Tag Archives: Nature

The Sneaky, Lying Flower That Pretends to Be a Rotting Beetle

WIRED

Aristolochia microstoma finds love by smelling like death. Coffin flies can’t resist.

IT WAS THE butterflies that tipped them off. Thomas Rupp, a PhD student in ecology at the Paris-Lodron University of Salzburg, was walking through a mountain forest with his teammates near Athens, Greece, when he saw them: the insects that, when in caterpillar form, feed on a special kind of plant called Aristolochia microstoma. “Wherever I saw this butterfly flying,” Rupp says, “I knew that there must be some Aristolochia plants around.”

Rupp crouched down to find the plant’s unusual flowers lying hidden among rocks and leaves. They are a dark merlot red, and they look like an inflated bulb connected to a narrow tube tipped by a small pore called a stoma. The whole thing looks a lot like the entry to an intestinal tract. It’s not. It’s even weirder.

Read the full story in WIRED

The Long, Strange Life of the World’s Oldest Naked Mole Rat

WIRED

These death-defying rodents do not age normally. Will their weird biology help extend human life spans, or are those ambitions a dead end?

JOE HAS LOOKED old since the day he was born, back in 1982. He’s pink and squinty and wrinkly. His teeth are weird: His incisors sit outside his lips to keep the dirt out of his mouth as he digs tunnels for his tube-shaped body.

“He looks remarkably the same,” says Rochelle Buffenstein, a comparative biologist who has studied naked mole rats since the 1980s when she was doing her doctoral work in Cape Town, South Africa. That’s where she met Joe. (He doesn’t have an official name, so we’re going with Joe.) A few years later, Buffenstein was starting her own research on vitamin D metabolism in mole rats because they spend all their time in dark tunnels, away from the sun. She moved to Johannesburg with a few subjects to begin her work, leaving Joe behind. He was eventually shipped off to the Cincinnati Zoo. But he and Buffenstein would soon reunite.

Read the full story in WIRED

Hungry, Hungry Microbes in Tree Bark Gobble Up Methane

WIRED

Bad news: Trees emit methane, a greenhouse gas. Good news: Some are home to bacteria that can’t get enough of it.

MANY OF TODAY’S geoscientists are carbon voyeurs. Knowing that human disregard for the carbon cycle has screwed the climate, they have kept a close eye on carbon’s hottest variants—carbon dioxide (CO 2) and methane. Both gasses trap heat on the planet through the greenhouse effect, and over a span of 100 years methane is 28 times more potent than CO2. Rigorously accounting for greenhouse gas flow is step one of building models that predict the future climate.

Some line items in the methane budget, such as pipeline leaks and cow farts, are well understood. But others are hazier. “There’s lots of gaps and uncertainties, particularly in wetlands, and inland waters,” says Luke Jeffrey, a biogeochemistry postdoc at Southern Cross University in Australia. By one 2020 tally from the Global Carbon Project, wetlands emit about 20 to 31 percent of Earth’s annual methane release—more than the amount from fossil fuel production.

But in the past decade, researchers have zeroed in on a perhaps counterintuitive source of greenhouse gas emissions: trees. Freshwater wetland trees, in particular. Trees bathing in wet or flooded soil absorb methane and then leak it through their bark. In a 2017 study, ecologist Sunitha Pangala, then at the Open University in the United Kingdom, found that trees in the Amazon were responsible for 200 times more methane than trees in other wetland forests, accounting for 44 to 65 percent of the region’s total emissions.

Does this mean trees are bad for the planet? Of course not. Trees suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And in a study published April 9 in Nature Communications, Jeffrey and his team report how trees can also be methane sinks, sheltering microbes that convert it to the less damaging CO2.

Read the full story in WIRED

These Non-Lethal Methods Encouraged by Science Can Keep Wolves From Killing Livestock

SMITHSONIAN

Experts say old, repurposed techniques and new technologies may be better than bullets at curbing attacks by the predators

Nestled amid butterscotch-scented Ponderosa pines in Idaho’s backcountry one sunny, summer day in 1991, Suzanne Stone scooped her hands around her chin and let out an “Ahwooooo.” Stone, now an expert in wolf restoration heading the International Wildlife Coexistence Network, was then an intern at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). After she sent two boisterous wolf howls rippling through nearby meadows, she listened curiously for a reply. Instead, a bullet from a distant rifle whistled just above her and her supervisor’s heads. Steve Fritts, a leading wolf scientist at USFWS, hurried Stone back to their car before reporting what happened. Hunting was legal in the area, but firing at federal employees—even unknowingly—was not. Federal investigators later traced the shot to a hunting outfitter hundreds of yards away.

“I knew then what wolves were facing in the backcountry,” she says. For nearly three decades, wolf populations in Idaho have been on the rise, pitting local communities and powerful interest groups against each other, a situation that plays out in many areas across the country where wolves exist. Hunters contend that wolves have fully recovered and now deplete elk and deer populations while some ranchers argue wolves need to be killed to keep livestock alive. Conservationists, on the other hand, say that the apex predators contribute vitally to a healthy ecosystem and are still functionally extinct in about 85 percent of their historic range.

In October, the Trump administration delisted gray wolves from the endangered species list, a move celebrated by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Safari Club International, a hunter advocacy group, in a joint statement. The conservationist group Defenders of Wildlife, meanwhile, issued a statement of their own calling the delisting “premature and reckless.” They have joined other conservation groups to file a formal intent to sue the USFWS soon after the law takes effect in January.

Read the full story in Smithsonian

‘Symbiosis/Dysbiosis’ VR art installation will let you see, feel, hear the invisible

MASSIVE SCIENCE

Tosca Terán and Sara Lisa Vogl speak with Massive about stimulating senses in their art

Nature can feel you. Its roots, leaves, and vegetative filaments don’t sense with fingertips or retinas. But they can feel your approach and touch, react accordingly.

In a forthcoming art installation for the Goethe-Institut’s New Nature project, a group of artists want to translate these alien sensations and immerse you in their world. Their “Symbiosis/Dysbiosis” uses fungi, electrodes, lights, sound, and virtual reality to launch you in the microbiome all around you.

Read the full story and Q&A in Massive Science

A Slime Mold Can Change Its Mind

SCIENCE FRIDAY

From ant colonies to single-celled slime mold, biologist Audrey Dussutour explores the wonders of animal cognition.

Audrey Dussutour is not shy about admitting that her career, and fame, is a bit of an accident. The French specialist in animal behavior didn’t set out to make discoveries about slime minds, or to write a hugely popular book (Le Blob) about the single-celled learners. “It was not my wish to work on slime molds at all,” Dussutour told Massive, letting out a slow sigh. The first time she saw the organism, as a postdoctoral fellow in Australia, she thought, “My gosh it’s really disgusting. What can I do with this thing?”

Dussutour radiates an infectious passion for slime molds. “It’s one of the most interesting systems to study because it’s a single cell, but you can actually see it with your naked eye,” she says. Now a researcher at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, Dussutour studies how ant colonies and patches of slime molds — neither of which have a central brain — can make decisions with distributed intelligence and emergent plasticity.

Read the full story and Q&A at Science Friday or Massive Science

Wacky tube men could keep dingoes away from livestock in Australia

SCIENCE MAGAZINE

Inflatable tube men—those wacky, wriggling figures that tower near car dealerships and mattress stores—are typically designed to grab attention. But scientists in Australia have used them for the opposite purpose: to scare away unwanted onlookers. A new study suggests the unpredictable movements of these dancing eyesores could keep wild dingoes from killing livestock.

Read the full story in Science Magazine

Anuses can have teeth, farts can be weapons, butts can be homes: an interview with a farts expert

MASSIVE SCIENCE

Zoologist and butt book author Dani Rabaiotti on the worst fart she ever smelled and what new fart research she’d like to see

You’re probably here for the same reason I am: because farts are amazing. A single pffff, poot, or squeak, can plug nostrils, crack smiles, and break tensions. I want to talk about farts.

Dani Rabaiotti is a zoologist based in London who wrote a best-selling book on farts in 2017 called Does it Fart? She and her co-author, ecologist Nick Caruso, along with illustrator Ethan Kocak, followed a trail of animal communication science that is criminally undercovered. In this Q&A, she shares her most memorable farts (a seal’s, not her’s), why cat farts are so bad, the unsolved mysteries of butt-borne defense tactics, and so much more.

Read the full story and Q&A in Massive Science

Cicadas Are Delightful Weirdos You Should Learn To Love

SMITHSONIAN

As Brood IX takes flight for the first time in 17 years, cicada lovers have their ears open.

Around this time of year, Marianne Alleyne hosts dozens of houseguests in her basement. Far from using camping equipment or cots, they sleep upside-down, clinging to a curtain. The entomologist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has collected cicadas, those bizarre and misunderstood cyclical insects, for four years.

“In Illinois, we have 20 species, and hardly anything is known about them,” Alleyne says. “We know very little about what they’re doing underground.”

Cicadas have a longstanding reputation as loud, swarming pests that keep obnoxiously particular schedules. In the United States, they got a bad rap from the beginning, as early colonists misidentified these clouds of emerging cicadas as locusts. “They were thought of as a biblical plague,” says John Cooley, an assistant professor in residence at the University of Connecticut. That impression has been a lasting one: a group of cicadas is still referred to as a plague or a cloud. “The question I get the most is ‘How do I kill them?’” Cooley says.

Read the full story in Smithsonian

Decoding the chemistry behind cicada’s bacteria-killing wings

CHEMISTRY WORLD

Meticulously organised fatty acids are responsible for the bacteria-killing, superhydrophobic nanostructures on cicada wings. The team behind the discovery hopes that its work will inspire antimicrobial surfaces that mimic cicada wings for use in settings such as hospitals.

When in contact with dust, pollen and – importantly – water, the cicadas’ superhydrophobic wings repel matter to self-clean. These extraordinary properties are down to fatty acid nanopillars, periodically spaced and of nearly uniform height, that cover the wings.

Past work has generally only described cicadas’ wings as ‘waxy’ and not explained how these fatty acids nanopillars give rise to unique traits. Nor is it known exactly why cicada wings evolved antibacterial nanostructures. These gaps in our knowledge exist, in part, because of how diverse the cicada family is. But Marianne Alleyne’s group at the University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign, along with colleagues at Sandia National Labs, set out to understand what role chemistry plays in the wings of two evolutionarily divergent species.

Read the full story in Chemistry World