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)

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

Questions, Answers & Plans For Managing Environmental Challenges

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Experts have identified oceans as a key battleground in the fight to protect humanity’s natural ‘life support system’. Photograph: Christian Loader/Alamy

The plan provides one possible answer, its execution is an important question:

UN draft plan sets 2030 target to avert Earth’s sixth mass extinction

Paris-style proposal to counter loss of ecosystems and wildlife vital to the future of humanity will go before October summit

Almost a third of the world’s oceans and land should be protected by the end of the decade to stop and reverse biodiversity decline that risks the survival of humanity, according to a draft Paris-style UN agreement on nature.

To combat what scientists have described as the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history, the proposal sets a 2030 deadline for the conservation and restoration of ecosystems and wildlife that perform crucial services for humans.

The text, drafted by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, is expected to be adopted by governments in October at a crucial UN summit in the Chinese city of Kunming. It comes after countries largely failed to meet targets for the previous decade agreed in Aichi, Japan, in 2010. Continue reading

Acts Of Kindness, Random & Otherwise

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Recent research has explored “helping” behavior in species ranging from nonhuman primates to rats and bats. To see whether intelligent birds might help out a feathered pal, scientists did an experiment using African grey parrots like these. Henry Lok/EyeEm/Getty Images

Thanks to Nell Greenfieldboyce, science correspondent at National Public Radio (USA), for summarizing findings about how some animals help one another. We are on the lookout for more stories of how, why, when acts of kindness happen, and if we need to turn to parrots for inspiration, no problem:

Polly Share A Cracker? Parrots Can Practice Acts Of Kindness, Study Finds

Parrots can perform impressive feats of intelligence, and a new study suggests that some of these “feathered apes” may also practice acts of kindness.

African grey parrots voluntarily helped a partner get a food reward by giving the other bird a valuable metal token that could be exchanged for a walnut, according to a newly published report in the journal Current Biology. Continue reading

Biophilia By Any Other Name

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LUISA RIVERA FOR YALE ENVIRONMENT 360

It is surprising that neither E.O. Wilson nor his biophilia concept is mentioned here, but still it is an interesting finding. Our thanks to Jim Robbins for sharing:

Ecopsychology: How Immersion in Nature Benefits Your Health

A growing body of research points to the beneficial effects that exposure to the natural world has on health, reducing stress and promoting healing. Now, policymakers, employers, and healthcare providers are increasingly considering the human need for nature in how they plan and operate.

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A park ranger leads a hike through the Kahuku unit of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. NPS PHOTO/JANICE WEI

How long does it take to get a dose of nature high enough to make people say they feel healthy and have a strong sense of well-being?

Precisely 120 minutes. Continue reading

Adaptive Re-Use, Puffin Style

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Tufted Puffin. Photo: Tom Ingram/Audubon Photography Awards

Thanks to Audubon Magazine we start 2020 with a short story about an adaptation that is not just pretty, but practical in more than one way:

Those Big Orange Bills Also Help Puffins Stay Cool After a Workout

Good for more than just attracting a mate, the clownish feature appears to keep the subpar fliers from overheating.

The puffin’s iconic orange bill might be its most recognizable feature, but it’s also quite functional, serving the charismatic seabird in all avenues of life. The bill’s large volume makes it a hefty food carrier, and its ultraviolet glow amps up puffins’ sex appeal. Now, scientists have identified yet another use of this dramatically curved bill: staying cool. Continue reading

Smart Bees

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Thanks to Discover Magazine’s Sarah White for bringing our attention to Three Studies Are Showing Bees’ Amazing Math Abilities, a story we had missed earlier:

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(Credit: Gemma Tarlach/DISCOVER)

Honeybees caused quite a buzz this year when three separate studies showed they possess some of the same mathematical abilities as humans, despite much tinier brains.

In February, research in Science Advances indicated honeybees could learn to add and subtract. To teach the bees arithmetic, cognitive scientists set up a Y-shaped box for the bees to fly through. When a bee entered the box at the bottom of the Y, it saw blue or yellow shapes. If the shapes were blue, the bees were trained to fly down an arm of the Y toward a picture with one additional shape to receive a sucrose reward; the other arm had a bitter drink instead. If the shapes were yellow, bees were rewarded for choosing the picture with one fewer shape…

Do Not Underestimate The Value Of Fly Brains

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Comprised of only around 100,000 neurons, the Drosophila fruit fly brain is capable of highly complex behaviors. Getty Images

This link is in the spirit of appreciating the value of the lowliest members of our day to day encounters with nature, and the role they play in helping scientists better understand phenomena important to humans. Thanks to Kevin Jiang and the Harvard Gazette:

Where we get our sense of direction

Experiments reveal how visual cues reorganize course-sensing neurons in fruit flies

Seafood’s Scientific Solution

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Mother Jones illustration; Getty

Companies like Impossible and its competitor Beyond Meat have gotten most of the attention in our pages for plant-based meat-like products, but when it comes to alternative seafood our stories have mainly focused on invasive species, or on farming kelp or on seaweed farming. Thanks to Mother Jones for stretching our attention to the alternatives to fresh caught or even farm-raised seafood that simulates the kinds of fish that have been over-harvested:

We Destroyed the Oceans. Now Scientists Are Growing Seafood in Labs.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Do you love burgers—but not the animal cruelty and environmental degradation that go into making them? I come bearing good news: Someday, you might be able to get your meat fix, without all that bad stuff. Scientists can now grow animal flesh, without raising—or in most cases killing—an animal. This food, called “lab-grown meat,” “cell-based meat,” “cultured meat,” “cultivated meat,” “clean meat,” or as comedian Stephen Colbert jokingly called it in 2009, “shmeat,” has set off a flurry of media attention in recent years. Dozens of lab-grown meat companies have materialized, most aiming to solve the problems associated with large-scale beef, pork, poultry, and seafood production.

Finless Foods, a 12-person food-tech startup founded in 2017 and based in Emeryville, California, claims to be the first company to focus on lab-grown fish, although a handful of other startups have since joined them. In October, 28-year-old Finless Foods co-founder Mike Selden gave me a tour of their facility, and I dished about it on the latest episode of the Mother Jones food politics podcast Bite:

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Selden and his co-founder Brian Wyrwas, both products of an agricultural biochemistry program at UMass Amherst, started the company, he says, to “make something good.” Continue reading

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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