Monthly Archives: April 2013

Referential Gestures

Chart: 5WGraphics via Weird Science

Chart: 5WGraphics via Weird Science

Referential gestures sounds like something we might perform when paying obeisance to something, but the term actually describes what might be called ‘sign language’. For a gesture to be considered ‘referential’, it must have the following five attributes: it is directed towards an object; it is mechanically ineffective; it is directed towards a potential recipient; it receives a voluntary response and it demonstrates hallmarks of intentionality.

A study published in Nature Communications suggests that the practice of referential gesturing might not be limited to the species we currently acknowledge as performing ‘sign language’, namely, humans, other primates, and ravens. The study authors found evidence that some coral reef fish of different species – groupers and moray eels, Napoleon wrasses and octopuses, work together to optimize hunting. The fish see a prey fish hide in the coral, they signal to the eels or octopuses that a fish is hiding in a crevice, the eel or octopus reaches in and grabs the prey, which the hunters then share.

For me, this not only demonstrates that we have a lot to learn about the abilities of other species to communicate; it also shows that some animals are as good or better than humans at cross-species collaboration.

The Red Sea roving coralgrouper (Plectropomus pessuliferus marisburi), which can use "sign language" to hunt.  CREDIT: Klaus Jost via University of Michigan's Animal Diversity Web & LiveScience

The Red Sea roving coralgrouper (Plectropomus pessuliferus marisburi), which can use “sign language” to hunt.
CREDIT: Klaus Jost via University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web & LiveScience


Nature Communications study – Referential gestures in fish collaborative hunting by A.L. Vail, A. Manica, R. Bshary

LiveScience article on the study

Both Sides of the Fence


imagesThey look so simple to humans, and they are considered part of what constitutes the true settlement of a wild region: Wire fences. They outline territories and keep livestock within bounds. Cutting a fence is considered a crime.

Simple as they are, they also block ancient migratory routes. Small animals can go under or through – to large animals, wire fences are often insurmountable.

Case in point: Thousands of miles of ranch wire fencing that delineates the South American continent. British ecologists Katherine and David Lowrie are in the process of their 5000 mile run project, running the length of the continent. They noticed the effect of the fences on mammals and birds during the course of their run. The unbroken fencing is particularly dangerous for young animals unable to jump and follow the mature herd.

It seems like this would be a challenge that wouldn’t be overly difficult to resolve with a bit of attention and compromise.


The Ecologist article

Dandelion Lawn

Our lawn in its natural state Photo: PK Read

Our lawn in its natural state
Photo: PK Read

I usually wait until the last possible moment to mow the lawn for the first time in spring. People set different lawn priorities – mine has never been a lawn of putting-green pristine uniformity. Every year I swear I’ll dig up our little patch in autumn and give it a face-lift. Every spring and summer, when it bursts forth with all manner of flowering weeds, I think to myself how much I like the random gathering of seeds that have taken up residence here. Then I mow the lot of them into a single level of green carpet. Yesterday was the day, and this was the yellowest corner of the garden, pre-chop. Usually the lawn would have been a-buzz with bees on the prowl – this year I only found one bee and a couple of bumblebees.

Garden snail (Helix aspersa) Photo: PK Read

Garden snail (Helix aspersa)
Photo: PK Read

I found this fat snail, a petit gris, meandering across our flagstones. When we moved here, the garden was in a much wilder state and I used to find dozens of brown garden snails every year. I tried to get rid of them, but one day, my elderly French neighbor saw me pitching them over the hedge into the street and stopped me. “I’ll take them, bring them to me.” For what? First, a round of gorging and hermaphrodite mating in the compost, then a bout of purging in a snail house, and then…the dinner plate. Of course.

I never picked up the habit of eating this particular crop from our garden, but I did start putting the snails into our compost when I found them, and they seemed happy to stay in that corner of the world. I’ve noticed over the past couple of years, however, that there are far fewer snails than there used to be. The snail I found yesterday was the first I’ve seen all season. I let it continue on on its way after stopping for a photo.

On the off chance that you might be interested in cultivating and consuming your garden snails rather than simply eradicating them:

Eating Garden Snails blog

Chain of Sunshine Supply

Image: Loch Lomond Distillery

Image: Loch Lomond Distillery

It was George Bernard Shaw who called whisky ‘liquid sunshine’. Given the outdoorsy characteristics of two of the three key single malt raw materials, namely barley and water (the third being yeast), sunshine does actually figure in quite heavily. Both at the beginning, and as Shaw said, at the end.

A quarter of all barley produced in the UK comes from Scotland. There are winter and spring crops of barley, but only the low-nitrogen barley of the spring crop is used for whisky. Of the 1.5 million tonnes of barley produced in Scotland in 2011, over half went into the distilling process. Barley varieties are the subject of research and optimization: In 1965, a new kind of barley called Golden Promise replaced older, less tasty varieties. Since then, the advantages of Golden Promise have been augmented by new types that offer higher yields, like Optic and Chariot. As in most products, the fewer the ingredients, the more important the quality of each ingredient will be.

The production chain for Scotch whisky, from field and stream to bottle, is almost uniquely Scottish, and local efforts aim to keep that chain unbroken from beginning to end. When the demand for malting barley is low, Scottish farmers look to other crops (including other distilling crops, like wheat). When the demand is high, more barley is planted. The summer rains of 2012 prompted a rare year of importation when the local barley crop had a lower-than-expected yield. The imports came mostly from the northern UK, with a smidgen from Denmark.

I wonder if, when this whisky comes to market in eleven years, anyone will comment on the slightly different taste due to the unusual south-of-the-border and Danish barley content? Note it for discussion in your tasting calendars for 2024, please.

And here, in anticipation of the 2024 Scotch tasting and in honor of Mr. Shaw’s description of whisky, a slightly different version of You Are My Sunshine:



Pollinator Decline

The Harvard monolithic bee Photo: Harvard Microrobotics Lab

The Harvard monolithic bee
Photo: Harvard Microrobotics Lab

The Harvard Microbiotics Lab is working on tiny robotic insects for a number of applications, among them: pollination. I can understand why, considering how important pollinating insects are for the environment and the human food supply. Most of the news tends to focus on the decline of the crucial honeybee population around the world, but a recent study has shown that honeybees are not the only threatened pollinators.

An international team of researchers investigated the issues related to pollinator decline. Pollinator insects, including bees, enable the reproduction of 75% of crop species, and over 90% of wild flowering plants. The annual economic value of these insects is in the hundreds of billions.

From a Summit County Citizen’s Voice article on the study :

“The review, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment  concluded that:

  • Pollinator populations are declining in many regions, threatening human food supplies and ecosystem functions
  • A complex interplay between pressures (e.g. lack of food sources, diseases, and pesticides) and biological processes (e.g. species dispersal and interactions) at a range of scales (from genes to ecosystems) underpins the general decline in insect-pollinator populations
  • Current options to alleviate the pressure on pollinators include establishment of effective habitat networks, broadening of pesticide risk assessments, and the development and introduction of innovative disease therapies.

“Pollinators are the unsung heroes of the insect world and ensure our crops are properly pollinated so we have a secure supply of nutritious food in our shops,” said co-author Professor Simon Potts, with the University of Reading. “The costs of taking action now to tackle the multiple threats to pollinators is much smaller than the long-term costs to our food security and ecosystem stability. Failure by governments to take decisive steps now only sets us up for bigger problems in the future.””

Insect pollinators include bees, bumblebees, moths, butterflies, gnats and beetles. Their populations can be supported, even in urban environments. From the Pollinator Partnership site:

  • Cultivate native plans, especially those that provide nectar and larval food for pollinators – Free Ecoregional (US) Pollinator Planting Guides
  • Supply salt or mineral licks for butterflies and water for all wildlife
  • Reduce pesticide use
  • Substitute flower beds for lawns

There have been many recent discoveries on previously unimagined levels of interaction between plants and pollinators, from caffeine in nectar to floral electrical charges that entice bees. Interactions are variable, subtle and so much still remains outside our realm of knowledge.

While it’s comforting to know that we can invent mechanical pollinator drones in case of need, it’s still not a bad idea to try and help the biological types survive. So go on: Plant a windowbox, put out a little dish of water, and hands off the pesticide.

Syrphid fly Photo: Eugene Reimer via

Syrphid fly, a pollinator which in larval stages is considered a bio-control for aphids and other insect pests
Photo: Eugene Reimer via


Harvard Microbiotics Lab website

Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment website

Insect Pollinators Initiative of the Natural Environment Research Council (UK) website

Pollinator Partnership, a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of pollinator health, and an excellent resource for those wishing to get involved.

Elvers In Hand

A handful of elvers Photo: AP via Portland Press

A handful of elvers
Photo: AP via Portland Press

Predictably, now that elver season is well underway, the poaching has begun and the first fines for illegal fishing have been issued. With prices for a pound of live young eel expected to rise to $3000 over the next week or so, it’s no surprise that poaching fines are simply the cost of doing business.  One man was caught with 41 pounds of live elvers, with an estimated value of $61,000.

A group of fisherman licensed to fish elvers have formed an advocacy group to protect the elvers and American eel from overfishing, but also from potential classification as an endangered and off-limit species. The Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association has proposed a ban on the fishing of eels in more adult stages to allow for more breeding potential, information that will undoubtedly upset recreational eel fishermen. Other sustainable management techniques, such as leaving the middle third of rivers net-free so more elvers can travel upstream, or laying in 24-hours pauses, are already practiced by licensed fishers.

To me, the first step would seem to be the one that is long overdue and which is the same step as always when it comes to wild resources: Figure out just what the actual status of the American eel population might be. We only seem to become truly interested in establishing baseline information once a given population draws our attention, and it’s been no different with the American eel.

Sun Journal article on elver poaching gangs

Lincoln County News article and Bangor Daily News article on the Maine Elver Fishermen’s Association

Previous elver posts here and here

Corridors, Open & Closed

Koala in Vittoria State Forest, New South Wales Photo: © NSW WIRES via Treehugger

Koala in Vittoria State Forest, New South Wales
Photo: © NSW WIRES via Treehugger

Here’s a sad picture I found today (at, a young male koala sitting atop the remnants of a forest. As someone helpfully commented on the article, the koala had been relocated (along with the rest of the koala population of the area) to a new home prior to the begin of an approved logging operation, but was apparently trying to find its way from its new home to its old home via a broader ‘home range’. The logged area, a commercial pine forest, had formed a link between two preserved native forest areas. This koala, along with a few others that were found, were relocated again.

Commercial forests serve as crucial habitat links, but to be effective, they can’t be clearcut. I imagine that by the time this particular pine forest regrows, the ingrained link between the two habitat homes may have faded in koala memory.

Another corridor area that had a different fate was the Northeast Ecological Corridor in Puerto Rico, a newly-established link between several protected areas. The Corridor will mainly protect the area from development in the form of megaresorts, which would cut off various preserved areas from one another. Established as the result of a grassroots effort, there are numerous species of flora and fauna which will hopefully profit, but probably the most mediagenic is the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), which uses the area as a breeding ground.

Northeast Ecological Corridor and its beaches, located between the municipalities of Luquillo and Fajardo in Puerto Rico via Wikipedia

Northeast Ecological Corridor and its beaches, located between the municipalities of Luquillo and Fajardo in Puerto Rico via Wikipedia

This corridor is a contentious subject due to the commercial interests in land development, so it will bear watching over the years to see just how successful and/or protected this designated area remains.

More: Puerto Rico corridor article  and koala article

Northeast Ecological Corridor – Sierra Club article and Wikipedia page

Ancient Laboratory

Moray agricultural site Image:

Moray agricultural site

I’m adding this destination to the places I’d like to visit around the world: The Incan ruins of what are considered to be an experimental laboratory for agriculture at the Moray site in the Cusco region of Peru. The terraced depressions and complex irrigation systems are thought to have been used to simulate different environmental conditions on a variety of plants. One article I read on the site notes that the early Incans worked with a much wider variety of productive plants than are used in modern Peru, but I imagine this is more due to monoculture techniques and commercial considerations rather than a straightforward decline in available varieties.

The formations are approximately 150 m (490 ft.) at their deepest, the size of a 50-story building, and the temperature difference between the lowest and highest steps can be up to 15ºC (59ºF).

It’s been suggested that the site was used to simulate a range of environments across the ancient Incan empire.


Rediscover Machu Picchu article

Happiness Plunge post


Frozen Toes Unfrozen

Sun through the fog on Drake's Beach, Caliorrnia Photo: PK Read

Sun through the fog on Drake’s Beach, Caliorrnia
Photo: PK Read

We got up early to go for a walk on Drake’s Beach on the Point Reyes Peninsula in California. The parking lot was empty when we arrived, and we should have known to keep our shoes on when the only people we saw, a ranger and a volunteer, were dressed from head to toe in toasty clothing. No matter, we took off our shoes so we could dip our own toes in the Pacific Ocean. By the time we’d walked for half an hour, the toes didn’t matter – we couldn’t feel them anymore, because it was so cold. Beautiful, though.

Birds on Drake's Beach at low tide Photo: PK Read

Birds on Drake’s Beach at low tide
Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

By the time we got back to the car, the sun had broken through, we could feel our toes again, and I was happy, but ready to get back to the warmth of our cabin.

Goofy pebble at low tide Photo: PK Read

Smiling antlered pebble at low tide
Photo: PK Read

Monkey Shoulder


072910_monkey_shoulder_whiskey_1We went into the Bounty Hunter Wine Bar and Smokin’ BBQ, a Napa bar focused on local California wine and beers. After a plate of yummy sliders and some fine 2012 Paradigm Rosé of Merlot by Heidi Barrett, I decided it was time to fight jet lag with a cleansing shot of whisky. For some reason, I’d been reading the name Monkey Shoulder for the two days prior to this visit, so I wanted to try some. The friendly barkeep apologized – that was one blended they just didn’t have, although she’d been hankering to try some herself. We talked about it a little – how Monkey Shoulder was supposed to be an interesting blended whisky, with a nifty bottle, very much in demand. Trendy, even. How we both preferred single malts but really wanted to broaden our horizons. Etc. And as I was scanning their bottles, what did I spy on the topmost shelf, unopened and smiling down? Why, a new bottle of Monkey Shoulder, billed as the world’s first Triple Malt Whisky. They’d just started serving it that week, and the barkeep hadn’t been on duty.

And while I can’t say Monkey Shoulder will make me change my mind and switch to blended whiskies all the time, it was a pleasant, layered experience that combined a bit of caramel, a sweet roundness without much bite, and a nice long taste on the tongue.

Apparently, ‘monnkeyshoulder‘ is the term for a repetitive stress injury that the men who turned barley grain by hand, using shovels, used to suffer. I can say with certainty that drinking Monkey Shoulder, no matter the origin of the name, does not hurt a bit.



The Bounty Hunter website

Monkey Shoulder website