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

Forests, Deforestation & Climate Change

Trees cleared in the western Amazon region of Brazil in September 2017. CARL DE SOUZA / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

If you have been following the news recently, you may have noticed a report that indicates the urgency from climate change is greater than scientists previously thought. Everyone who cares has been digesting the science and we appreciate every effort to clarify what the science is saying. Fred Pearce, writing for Yale e360, has this:

Conflicting Data: How Fast Is the World Losing its Forests?

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Forest cut to make way for an oil palm plantation in Papua, Indonesia in April 2018. ULET IFANSASTI / GREENPEACE

The latest UN report on climate says reducing deforestation is crucial to slowing global warming. But researchers must first reconcile two contradictory sets of statistics on tree loss in order to determine whether promises made by nations to protect and restore forests are on target.

The world is losing trees faster than ever. An area the size of Italy disappeared last year. Or did it? New research suggests three-quarters of those lost forests may already be regrowing. That hardly means we are out of the woods. Fighting climate change and protecting biodiversity still needs a global campaign to reforest the planet. But it does suggest that, given the chance, nature will do much of the work. Continue reading

Citizen Science, Children & Bees

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Scientists expected bees to gradually cease buzzing as the sky darkened during an eclipse. Instead, they stopped altogether. Credit Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

After following the work of Nicholas St. Fleur for a couple years now–his beat includes archaeology, paleontology, and space among other of the things we care about on this platform, including conservation–his most recent story below is my favorite for one reason, namely citizen science. Specifically the participation of youth in such an important scientific investigation:

The Moon Eclipsed the Sun. Then the Bees Stopped Buzzing.

Researchers worked with a small army of elementary school children to collect audio recordings of bees as they visited flowers along the path of last summer’s total eclipse.

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National Forest Service workers at the Bridger-Teton National Forest Office in Jackson, Wyo., took a break to watch the Great American Eclipse last year. Credit Celia Talbot Tobin for The New York Times

Last year’s Great American Eclipse drew hundreds of millions of eyes to the sky. But while people across the country “oohed” and “aahed” at the phenomenon, it appears the bees went silent.

So found a new study that monitored the acoustic activity of bees before, during and after totality — the moment when the moon completely blocked the sun — during the solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. Researchers at the University of Missouri, along with a small army of elementary school children and other volunteers, collected audio recordings of honeybees, bumblebees and other types of bees as they visited flowers along the path of totality Continue reading

The Picture From The Recent Climate Change Report Is Now More Clear

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Deniers, we already know you will find a way to see this from some other perspective, and we have given up trying to understand why you do that. But for everyone else, there is still time to understand the implications of this science. And there is no shame in using props to help learn. Thanks to Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich for making sure we get the point, with clear graphical illustration, about what this recent study is saying and why every one of us should care:

Heat

Extreme heat will be much more common worldwide under 2°C of warming compared to 1.5°C, with the tropics experiencing the biggest increase in the number of “highly unusual” hot days.

Read the rest of this graphics-rich story here.

Science Writing, A Genre That Keeps Improving, Is The Best Way To Explain A Conservation Paradox

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Eric Nyquist

Two years of working in southern Chile taught me just enough about the complexity of this particular issue (among the many complex issues in our practice)to appreciate the article below by Emma Marris, who we already knew to be provocative, enough that she could challenge Bill McKibben two minutes into her TED talk, and does so convincingly. The primary reason I appreciate this article, is the same reason this platform has showcased the best of this genre of writers over the years. Scientists, translated into regular language we non-scientists can understand:

When Conservationists Kill Lots (and Lots) of Animals

Invasive species are sometimes trapped, poisoned, and shot in large numbers to save native species from extinction. Some scientists say the bloodshed isn’t worth it.

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Eric Nyquist

The desert of south-central Australia is crenellated with sandstone hills in shades of ivory, crimson, and apricot. The ground is littered with dead trees and tree limbs, big hunks of transparent mica, dried cow dung, and thousands of stone spearheads and blades made by the Aboriginal people who lived here for tens of thousands of years—and live here still. Around the few water holes are the doglike tracks of dingoes, wild canines that were brought to Australia thousands of years ago and are now the country’s top predators.

I have come to the Evelyn Downs ranch, on the famously remote highway between Adelaide and Alice Springs, to meet Arian Wallach, a conservationist who thinks there is too much killing in conservation. Wallach has come to this massive 888-square-mile ranch because it is one of the few places in Australia where people aren’t actively killing wild animals. Tough, outback Herefords share the landscape with kangaroos, wild horses, wild donkeys, camels, emus, cats, foxes, native rodents, dingoes, and very large antediluvian-looking reptiles called perenties. Of the animals on this list, dingoes, cats, foxes, horses, camels, and donkeys are all killed in large numbers throughout Australia—but not here. Wallach has convinced the owners to experiment with a more hands-off approach. Continue reading

Saving Species With SavingSpecies

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GigaPan technology, developed for NASA’s Mars mission, combines dozens of digital images to create high resolution panoramas.Credit Image by Stuart Pimm

saving-species-logo-long-small-1.pngThanks to Kathryn McManus for bringing SavingSpecies to our attention through this excellent review of their work based on the experience that she and her daughter had with its founder, Dr. Pimm:

Saving Hummingbirds Is One Small Step in Saving the Planet

High in the Andes Mountains in Colombia, a reforestation project led by SavingSpecies works to protect one of the world’s most renowned bio hot spots.

merlin_143901342_d0359165-6129-404f-855b-d2d4fb6614dc-superJumboWESTERN ANDES CLOUD FOREST, Colombia — Just before sunrise on a crisp summer morning high in a rain forest in Colombia’s Western Andes, the renowned ecologist Stuart Pimm gathered his research team over breakfast and made final plans for that morning’s journey to install motion-sensor cameras to monitor hummingbirds.

24forests-inyt3-articleLarge.jpgIn just a few hours, the installations would be done by Andrea Kolarova, 20, who was here with other students from Duke University, where Dr. Pimm holds the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation. She was getting some advice from him and from Luis Mazariegos, founder of the Hummingbird Conservancy of Colombia.

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Andrea Kolarova, a student from Duke, sets up a camera with help from Alexandra McManus, 11. Michael LaPorte

My daughter, Alexandra, 11, a student at Saxe Middle School in New Canaan, Conn., had also been invited to participate in the Colombia project, which is how I found myself for two weeks this summer living in a cabin in this remote mountainous territory. Although not far from the town of Jardin, which is about two and a half hours from Medellin, it takes a slightly harrowing hourlong ride in an ATV along a dirt switchback road to get here.

Ms. Kolarova’s hummingbird research will be used by Dr. Pimm’s organization, SavingSpecies, which he founded in 2007 to combat global warming using money he was awarded as a recipient of the Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences a year earlier. SavingSpecies works with local organizations around the world to buy land with the goal of restoring forests that have been destroyed, often because of logging, agricultural expansion, mining and oil extraction, and protecting the species that are under threat as a result.

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The ecologist Stuart Pimm describes the dangers of deforestation as a warming climate drives species like hummingbirds to move to higher land.Credit Image by Duke University

Continue reading

The Oldest Animal We Know Of

Organically preserved Dickinsonia fossil from the White Sea area of Russia.

ILYA BOBROVSKIY / AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY

Thanks to Ed Yong for this:

A 558-Million-Year-Old Mystery Has Been Solved

Scientists have finally confirmed that a weird ribbed oval called Dickinsonia is an animal.

Organically preserved Dickinsonia fossil from the White Sea area of Russia.

Dickinsonia fossilILYA BOBROVSKIY / AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY

While it sits in place, petrifying, waiting, the world around it changes. The Earth’s landmasses merge into a single supercontinent before going their separate ways. In the ocean, animal life explodes; for the first time, the world is home to eyes, shells, and mouths. Living things invade the land, coating it first in thin films of moss and lichens, and then covering it in huge forests. Insects rise, into existence, and then into the skies. A dinosaur empire rises and falls. Mammals finally take over, and one of them—a human by the name of Ilya Bobrovskiy—finally unearths the fossilized ribbed oval from its resting place. Continue reading

Unexpected Affection

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An octopus on its way to an underwater EDM festival. Credit Ken Lucas, via Getty Images

Thanks to JoAnna Klein a regular contributor for The New York Times Trilobites feature, for this:

On Ecstasy, Octopuses Reached Out for a Hug

By dosing the tentacled creatures with MDMA, researchers found they share parts of an ancient messaging system involved in social behaviors with humans.

Octopuses are smart. They open jars, steal fish and high-five each other.

Though interactive, they’re generally asocial, and temperamental, with unique behavior patterns, like those shown by Otto, who caused blackouts at a German aquarium and Inky, who famously escaped a tank in New Zealand.They learn through experience and observation, forming lasting memories with brain-like bundles of hundreds of millions of neurons in each arm and a centralized bundle in the middle.

A desire to understand the evolutionary underpinnings of this brain power led scientists to give octopuses ecstasy. Yes ecstasy — molly, E, MDMA, the party drug, which in humans reduces fear and inhibition, induces feelings of empathy, distorts time and helps people dance to electronic music all night. Continue reading

The Camera’s Gift To The Task Of Documenting Climate Change

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The safety officer Brian Rougeux assembles a radar dome while working at the research camp above Helheim Glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, on June 20, 2018. 
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Alan Taylor, who  compiles and edits the news photo blog “In Focus” for the Atlantic, shares 21 spectacular images with captions that help even a lay person understand better the science of climate change:

Studying Greenland’s Ice to Understand Climate Change

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An iceberg floats in a fjord near Tasiilaq on June 16, 2018. # Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Earlier this year, Lucas Jackson, a photographer with Reuters, joined a team of scientists affiliated with a NASA project named Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) and traveled with it to the Greenland ice sheet and fjords. Jackson photographed the researchers as they set up their scientific equipment and took readings to help understand the ongoing impact of the melting glaciers and map out what to expect in the future. Jackson says: “For both journalists and scientists, climate change is difficult to document. It most often happens imperceptibly—a tenth of a degree increase in temperature, a few less inches of rain, a slowly melting ice sheet.” Continue reading

Testing Animal Intelligence

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A test of four different species shows they can accurately assign value to food and tokens, swapping lower value items for higher value food. Credit Image by Comparative Cognition Research Group (CCRG)

Thanks to James Gorman for the latest examination of animal intelligence:

Chalk up another achievement for parrots, with an odd twist that raises questions about whether the experimenters or the birds know best.

Anastasia Krasheninnikova and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany tested four species of parrots in an experiment that required trading tokens for food and recently reported their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

Would the birds resist an immediate reward to trade for something better? Many species have shown the ability to hold off on an immediate treat — like a dry corn kernel — for something tastier later on, like a bit of walnut. Continue reading

Omnivore’s Dilemma In A Shark Species

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A bonnethead shark in the shallows of Florida’s Pine Island Sound. Credit Getty Images

Thanks to Veronique Greenwood for this:

The Omnivorous Sharks That Eat Grass

Diminutive bonnethead sharks are the first omnivorous sharks known to science, which could change our understanding of what some sharks eat.

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After researchers caught bonnethead sharks for study, they received a daily meal consisting of a wad of seagrass wrapped in a piece of squid, resembling a large inside-out sushi roll. Credit Samantha Leigh

Sharks are not known for their taste for greenery. But at least one species of shark enjoys a salad of sea grass as well as the prey it hunts.

The bonnethead shark, a diminutive species that reaches up to 3 feet in length, lives in the shallow sea grass meadows off both coasts of the Americas. It eats small squid and crustaceans ferreted from the swaying underwater fronds. But, researchers who have carefully monitored everything going in and out of captive bonnetheads say in a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B that they also eat large quantities of seagrass. The grass isn’t just passing inertly through the sharks’ guts. They extract nutrition from it just as they do from the meaty portion of their diet. These sharks must, therefore, be reclassified as omnivores — the first omnivorous sharks known to science. Continue reading

Color Conservation

The hues in the Forbes Collection include the esoteric, the expensive, and the toxic. Photograph by Jason Fulford for The New Yorker

Color is such a constant in our lives that it seems odd to consider any need for it’s conservation. How it exists in nature, how we humans perceive it, and how we’ve use the technology of the time to preserve it, has been relevant for tens of thousands of years. The Forbes Collection archives in the Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum highlights the work of it’s founder, Edward Waldo Forbes, for whom “pigment hunting and gathering was not just a matter of creating an archive of lost or languishing color. It was about the union of art and science.”

Treasures from the Color Archive

The historic pigments in the Forbes Collection include the esoteric, the expensive, and the toxic

How blue can it get? How deep can it be? Some years ago, at the Guggenheim Bilbao, I thought I’d hit on the ultimate blue, displayed on the gallery floor. Yves Klein, who died at thirty-four, was obsessed with purging color of any external associations. Gestural abstraction, he felt, was clotted with sentimental extraneousness. But, in search of chromatic purity, Klein realized that even the purest pigments’ intensity dulled when combined with a binder such as oil, egg, or acrylic. In 1960, he commissioned a synthetic binder that would resist the absorption of light waves, delivering maximum reflectiveness. Until that day in Bilbao, I’d thought Klein a bit of a monomaniacal bore, but Klein International Blue, as he named the pigment—rolled out flat or pimpled, with saturated sponges embedded in the paint surface—turned my eyeballs inside out, rods and cones jiving with joy. This is it, I thought. It can’t get any bluer.

Until YInMn came along: the fortuitous product of an experiment in the materials chemistry lab at Oregon State University in 2009. Intending to discover something useful for the electronics industry, Mas Subramanian and his team heated together oxides of manganese, yttrium, and indium at two thousand degrees Fahrenheit. What emerged was a new inorganic pigment, one that absorbed red and green light waves, leaving as reflected light the bluest blue to date. Subramanian sent a sample to the Forbes Collection in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, at Harvard University, where it sits with twenty-five hundred other specimens that document the history of our craving for color.

Among the other blues on the Forbes’s shelves is Egyptian Blue, a modern approximation of the first synthetic pigment, engineered five millennia ago, probably from the rare mineral cuprorivaite, a soft mid-blue used for the decoration of royal tomb sculpture and the wall paintings of temples. Later, blues strong enough to render sea and sky were made from weathered copper-carbonate azurite—crystalline bright but sometimes darkening in an oil binder. In 1271, Marco Polo saw lapis lazuli quarried from a mountain at Badakhshan, in what is now Afghanistan. Laboriously prepared by removing impure specks of glinting iron pyrite, it became ultramarine—as expensive, ounce for ounce, as gold, and so precious that it was initially reserved for depictions of the costume of the Virgin. In addition to these, the Forbes Collection has a poor man’s blue—smalt made from crushed cobalt containing potassium glass, which weakens, eventually, to a thin greeny-brown gray.

The Forbes Collection owes its existence to a belief in the interdependence of art and science, but it is also an exhaustive archive of cultural passion. A display features Vantablack, which absorbs 99.96 per cent of light, and has to be grown on surfaces as a crop of microscopic nanorods. In 2016, the sculptor Anish Kapoor saw the pigment’s potential for collapsing light, turning any surface into what appears to be a fathomless black hole, and he acquired the exclusive rights to it. An outcry from artists, who objected to the copyright, prompted the Massachusetts manufacturer NanoLab to release Singularity Black, created as part of the company’s ongoing research with nasa, to the public, and the artist Stuart Semple to make the World’s Pinkest Pink available to any online buyer willing to declare himself “not Anish Kapoor.” But Kapoor obtained a sample of the pink pigment, and used it to coat his middle digit, which he photographed and posted online for Semple.

Narayan Khandekar, the head of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, takes pleasure in such skirmishes, secure in the knowledge that he presides over something weightier: a priceless resource for understanding how works of art are made, and how they should be preserved. The Department of Conservation and Technical Research was founded, in 1928, by Edward Waldo Forbes, the director of Harvard’s Fogg Museum from 1909 to 1944. Today, the Forbes’s vast library of color and its technical laboratories are housed in the museum’s steel-and-filtered-glass rebuild, designed by Renzo Piano. Rows of pigments in tubes, jars, and bowls are visible through the doors of floor-to-ceiling cabinets. Khandekar had the winning idea of displaying them as if unspooled from a color wheel: reds at one end, blues at the other. There are the products of nineteenth-century chemical innovation—viridian green, cadmium orange, and the chrome yellow with which van Gogh was infatuated but which, over time, has begun to darken his sunflowers. But at the heart of the Forbes Collection are the natural pigments that were the staples of painters’ inventories before chemically synthesized paints replaced the impossibly esoteric, the dangerously toxic, the prohibitively expensive, and the perilously fugitive. Continue reading

A Time and Place for the Public Service Announcement

One of the many Advocacy Priorities of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA)

While indoor plumbing is more or less taken for granted, not everything that can flush, should. Thanks to the NYTimes for clarifying the basics.

Should I Flush It? Most Often, the Answer Is No

It might seem harmless at first: a thread of dental floss tossed in the toilet, a contact lens swirling down the drain of the bathroom sink. But even the tiniest of items can contaminate waterways.

The small fragments of plastic contact lenses are believed to be contributing to the growing problem of microplastic pollution. Pharmaceuticals, which are also frequently flushed down the drain, have been found in our drinking water, and the consequences are not fully known.

Larger products like wipes and tampons are also clogging sewer systems, resulting in billions of dollars in maintenance and repair costs.

Wondering what’s safe to flush or wash down the drain? We spoke with several wastewater management experts who explained why many frequently disposed items belong in a garbage can, not the toilet. Continue reading

Local Knowledge Aids Scientific Understanding

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In a perfect dovetail with yesterday’s nod to one science writer, today we nod to the contributions of ancestral ways in helping scientists better understand the life cycles of forests. Thanks to Richard Schiffman for this interview:

Lessons Learned from Centuries of Indigenous Forest Management

CMPeters_web.jpgIn an interview with Yale Environment 360, botanist Charles M. Peters discusses how, in an era of runaway destruction of tropical forests, the centuries-old ecological understanding of indigenous woodland residents can help point the way to the restoration of damaged rainforests.

Over centuries, even millennia, indigenous communities have developed interdependent systems of agriculture and forestry that are uniquely suited to the ecological requirements of the land they inhabit. Yet even today, says Charles M. Peters, the Curator of Botany at the New York Botanical Gardens, that skill and knowledge often remain unacknowledged, with some government officials and conservationists arguing that indigenous communities should sometimes be excluded from protected lands that are part of their historical territory.

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Members of the Kenyah Dayak indigenous group conducting forest surveys in Western Borneo in the early 1990s. CHARLES PETERS

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Peters — author of the recently published bookManaging the Wild: Stories of People and Plants and Tropical Forests — discusses what he has learned from 35 years of working with indigenous forest communities; explains how indigenous farming, even slash-and-burn agriculture, can actually improve forest health; and reflects on the need to enlist indigenous groups as allies in the struggle to preserve and restore tropical forests. Continue reading

Better Science Writing, Better Societal Decision-Making?

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9781509818532she has her mother-s laugh_11_jpg_262_400.jpgScience writing has been one of our favorite themes since we started this platform. The quality with which science is explained in clear language is good for the planet, we think. Carl Zimmer is probably the most cited science writer during these eight years, for good reason. The interview above from late 2016, if you are convinced about the importance of science writing, is about as good as it gets for hearing a master explain his craft in very personal terms. It was recorded just weeks after the most fateful (with regard to science) presidential election in recent USA history. Zimmer takes a “just the facts” approach to the interview, and neither punches, nor pulls punches, with regard to the environmental and other science policy mess-making that had just begun. He just shares his craft.

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Carl Zimmer: ‘Heredity is central to our existence… but it’s not what we think it is.’ Photograph: Mistina Hanscom/Lotta Studio

He has a new book out, which we have not read, but we are glad that it has brought him out on book tour. In the interview below, from just a couple weeks ago, we get a quick read on what he is saying now:

Carl Zimmer is a rarity among professional science writers in being influential among the scientists on whose work he writes and comments – to the extent that he has been appointed as professor adjunct in the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University. Zimmer has just published his 13th book, She Has Her Mother’s Laughsurvey of “the power, perversions and potential of heredity”. Continue reading

A Science Advisor At Long Last, Yay

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If Ed Yong is happy, then we too are happy about this. Really. Even if it has a bit of fiddling while Rome burns feel to it. Let’s hope he can talk some sense, even if it is too late, into the powers that be:

Trump Finally Picks a Science Adviser—And People Are Delighted

His nominee, Kelvin Droegemeier, is an accomplished meteorologist who studies storms and other extreme weather.

For decades, the meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier has been immersed in the study of thunderstorms, tornadoes, and other extreme weather. Now he looks set to enter the unpredictable and stormy world of the Trump administration as its top scientific consigliere. Continue reading

Avian Adaptation in the Face of Climate Change

 

A Mariposa fox sparrow in its nest in 1925, observed during Dr. Joseph Grinnell’s surveys of California fauna. Credit Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley

Accentuate the positive…

California’s Birds Are Testing New Survival Tactics on a Vast Scale

Retracing the steps of a century-old wildlife survey, ecologists find that birds are making remarkable adaptations to climate change.

More than a century ago, zoologist Joseph Grinnell launched a pioneering survey of animal life in California, a decades-long quest — at first by Model T or, failing that, mule — to all corners and habitats of the state, from Death Valley to the High Sierra.

Ultimately Grinnell, founding director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues produced one of the richest ecological records in the world: 74,000 pages of meticulously detailed field notes, recording the numbers, habits and habitats of all vertebrate species that the team encountered.

In 2003, museum scientists decided to retrace Grinnell’s steps throughout the state to learn what changes a century had wrought. And that’s why Morgan Tingley, then an ecology graduate student at the university, found himself trekking through the Sierra for four summers.

Dr. Tingley wanted to know how birds had fared since Grinnell last took a census. Years later, the answer turned out to be a bit of a shock. Continue reading

When & Where & How Should Crops Be Genetically Modified?

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A wheat field in Mouchamps, France. There are very few genetically modified crops grown in Europe compared to the United States. Credit Regis Duvignau/Reuters

Thanks for this GMO primer by Carl Zimmer:

What Is a Genetically Modified Crop? A European Ruling Sows Confusion

In Europe, plants created with gene-editing technologies will be stringently regulated as G.M.O.’s. But older crops whose DNA has been altered will be left alone.

Mushrooms that don’t brown. Wheat that fights off disease. Tomatoes with a longer growing season.

All of these crops are made possible by a gene-editing technology called Crispr-cas9. But now its future has been clouded by the European Union’s top court.

This week, the court ruled that gene-edited crops are genetically modified organisms, and therefore must comply with the tough regulations that apply to plants made with genes from other species.

Many scientists responded to the decision with dismay, predicting that countries in the developing world would follow Europe’s lead, blocking useful gene-edited crops from reaching farms and marketplaces. The ruling may also curtail exports from the United States, which has taken a more lenient view of gene-edited foods.

“You’re not just affecting Europe, you’re affecting the world with this decision,” said Matthew Willmann, the director of the Plant Transformation Facility at Cornell University. Continue reading

The Science Of Nature, Exhibited

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Classroom chart on linen drawn by Orra White Hitchcock, 1828–1840. Credit Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

Thanks to Jason Farago for this review of  Charting the Divine Plan: The Art of Orra White Hitchcock at the American Folk Art Museum:

Mushrooms, Magma and Love in a Time of Science

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“Colossal Octopus,” 1828–1840, by Orra White Hitchcock, one of America’s first female scientific illustrators, on view at the American Folk Art Museum. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

Women remain grossly underrepresented at the highest echelons of American science, and continue to face absurd claims of “innate” inferiority, whether from former Harvard presidents or senior engineers at Google. But until the mid-19th century — when the sciences became professionalized, and when Charles Darwin and others put Christian doctrine under pressure — a woman’s place was in the laboratory, or among the geology and zoology specimens.

Back then the humanities (classics and philosophy, especially) were understood as masculine academic pursuits. It was the more genteel disciplines of natural science, astronomy, chemistry, botany and anatomy, to which women of a certain class gravitated.

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Orra White Hitchcock’s “Fungi Selecti Picti, Vicinity of Conway, Massachusetts” (1821), watercolor, pencil, pen and ink, and ink wash on paper in sewn album. Credit Smith College Special Collections

Orra White Hitchcock (1796-1863) was one of the most remarkable women from this more egalitarian age of scientific study. She had a deep knowledge of botany, zoology and paleontology, and she was also an artist — though that “also” would have seemed unnecessary to her. She produced two albums of botanical illustrations, and later, as introductory materials for her husband’s classes, she diagramed volcanoes, sketched the skeletons of extinct fish and mammals, and drew undulant squids and octopuses on large cotton sheets.

They’re all united at the American Folk Art Museum in “Charting the Divine Plan: The Art of Orra White Hitchcock,” a handsome and unexpectedly passionate exhibition on art, science and education in the early American republic. More than 100 watercolors and classroom charts are here, from painstakingly accurate paintings of reeds and mushrooms to boldly colored abstractions of the earth’s crust and core, and they share space with a splendid array of diaries and correspondence, redolent with the Hitchcocks’ intertwined loves for science, God and each other. Continue reading

Decades Of Awareness, But Not Enough Action

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Thirty years ago, James Hansen, a scientist at nasa, issued a warning about the dangers of climate change. The predictions he and other scientists made at the time have proved spectacularly accurate. Photograph by Charles Ommanney / The Washington Post / Getty

I have always been appropriately alarmed by Elizabeth Kolbert’s articles and her comment pieces in the New Yorker. This brief comment below is alarming enough, but with a twist. Science has done its job, but we as citizens, business people, civic leaders have not acted with sufficient urgency considering the clear scientific evidence.

IMG_7014It may be true that scientists have not been the most compelling communicators, but that is no excuse for our inaction. As someone who left a scientific career developing a theoretical framework for entrepreneurial conservation in favor of opportunities to apply those ideas in the real world, I am in the same boat as a climate scientist. I look around today, after decades of best effort and I conclude that we have not accomplished enough in our practice. In our efforts to offer alternatives to messier forms of tourism, we have not accomplished enough. That is discouraging. But discouragement is not an option. We must find a better way to communicate that generates the required action for a less messy planet:

Listening to James Hansen on Climate Change, Thirty Years Ago and Now

On June 23, 1988—a blisteringly hot day in Washington, D.C.—James Hansen told a Senate committee that “the greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now.” At the time, Hansen was the head of nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and though his testimony was certainly not the first official warning about the “greenhouse effect”—a report to President Lyndon Johnson, in 1965, predicted “measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate” in the decades to follow—it was the first to receive national news coverage. The Times ran the story at the top of the front page, with a graph showing a long-term rise in average global temperatures. Continue reading