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

Megafauna’s Neglected Cousin, Microflora

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Botanist Steve Perlman rappels into the Kalalau Valley, a biodiversity hotspot on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. COURTESY OF BRYCE JOHNSON/FLUX HAWAII

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A botanist collects pollen from the flower of Brighamia insignis. NATIONAL TROPICAL BOTANICAL GARDEN

The work described in this article may explain why I first missed the story when it was published in October. The heroics get lost in the delicacy. My attention, like that of many people who are fortunate enough to have plenty of exposure to the natural world, gravitates to megafauna. And next in line for our attention is usually the rest of the fauna. But without flora, none of that fauna would be possible. And so our concern for biodiversity, and perhaps especially for the hotspots of biodiversity, should reflect an equal gravitational pull. So, my thanks to Yale e360 for this story:

Extreme Botany: The Precarious Science of Endangered Rare Plants

They don’t make the headlines the way charismatic animals such as rhinos and elephants do. But there are thousands of critically endangered plants in the world, and a determined group of botanists are ready to go to great lengths to save them.

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A scientist with the Plant Extinction Prevention Program climbs through remote Hawaiian ecosystems to study endangered plant species. PEPP

To save plants that can no longer survive on their own, Steve Perlman has bushwhacked through remote valleys, dangled from helicopters, and teetered on the edge of towering sea cliffs. Watching a video of the self-described “extreme botanist” in actio­­n is not for the faint-hearted. “Each time I make this journey I’m aware that nature can turn on me,” Perlman says in the video as he battles ocean swells in a kayak to reach the few remaining members of a critically endangered species on a rugged, isolated stretch of Hawaiian coastline. “The ocean could suddenly rise up and dash me against the rocks like a piece of driftwood.”

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The plant known as cabbage-on-a-stick (Brighamia insignis) has been grown at Limahuli Garden & Preserve on Kauai, which is within the historic range of the species. SEANA WALSH

When he arrives at his destination, Perlman starts hauling himself up an impossibly steep, razor-sharp cliff 3,000 feet above the sea without a rope, his fingers sending chunks of rock tumbling down to the waters below. Finally, he reaches the plants and painstakingly transfers pollen from the flowers of one to those of another to ensure that the species can perpetuate itself. At the end of the season, he will return to collect any seeds they were able to produce. Continue reading

Catch It To Drink It

The illustrative video above is on its own worth a couple minutes of your time. But the innovative approach to one of the world’s most pressing problems is the thing to take note of. Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for bringing Evelyn Wang and Omar Yaghi’s work to our attention in this story:

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A prototype MOF-based water-collection device is set up for testing on the roof of a building on the MIT campus.
Courtesy Evelyn Yang, MIT

Researchers have come up with a new way to extract water from thin air. Literally.

This isn’t the first technology that can turn water vapor in the atmosphere into liquid water that people can drink, but researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, say their approach uses less power and works in drier environments. 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

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

Fungi, Bees & Future

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Lilli Carré

Fungi first appeared in our pages thanks to Milo. And the name of the essayist below was mentioned a couple times earlier as well. He deserves more attention, especially if his attention is focused on bees:

Will Mushrooms Be Magic for Threatened Bees?

We might be able to save honeybees from viruses transmitted by invasive parasites without chemical treatment.

By Paul Stamets

Mr. Stamets is a mycologist.

Sometime in the 1980s, microscopic mites that had been afflicting honeybees outside the United States found their way to Florida and Wisconsin and began wreaking havoc across the country. These parasites have invaded and decimated wild and domestic bee colonies. Along with other dangers facing bees, like pesticides and the loss of forage lands, the viruses these mites carry threaten the bees we rely on to pollinate many of the fruits, nuts and vegetables we eat. Continue reading

Outfitting For Wild Animals

 

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Teach a Wolf to Fish. By University Of Minnesota, Voyageurs National Park And Voyageurs Wolf Project. Nighttime footage of a wolf hunting freshwater fish in a river in Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park. Dec. 14, 2018

I got to know Natural Habitat Adventures while our company was operating Chan Chich Lodge in Belize. I was impressed with their guides, and with the photographic and video skills of the guests who they brought to the lodge. And all of them were deeply concerned about conservation. But I never saw anything quite like the video above. When you have nine minutes to spare, it is as satisfying as any nature footage as I have seen in a long time.  I thank Jim Robbins again for this article, whose focal video about wolves fishing (to the left above) is definitely worth watching:

Watch This Wolf Go Fishing

Yes, researchers in Minnesota have recorded wolves diving into a stream to grab a meal.

Wolves are thought of as red-meat eaters, but a team of biologists in northern Minnesota, near Voyageurs National Park, has documented a pack that often enjoys a meal of fish. Continue reading

Electrical Generation Can Look Like Sausage When Visualized Just So

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How the United States generated electricity from 2001 to 2017. Percentage of power produced from each energy source

America isn’t making electricity the way it did two decades ago: Natural gas has edged out coal as the country’s leading generation source … and renewables like wind and solar have made small yet speedy gains. But, each state has its own story.

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Nadja Popovich an explainer of complicated things with visualization techniques that have impressed us so far, now has this.

In Nevada, natural gas surpassed coal as the top source of electricity generation in 2005, earlier than in many other states. Coal’s role in the state’s power mix has continued to decline since then.

We cannot do justice to it, other than suggest you go see it for yourself. A state by state graphic representation of electrical generation methods:

How Does Your State Make Electricity?

Overall, fossil fuels still dominate electricity generation in the United States. But the shift from coal to natural gas has helped to lower carbon dioxide emissions and other pollution. Last year, coal was the main source of electricity generation for 18 states, down from 32 states in 2001.

Enough Is Not Enough

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Illustration by João Fazenda

Tired as we may be of reading about, talking about, posting about it, enough is not enough on this topic, so here goes (thanks as always to Elizabeth Kolbert):

Coal for Christmas at the U.N. Climate Conference

As negotiators from around the world gathered in Poland to discuss how to lower carbon emissions, the Trump Administration unveiled two schemes promoting fossil fuels.

Last week, representatives from around the world gathered to begin another round of climate negotiations in Katowice, a city in the heart of Poland’s coal-mining country. Delegates arriving at the meeting, known in United Nations-speak as a Conference of the Parties, or cop, were treated to an outdoor performance by a Polish coal miners’ band. Inside the convention pavilions, they found mounds of coal displayed behind glass, like objets d’art, as well as arrangements of coal-based cosmetics and coal-encrusted jewelry. Poland gets about eighty per cent of its electricity from coal, the most carbon-intensive of carbon-based fuels, and the Polish President, Andrzej Duda, noted in his opening remarks that the country had enough as yet unmined supplies to last another two centuries. “It would be hard not to use them,” he said.

Depending on how you look at things, a coal-stuffed climate summit is either completely absurd—“beyond parody,” as one commentator put it—or merely appropriate. With each passing month, the threat posed by global warming grows clearer. And so, too, does the world’s failure to take that threat seriously. “We are in trouble,” the United Nations’ Secretary-General, António Guterres, said at the cop’s opening session. “It is hard to comprehend why we are collectively still moving too slowly—and even in the wrong direction.” Continue reading

Part Of The Solution

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Harvesting soybeans in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Credit Yasuyoshi Chiba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Thanks to Brad Plumer, whose reporting on environmental issues has been illuminating, for this fifth feature in our links out to stories that help us understand what we might do to be part of the solution:

Can We Grow More Food on Less Land? We’ll Have To, a New Study Finds

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A farm in the Pays de la Loire region of France. Cows have an especially large environmental footprint. Credit Loic Venance/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

WASHINGTON — If the world hopes to make meaningful progress on climate change, it won’t be enough for cars and factories to get cleaner. Our cows and wheat fields will have to become radically more efficient, too.

That’s the basic conclusion of a sweeping new study issued Wednesday by the World Resources Institute, an environmental group. The report warns that the world’s agricultural system will need drastic changes in the next few decades in order to feed billions more people without triggering a climate catastrophe.

The challenge is daunting: Agriculture already occupies roughly 40 percent of the world’s land and is responsible for about a quarter of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. But with the global population expected to grow from 7.2 billion people today to nearly 10 billion by 2050, and with many millions of people eating more meat as incomes rise, that environmental impact is on pace to expand dramatically. Continue reading

Spare, Share, Protect

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A farmer walks through his coffee plantation, which is integrated into the forest, in Lampung province, Indonesia. ULET IFANSASTI/CIFOR

Our work has required occasional philosophical reflection to get our bearings on the choices we have made on how to approach conservation. Share approaches such as the duck farming mentioned here, or the coffee farming mentioned here are equally as common as the spare approaches in our practice. I had not encountered these two terms until now, so thanks to Fred Pearce for this expansion of my vocabulary:

Sparing vs Sharing: The Great Debate Over How to Protect Nature

What is the best way to save nature – to cordon off areas for parks and open space or to integrate conservation measures on working lands? Recent research makes a case for each of these approaches and has reignited a long-standing debate among scientists and conservationists.

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A farming village surrounded by undeveloped forests in the province of Quang Ninh, Vietnam. TERRY SUNDERLAND/CIFOR

It is one of the biggest questions in conservation: Should we be sharing our landscapes with nature by reviving small woodlands and adopting small-scale eco-friendly farming? Or should we instead be sparing large tracts of land for nature’s exclusive use – by creating more national parks and industrializing agriculture on existing farmland?

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More than 1.5 million wildebeest migrate annually across Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, which covers 5,700 square miles. DANIEL ROSENGREN / WIKIMEDIA

The argument between “sparing” and “sharing” as a conservation tool has been raging since researchers first coined the terms more than a decade ago. Arguably it began almost half a century before when Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution of high-yielding crop varieties, declared that “by producing more food per unit of cultivated area, more land would be available for other uses, including recreation and wildlife.”

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LUISA RIVERA FOR YALE E360

E.O. Wilson’s 2016 book Half-Earth upped the ante by calling for us to extend protected areas from the current 15 percent of the earth’s land surface to 50 percent. Research studies and critiques have flourished on both sides. Continue reading

The Little Creatures We Cannot Live Without

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Photo illustrations by Matt Dorfman. Source photographs: Bridgeman Images.

Brooke Jarvis has written a longform feature article with the word apocalypse in the title, which may make you wince and turn away. As might the word insect, even if you find the illustration above mesmerizing as I do. And reading to the end is an investment in time. But do not turn away just because the illustration below is alarming. It is another alarming topic we are responsible for taking account of.

02mag-insects-image2-superJumbo-v5.jpgSune Boye Riis was on a bike ride with his youngest son, enjoying the sun slanting over the fields and woodlands near their home north of Copenhagen, when it suddenly occurred to him that something about the experience was amiss. Specifically, something was missing.

It was summer. He was out in the country, moving fast. But strangely, he wasn’t eating any bugs.

For a moment, Riis was transported to his childhood on the Danish island of Lolland, in the Baltic Sea. Back then, summer bike rides meant closing his mouth to cruise through thick clouds of insects, but inevitably he swallowed some anyway. When his parents took him driving, he remembered, the car’s windshield was frequently so smeared with insect carcasses that you almost couldn’t see through it. But all that seemed distant now. He couldn’t recall the last time he needed to wash bugs from his windshield; he even wondered, vaguely, whether car manufacturers had invented some fancy new coating to keep off insects. But this absence, he now realized with some alarm, seemed to be all around him. Where had all those insects gone? And when? And why hadn’t he noticed? Continue reading

The Technology Of Negative Emissions

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A direct air capture facility in Zurich, created by the Swiss-based technology company ClimeWorks. JULIA DUNLOP / CLIMEWORKS

I was not aware that Elizabeth Kolbert has been writing for Yale e360 for the entire time we have been linking to her New Yorker work on this platform. And then some, because she started publishing there ten years ago. This is her 17th publication for Yale e360 and it can help a layperson understand in a relatively short read whether technology has any chance of accelerating our progress on climate change mitigation:

Climate Solutions: Is It Feasible to Remove Enough CO2 from the Air?

A U.S. scientific panel reports that technologies that take CO2 out of the atmosphere could be a significant part of a strategy to mitigate global warming. In an e360 interview, Stephen Pacala, the panel’s chairman, discusses how these fast-developing technologies are becoming increasingly viable.

Is there still time to avoid runaway climate change? To a large degree, the answer depends on the feasibility of “negative emissions” — techniques or technologies that suck CO2 out of the air. In the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), all scenarios for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius depend on negative emissions technologies, or NETs. Most 2-degree scenarios also rely on negative emissions; many call for removing billions of tons of CO2 per year by mid-century.

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Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs) range from low-tech, such as planting more trees, to more high-tech options, such as developing machines to scrub CO2 from the air. NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, 2018

Yet most NETs remain either untested or unproved. To help bridge this gap, the National Academies convened a panel of scientists and asked it to propose a research agenda. The panel considered several possible techniques, ranging from the low-tech — planting more trees — to the high-tech — developing machines to scrub CO2 from the sky. It also looked at a hybrid technology that has become known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS. The panel recommended several billion dollars be directed to research on NETs. Such technologies, it suggested, ought to be viewed as a “component of the mitigation portfolio,” rather than as a futuristic, last-ditch effort to reduce atmospheric CO2.

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Stephen Pacala. CREDIT: ISOMETRIC STUDIOS

Stephen Pacala, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, chaired the panel. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about why NETs are needed, what should be done to advance them, and why he believes that “direct air capture” technologies could come into widespread use within the next decade. Continue reading

News & Perspective

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Firefighters battle the King Fire near Fresh Pond, California, in September 2014. NOAH BERGER / REUTERS

Posts like this one tend to not fare as well with readers visiting our platform. Whoever makes their way here is normally looking for what we normally offer, stories about entrepreneurial conservation. Which we believe can be a winning formula for the challenges at hand. But from time to time, we must acknowledge that the odds look grim.

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Fighting the Camp Fire this month in Magalia, Calif. Credit Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Two articles, both very well written, about the report warning of the dangers of climate change to the US economy, note that the report is not likely to have much impact. Because of Black Friday? No, because the forces behind willful ignorance have been at it for a long time, with plentiful resources to strengthen their game. This cartoon says more in fewer words than either article on why. Nathaniel Rich’s short essay, dark and stark and alarming, is akin. Bill McKibben, though, once again hits the nail squarely and firmly, and more effectively than news, because of his trench-based perspective:

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California is currently ablaze, after a record hot summer and a dry fall set the stage for the most destructive fires in the state’s history. Above: The Woolsey fire, near Los Angeles, seen from the West Hills. Photograph by Kevin Cooley for The New Yorker

How Extreme Weather Is Shrinking the Planet

With wildfires, heat waves, and rising sea levels, large tracts of the earth are at risk of becoming uninhabitable. But the fossil-fuel industry continues its assault on the facts.

Thirty years ago, this magazine published “The End of Nature,” a long article about what we then called the greenhouse effect. I was in my twenties when I wrote it, and out on an intellectual limb: climate science was still young. But the data were persuasive, and freighted with sadness. We were spewing so much carbon into the atmosphere that nature was no longer a force beyond our influence—and humanity, with its capacity for industry and heedlessness, had come to affect every cubic metre of the planet’s air, every inch of its surface, every drop of its water. Scientists underlined this notion a decade later when they began referring to our era as the Anthropocene, the world made by man.

I was frightened by my reporting, but, at the time, it seemed likely that we’d try as a society to prevent the worst from happening. Continue reading

The Climate Museum’s Climate Signals

 

My only wish is to have been able to share this earlier, during the exhibition’s run. But better late than never.

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The “Ask a Scientist” event gives curious passerby the chance to pose their climate-related questions to scientists stationed around New York City. Photograph by Justin Brice Guariglia

Thanks to Carolyn Kormann for another fresh dose of creative rational thinking, with her short piece Ask a Scientist: How to Deal with a Climate-Change Skeptic:

When Alarmism Is Required

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An illegal logging in the Alto Turiacu indigenous territory in Brazil’s Maranhão State in 2015. FÁBIO NASCIMENTO / GREENPEACE

Trust, a kind of social glue, keeps us from having to think nonstop about worst case scenarios. We trust that those with authority, whether intellectual or political, will use it responsibly. Thinking about this recently, I have been adjusting where I have least and greatest trust that responsible environmental actions are taken. Today I have made an adjustment on the former. The USA’s political leadership has been at the forefront of my thought when it comes to least responsible, least trustworthy actions. Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia (INPA) in Brazil, studies the consequences of deforestation in the world’s largest tropical forest, so his word carries scientific weight for me. He has put in perspective why I should turn my attention to Brazil:

Why Brazil’s New President Poses an Unprecedented Threat to the Amazon

Newly elected Jair Bolsonaro, an authoritarian nationalist sometimes called the “tropical Trump,” has staked out an environmental agenda that would open the Amazon to widespread development, putting at risk a region that plays a vital role in stabilizing the global climate.

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An indigenous woman protests against then-candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who has promised to ban the creation of new protected areas or indigenous territories, in Sao Paulo in October. NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

For people concerned about the environment and climate change, U.S. President Donald Trump has proven to be as bad, or worse, than feared. He is in the process of pulling the United States out of the Paris Agreement, continues to flatly dismiss the science of human-caused global warming, and has worked ceaselessly to undo environmental regulations and weaken environmental agencies.

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Brazil’s president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, has pledged to dismantle the country’s environmental regulations. MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Now, however, a new leader has emerged on the world stage who is poised to do even more global environmental damage than Trump. He is Jair Bolsonaro, the recently elected president of Brazil, and his extreme views on the environment, coupled with his control of nearly all the country’s levers of power, means that he is now in a position to do unprecedented harm to the Amazon and the international battle to slow climate change.

Not for nothing is Bolsonaro known as the “tropical Trump.” The parallels are many, including their embrace of the far right and their inflammatory rhetoric. And among their similarities is the way that a constant barrage of outrageous comments diverts discussion from the environmental damage that their policies portend. Continue reading

Mapping Earth’s Remaining Intact Ecosystems

A Xikrin woman walks back to her village from the Cateté River in Brazil. Photograph: Taylor Weidman/Getty Images

Thanks to Lisa Cox, the Guardian’s Australia correspondent for environment, for this:

Five countries hold 70% of world’s last wildernesses, map reveals

First map of Earth’s intact ecosystems shows just five nations are responsible for most of them – but it will require global action to protect them

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Map of the world’s remaining wilderness. Green represents land wilderness, while blue represents ocean wilderness. Photograph: Nature

Just five countries hold 70% of the world’s remaining untouched wilderness areas and urgent international action is needed to protect them, according to new research.

Researchers from the University of Queensland (UQ) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have for the first time produced a global map that sets out which countries are responsible for nature that is devoid of heavy industrial activity.

It comes ahead of the conference of parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Egypt in November where signatory nations are working towards a plan for the protection of biodiversity beyond 2020.

Conservationists are calling for a mandated target for wilderness conservation that will preserve the planet’s vulnerable ecosystems. Continue reading

For The Last Tigers, What Is Next?

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A South China tiger, a subspecies that only survives in captivity. Credit Francois Savigny/Minden Pictures

Some of these photos we have featured in earlier stories. That is a testament to the seriousness of the subject. Thanks to Rachel Nuwer for this:

Divide and Preserve: Reclassifying Tigers to Help Save Them From Extinction

Are there many subspecies of tiger, or only two? A correct accounting is the only way to preserve what is left of the animal’s genetic diversity, some scientists say.

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A Sumatran tiger at the Ragunan Zoo in Jakarta, Indonesia. Sumatran tigers were the first to evolve from all tigers’ common ancestor. Credit Romeo Gacad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Fewer than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild. New research aims to give conservationists an improved understanding of their genetics in order to help save them.

After years of debate, scientists report in the journal Current Biology that tigers comprise six unique subspecies. One of those subspecies, the South China tiger, survives only in captivity.

“The results presented in this paper are important because they contradict the currently accepted international conservation classifications for tigers,” said Uma Ramakrishnan, a molecular ecologist at the National Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India, who was not involved in the study. Continue reading

The Science Of Camouflage

This is more science-y than is our custom, but Nature magazine has been appreciated on this platform as a source of intriguing findings about creatures from time to time, so here goes:

Cuttlefish wear their thoughts on their skin

Elaborate video system tracks how pigment cells controlled by neurons generate complex patterns of camouflage.

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Cuttlefish are masters of quick-change camouflage, thanks to skin cells that act as coloured pixels. Credit: Pasquale Vassallo/Getty

Cuttlefish are masters at altering their appearance to blend into their surroundings. But the cephalopods can no longer hide their inner thoughts, thanks to a technique that infers a cuttlefish’s brain activity by tracking the ever-changing patterns on its skin. The findings, published in Nature on 17 October1, could help researchers to better understand how the brain controls behaviour.

The cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) camouflages itself by contracting the muscles around tiny, coloured skin cells called chromatophores. The cells come in several colours and act as pixels across the cuttlefish’s body, changing their size to alter the pattern on the animal’s skin.

The cuttlefish doesn’t always conjure up an exact match for its background. It can also blanket itself in stripes, rings, mottles or other complex patterns to make itself less noticeable to predators. “On any background, especially a coral reef, it can’t look like a thousand things,” says Roger Hanlon, a cephalopod biologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “Camouflage is about deceiving the visual system.” Continue reading