Hastening Evolution

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A North American snail kite in Florida. Researchers say the bird species has rapidly evolved larger beaks and bodies to eat a larger, invasive snail. CreditRobert Fletcher/University of Florida

Things Looked Bleak Until These Birds Rapidly Evolved Bigger Beaks

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The invasive snails are two to five times larger than the native species, and young kites with larger bills that were able to feed on them were more likely to survive their first year. Credit Robert Fletcher/University of Florida

Conservationists have been sounding the alarm over invasive species for years, warning of the damage they can cause to habitats and native animals. But in Florida, an invasive snail might be helping an endangered bird species come back from the brink, researchers say.

The population of North American snail kites — birds that use curved beaks and long claws to dine on small apple snails in the Florida Everglades — had been dwindling for years, from 3,500 in 2000 to just 700 in 2007. Things began to look particularly bleak in 2004, when a portion of the Everglades was invaded by a species of larger snail that the birds had historically struggled to eat. Ornithologists assumed the shift would hasten the snail kite’s decline. Continue reading

Magpie & Elk, Collaborating

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A magpie on an elk in Alberta, Canada, looking for winter ticks. Credit Rob Found

Thanks to the Trilobites feature on the New York Times website for this story of collaborative friendliness between species:

Chances are that’s a shy elk looking back at a bold magpie, in the photograph above.

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Scientists wonder if shy elk compensate for their bashfulness by accepting the grooming magpies. Credit Rob Found

They get along, so to speak, because the elk needs grooming and the magpie is looking for dinner. But they may have never entered into this partnership if it weren’t for their particular personalities, suggests a study published Wednesday in Biology Letters.

Let’s start with the elk. In Canada’s western province of Alberta, they’ve been acting strange. Some have quit migrating, opting to hang around towns with humans who protect them from predators like wolves. Others still migrate. Continue reading

Elegance Is Sometimes Overrated

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The Strange and Gruesome Story of the Greenland Shark, the Longest-Living Vertebrate on Earth

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Using carbon dating and a new method involving proteins in the lens of the eye, Danish scientists have unravelled the mystery of how long Greenland sharks live. Photograph by WaterFrame / Alamy

Apart from Romantic poets and their wannabes, who would wish for elegance at the expense of longevity? Thanks to M. R. O’Connor for this inelegantly titled post:

Greenland sharks are among nature’s least elegant inventions. Lumpish, with stunted pectoral fins that they use for ponderously slow swimming in cold and dark Arctic waters, they have blunt snouts and gaping mouths that give them an unfortunate, dull-witted appearance. Continue reading

Bats & Social Mechanisms Of Learning

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

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

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

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

Young bats may not be so different. Continue reading

Pumas Are Not Such Loners After All

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know The Glow Of Worms & Caves

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A cave of glowworms

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

The Most Beautiful Death Trap

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

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

Respect For The Praying Mantis

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

Crowdfunding as a Branch of Citizen Science

An artist’s rendering of a Utahraptor, several specimens of which were found in a massive slab of sandstone in eastern Utah in 2001. Scientists are seeking to raise money to remove the remaining bones from the giant trove of fossils, a slow and painstaking process. Credit Elena Duvernay/Stocktrek Images, via Science Source

There’s no age limit to the human fascination with dinosaurs, so it’s good news for science that interest translates to collaborative efforts when public funding for exploration and documentation run low.

Raptor Cam? Sounds enticing!

Utah Paleontologists Turn to Crowdfunding for Raptor Project

Millions of years ago, on a mud flat somewhere in Cretaceous Utah, a group of Utahraptors made a grave mistake: They tried to hunt near quicksand. The pack’s poor fortune has given modern paleontologists an opportunity to decode the giant raptor — its appearance, growth and behavior — but only if they can raise the money.

Enter “The Utahraptor Project,” started on GoFundMe last year with a $100,000 goal. It offers backers access to a field worker’s blog, a live “Raptor Cam” and digital models of the find put together through the process of photogrammetry. While it is far from reaching its goal, the team is optimistic.

“Once we get this up and running, with all the cameras and gizmos to record the action on a micro and macro level,” said Scott Madsen, a fossil preparator, “I think we can give the public a good show for their money. Continue reading

The Technological Wow Factor of Archaeology

Crist’s post about this fascinating National Geographic article last week touched on its excellent graphics but barely began to scratch the surface of the amazing technology that would certainly have left the readers of the early issues of the magazine speechless.

In addition to the world-class photography, the interactive 3-D graphic of the frieze above uses SketchFab technology to allow viewers to not only zoom in and out, but to turn the object around in all directions, as if handling it in person. Do take the time to play with it! Continue reading

Come Back To Belize, Meg Lowman!

We have mentioned Meg more than once since we met her a few years ago, because our interests are aligned. Thanks to this public radio station for reminding me that Meg is due for a visit to Belize (I say wishfully) for a 20-years later discovery trip, and we will be happy to see her at Chan Chich Lodge when the time comes:

megmalaysiaFor over 30 years, Dr. Meg Lowman –Canopy Meg, has designed hot-air balloons and walkways for treetop exploration to solve mysteries in the world’s forests, especially insect pests and ecosystem health. Meg is affectionately called the mother Continue reading

Snake Kings And Other Discoveries

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CALAKMUL In the seventh century A.D. the Snake rulers presided over this capital city—in what today is southern Mexico—and its largest structure, a pyramid 180 feet tall. From Calakmul they managed an intricate web of alliances. CONSEJO NACIONAL PARA LA CULTURA Y LAS ARTES (CONACULTA), INSTITUTO NACIONAL DE ANTROPOLOGÍA E HISTORIA (INAH), MEXICO

Discoveries in the lands once populated by the Maya continue apace. As Chan Chich Lodge completes three decades of archeological exploration, the wonders of three millennia are uncovered. The stories that capture my interest the most, related to the Maya, are about the man-nature relationship.

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JEROME COOKSON, NG STAFF
SOURCE: DAVID FREIDEL, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN ST. LOUIS

Erik Vance published this story last year, and when I read it then I remember thinking that it was the best article I had ever read in National Geographic. Partly, the graphics are better, if that is possible, than the typically excellent quality the magazine is known for. Also, the topic is more topical for me now. Chan Chich Lodge is situated exactly where the o in Holmul is on the map to the left. The lodge’s Maya foundations are situated at the periphery of where the snake kings once ruled.

And we now have an ethnobotanical initiative linking Maya foodways to our surrounding nature conservation. That initiative is linked to the lodge’s food program, with some high expectations related to our abundant forests. But mainly, with regard to this article, the writing illuminating the topic is excellent:

…Two warring city-states were locked in perennial conflict, grappling for supremacy. For a brief period one of those city-states prevailed and became the closest thing to an empire in Maya history. It was ruled by the Snake kings of the Kaanul dynasty, which until just a few decades ago no one even knew existed. Thanks to sites around this city-state, including Holmul, archaeologists are now piecing together the story of the Snake kings…

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Masks from the tombs at Calakmul were meant to ease the passage of the Snake elite into the next world. Royal visages made of green jade, more valuable than gold to the ancient Maya, evoked the annual agricultural cycle and regeneration. CONACULTA, INAH, MEXICO (BOTH) PHOTOGRAPHED AT (LEFT TO RIGHT): NATIONAL PALACE, MEXICO CITY; MUSEO DE SITIO DE COMALCALCO, MEXICO

Understanding Tapir

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Fossils of Macrauchenia patachonica, as depicted in this artist’s reconstruction, baffled Darwin. The odd mammals disappeared about 12,000 years ago. Credit Jorge Blanco

I am sure I remember seeing these in my childhood collection of books with pictures of prehistoric creatures. Like many boys, the saber-tooth tiger was a favorite, which may explain my preoccupation with the big cats at Chan Chich Lodge. When you favor cats, you get to know their diet, so creatures like these in the image above were also among those I was fascinated by, which would explain why the tapir I have seen in the forests surrounding Chan Chich are among my lifetime favorite wild animal sightings. Thanks to Steph Yin for this story:

Strange Mammals That Stumped Darwin Finally Find a Home

It looked like many different animals and, at the same time, like no other animal at all.

From afar, you might think it was a large, humpless camel. Tall, stout legs ending in rhino feet carried a body weight potentially equal to that of a small car. Its neck stretched like a giraffe’s before giving way to a face resembling a saiga antelope’s. From this face extended a fleshy protuberance, similar to a mini elephant trunk or a tapir’s proboscis. Continue reading

Birds Banging On Drums

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A male palm cockatoo, right, drumming with a stick for a female. Credit Christina Zdenek

Todd Rundgren, a musical talent better known to an earlier generation, had an oddball hit song about banging on drums. It came to mind immediately when reading this oddball story about cockatoos. If you do not already know the song, you might want to find it to accompany your reading of this story:

Whales and songbirds produce sounds resembling human music, and chimpanzees and crows use tools. But only one nonhuman animal is known to marry these two skills.

Palm cockatoos from northern Australia modify sticks and pods and use them to drum regular rhythms, according to new research published in Science Advances on Wednesday. In most cases, males drop beats in the presence of females, suggesting they perform the skill to show off to mates. The birds even have their own signature cadences, not unlike human musicians. Continue reading

A Day In the Life of the Chan Chich Archaeological Project

When Crist wrote about the Chan Chich Archaeological Project in April it was in anticipation of the group’s arrival. Now that we’re several weeks in I’ve had the opportunity to assist them first hand, in part as a “guinea pig” for guest involvement as citizen science participants. Fellow contributor Phil Karp (a veteran of many citizen science programs) was enthusiastically up  for the experience as well.

The team of archaeologists and field school students, led by Texas Tech University associate professor Dr. Brett Houk, is studying the ancient Maya at Chan Chich and surrounding sites. Several weeks into their dig they’ve made significant progress, and they gamely accepted the challenge of taking novices into their ranks.

We began at the beginning, well known to be the very best place to start, with a new “lot” located next to a well-established excavated area. Continue reading

Investigator Of The Abyss

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Courtesy of Museums Victoria / CSIRO

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) and Kat Lonsdorf for a brief look into the deep work of Tim O’Hara:

Explorers Probing Deep Sea Abyss Off Australia’s Coast Find Living Wonders

Far below the surface of the ocean, off the coast of eastern Australia is an area simply known as “the abyss.” The largest and deepest habitat on the planet, the abyssal zone stretches well beyond Australia’s waters and spans half the world’s oceans — but it remains largely unexplored. Continue reading

Lost & Found, Lizard Edition

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For nearly two centuries, Varanus douarrha was an enigma. Now it has been resurrected. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY VALTER WEIJOLA

In our book, lost and found is normally half glass full (versus half empty) new that we enjoy sharing, and this one counts as more than half full due to the intrigue of the history and the odd charisma of the creature:

A LIZARD LOST AT SEA MAKES ITS RETURN

By Marguerite Holloway

On June 27, 1824, a trading vessel en route from Mauritius to England was caught in a powerful gale. For ten days, winds pounded the King George IV until it could no longer hold together. In three perilous traverses, a small rescue boat shuttled those aboard to a beach near the Cape of Good Hope. “Neither myself nor the passengers have saved a single article,” the captain later wrote. “Probably they may cast up in time.” Amid the lost cargo—mostly sugar, cotton, and cloves—were three cases of scientific specimens. Continue reading

Lapham’s Quarterly, Now On Soundcloud As A Podcast

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IMAGE: Discovery En Route to Antarctica (detail), by Vincent Alexander Booth, 2014. © Private Collection / Bridgeman Images.

Lewis Lapham has shown up in our pages here exactly once in the past. Mainly because, in the six years we have been posting on this platform, his own publication was not as accessible as others we have been linking to. Surely there was a purpose to the walls constructed around it, but we are happy that, for whatever reason, they have come down. Just the illustration above and the quotations below should make you want  to read more:

Evolution has arranged that we take pleasure in understanding—those who understand are more likely to survive.
—Carl Sagan

I’m sorry I know so little; I’m sorry we all know so little. But that’s kind of the fun, isn’t it?
—Vera Rubin

Lapham

We sample the opening two paragraphs after the jump below, and recommend savoring his writing, but we also have been on the podcast bandwagon since we started on this platform. If you have already been enjoying Lewis Lapham’s publication, and wishing it were available in an audible format, today is your lucky day (click the soundcloud banner here to listen). Continue reading

Plants, Water & Sound

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Thanks to Brandon Keim and Anthropocene for this summary of some recent science exploring the reactions of flora to sound in their search for water:

Plants can hear water. Could noise pollution interfere?

There’s a transformation underway in how people think about plants: not just as inanimate biological objects, but as capable of perceptions and actions that resemble the intelligent behaviors of animals. Continue reading

Music That Inspires On Multiple Notes

Musicologist and conductor Laurie Stras

While I personally don’t focus on organized religion, I can’t deny the power of sacred music to uplift my spirit. This story of inspired Renaissance composition and modern-day curiosity resonates with historical sleuthing and musical puzzle solving.

Click on the Sound Cloud musical links, close your eyes and breathe deep.

Sisters doing it for themselves: radical motets from a 16th-century nunnery

Eight years ago, leafing through a bibliography of 16th-century music prints (like you do), my eye was caught by the title of a motet: “Salve sponsa Dei.” “Bride of Christ,” I thought. “Must be for nuns!”

It was one of 23 anonymous motets published together in 1543, so I did what any self-respecting nunologist would do, and ordered a reproduction of the book. As I put the motets into a usable edition for modern singers, I found they were unlike any other 16th-century music I’d ever seen. They were dense, intense and sometimes startlingly dissonant.

The music – for five equal voices (of unspecified sex) – is astonishingly beautiful and yet strange, radical even. These works had lain unsung and unloved for almost four centuries, mostly because they were anonymous. These days, anonymity suggests that whoever created the book, music, painting or whatever was not important enough, or the product is not good enough, for anyone to care who made it. But in the 16th century, anonymity was also an important way for members of the nobility to disguise their participation in commercial ventures that were considered beneath them (which is why Gesualdo, a prince, published his madrigals anonymously).

But Virginia Woolf was right when she said: “Anonymous was a woman.” Continue reading