Add Global Worming To Your List Of Concerns

An illustration of a mass of worms beneath a forest.

Myriam Wares

Thanks to Julia Rosen, writing in the Atlantic, I am reading for the second time about worms as a radically different creature than I had assumed for my entire life:

Cancel Earthworms

The “crazy worms” remaking forests aren’t your friendly neighborhood garden worms. Then again, those aren’t so great either.

On a sweltering July day, I follow Annise Dobson down an overgrown path into the heart of Seton Falls Park. It’s a splotch of unruly forest, surrounded by the clamoring streets and cramped rowhouses of the Bronx. Broken glass, food wrappers, and condoms litter the ground. But Dobson, bounding ahead in khaki hiking pants with her blond ponytail swinging, appears unfazed. As I quickly learn, neither trash nor oppressive humidity nor ecological catastrophe can dampen her ample enthusiasm. Continue reading

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

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

It’s Not Easy Being Green In 2020

Cobalt Mining in Congo

Thanks to

Building climate-saving tech digs up new problems

Solving the climate crisis is going to take a lot of mining

The solar power and electric vehicles we need to stop the climate crisis pose a different threat to people and the environment: a boom in mining. Moving away from fossil fuels depends on tech like batteries and solar panels that can provide alternative forms of energy. But digging up the raw materials can undermine human rights and destroy fragile ecosystems. As governments and industries try to tackle climate change by building up renewable energy, they’ll need to consider other problems unearthed in the process. 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

A Home For Potato Knowhow

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 A selection of the thousands of native potato varieties that grow in Peru. Photograph: The International Potato Centre

Thanks to Dan Collyns (last seen in our pages in 2013), writing in the Guardian, for this:

How Peru’s potato museum could stave off world food crisis

Agri-park high in the Andes preserves the expertise to breed strains fit for a changing climate

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A worker picking potatoes high in the Andes. Photograph: The International Potato Centre

With a climate changing faster than most crops can adapt and food security under threat around the world, scientists have found hope in a living museum dedicated to a staple eaten by millions daily: the humble potato.

High in the Peruvian Andes, agronomists are looking to the ancestral knowledge of farmers to identify genetic strains which could help the tubers survive increasingly frequent and intense droughts, floods and frosts.

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 A selection of biofortified potatoes, grown to be higher in zinc and iron. Photograph: David Dudenhoeffer/The International Potato Centre

The Potato Park in Cusco is a 90 sq km (35 sq mile) expanse ranging from 3,400 to 4,900 metres (16,000 feet) above sea level. It has “maintained one of the highest diversities of native potatoes in the world, in a constant process of evolution,” says Alejandro Argumedo, the founder of Asociación Andes, an NGO which supports the park. Continue reading

Crowd-Sourced Data from the Deep

Female sand tiger shark observed on the wreck Aeolus in (a) September 2016 and (b) 10 months later in July 2017. In the older photograph (a), fishing gear is visible in the mouth of the shark (inset). SPOT A SHARK USA BY TANYA HOUPPERMANS.

A great example of how data crowd-sourced from Citizen Scientists is helping to improve understanding of shark populations and behavior.

Female Sand Tiger Sharks Love Shipwrecks… Really.

Site fidelity – the tendency to return to a particular area – isn’t exactly new in a species of shark (e.g. reef sharkslemon sharks, even great white sharks). But that place is usually some sort of habitat… not a over 100-feet (34 meter) deep shipwreck. However, that is exactly the case for female sand tiger sharks (Carcharias taurus) off the coast of North Carolina!

Sand tiger sharks, also known as grey nurse sharks or spotted ragged-tooth sharks, are found globally in subtropical and temperate waters. Despite looking quite scary due to their tooth grins that never quite close, they are a slow-moving shark that are listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). A grey colored shark with reddish-brown spots throughout its body, they feast on a variety of animals such as a fish, crustaceans, squid, skates and even other sharks!

In September 2016, a citizen scientist wasn’t surprised to see an individual female sand tiger shark while scuba diving on the Aeolus shipwreck. Continue reading

Really, E.P.A.?

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Matthew Brown/Associated Press

Of all the knuckle-headed ideas, this headline says knuckle louder than most:

E.P.A. to Limit Science Used to Write Public Health Rules

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is preparing to significantly limit the scientific and medical research that the government can use to determine public health regulations, overriding protests from scientists and physicians who say the new rule would undermine the scientific underpinnings of government policymaking.

A new draft of the Environmental Protection Agency proposal, titled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, would require that scientists disclose all of their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the agency could consider an academic study’s conclusions. E.P.A. officials called the plan a step toward transparency and said the disclosure of raw data would allow conclusions to be verified independently. Continue reading

Technology & Conservation

TrailBlaz.jpgYesterday’s post, on the application of technology in the interest of conservation, came just in time for this podcast episode by Walter Isaacson to enter my feed.

Listening to it took me straight back, seven years, to when I first learned about the benefits elephants were deriving from new technology, at the same time we (family, and interns and employees) were spending large amounts of time in the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Technology, broadly speaking, has gotten us into the mess we are in, so why not expect it to get us out of it?

Conservation: Next Generation Technology

EPISODE SUMMARY

Technology and nature used to reside at the opposite ends of the spectrum. But like our environment, that relationship has changed over the years and the two have a cyclical relationship of preservation and innovation. The commitment to conserve and heal our diverse ecosystems has pushed technology further and with urgency. Because there’s no time to waste. From the American Great Plains and the African Sahara to the furthest depths in the ocean, we’re talking to the trailblazers who are innovating everyday to save the planet.

Bioacoustics & Conservation

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The AudioMoth recording device in New Forest National Park, in the U.K., where it is searching for sounds of the New Forest cicada. COURTESY OF ALEX ROGERS

Yale e360 shares more on the value of new recording technology as it relates to conservation:

Listening to Nature: The Emerging Field of Bioacoustics

Researchers are increasingly placing microphones in forests and other ecosystems to monitor birds, insects, frogs, and other animals. As the technology advances and becomes less costly, proponents argue, bioacoustics is poised to become an important remote-sensing tool for conservation.

Mitch Aide, a tropical ecologist based in Puerto Rico, thinks we should listen to the earth a lot more than we do now — and not just listen to it, but record and store its sounds on a massive scale. His aims are not spiritual, but scientific: He, his colleagues, and other experts are developing and deploying audio recorders, data transmission systems, and new artificial intelligence software that together are rapidly expanding scientists’ ability to understand ecosystems by listening to them.

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A 20-second spectrogram, showing various audio frequencies, from Puerto Rico includes the calls of these six species. COURTESY OF SIEVE ANALYTICS

Today, Aide can nail a cheap digital audio recorder to a tree in Puerto Rico’s Luquillo Forest and transmit its recordings to a computer running prototype software, which indicates almost in real time whether any of 25 species of frogs and birds are vocalizing in the forest. The system’s apparent simplicity belies its power – Aide thinks that it and similar systems will allow scientists to monitor ecosystems in ways we can’t yet imagine.

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A golden-browed chlorophonia (Chlorophonia callophrys) in Costa Rica. SHUTTERSTOCK

He dreams that one day soon, audio recordings of natural soundscapes will be like rainfall and temperature data, collected from a worldwide network of permanent stations, widely available for analysis, and permanently archived. Each clip will be “like a museum specimen,” he said, “but containing many species.” Aide says scientists will be able to efficiently determine how species are moving or changing in response to global warming, habitat destruction, or human disturbance, and chart population shifts over large areas. Continue reading

Moderating Methane

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Cristina Byvik

During June and July last year we were in residence on a dairy farm, and the prospective benefit of cows having seaweed added to their diet came to my attention. Today another briefing on this topic, from Rowan Walrath writing in Mother Jones, notifies me that this idea is making progress:

One day in January 2014, police rushed to a farm in Rasdorf, Germany, after flames burst from a barn. They soon discovered that static electricity had caused entrapped methane from the flatulence and manure of 90 dairy cows to explode.

Headline writers had a field day. But the incident pointed to a serious problem: Ruminant livestock, mostly cattle, account for 30 percent of all global methane emissions, pumping out 3 gigatons of the gas every year in their burps, farts, and manure. Methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas: During its 12-year lifespan after being released, it traps 84 times as much heat as carbon dioxide, and its effect on global warming over a century is 34 times that of CO2. According to the United Nations, reducing methane emissions from cows could be one of the quickest ways to slow climate change. Continue reading

Kate Marvel Has A Way With Words

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Image by Shifaaz Shamoon/Unsplash, Public Domain Dedication (CC0).

We Should Never Have Called It Earth

We should never have called it Earth. Three quarters of the planet’s surface is saltwater, and most of it does not lap at tranquil beaches for our amusement. The ocean is deep; things are lost at sea. Sometimes we throw them there: messages in bottles, the bodies of mutinous sailors, plastic bags of plastic debris. Our sewage.

She is a scientist who explains in language I understand, without dumbing it down too much, something as complex as climate change and its relationship to global warming. She is also funny. I found the blog post above after listening to her on this podcast, just to double check that she is consistently clear, profound and funny. She will be responsible for my staying tuned to this series:

No Age Limit in Citizen Science

Our most recent post about marine ecosystem citizen science connects the dots between the amazing community of people involved in gathering much needed information about the health of biodiversity in the deep.

Women’s photography of greater sea snake, once believed to be an anomaly in the Baie des Citrons, help scientists understand the ecosystem

A group of snorkelling grandmothers who swim up to 3km five days a week have uncovered a large population of venomous sea snakes in a bay in Noumea where scientists once believed they were rare.

Dr Claire Goiran from the University of New Caledonia and Professor Rick Shine from Australia’s Macquarie University were studying a small harmless species known as the turtle‐headed sea snake located in the Baie des Citrons, but would occasionally encounter the 1.5 metre-long venomous greater sea snake, also known as the olive-headed sea snake.

Goiran and Shine believed the greater sea snake was an anomaly in the popular swimming bay as it had only been spotted about six times over 15 years. From 2013, they decided to take a closer look at the greater sea snake to better understand its importance to the bay’s ecosystem.

“The study zone is in the most touristic bay in Noumea, so I often meet people when I am doing field work on sea snakes,” Goiran said. “When I was snorkelling on my own studying sea snakes, I used to meet a friend of mine called Aline that was snorkelling and taking photos on the same reef. In order to help me, she started taking photos of sea snakes and would send them to me by mail.

“I was very happy, so she asked her neighbour and friend Monique to help me too. Monique asked another friend, and soon there were seven grandmothers helping me.” The group named themselves “the fantastic grandmothers” and range in age from 60 to 75. Continue reading

Putting the Reuse back into Recycle

Thanks once again to YaleEnvironment360 for sharing valuable information.

Scientists Find Way to Fully Recycle Plastics Without Losing Quality

A team of Swedish scientists have found a new way to break down plastic so that it can be recycled into material the same quality as the original — a process they say could help shift the focus of the plastics industry to recycling and drastically reduce the amount of pollution that ends up in the world’s oceans.

The technique involves heating discarded plastic to around 850 degrees Celsius until it turns into a gas mixture. That mixture “can then be recycled at the molecular level to become new plastic material of virgin quality,” Henrik Thunman, an environmental scientist at Chalmers University of Technology who led the new research, said in a statement. “Circular use would help give used plastics a true value, and thus an economic impetus for collecting it anywhere on earth.” Continue reading

Unsubtle Love Song

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Female bellbirds lack a wattle and sing no songs. Anselmo d’Affonseca

Cara Giaimo provides additional perspective, perhaps the key question in the New York Times coverage of this story, which is about the female in this species, along with a great recording of the male’s call:

…One big mystery remains. The white bellbird sings its pile driver tune when a potential mate is nearby. It starts facing away from her, and then whips around to blast the loudest, record-setting note right into her face. Continue reading

A Thoughtful Discussion On The Green New Deal

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Photo: Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Thanks to Sarah Jones for The Future Is Ours for the Taking, an updated primer on the big policy bundle proposed to make the USA economy greener, healthier and more prosperous than ever:

In New York City and around the world, millions of people took to the streets on Friday morning. A single demand unified them: Leaders must act, and act now, to stop climate change from getting any worse. “I want you to unite behind science. And then I want you to take real action. Thank you,” Greta Thunberg, the teen climate-change activist from Sweden, told Congress on Wednesday.

And a growing number of climate-change activists have coalesced around an answer to this imperative, a Green New Deal. The proposal, which would transition the U.S. economy to clean energy and create millions of new jobs, has become a rallying cry for organizations like the Sunrise Movement and left-wing Democrats like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Although Ocasio-Cortez helped popularize the Green New Deal, and so has her fellow congressional democratic socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the basic concept is at least 12 years old. Not long after New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called for a “Green New Deal” in 2007, a group of British academics and activists began drafting a substantive proposal that was published in July 2008.

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Photo: Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images

Why do you think it has taken this long for the Green New Deal to catch fire in the public imagination?

For several reasons. Really, it takes an American, doesn’t it? I mean, when the Americans decide something is important, then it suddenly becomes important, and that’s fantastic. But I think what happened back in 2008 was that we were going through this grim financial crisis and London was at the heart of it already thanks to the City of London. We were writing [the British Green New Deal] after the date that I called Detonation Day — on the ninth of August 2007, when interbank lending froze and the system blew up. Continue reading

Are Strikes Going To Get Us To A Solution?

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Illustration by João Fazenda

During last week my attention has been commanded more than at any other time by the increased attention to the perils of climate change and the clamor for action. I do not tire of reading on this subject, in the hope that one day I will read something that will give some hope of progress. Thanks to Elizabeth Kolbert for weighing in on the debate over whether we should admit defeat, or instead insist on finding another way out of the pending doom, in the manner prescribed by a former Vice President of the USA (a country now officially leading a race to the bottom on this issue):

Summits, Strikes, and Climate Change

There are positive signs that the politics of climate change are changing in America. And giving up isn’t really an option.

Late last month, Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old climate activist from Sweden, arrived in New York. Thunberg, who is sometimes compared to Joan of Arc and sometimes to Pippi Longstocking, doesn’t fly—the emissions from aviation are too high—so she’d spent two weeks sailing across the Atlantic in a racing boat. When she reached New York Harbor, she told Trevor Noah, on “The Daily Show,” the first thing she noticed was “Suddenly, it smells.”

Thunberg doesn’t adhere to social niceties. (She’s spoken openly about having Asperger’s syndrome.) She began her crusade last year, sitting outside the Swedish parliament building, in Stockholm, handing out flyers that read “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.” It’s a trait particularly well suited to the cause she’s taken up: on no other issue is the gap between what’s politically acceptable and what’s scientifically necessary wider than it is on climate change. In an address to the French parliament, in July, Thunberg put it this way: “Maybe you are simply not mature enough to tell it like it is, because even that burden you leave to us children. We become the bad guys who have to tell people these uncomfortable things, because no one else wants to, or dares to.” Continue reading