Elephants Can Smell

ElephantNose.jpg

Elephants have a keen nose. They have more smell receptors than any mammal – including dogs – and can sniff out food that is several miles away. A new study tests their ability to distinguish between similar smelling plants. Image by akrp, via Getty Images

It is true that elephants can smell. As in, be smelly. But they can also smell well, better than I knew. Yesterday’s elephant mention was the first in a long time, reminding us how frequently we posted about them from India. When we were in the land of elephants, and other charismatic megafauna, we ran stories frequently about their mega-wondrousness. Now, a welcome reminder about how amazing these big creatures are in smaller ways too. Click above to go to the video accompanying this story below by James Gorman:

The Elephant’s Superb Nose

In the world of noses, the elephant’s trunk clearly stands out for its size, flexibility, strength and slightly creepy gripping ability.

Go ahead, try to pluck a leaf with your nostrils and see how you fare. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the elephant’s sense of smell is also outstanding. Continue reading

Bess, Honey & Nothing

merlin_139147827_59aa1ad7-2e69-4dd7-8bc2-8ee31aa76222-jumbo.jpg

Not only can a honey bee count, it understands the concept of zero, according to researchers. CreditFrank Bienewald/LightRocket, via Getty Images

Thanks as always to James Gorman, one of the best illuminators of any variety of natural mysteries who we never tire of citing in these pages. He tells funny stories sometimes, about beautiful as well as awesome phenomena that we want to know. And he knows how to tell it:

Do Bees Know Nothing?

Researchers say bees understand the concept of nothing, or zero. But do we understand what that means?

What would it mean if bees could understand the concept of nothing?

That would be really something.

merlin_139147956_3b91262b-cb30-4eb9-9279-465935577f13-jumbo.jpg

Bees were rewarded when they landed on cards with more shapes.CreditScarlett R. Howard et al.

Yet that is what scientists reported Thursday in the journal Science. Bees had already demonstrated they could count. Now, the researchers wrote, bees have shown that they understand the absence of things — shapes on a display in this experiment — as a numerical quantity: none or zero.

This is a big leap. Some past civilizations had trouble with the idea of zero. And the only nonhuman animals so far to pass the kind of test bees did are primates and one bird. Not one species, one bird, the famed African gray parrot, Alex, who knew not only words, but numbers. Continue reading

Moving Slowly & Avoiding Breakage

Preston-Ecological-expedition-Honduras-8

Panthera onca. The jaguar is the king of neotropical forests, where it is the largest of the cats. Its presence at the White City indicates an extensive, thriving ecosystem. © Washington State University, Panthera, Wildlife Conservation Society, Zamorano University, Honduran Forest Conservation Institute, Travis King, John Polisar, Manfredo Turcios

When the journalist Douglas Preston shared this story, I was in the process of closing up shop in India, where we had been in residence since 2010. Kipling-induced daydreaming notwithstanding, Amie and Milo (whose photos may be the most tangible representations of the dreaminess of those years) and I never had the illusion that there were lost civilizations or any such thing in India.

movefast (1)We did have the nonstop motivation of feline-fueled conservation initiatives, and some close encounters. Those provided us a perfect counterpoint to the seemingly irresistible catchphrase that described progress in the form of disruptive technology. Haste really does make waste when it comes to ecology, anthropology, and realms of life other than economic forward-marching.

When I read Mr. Preston’s story on the first day of last year I realized that our relocation to Central America, oddly enough since it is in the hemisphere called the New World, was full of potential for all kinds of discovery of “lost” things. And my own discoveries further sensitized me to the importance of moving slowly and avoiding breakage. My posts on this platform from February through July, 2017 are evidence of the richest ecological and anthropological observations of my lifetime (so far), and that makes Mr. Preston’s update post yesterday all the more wonderful to read:

Deep in the Honduran Rain Forest, an Ecological SWAT Team Explores a Lost World

Preston-Ecological-expedition-Honduras-1

Sachatamia albomaculata. The inner organs of glass frogs are visible through their translucent bodies. Photograph by Trond Larsen / Conservation International

A little more than three years ago, I joined a team of archeologists on an expedition to La Mosquitia, a remote mountain wilderness in eastern Honduras. For centuries, the region had been rumored to contain a lost city, known as the City of the Monkey God or the White City, and now, thanks to a combination of luck and modern technology, an ancient settlement had been found. Although it was probably not the lost city of legend, it was a very real place, built by a mysterious civilization that flourished long before Columbus arrived in the Americas. Hidden in a densely forested valley, it had never been explored. Continue reading

Victorious Bananas

physed-banana-master768.jpg

iStock

We are already big fans of this fruit, for all kinds of reasons, so this is like icing on the cake:

Bananas vs. Sports Drinks? Bananas Win in Study

A banana might reasonably replace sports drinks for those of us who rely on carbohydrates to fuel exercise and speed recovery, according to a new study comparing the cellular effects of carbohydrates consumed during sports.

It found that a banana, with its all-natural package, provides comparable or greater anti-inflammatory and other benefits for athletes than sports drinks. But there may be a downside, and it involves bloating.

For decades, athletes and their advisers have believed, and studies have confirmed, that eating or drinking carbohydrates during prolonged exertion can enable someone to continue for longer or at higher intensities and recover more quickly afterward than if he or she does not eat during the workout. Continue reading

The Wisdom Of Wolves

WisdomofWolvesCover.600x900.jpgWe first heard of the book here, so thanks to Public Radio station WNYC. However, in the blurb for the podcast interview with the authors, the link to the book went directly to Amazon. Must it forever more be so? Hope not.

So, click the image to the left to go to the actual source of the book, which seems a more worthy place to consider purchasing it, even though here too they give you the option to buy on Amazon. But there is a slight favoring of the publisher, National Geographic, in the purchase options. Here’s what they say:

CURIOSITY. COMPASSION. FAMILY FIRST.

After living among the wolves of The Sawtooth Pack for years, Jim and Jamie Dutcher present a new book, The Wisdom of Wolves: Lessons from the Sawtooth Packproviding groundbreaking observations of their unique experience.

As strong, and just as immediately recognizable as the ties that unite a human family, the emotional bonds shared among wolves are far more complex than ever realized, and now are detailed in this exceptional book. Continue reading

Lepidopterist’s Treasure

730

Heterosphecia tawonoides puddling on a dry leaf washed out by the river. Photograph: Courtesy of Marta A. Skowron Volponi

Thanks to the Guardian for sharing this bit of good news:

Lost species of bee-mimicking moth rediscovered after 130 years

The rare oriental blue clearwing, that disguises itself as a bee, was spotted in the Malaysian rainforest

A moth that disguises itself as a bee and was previously only identified by a single damaged specimen collected in 1887 has been rediscovered in the Malaysian rainforest by a lepidopterist from Poland.

The oriental blue clearwing (Heterosphecia tawonoides) was seen “mud-puddling” – collecting salts and minerals from damp areas with its tongue-like proboscis – on the banks of a river in Malaysia’s lowland rainforest, one of the most wildlife-rich – and threatened – regions on Earth. Continue reading

Penguins Once Had Awe On Their Side

Ancient Penguins Were Giant Waddling Predators

19SCI-ZIMMER-blog427

An artist’s rendering compares Kumimanu biceae, an extinct giant penguin, to a human diver. Kumimanu stood 5 feet 7 inches and weighed 220 pounds. It is among the earliest known penguin species. Credit G. Mayr/Senckenberg Research Institute

The 57 million-year-old fossil is both fearsome and comical: a long-beaked penguin that stood 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed about 220 pounds.

“It was as tall as a medium-sized man,” said Gerald Mayr, a paleontologist at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, and lead author of a report in Nature Communications on Tuesday announcing the discovery.

By comparison, the tallest living species, the emperor penguin, reaches about four feet in height. Kumimanu biceae, as the fossil was named, would have towered above the emperor, and above just about all other known ancient penguins. Continue reading

Hastening Evolution

29tb-beaks01-master768

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

29tb-beaks02-master675

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

merlin_130680086_37fe49c2-e83c-4b1d-87f9-afbbc6c6f808-master768

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.

merlin_130680083_3390ebbf-fde1-4f33-ba90-c09822dd4bab-master675

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

Greenland Shark.jpg

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

OConnor-Strange-Gruesome-Story-Greenland-Shark

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

Bats.jpg

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

puma-1_wide-34b6cb9c5551bd1d1eab4ca1aaaeb7f7de9f3312-s1300-c85.jpg

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

lead_960 (11).jpg

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

26SCI-MANTIS1-jumbo

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

01-calakmul-maya-pyramid.adapt.1900.1.jpg

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.

SnakeKingMap.jpg

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…

35 composite of 2 and 3.adapt.1190.1.jpg

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

04tb-mammal-master768

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