Penitentes, An Otherworldly Wonder

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Lara Vimercati and Jack Darcy, two graduate students, at the edge of a penitente field on a Chilean volcano where researchers unexpectedly found algae. Steven K. Schmidt

Thanks to JoAnna Klein for bringing this question, and another Chilean wonder, to our attention:

If Algae Clings to Snow on This Volcano, Can It Grow on Other Desolate Worlds?

Scientists were surprised to find something living on the sterile heights of this Chilean volcano.

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The penitentes are thought to result from an unusual mix of wind, temperature fluctuations and the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Steve Schmidt

In Chile’s Atacama Desert, Volcan Llullaillaco is Mars on Earth — or about as close to it as you can get. At 22,000 feet above sea level, it’s the second highest active volcano on Earth. Most of the mountain is a barren, red landscape of volcanic rock and dust, with thin, dry air, intense sunlight and winds that will blow your tent down the mountain.

While the ground can heat up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, air temperatures rarely reach above freezing. When snow falls, it turns to gas just as it hits the earth. Occasionally, snow can collect in windblown banks, which then melt into icy spires up to 16 feet tall. The Spaniards called these “nieves penitentes,” penitent ones, because they look like hooded monks doing penance.

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Steve Schmidt

These conditions high up on the volcano made it seem about as lifeless as Mars. But a team of researchers led by Steven K. Schmidt, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies extreme life, have discovered microbes living in and around the penitentes at 17,300 feet above sea level, about one thousand feet above the point at which vegetation stops on Volcan Llullaillaco. Continue reading

The Corn Of The Future Is Valuable Patrimony From Mexico

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A Mexican scientist inspects a field of olotón maize near Oaxaca, Mexico. ALLEN VAN DEYNZE/UC DAVIS

Thanks to Martha Pskowski and Yale e360 for this:

Indigenous Maize: Who Owns the Rights to Mexico’s ‘Wonder’ Plant?

A nitrogen-fixing maize grown in an indigenous region of Mexico has the ability to fertilize itself, recent research shows. Now, as a global company and U.S. scientists work to replicate this trait in other corn varieties, will the villages where the maize originated share fairly in the profits?

In a 1979 visit to Totontepec, a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico, naturalist Thomas Boone Hallberg marveled at the local maize. The plants grew nearly 20 feet high in nutrient-poor soil, even though local farmers did not apply any fertilizer.

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MARS, INCORPORATED & JEAN-MICHEL ANE/UC DAVIS

The maize had aerial roots that grew a mucous-like gel just before harvest season. It seemed impossible, but Hallberg wondered if the maize was fixing its own nitrogen: extracting it from the air and somehow making it usable for the plant. He had visited countless towns since moving to Oaxaca in the 1950s, but what he saw in Totontepec stuck with him.

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The maize variety olotón has aerial roots that produce a mucous-like gel that fixes nitrogen, meaning that it can effectively fertilize itself. MARS, INCORPORATED & JEAN-MICHEL ANE/UC DAVIS

In 1992, Hallberg returned with a group of Mexican scientists. The maize, known as olotón, was almost ready for harvest and its aerial roots glistened with gel. Ronald Ferrera-Cerrato, a microbiologist, took samples back to his lab outside Mexico City to test the bacteria in the gel. His preliminary results, published in a 1996 report, showed that the maize received nitrogen from the air, through its aerial roots, meaning that it effectively had the ability to fertilize itself.

At the time, scientists around the world were puzzling over similar questions. In a 1996 paper in Plant and Soil, microbiologist Eric Triplett, then at the University of Wisconsin, described the possibility of corn plants that fix nitrogen as “the ‘holy grail’ of nitrogen fixation research” because of the potential to reduce fertilizer demand. Continue reading

Could “Fishless Fish” Play a Part Helping Oceans Recuperate?

This salmon, by Wild Type, was grown from cells in a lab. The company is one of several developing seafood alternatives. Kelsey McClellan for The New York Times

First, there was the meatless burger. Soon we may have fishless fish.

Impossible Foods, the California company behind the meatless Impossible Whopper now available at Burger King, is joining a crowded field of food companies developing alternatives to traditional seafood with plant-based recipes or laboratory techniques that allow scientists to grow fish from cells.

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Good Catch Tuna, made from plants, is available at Whole Foods. Kelsey McClellan for The New York Times

So far, much of Impossible’s work has focused on the biochemistry of fish flavor, which can be reproduced using heme, the same protein undergirding its meat formula, according to Pat Brown, the company’s chief executive. Last month, Impossible’s 124-person research and development team, which the company plans to increase to around 200 by the end of next year, produced an anchovy-flavored broth made from plants, he said.

“It was being used to make paella,” Mr. Brown said. “But you could use it to make Caesar dressing or something like that.”

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Wild Type held a tasting of its lab-grown salmon last month in Portland, Ore. Kelsey McClellan for The New York Times

The fishless-fish project is part of Impossible’s grand ambitions to devise tasty replacements for every animal-based food on the market by 2035. Whether that aim is achievable, either scientifically or financially, remains to be seen. But for now, Mr. Brown said, he’s confident Impossible’s plant-based beef recipe can be reconfigured to simulate a new source of protein.

It’s unclear whether consumers — even those who eat meatless burgers — will embrace fish alternatives.

Those faux-beef products owe their success partly to the enthusiasm of so-called flexitarians, people who want to reduce their meat consumption without fully converting to vegetarianism, but flexitarians are not necessarily motivated by a desire to save the planet. Indeed, industry experts say, many of them are drawn to plant-based meat more for its perceived health benefits than for its role in reducing the food industry’s reliance on production techniques that release greenhouse gases. Continue reading

Tropical Wetlands Offer Another Surprise

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A wetland forest in Tupana, Brazil. AMAURI AGUIAR/FLICKR

Tropical wetlands have been a source of wonder, due to their biodiversity, since we started paying attention along time ago. Fred Pearce offers another of his surprises here:

Scientists Zero in on Trees as a Surprisingly Large Source of Methane

Recent research is showing that trees, especially in tropical wetlands, are a major source of the second most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, methane. The knowledge that certain woodlands are high methane emitters should help guide reforestation projects in many parts of the world.

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Tropical wetlands, such as this mangrove forest in Bali, give off the most intense tree-based emissions of methane. ALAMY

There are many mysteries in the Amazon. Until recently, one of the most troubling was the vast methane emissions emerging from the rainforest that were observed by satellites but that nobody could find on the ground. Around 20 million tons was simply unaccounted for.

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Sunitha Pangala installs a device that measures a tree’s methane emissions, in the Amazon. COURTESY OF SUNITHA PANGALA

Then Sunitha Pangala, a British post-doc researcher, spent two months traveling the Amazon’s waterways strapping gas-measuring equipment to thousands of trees. She found that trees, especially in the extensive flooded forests, were stimulating methane production in the waterlogged soils and mainlining it into the atmosphere.

Her 2014 expedition plugged a gaping hole in the planet’s methane budget. And she had discovered a hitherto ignored major source of the second most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. It now seems that most of the world’s estimated 3 trillion trees emit methane at least some of the time. Continue reading

Animal Migration In A New Light

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Craig K. Lorenz

It’s been a while, Carl Zimmer! Welcome back to our pages and thanks for this new consideration of what is included in the definition of animal migration, a pair of words normally associated with big mammals and birds:

These Animal Migrations Are Huge — and Invisible

Swarms of insects move across continents each year. Scientists used radar to track one species and discovered a vast ecological force.

Ladybugs briefly took over the news cycle.

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In this radar image, green indicates a swarm of ladybugs over Southern California. National Weather Service, via Associated Press

Meteorologists at the National Weather Service were looking over radar images in California on the night of June 4 when they spotted what looked like a wide swath of rain. But there were no clouds.

The meteorologists contacted an amateur weather-spotter directly under the mysterious disturbance. He wasn’t getting soaked by rain. Instead, he saw ladybugs. Everywhere.

Radar apparently had picked up a cloud of migrating ladybugs spread across 80 miles, with a dense core ten miles wide floating 5,000 feet to 9,000 feet in the air. As giant as the swarm was, the meteorologists lost track of it. The ladybugs disappeared into the night. Continue reading

Collective Action’s Pre-historic Remains

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Nobuaki Mizumoto first saw this fossil at the dinosaur museum in his hometown. MIZUMOTO / PROCEEDINGS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY B

Collective action, mentioned in the title of a 2011 post on this platform and many times since, is a concept puzzling enough in the here and now. Or in the case of my doctoral dissertation, the recent past.

An Incredible Fossil Contains a Whole School of 259 Fish

How did they all die at once?

In 2016, Nobuaki Mizumoto was visiting the dinosaur museum in his hometown of Katsuyama, Japan, when he came across an unexpected display—not of a dinosaur, but of a school of fish. It was embedded in limestone shale and exhibited in a corner with no particular fanfare. Yet the 50-million-year-old fossil was clearly extraordinary: 259 tiny fish bodies with eyes and spines and even fins. All but a few faced the same direction, as if frozen mid-swim.

Mizumoto does not specialize in fish or fossils, but he does study the collective behavior of termites at Arizona State University. He became intrigued by the idea that this fish fossil showed collective behavior, too. When fish form schools, they have to coordinate their swimming, staying together without crashing into one another. Continue reading

Natural Surprises

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The world’s boreal forests have been largely earthworm-free since the last Ice Age. But as invaders arrive and burrow into the leaf litter, they free up carbon and may accelerate climate change. Cristina Gonzalez Sevilleja

In my daily scan for information related to the environment, I invariably learn something that surprises me. Like the fact that the earthworm, which provide valuable ecosystem services, can also represent danger on a global scale:

‘Earthworm Dilemma’ Has Climate Scientists Racing to Keep Up

Worms are wriggling into Earth’s northernmost forests, creating major unknowns for climate-change models.

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Earthworms recently have spread to Alaska’s boreal forest. In some areas, the biomass of earthworms is 500 times greater than that of moose, a keystone species. Lance King/Getty Images

Cindy Shaw, a carbon-research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, studies the boreal forest — the world’s most northerly forest, which circles the top of the globe like a ring of hair around a balding head.

A few years ago, while conducting a study in northern Alberta to see how the forest floor was recovering after oil and gas activity, she saw something she had never seen there before: earthworms.

“I was amazed,” she said. “At the very first plot, there was a lot of evidence of earthworm activity.”

Native earthworms disappeared from most of northern North America 10,000 years ago, during the ice age. Now invasive earthworm species from southern Europe — survivors of that frozen epoch, and introduced to this continent by European settlers centuries ago — are making their way through northern forests, their spread hastened by roads, timber and petroleum activity, tire treads, boats, anglers and even gardeners. Continue reading

History As Told By Trees

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A sample from Siberia, with the core dating from 1637 and the outer ring from 2011, hangs on a wall at the research lab on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson. Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Thanks to Jim Robbins, as always:

Chronicles of the Rings: What Trees Tell Us

Studying the historical data stored in centuries-old trees is a burgeoning field, with labs around the world learning more about historical patterns of weather and climate and the effects on humans.

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Wood samples for research at the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research at the University of Arizona. Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

TUCSON — From the early 1700s until the 1960s, the fast moving river of wind known as the North Atlantic Jet Stream, which drives weather extremes over Europe, was pretty steady on its course.

Then it became less predictable. But instrument data alone can’t tell the jet stream’s movements for comparison over the centuries, given that scientists began keeping records of weather events via instruments only in the late 19th century. Continue reading

Citizen Science Goes Far Afield

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LUISA RIVERA / YALE E360

We have been on watch for citizen science stories since the early days of this platform. Seth had just accepted an offer to work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and typical of him, did his homework on what he had committed to. Since then, dozens of first person and linked-to citizen science stories from other members of our community have appeared in these pages. Thanks to Yale e360 and Jessica Leber for this story about how far and wide the practice has spread, and a few of its more amazing discoveries:

Species Sleuths: Amateur Naturalists Spark a New Wave of Discovery

Scientists have not kept pace with the work of discovering new species. Now, a growing number of committed hobbyists – ranging from a Belgian bus driver to a California cybersecurity expert – are out in the field, igniting a boom in documenting the world’s biodiversity.

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COURTESY OF TERRI CLEMENTS

When mushroom hunter Terri Clements found a unique specimen near her home in Arizona, she couldn’t be certain by its appearance that she’d stumbled across a new species. She tracked down a commercial lab that would process DNA from samples she collected and studied the resulting sequences. Only later did she cold email a mycological scientist, who confirmed her work. As a result, this December, she became part of a team publishing a scientific paper describing her new mushroom species, Morchella kaibabensis, along with three others.

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Mushroom hunter Terri Clements used DNA sequencing to confirm a new species of black morel, Morchella kaibabensis, she found near her home in Arizona.

A former restauranteur and real estate executive who retired in 2012, Clements has no formal scientific training beyond her college microbiology minor. But using a combination of traditional taxonomy — the science of describing, naming, and classifying life on earth — and increasingly accessible DNA classification tools, she’s now hooked on documenting fungi either previously unknown in her region, or, just as often, new to science. “I spend hours and hours on it,” she says. “It’s like a full-time job for which I don’t get paid.”

Her work puts her in the ranks of an increasingly vibrant group of hobbyists busy documenting unexplored species on the planet, ranging from a chemical engineer in France, to a cybersecurity specialist in California, to retirees like Clements. Many study organisms from specific groups of fungi, insects, and other invertebrates that are less charismatic and surveyed than the orchids, birds, and butterflies that have long attracted the public’s interest. Continue reading

The Mouth of the Well

The archaeologist Guillermo de Anda next to pre-Columbian artifacts in a cave at the Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá. Credit Karla Ortega/Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology, via Associated Press

This new discovery in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula came to our attention just when we’re on an archaeological roll. It definitely gives us pause that there are still such important finds in the world.

In a cave under the ancient city of Chichén Itzá, Mexican archaeologists discovered a trove of ceramic artifacts that appear to be over 1,000 years old.

Archaeologists announced this week that they had discovered an extraordinary trove of well-preserved Maya artifacts under the ancient city of Chichén Itzá in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

The artifacts were found in a cave called Balamkú, less than two miles from the famed pyramid known as the Temple of Kukulcan, or The Castle, which sits in the center of the site.

Guillermo de Anda, an investigator with the National Institute of Anthropology and History, said in a statement on Monday that the remarkable discovery could help researchers rewrite the history of Chichén Itzá, which flourished from roughly A.D. 750 to 1200.

The city was built on top of a network of waterways, including sinkholes called cenotes, which the ancient Maya believed were sacred places that provided a portal to the underworld. Its name is sometimes translated as “the mouth of the well of the Itza,” the name of the main ethnic group in the area at the time.

Continue reading

Urban Archaeology

 

We’ve had friends and family members living in Atlanta for close to 30 years, and although I knew it was the hub of important aspects of American history, it never occurred to me to think of it in archaeological terms. At first consideration, I think about archaeology as the study of ancient cultures in far away places. Yet, with family in countries like Greece, I acknowledge that awesome layers of history can be just under the surface, or deeply buried and unearthed as cities grow with constructions of buildings and transit infrastructure.

This piece in the Georgia State University Magazine made that quite clear.

Treasures of Terminus

From its days as a railroad boomtown to Sherman’s tinderbox to one of America’s great cities, Atlanta’s history runs deep. The Phoenix Project, more than 100,000 artifacts collected by a team of Georgia State archaeologist in the 1970s, tells the city’s story through unearthed historical objects.

There is buried treasure at Georgia State University. Stacked high and deep in more than 500 boxes stashed throughout the labyrinths of Kell Hall, more than 100,000 artifacts tell the story of Atlanta’s history.

These boxes contain the lost pieces of a tumultuous past that dates to the city’s earliest days — bullet casings from the Civil War, mystery tonics in antique glass bottles, creepy toys, fashion accessories, ancient grooming tools and much more. Many of them still await examination and haven’t been opened since archaeologists first packed them four decades ago.

This massive array of objects is called the Phoenix Project, and Georgia State professors and students have been methodically studying, cataloging and mapping each item since 2011.

Collected all over the city between 1976 and 1980, the objects belong to the largest archeological collection ever associated with Atlanta. They are the fruit of one of America’s earliest urban archaeological projects — the roving excavation that followed construction crews as the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) cleared land, leveled blocks and tunneled underground to build the first iteration of its rail system.

Jeffrey Glover, associate professor of anthropology, has curated the Phoenix Project for years in hopes of providing the public with a different kind of city history, a slice of Atlanta’s past through the lens of historical objects.

Catalog No.: P1848/170 Swamp Root Kidney, Liver and Bladder Cure, c. 1890, manufactured by Dr. Kilmer & Co., Binghamton, NY.

Choosing one box among hundreds, Glover removes a small amber bottle that once held Valentine’s Meat Juice, a concentrated beef tonic from the 1870s. Advertisements said it could help with gastroenteritis, dysentery and even cholera.

“It was supposed to bring vitality,” Glover says, “like an early energy drink.”

From another box, he takes out the misshapen head of a porcelain doll. Featuring dark, empty eye sockets and covered in burn marks, the scary toy looks hungry for souls. While Glover affectionately calls it the “creepy doll head,” its official artifact ID is “a3161,” written in impeccable script with archival ink across its neck.

That’s because the archaeologists who bagged all this stuff in the 1970s methodically described and organized each item using a numbering system adapted from the Georgia Department of Transportation. For example, the “a” in “a3161” stands for “general artifact” while the number indicates the item was the 3,161st general artifact to be cataloged from that accession. (And there are about 100 accessions.) Containers, such as glass and pottery, begin with “p,” and building materials with “m.” Plant remains use “eb” for “ethnobotanical” while animal bones start with “ez” for “ethnozoological.”

Just one of the standard cardboard bankers boxes can contain dozens, if not hundreds, of artifacts, each wrapped in brown paper and labeled with a unique artifact ID. Though they’ve all been recorded in a logbook alongside a one-line description, unwrapping each one is like opening a birthday present because you don’t know exactly what you’ll get.

“It’s an excavation of boxes,” says Lori Thompson (M.A. ’16), assistant laboratory director at New South Associates.

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

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

When Squirrels Fly

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In most circumstances, the flying squirrel has a brownish color, left. But ultraviolet light reveals them to glow hot-pink. Northland College

When we last linked to a story about flying squirrels we mentioned that we had neglected to write about them while in Kerala. However, that was not quite correct. We did frequently mention the Malabar giant squirrel, especially in guest sighting posts. Their other common name is the Malabar flying squirrel. In its own way this animal could make you gasp when you saw one, but it was competing for attention with elephants, tigers and bears. This story, thanks to Veronique Greenwood, points to other flying squirrels that might cause a completely different kind of gasp:

Flying Squirrels That Glow Pink in the Dark

While ultraviolet fluorescence is common in birds, butterflies and sea creatures, scientists haven’t often observed it in mammals.

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Scientists suspect the flying squirrel may have evolved fluorescence to evade owls that hunt them. Alternately, the glow may have a mating function. Northland College

One spring night in Wisconsin, John Martin, a biologist, was in his backyard with an ultraviolet flashlight. Suddenly, a hot-pink squirrel flew by.

It was a southern flying squirrel, a small, furry creature most active at dawn and dusk. Under most circumstances, it has a warm brown color. But in the beam of Dr. Martin’s flashlight, it sported a gaudy Day-Glo hue closer to something you might see in a nightclub or a Jazzercise class circa 1988.

“He told his colleagues at Northland College, but of course, everyone was pretty skeptical,” said Allison Kohler, a graduate student at Texas A&M University.

Dr. Martin asked Ms. Kohler, then a student at Northland, to look into it. After examining more than 100 specimens of flying squirrels across two museum collections and spotting five more squirrels under UV light in the wild, the researchers and their colleagues reported surprising results last week in the Journal of Mammalogy: The pink is real. 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

Mysteries Of Nature

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The sudden appearance of a giant ice disk in Maine has raised many questions. Watch it rotate in this stunning drone video.  Tina Radel/City of Westbrook, via Associated Press

We appreciate the fact that there are still such natural surprises out there:

There’s a Huge Ice Disk in a Maine River. No, the Aliens Aren’t Coming.

A giant ice disk churning in a river that runs through the small city of Westbrook, Me., set off fevered speculation on Tuesday.

Was it an icy landing zone for aliens? A sign of impending doom? A carousel for ducks? (A handful were, in fact, enjoying the ride.)

The Boston Globe wrote that it was “like some type of arctic buzzsaw,” and residents hurried to the edges of the Presumpscot River to catch a glimpse.

Scientists say that ice disks are an unusual — but entirely natural — phenomenon that occurs when a pile of slush freezes in an eddy or a piece of ice breaks off from another and begins to rotate. As it turns, hitting rocks and water, the sides are shaved down.

Steven Daly, an expert in river ice hydraulics at the Army Corps of Engineers’ Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, N.H., said his agency generally got just one or two reports of rotating ice disks in the United States each year.

They’re not usually this big, though. Continue reading

Floral Communication Better Understood

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A bee collects pollen from a flower. DARREN STAPLES / REUTERS

 Thanks to Ed Yong, 6+ years in our pages, whose work we always appreciate:

Plants Can Hear Animals Using Their Flowers

And they react to the buzzing of pollinators by sweetening their nectar.

When people pose the old question about whether a tree falling in an empty forest makes a sound, they presuppose that none of the other plants in the forest are listening in. Plants, supposedly, are silent and unhearing. They don’t make noises, unless rustled or bitten. When Rachel Carson described a spring bereft of birds, she called it silent.

But these stereotypes may not be true. According to a blossoming batch of studies, it’s not that plants have no acoustic lives. It’s more that, until now, we’ve been blissfully unaware of them. Continue reading

New Species Discovered, A Swamp Creature Worthy Of Cinematic Stardom

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The reticulated siren is so mysterious to researchers that they didn’t even know how they reproduced until 2013. Like fish and unlike other salamanders, they fertilize eggs externally. Credit Pierson Hill

It has been a while since we saw news of a species discovery, and this is no small matter, so thanks to Asher Elbein for this:

A Salamander of Legend Emerges From Southern Swamps

The reticulated siren is the largest vertebrate discovered in the United States in decades.

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The newest named salamander in the animal kingdom: the reticulated siren. Credit David Steen

It’s eel-shaped and leopard-spotted, and it has no hind-limbs. It grows to two feet long. And yet until recently, hardly anyone had ever seen it.

A team of researchers has discovered of new species of salamander in the pine forests of northern Florida and southern Alabama. The so-called reticulated siren is the largest vertebrate found in the United States in decades, and the first new member of its family since 1944.

“It’s a really cool animal,” said David Steen, a conservation biologist at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and an author of a genetic analysis of the salamander published in PLOS One. The salamander’s distinctive patterning “jumps out immediately,” he said.

Known for their size and bushy gills, sirens are a fixture in Southeastern swamps and watery ditches. Previously, Dr. Steen said, the genus was assumed to contain only two species: the lesser siren and greater siren, which can grow to three feet in length, one of the longest American salamanders. Continue reading

Natural History, Artists & Detectives

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This Tyrannosaurus bataar dinosaur was at the center of a lawsuit demanding its return to Mongolia. Credit U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York

97803163825331.jpgMammoth-hunting is the closest anyone in our immediate circle has gotten to the kind of story that is on my mind today. Searching the word dinosaur on our platform I see that the story told in the book to the left has had a long trail that I have been following for years. If like me you had youthful dreams of becoming a hunter for pre-history’s wonders you might have thrown around phrases such as “whatever it takes.”

This cautionary tale by Paige Williams might be the antidote for any kid whose instincts are for this kind of sleuthing adventure, which requires rules just like any good game. Speaking of which, longform tale-telling is as much an interest of mine as natural history, and the way this book came to my attention was through an interview with its author.

The Bizarre Tale of the ‘Dinosaur Artist’ Who Trafficked in Stolen Fossils

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John Marshall Mantel for The New York Times

As far as case law goes, there are more consequential decisions than The United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar SkeletonFew, however, feature a more charismatic defendant.

In 2013, the United States literally arrested the skeleton of a giant apex predator dinosaur slumbering in a warehouse in Queens. But understanding how this came to be first requires a panoptic survey of everything from the world of the Late Cretaceous period to the 1990s rise of right-wing politics in Mongolia. This is the dizzying task that Paige Williams, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has set for herself in “The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy.”

What began for her as the tale of an unusual court case involving a rogue fossil hunter unspools in this book into a wide-ranging examination of the ways that commercialism, ambition, politics and science collide. (Just a glance at some of the index’s entries reveals the scope: Genghis Khan, Newt Gingrich, St. Augustine, Stegosaurus and Preet Bharara.) Continue reading