by drivers along country roads. Not even a 16-year-old can bird in peace without commenters attacking her abilities and life list.

Like most matters of importance, women have been integral to birding from the get-go. Female ornithologists drew attention to avifauna in the late 1800s, and suffragists helped the movement take off in the early 1900s. Today, 42 percent of U.S. birders identify as women. Personally, female birders have run my world ever since I picked up a field guide in college. My ornithology professor was a woman. My boss at Audubon is a woman, as are most of my colleagues throughout the office. My birding circle is mainly members of the Feminist Bird Club.

And yet men have the loudest voices and the most power in the industry. The closer you get to the top of the birding, conservation, and academic ranks, the more the gender balance tips. At Audubon, for instance, the executive staff is 75 percent male, and the organization has never had a female president in its 114 years. This pattern persists industry wide. Men hold the highest positions at the American Birding Association, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the American Bird Conservancy. They dominate bookshelves, festivals, competitions, and gear and travel ads. They build their reputations and livelihoods around the practice and reap the greatest profits…

And the feature immediately after continues the theme with the first of five substories:

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The Phoebes, a female-centric birding group formed by members of the Tropical Audubon Society. Photo: Jayme Gershen

Birding for Solidarity: The Phoebes

Eight women decided they had enough of the sport’s competitiveness, so they created a community to lift their sisters up. Continue reading

Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins Of What We All Need To See In Our Lifetime

book-christakis-blueprint.jpgThe blurb from his own university’s news service is enough to catch your attention:

Drawing on advances in social science, evolutionary biology, genetics, neuroscience, and network science, “Blueprint” attempts to show how and why evolution has placed us on a humane path — and how we are united by our common humanity.

For too long, the author contends, scientists have focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for aggression, cruelty, prejudice, and self-interest. But natural selection has given us a suite of beneficial social features, including our capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, and learning. Beneath all our inventions — our tools, farms, machines, cities, nations — we carry with us innate proclivities to make a good society.

There are not many reviews available yet, but here is one:

KIRKUS REVIEW

A social scientist looks at the good and bad sides of human character, arguing that we are evolutionarily inclined “to make a particular kind of society—a good one full of love, friendship, cooperation, and learning.”…

…A refreshingly optimistic view of our kind.

If, like me, you had previously only known of him due to this incident, the blurb and the review are catchy enough to warrant further attention. So I found an interview he recently gave (on a podcast I would not normally have sought out, but it was all I could find) and listening to him talk about it has made me want to find this book and have a read.

Regeneration & Food Futures

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A view of wheat grown on Meaker Farm, Montrose, Colorado. Photo © Ken Geiger/TNC

While on the topic of food, thanks to Dustin Solberg and Cool Green Science for this:

Dirt to Soil: A Farmer’s Tell-all Puts Soil First

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Circle irrigation tire tracks remain in the challenging soil conditions on a wheat farm in Colorado. Photo © Ken Geiger/TNC

Quite a few years back, while working the wheat harvest in the middle of Oklahoma, I met a leathery skinned farmer. He lived through the dusty, hardscrabble, droughty years of the Great Depression, and experience had taught him plenty. I still recall his silver belt buckle, his straw cowboy hat, and the funny joke he told me about the buffalo on a buffalo nickel, which I can’t repeat here. He wanted me to know, and so told me in no uncertain terms, that there’s one way, and one way only, to plow a field.

We were standing then in the fresh golden stubble of a wheat field. It was hot. We’d just finished combining and after a day of steady motion we were finally still, the diesel engines at rest. I can still recall the animated force in his muscly hands – he made his fingers into the tines of a chisel plow – to make his point as vividly as I recall what he said: “You’ve got to set the plow deep.”

The trouble was, he was wrong.

Continue reading

Nature’s Gender-bending

Top left, a male blue morpho butterfly; top middle, a female. The remainder are gynandromorphic, with both male and female characteristics. Credit Nipam H. Patel

With the frequency of gender fluidity in the news (often disparagingly), it’s helpful to read that it’s something that exists in many areas of the natural world.

“Nature’s dealing with conformity all the time in brutal ways and loving ways and all the rest of it,” Dr. Dreger said. “It doesn’t follow the human fantasy of everybody having to be normal. And humans don’t follow that ridiculous idea either.”

Well said.

Split-Sex Animals Are Unusual, Yes, but Not as Rare as You’d Think

All serious butterfly collectors remember their first gynandromorph: a butterfly with a color and pattern that are distinctly male on one wing and female on the other.

Seeing one sparks wonder and curiosity. For the biologist Nipam H. Patel, the sighting offered a possible answer to a question he had been pondering for years: During embryonic and larval development, how do cells know where to stop and where to go?

He was sure that the delicate black outlines between male and female regions appearing on one wing — but not the other — identified a key facet of animal development.

“It immediately struck me that this was telling me something interesting about how the wing was being made,” said Dr. Patel, a biologist who now heads the Marine Biological Laboratory, a research institute in Woods Hole, Mass., affiliated with the University of Chicago.

The patterning on the gynandromorph’s wing shows that the body uses signaling centers to control where cells go during development and what tissues they become in creatures as diverse as butterflies and people, Dr. Patel said.

Gynandromorph butterflies and other half-male, half-female creatures, particularly birds, have fascinated both scientists and amateurs for centuries. The latest sensation was a half-red, half-taupe cardinal that became a regular visitor in the backyard of Shirley and Jeffrey Caldwell in Erie, Pa. Although the bird would have to be tested to confirm that it is a gynandromorph, its color division strongly suggests that it is, scientists say.

Split-sex creatures are not as unusual as they may seem when one discovery goes viral, as the cardinal’s did. It extends beyond birds and butterflies to other insects and crustaceans, like lobsters and crabs.

Continue reading

Marine Biologists & Earth’s Future

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Hirondellea gigas, an amphipod collected from the Mariana Trench (ALAN JAMIESON / NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY)

Ed Yong’s story will not make you happy. But it is a plastics must-read. Marine biologists are akin to climate scientists whose job requires sharing specific unsettling findings. To put it mildly. The scientist in this case says he does not like doing this work. But he continues in the interest of science and in the interest of the planet’s future. Thanks to him and people like him:

A Troubling Discovery in the Deepest Ocean Trenches

In the Mariana Trench, the lowest point in any ocean, every tiny animal tested had plastic pollution hiding in its gut.

Alan Jamieson remembers seeing it for the first time: a small, black fiber floating in a tube of liquid. It resembled a hair, but when Jamieson examined it under a microscope, he realized that the fiber was clearly synthetic—a piece of plastic. And worryingly, his student Lauren Brooks had pulled it from the gut of a small crustacean living in one of the deepest parts of the ocean. Continue reading

Whale Fall

Illustrated by Armando Veve

Whales and other charismatic marine megafauna are frequently in the news related to discoveries of their mysterious navigational or communication skills, or with bad news about the negative impacts of ocean acidification or other human interaction. It never occurred to us how the decomposing carcass of something that immense can be a biological gift to marine systems that could last centuries.

A Whale’s Afterlife

On the day before Thanksgiving, 2011, Greg Rouse, a trim marine biologist in his fifties, was tidying his lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in La Jolla, California. Rouse studies the worms and other small animals that inhabit the deep sea. He was organizing his microscopes, dissection supplies, and jars of deep-sea critters when he received a long-anticipated e-mail.

In the late two-thousands, Rouse and Eddie Kisfaludy, then an operations manager for Virgin Oceanic, had begun meeting with officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the city of San Diego to pitch an alternative approach to the disposal of dead whales. Often, whales that wash up on shore are hauled to landfills or pushed back into the water. Rouse and Kisfaludy wanted to tow one out to sea, sink it to the seafloor, and watch what happened. Whale falls, as marine biologists call such events, create pop-up habitats that may serve as stepping stones for organisms migrating from methane seeps or hydrothermal vents to other parts of the ocean. Precisely how this works, and which species colonize the carcass as it degrades, were open questions that Rouse hoped to answer.

In the e-mail, a biologist from NOAA wrote that a large female fin whale had washed ashore four days previously, on the rocky beach at Point Loma, just west of downtown San Diego. The NOAA team had already moved the carcass to the protected beaches of Mission Bay and performed a necropsy, concluding that the whale had been hit by a ship. Now they were ready to hand it over to Rouse: if he could mobilize the necessary resources on short notice, the whale was his to sink.

Rouse quickly met up with Kisfaludy to strategize. They needed a boat big enough to tow a sixty-foot, twenty-three-ton whale, so Kisfaludy leaned on a Newport-based friend, Chris Welch, for the use of his large catamaran. To sink the carcass, they sourced five tons of rusty chains from Newport Harbor and another two tons of iron shackles from the Scripps scrap yard, in San Diego.

On Thanksgiving morning, Welch set out in his catamaran—rusty chains on board—and sailed south. The next day, he met up with Rouse, Kisfaludy, and a growing group of intrigued friends at the dead whale. It rested on the sand, immovable. At high tide, however, the carcass began to float, and the team made its move. They tied seven ropes around the whale’s tail and sailed west. Several hours passed. The weather was crisp and sunny, and there was little boat traffic. To Rouse’s surprise, the whale had attracted no scavengers, despite its exposed rolls of dark purple muscle draped in white, translucent fat. The team began to consider names for the whale. Someone suggested Rosebud, and it stuck. Continue reading

Warrior Gems

In the South American tropics, where hummingbirds must compete for food, evolution has drastically reshaped their bills. Credit Christian Irian

Hummingbirds are some of the most gemlike and visually striking birds in the “new world”, but those who have spent any time watching them know that striking can also be used as an apt verb to describe their behavior. Fiercely territorial, it’s not surprising that scientists are making more and more discoveries related to the evolution behind their development. (Click on image above to view the video)

The Hummingbird as Warrior: Evolution of a Fierce and Furious Beak

Winsomely captured in poems and song, the birds are yielding new secrets about their astounding beaks and penchant for violence.

If you want to know what makes hummingbirds tick, it’s best to avoid most poetry about them.

Bird-beam of the summer day,

— Whither on your sunny way?

Whither? Probably off to have a bloodcurdling fight, that’s whither.

John Vance Cheney wrote that verse, but let’s not point fingers. He has plenty of poetic company, all seduced by the color, beauty and teeny tininess of the hummingbird but failed to notice the ferocity burning in its rapidly beating heart.

The Aztecs weren’t fooled. Their god of war, Huitzilopochtli, was a hummingbird. The Aztecs loved war, and they loved the beauty of the birds as well. It seems they didn’t find any contradiction in the marriage of beauty and bloodthirsty aggression.

Scientists understood that aggression was a deep and pervasive part of hummingbird life. But they, too, have had their blind spots. The seemingly perfect match of nectar-bearing flowers to slender nectar-sipping beaks clearly showed that hummingbirds were shaped by co-evolution.

It seemed clear that, evolutionarily, plants were in charge. Their need for reliable pollinators produced flowers with a shape that demanded a long slender bill. Hummingbird evolution obliged.

But hummingbirds also heard the call of battle, which demanded a different evolutionary course. Some of those slender, delicate beaks have been reshaped into strong, sharp and dangerous weapons.

In a recent paper organizing and summing up 10 years of research, Alejandro Rico-Guevara and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, shared evidence gathered by high-speed video about how the deadly beaks are deployed in male-to-male conflict.

Like the horns of bighorn sheep or the giant mandibles of stag beetles, hummingbird beaks are used to fight off rivals for mates. This is sexual selection, a narrow part of natural selection, in which the improvement of mating chances is the dominant force. Continue reading

Sloths, Cecropia & Cacao

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A sloth in Costa Rica.  Karen Reyes

I had never heard the name guarumo for this tree before. Cecropia is the name we have commonly heard for it in Costa Rica. Veronique Greenwood, who we have linked to twice until now, has contributed more than vocabulary to me through this article. I am particularly thankful for the realization that cacao can be more useful than I had been aware. Beyond the benefits of being grown organically it may play a key role in regenerative forest development. This, entrepreneurial conservation in mind, must become a variable by which Organikos sources chocolate in Costa Rica:

Where Sloths Find These Branches, Their Family Trees Expand

A study showed that when some animals find a crucial resource, they can survive in changing environments and even thrive.

Look closely up in the trees of a shade-grown cacao plantation in eastern Costa Rica, and you’ll see an array of small furry faces peering back at you. Those are three-toed sloths that make their homes there, clambering ever so slowly into the upper branches to bask in the morning sun. You might also spot them munching on leaves from the guarumo tree, which shades the cacao plants. Continue reading

Enigmatic Fungi

A nematode pierces the cell walls of a mushroom’s hyphae to feed on them.Credit By Markus Künzler

The mysteries of nature never cease to amaze, and fungi rank high in all aspects. Since the inception of this site we’ve highlighted this special branch of the animal kingdom.

When Fungi Fight Back

A mushroom species was found to sense predators and sent warning signals to other parts of its body, but how it does that remains a mystery.

It’s known as fight or flight — the message the brain sends your body when it detects something frightening. Something like it happens to plants when they are under attack, too. And then there are fungi — perhaps the most mysterious kingdom of multicellular life.

Fungi too can sense attackers and manufacture powerful weapons to combat them, including the toxins and poisons that can send you to the emergency room if you eat the wrong mushroom.

But little is known about the built-in threat detectors of these limbless, brainless beings. Humans send messages through their nervous systems. A plant’s vascular system is its relay apparatus. But fungi have neither. Continue reading

Outfitting For Wild Animals

 

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Teach a Wolf to Fish. By University Of Minnesota, Voyageurs National Park And Voyageurs Wolf Project. Nighttime footage of a wolf hunting freshwater fish in a river in Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park. Dec. 14, 2018

I got to know Natural Habitat Adventures while our company was operating Chan Chich Lodge in Belize. I was impressed with their guides, and with the photographic and video skills of the guests who they brought to the lodge. And all of them were deeply concerned about conservation. But I never saw anything quite like the video above. When you have nine minutes to spare, it is as satisfying as any nature footage as I have seen in a long time.  I thank Jim Robbins again for this article, whose focal video about wolves fishing (to the left above) is definitely worth watching:

Watch This Wolf Go Fishing

Yes, researchers in Minnesota have recorded wolves diving into a stream to grab a meal.

Wolves are thought of as red-meat eaters, but a team of biologists in northern Minnesota, near Voyageurs National Park, has documented a pack that often enjoys a meal of fish. Continue reading

Defending Megafauna

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Perhaps as few as eighty thousand African forest elephants remain, and a new documentary explores the megafauna’s threats and defenders.Photograph Courtesy Elephant Path / Njaia Njoku

When we moved to Kerala in 2010 one of our motivations was that among the properties we would take responsibility for one was within a vast protected forest area in southern India. It was/is one of the great remaining habitats of elephants and tigers among other mammals, not to mention birds and all kinds of other life. Which is to say the ecosystem is intact enough to support apex predators and their megafauna prey, and everything around them and below them in the food chain. Which makes their viability as species possible. We networked as much as possible with scientists whose initiatives seemed relevant to our own.  Todd McGrain somehow escaped our attention until now, even though his work at the Lab of Ornithology should have caught it the way other artists’ did. Thanks to Peter Canby for pointing us here, and we have taken the liberty of inserting some of Tom’s other photos within the text below, which you can click on to go to one of his websites to learn more:

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EP_0419.jpgIn Africa, there are two kinds of elephants: savanna and forest elephants. The species diverged somewhere between two and six million years ago, with the better-known savanna elephants spreading over the plains and open woodlands of Eastern, Southern, and Western Africa while forest elephants stayed behind in the dense forests at the center of the continent. Although the two occasionally hybridize, they are widely viewed as separate species. Forest elephants are smaller, with smaller and straighter tusks. The size of their tusks, however, has not protected them from rampant poaching, because the tusks have a distinctive hue, sometimes known as “pink ivory,” that has made them particularly valuable.

EP_0634.jpgSomething about the nobility of forest elephants regularly raises concern for their extinction. The tropical forests of the Congo Basin, once considered impenetrable, are now yielding to logging roads, mines, and even palm-oil plantations. In 2013, a widely respected study by Fiona Maisels, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, found that, between 2002 and 2011, the population of forest elephants had declined by sixty-two per cent. Perhaps as few as eighty thousand remain. The story of these declining numbers is also a story of habitat destruction. Where forest elephants exist in an undisturbed state, they build networks of trails through the deep forest. These trails connect mineral deposits, fruit groves, and other essentials of forest-elephant life. In Central Africa, there are dozens of fruit trees whose seeds are too large to pass through the guts of any other animal and for which forest elephants have evolved as the sole dispersers. These trees line the forest-elephant paths. Where elephant populations are disturbed, the paths disappear.

EP_0480.jpgMatt Davis, a researcher in ecoinformatics and biodiversity at Aarhus University, in Denmark, recently published a paper arguing that we are entering a period of extinction of large mammals akin to the scale of the extinction of the dinosaurs. “We are now living in a world without giants,” he told the Guardian, and went on to detail the many ecological consequences of the loss of megafauna. When I asked John Poulsen, an assistant professor of tropical ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, if this observation could apply to the role of forest elephants, he said, “Absolutely.”

The sculptor Todd McGrain has made a name for himself, over a thirty-year career, as the creator of sculptural monuments to birds that have been the victims of “human-caused extinction.” It’s not, therefore, entirely surprising that he has directed a documentary about forest elephants, “Elephant Path / Njaia Njoku,” showing at New York’s DOC NYC film festival this Wednesday and Thursday. McGrain’s subjects have included, among others, the passenger pigeon, the great auk, the Labrador duck, the heath hen, and the Carolina parakeet. When McGrain was the artist in residence at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Katy Payne, founder of the Elephant Listening Project at the Bioacoustics Research Program, introduced him to something she had discovered: forest-elephant infrasound, which is how elephants communicate inside the forest, at a frequency too low for human ears to register. She pitched up the recordings of elephant calls so that McGrain could listen to them. “I couldn’t help but hear them as bird calls,” he told me. “It was the complexity of their language that grabbed me.” Continue reading

For The Last Tigers, What Is Next?

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A South China tiger, a subspecies that only survives in captivity. Credit Francois Savigny/Minden Pictures

Some of these photos we have featured in earlier stories. That is a testament to the seriousness of the subject. Thanks to Rachel Nuwer for this:

Divide and Preserve: Reclassifying Tigers to Help Save Them From Extinction

Are there many subspecies of tiger, or only two? A correct accounting is the only way to preserve what is left of the animal’s genetic diversity, some scientists say.

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A Sumatran tiger at the Ragunan Zoo in Jakarta, Indonesia. Sumatran tigers were the first to evolve from all tigers’ common ancestor. Credit Romeo Gacad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Fewer than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild. New research aims to give conservationists an improved understanding of their genetics in order to help save them.

After years of debate, scientists report in the journal Current Biology that tigers comprise six unique subspecies. One of those subspecies, the South China tiger, survives only in captivity.

“The results presented in this paper are important because they contradict the currently accepted international conservation classifications for tigers,” said Uma Ramakrishnan, a molecular ecologist at the National Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India, who was not involved in the study. Continue reading

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

Citizen Science, Children & Bees

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Scientists expected bees to gradually cease buzzing as the sky darkened during an eclipse. Instead, they stopped altogether. Credit Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

After following the work of Nicholas St. Fleur for a couple years now–his beat includes archaeology, paleontology, and space among other of the things we care about on this platform, including conservation–his most recent story below is my favorite for one reason, namely citizen science. Specifically the participation of youth in such an important scientific investigation:

The Moon Eclipsed the Sun. Then the Bees Stopped Buzzing.

Researchers worked with a small army of elementary school children to collect audio recordings of bees as they visited flowers along the path of last summer’s total eclipse.

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National Forest Service workers at the Bridger-Teton National Forest Office in Jackson, Wyo., took a break to watch the Great American Eclipse last year. Credit Celia Talbot Tobin for The New York Times

Last year’s Great American Eclipse drew hundreds of millions of eyes to the sky. But while people across the country “oohed” and “aahed” at the phenomenon, it appears the bees went silent.

So found a new study that monitored the acoustic activity of bees before, during and after totality — the moment when the moon completely blocked the sun — during the solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. Researchers at the University of Missouri, along with a small army of elementary school children and other volunteers, collected audio recordings of honeybees, bumblebees and other types of bees as they visited flowers along the path of totality Continue reading

Unexpected Affection

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An octopus on its way to an underwater EDM festival. Credit Ken Lucas, via Getty Images

Thanks to JoAnna Klein a regular contributor for The New York Times Trilobites feature, for this:

On Ecstasy, Octopuses Reached Out for a Hug

By dosing the tentacled creatures with MDMA, researchers found they share parts of an ancient messaging system involved in social behaviors with humans.

Octopuses are smart. They open jars, steal fish and high-five each other.

Though interactive, they’re generally asocial, and temperamental, with unique behavior patterns, like those shown by Otto, who caused blackouts at a German aquarium and Inky, who famously escaped a tank in New Zealand.They learn through experience and observation, forming lasting memories with brain-like bundles of hundreds of millions of neurons in each arm and a centralized bundle in the middle.

A desire to understand the evolutionary underpinnings of this brain power led scientists to give octopuses ecstasy. Yes ecstasy — molly, E, MDMA, the party drug, which in humans reduces fear and inhibition, induces feelings of empathy, distorts time and helps people dance to electronic music all night. 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