Cars & Carbon

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A Mini Electric car next to the production line at the BMW plant in Cowley, near Oxford. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

When the smoke clears, we will need to get back to key environmental issues. Thanks to the Guardian for this news, in that regard:

Electric cars produce less CO2 than petrol vehicles, study confirms

Finding will come as boost to governments seeking to move to net zero carbon emissions

Electric vehicles produce less carbon dioxide than petrol cars across the vast majority of the globe – contrary to the claims of some detractors, who have alleged that the CO2 emitted in the production of electricity and their manufacture outweighs the benefits.

The finding is a boost to governments, including the UK, seeking to move to net zero carbon emissions, which will require a massive expansion of the electric car fleet. A similar benefit was found for electric heat pumps. Continue reading

Spring Tidings

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The vernal equinox falls on March 19 nationwide this year. It’s the earliest start to spring since 1896. This photo shows the Earth shortly before the moment of the equinox on March 20, 2019.
GOES-East/NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory

It is extra early, which seems none too soon from our point of view:

Spring Starts Today All Over America, Which Is Weird

Spring begins today in America. Good.

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On the equinox, day and night are roughly equal everywhere on Earth. The date varies because the 365-day calendar doesn’t perfectly line up with the motion of the Earth around the Sun. Encyclopaedia Britannica/Universal Images Group via Getty

Perhaps you are mildly surprised to learn that March 19 is the first day of spring. Perhaps you learned as a child that the spring equinox — when day and night are roughly the same length — occurs on either March 20 or March 21.

Indeed, the equinox has historically fallen on one of those dates. This is the first time in 124 years the first day of spring has occurred on March 19 nationwide, irrespective of time zone — even the graphics on the National Weather Service’s website have yet to catch up with the new reality.

So, how did we end up with an extra-early spring? Continue reading

Scent & Memory

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Illustration by James Taylor

Thanks to Colleen Walsh and the Harvard Gazette for this:

What the nose knows

Experts discuss the science of smell and how scent, emotion, and memory are intertwined — and exploited

Bioflourescing Amphibians

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A biofluorescing Cranwell’s horned frog. Jennifer Lamb and Matt Davis

Thanks to Joanna Klein, as always:

Salamanders and Frogs Hide a Glowing Secret

Many amphibians — possibly all of them — are biofluorescent, according to a new survey.

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A glowing dwarf siren… Jennifer Lamb and Matt Davis

Amphibians are half-landlubbers, half water-babies. They breathe through skin that is moist, warty, crested and in some cases, poisonous or hallucinogenic. Some wear dull, leaflike-camo patterns. Others sport Guy Fieri flames.

And as cute, gross, pretty, ugly, magical and witchy-named as these slip-sliding creatures may be, they’ve been hiding something in a secret, fluorescent world invisible to humans. Many amphibians, whether salamanders, frogs or their distant cousins — possibly all of them — glow, according to a survey published Thursday in Scientific Reports.

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Jennifer Lamb and Matt Davis

“There is still a lot out there that we don’t know,” said Jennifer Lamb, a biologist who conducted the research with Matt Davis, both at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. “This opens up this whole window into the possibility that organisms that can see fluorescence — their world may look a lot different from ours.”

The study paves the way for new research into how or why amphibians possess this special adaptation, which has potential applications in medical technology and conservation. Continue reading

McKibben’s Latest Venture

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A swarm of locusts north of Nairobi, Kenya, in January. The U.N. described an outbreak of desert locusts as a threat to food security. Photograph by Tony Karumba / AFP / Getty

We need more information, better quality information, and the most relevant information on climate issues. A newsletter, maybe? Bill McKibben is on it:

WELCOME TO THE CLIMATE CRISIS NEWSLETTER

We’re eight weeks into the new decade, and, so far, we’ve had the warmest January ever recorded. (Indeed, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that 2020 is more than ninety-eight per cent likely to be one of the five warmest years ever measured, with a nearly forty-nine-per-cent chance to set a new annual record.) We’ve seen the highest temperature ever measured on the Antarctic continent, and also record swarms of locusts descending on the Horn of Africa, a plague which scientists assure us will “become more frequent and severe under climate change.”

I’m calling this new newsletter—and welcome aboard—The Climate Crisis because this is what a crisis looks like. Continue reading

Field Expeditions, Panama, Ferns

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Student members of the Mamoní Valley Preserve Natural History Project, Jacob Suissa (left), Sylvia Kinosian, Brian Vergara, Jose Palacios, and Christian López examine the rhizome vasculature of a fern species during their first collection trip in the rainforest.

While most of our work between 1999 and 2019 was field work, once this platform started we distinguished field expeditions from our “regular work,” and Seth’s posts have dominated the expedition realm here. Today, with Seth in wintry New Haven in desk mode, my expeditionary imagination is instead fueled by the field expedition described below, on a topic not featured in these pages for seven years, so I am correcting the neglect:

Going where the diversity is

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Student researchers Ben Goulet-Scott (left), Sylvia Kinosian, and Jacob Suissa, reach the crest of a hill overlooking the Mamoní Valley Preserve while carrying 90 species of ferns on their backs.
Photos by Ben Goulet-Scott/Harvard University Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology

Last month, two graduate students from the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University traveled to one of the most species-rich landscapes in the world: a remote strip of tropical rainforest at the narrowest point in the Central American country of Panama.

Ben Goulet-Scott, a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) and a fellow in the Arboretum’s Hopkins Lab, and Jacob Suissa, OEB Ph.D. candidate in the Friedman Lab at the Arboretum, hope their research in the Mamoní Valley Preserve in Panama will increase our understanding of how biodiversity can persevere in the face of climate change, deforestation, and human disturbance.

200126PanamaExp26The 20-square-mile land conservancy on the isthmus separating Central and South America teems with life, making the condensed rainforest habitat a perfect location for their research project because of the vast number of known and potentially undiscovered species living there, Goulet-Scott said. Continue reading

Citizen Science & Northern Lights

We believe citizen science, in all its forms, is one of the latest greatest innovations of mankind, and here is one more example:

A New Form Of Northern Lights Discovered In Finland – By Amateur Sky Watchers

People in northern climes have long gazed at the wonder that is the aurora borealis: the northern lights.

Those celestial streaks of light and color are often seen on clear nights in Finland, where they’re so admired that a Finnish-language Facebook group dedicated to finding and photographing them has more than 11,000 members.

There aurora aficionados gather to discuss subjects like space weather forecasts and the best equipment to capture the northern lights. Continue reading

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