Tag Archives: Nature

Dolphins Eavesdrop on Each Other to Avoid Awkward Run-Ins

WIRED

The new finding underscores the complexity of marine mammals’ social life and cognition. It may also help save the snoopy cetaceans.

YOU’D THINK IT would be easier to spy on a Risso’s dolphin. The species frequents nearly every coast in the world. Their bulging heads and streaky gray and white patterning make them some of the most recognizable creatures in the ocean. And as with other cetaceans, they travel in groups and constantly chitchat: Clicks, buzzes, and whistles help them make sense of their underwater existence. Their social world is a sonic one.

“They’re a very vocal species,” says Charlotte Curé, a bioacoustics expert. “Sound is very important for them.”

Read the full story in WIRED

The Race to Put Silk in Nearly Everything

WIRED

The fiber has been considered a “miracle material” for anything from body parts to food. Has the revolution finally arrived?

ALI ALWATTARI STILL remembers the day he met the goats. It was mid-May, 19 years ago, in Quebec. The sun was lighting up the old maple sugar farm—and small huts where the goats were living. Alwattari, a materials scientist, had spent his career tinkering with chemistry equipment for Procter & Gamble, developing fibers used in Pampers and Swiffers. But the startup Nexia Biotechnologies was aiming to use an entirely different kind of polymer producer—and it was gazing back at him with its rectangular pupils.

Read the full story in WIRED

The Coelacanth May Live for a Century. That’s Not Great News

WIRED

Scale markings reveal that this weird fish’s lifespan is double what scientists first estimated. That also means they’re closer to extinction than we thought.

AFRICAN COELACANTHS ARE very old. Fossil evidence dates their genesis to around 400 million years ago, and scientists thought they were extinct until 1938, when museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer noticed a live one in a fisher’s net.

Found off the southeastern coast of Africa, coelacanths also live a long time—scientists have suspected about 50 years. But proving that lifespan has been tough. (Coelacanths are endangered and accustomed to deep waters, so scientists can’t just stick their babies in a tank and start a timer.) Now a French research team examining their scales with polarized light has determined that they can likely live much, much longer. “We were taken aback,” says Bruno Ernande, a marine ecologist who led the study. The new estimated lifespan, he says, “was almost a century.”

Read the full story in WIRED

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