Monthly Archives: February 2014

Glimmering Jewels

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Glimmering Jewels
A sea sapphire in motion. Image via Sploid

A sea sapphire in motion.
Image via Sploid

A tiny iridescent copepod (Sapphirina copepod) has been making its way around the web lately in a lovely now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t fashion not unlike its appearance in the natural habitat. Invisible unless hit at the right angle by light, they are described by those who have seen them as making the water look like its been scattered with jewels. Researcher RR Helm, who wrote a wonderful piece on these creatures in Deep Sea News, has dubbed them ‘sea sapphires’.

A lot of the time I feel like I’m looking out over vast expanses of space where the news is all pretty much the same, most of it not good, and then there’s a flicker, or maybe two, of something that is worth celebrating. And not just RR Helm‘s lovely writing.

For example, there’s good news on one of my pet topics, the American eel: The annual season for harvesting valuable eel young, the elvers, will soon be upon us.

American eel (Anguilla rostro.) Image: Sidhat

American eel (Anguilla rostro.)
Image: Sidhat

Concern about steep declines in the American eel population has prompted the The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to issue strict catch limits being placed on the elver harvest this year, with the overall permitted catch down 35% from last year, when there were no restrictions.

Tiny jewel copepods from Panama Photo: Arthur Anker/Flickr

Tiny jewel copepods from Panama
Photo: Arthur Anker/Flickr

I won’t go on at length about the complex role of the American eel in the Atlantic ecosystem, how the debate over elver harvesting reflects a number of state vs. tribal conservation conflicts, nor about how little is known about the eel and the status of its population, nor how these juvenile eels are caught to be sold halfway around the world because Asian eel stocks are utterly depleted.

The fact is, a catch quota is a good start to slowing down the overfishing of these animals while their actual status is still under examination.

And so there’s a flash of color, of positive news, in the sea. The hope that if I keep watching, I’ll always see more.

Maybe even an entire sea of jewelled water.

ROV frame grab of the sparkling layer of Sapphirina copepods at about 40 meters (130 feet).  Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)

ROV frame grab of the sparkling layer of Sapphirina copepods at about 40 meters (130 feet).
Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)

View from Above

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17th century celestial map by Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit

17th century celestial map by Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit

We’re always looking for reasons, causality, connections, in life and in science. There’s an ongoing project that might be an invaluable tool in discovering unexpected interconnectivity on the planet’s surface.

The ICARUS Initiative (“International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space”) is a scientific collaboration working towards placing a remote sensory system on the International Space Station to track tagged animals around the globe.

The Icarus team is developing tag sensors that can be placed on any kind of animal, from zebras to butterflies, and which will relay the animals’ movements to the ISS antenna for distribution and analysis.

Movebank map. Click on the image for an interactive view, which can be filtered by animal identifiers.

Movebank map.
The data will be collected and stored with Movebank.
Click on the image for an interactive view, which can be filtered by animal identifiers.

By allowing scientists combine data sets from separate studies in new ways, including meteorological and geological data, entirely new questions can be proposed and ideas tested.

Suggested uses include tracking the spread of disease, gaining insight into migration, ecological patterns and better understanding of evolutionary processes.

And then there’s the example given by Dr. Martin Wikelski, head of the ICARUS Initiative and Director at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology: By observing the movement of goats on Italy’s Mount Etna, volcanic eruptions can be predicted up to six hours in advance.

Huichol cross ('God's eye'). The four points represent the eternal processes of earth, fire, air and water. Colors carry symbolic meanings, as well.  Source: Geo-Mexico

Huichol cross (‘God’s eye’). The four points represent the eternal processes of earth, fire, air and water. Colors carry symbolic meanings, as well.
Source: Geo-Mexico

When I was a kid growing up in California, it was common to pass the pre-Internet, pre-digital time of day by making God’s eyes, stick and yarn creations that symbolize the power to see and understand the unknown. God’s eye weavings are mostly decorative now, but the basic colors represent various aspects of life. Weaving together a God’s eye can be a way of meditating on how the various strands of life work together in unseen ways.

There isn’t really a scientific equivalent to the God’s eye, but projects like the Icarus Initiative might just be a start.

The Biology Thing

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It’s no secret that the collective imagination has a deep-rooted fear of wolves. Our legends and fairy tales are populated with powerful wolves getting up to all manner of naughtiness, from pretending to be something they aren’t (whether dressed as Grandmother or sheep), to reflecting our animal sides in the form of werewolves, to simply eating things we’d rather they didn’t.

Gray wolf Image: Womaneko/Deviantart

Gray wolf
Image: Womaneko/Deviantart

The gray wolf was hunted to near extinction in the United States, and was then listed as protected under the Endangered Species Act. It’s been making a steady comeback over the years, although by comparison to the real success stories of the ESA, the wolf is nowhere near truly recovered as a species. It’s out of the ICU, but still stuck on life support.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) moved to delist the gray wolf on a federal level in 2013 and turn wolf management over to the state level. It has already been allowed to be delisted in several individual states, and the effect on the wolf population through hunting and trapping has been devastating. Years of conservation work has been undone.

The room to make comments on the USFWS proposal, which had been closed, has now been reopened due to an outcry among conservationists that the USFWS had not used the best available science to reach their delisting recommendation. Comments can now be made here until March 27.

Group of gray wolves (Canus lupus)

Group of gray wolves (Canus lupus)

According to Lance Richardson of Slate, the premature delisting of the gray wolf is due to a confluence of a certain complacency about the protected status of the wolf together with “the residual anger towards wolves in the rural West, where influential ranchers have long fought wolves for depredating livestock. Merge that in with the whole Tea Party fervor against [the federal] government, and what you end up with in the state legislatures is this race to the bottom to see who can be more anti-wolf. The biology of the thing gets thrown right out the window.”

Well, the biology. Apex predators play such an important role in ecosystems, above and beyond controlling the population of prey animals. I’m including a concise summary (four minutes long) of just how important wolves have been to the recovery of the Yellowstone Park ecosystem here:

But the ‘biology of the thing’ is also what allows us to keep fearing wolves even if, since we’ve the means to outrun, outgun and outmaneuver them, they’ve had more to fear from us than we’ve had to fear from them. Big predators have been scaring us for millennia, and it appears that all the scientific understanding in the world can’t do away with that in just a couple of generations.

Unfortunately, if the wolf is delisted by the USFWS, the object of our fear may end up truly being only a creature of fairy tales.

Please take a moment to visit Eripe Lupus, a site that is promoting Twitter storm today in support of comments for the USFWS proposal, to learn more.

From: Old French Fairy Tales by  Comtesse de Ségur / Gutenberg.org

From: Old French Fairy Tales by Comtesse de Ségur / Gutenberg.org

Sessile Mobility

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Sucker-footed bat Source: Guardian Live

Sucker-footed bat
Source: Guardian Live

A study on sucker-footed bats (Myzopoda aurita), published in PLOS One, discusses bat fossils found in Egypt’s Western Desert. This might be less worthy of examination if the fossils weren’t almost identical with existing bats now found only on Madagascar. These bats have sessile, or immovable, pads for feet.

Based on their research, study authors were able to reach a couple of interesting conclusions based on these tiny, ancient bat jaws. For one thing, the fossils provide evidence of a bat lineage that is 37 million years older than previously assumed.

Animated illustration of the break-up of Gondwana into present-day continents. Based on the bat fossils found, it's assumed that bats which originated in Africa, migrated into Australia, and were able to cross Antarctica into what is now South America. Source: Churchilll Science

Animated illustration of the break-up of Gondwana into present-day continents. Based on the bat fossils found, it’s assumed that bats which originated in Africa, migrated into Australia, and were able to cross Antarctica into what is now South America.
Source: Churchilll Science

This finding, in turn, provides evidence of when and how continental drift took place – the bats were apparently able to cross between continents while the land masses were either still attached, or while there were still dry land bridges between them. Continental drift contributed to the diversification of the bat family by separating and isolating their various groups. The sucker-footed bat was likely once more widespread.

Photo: Merlin D. Tuttle / Bat Conservation International

Photo: Merlin D. Tuttle / Bat Conservation International

In any case, the modern bat with the feet of a tree frog and that lives on Madagascar is the real reason I wanted to post this today. Because they are the only kind of bat that doesn’t hang upside, they live in palm fronds, they have ears that look like their palm frond homes, and they hang on to the slippery surface of leaves using feet that look like something from a child’s drawing.

Group of bats inside a palm leaf. Source: Arkive

Group of bats inside a palm leaf.
Source: Arkive

Warm Caprice

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Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I was out running yesterday evening, and as I entered the last kilometer, I was brought up short by the sunset clouds reflected in a puddle. The air was crisp, but not winterly. It snowed on the mountain tops last week, but only briefly, leaving a sharp white line between the elevation where winter still lives above 800 m (2600 feet) and where we live in unseasonable warmth at 470 m (1540 feet).

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

There was the scent of early green on the dusk air, the sound of water running everywhere, and the official beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere is still a month away. On a hike last week I came across this bush bursting into full bloom, lambs frolicking, the air filled with birdsong, even as France and Switzerland are still in the midst annual ‘winter’ school holidays.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I’m debating whether to do some garden work. Sure, the fruit trees need pruning and this is the time to do that work. But it’s the other stuff – the perennial flowers that are already budding, the spring bulbs that are already handspan high.

Do I uncover the beds, untie the bundled bushes, get them ready for an early spring, only risk its capricious retreat?

Negating Seasonality

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The future, according to Hildebrand's Chocolates in 1900. Roofed cities. Source: PaleoFuture

The future, according to Hildebrand’s Chocolates in 1900.
Roofed cities.
Source: PaleoFuture

When we look into the future, it’s always the same stuff that catches our fancy. Transportation, climate control, surmounting daily inconvenience. The postcards here show a light-hearted vision of life in the year 2000, as illustrated on chocolate boxes circa 1900.

I’ve noticed, however, that older ‘future-visions’ from this era rarely include farming and food supply, maybe because basics of the food infrastructure either didn’t seem like something that needed to change, or it seemed like something unchanging. With the exception of mechanization, farming has been a life constant since human civilization began.

French Victorian postcard. The caption reads: In the year 2000 - the busy farmer. Image: Jean Marc Cote

French Victorian postcard. The caption reads:
In the year 2000 – the busy farmer.
Image: Jean Marc Cote

Our current visions of the future almost always involve the increasingly knotty issue of food production and distribution. Where to grow, how to grow, the shortest distance between growers and consumers. Every conceivable urban space is imagined covered in agriculture, from building walls and roofs to the tops of buses.

A group of entrepreneurial urban farmers have descended into the depths of London’s old WWII bunker system to test out underground farming. Using LED lights and hydroponic growing beds, the new Zero Carbon Food project is intended to create a city farm that is weather-independent, organic and carbon-neutral.

The bunker extends over 2.5 ha (6 acres) and was originally a bomb shelter, a series of tunnels that could hold up to 8000 London residents. For the time being, the farming project is only using a small corner of the bunker, but the group hopes to expand. The temperature can be maintained at 20 C° (68 F°)  for ideal growing, there are no pests (yet), and the water that is usually pumped out of the tunnels could be used to irrigate the farm. The creators say that farming underground negates seasonality, providing an environment that can be constantly controlled.

The underground test farm, lit by LED lights. Source: Zero Carbon Food

The underground test farm, lit by LED lights.
Source: Zero Carbon Food

An interesting notion, putting farms underground. Futuristic scenarios always seem to put the humans either underground, on water or in outer space once Earth’s surface becomes too volatile for our fragile needs. If we can envision farms on space stations, then certainly a London bunker farm seems entirely plausible.

The future, according to Hildebrand's Chocolates in 1900. Vacationing at the North Pole. This one is seeming less far-fetched these days. Source: PaleoFuture

The future, according to Hildebrand’s Chocolates in 1900.
Vacationing at the North Pole. This one is seeming less far-fetched these days.
Source: PaleoFuture

Diatom Design

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Photograph of diatoms collected in Russia and arranged on a microscope slide in 1952 by A.L. Brigger. Source: CAS

Photograph of diatoms collected in Russia and arranged on a microscope slide in 1952 by A.L. Brigger.
Source: CAS

Diatoms are a major group of algae. The word ‘diatom’ means to be ‘cut in two’, and certainly, these algae do look like perfect slices of something larger.

From the Tree of Life web project (David G. Mann):

The diatoms are one of the largest and ecologically most significant groups of organisms on Earth. They are also one of the easiest to recognize, because of their unique cell structure, silicified cell wall and life cycle. They occur almost everywhere that is adequately lit (because most species need light for photosynthesis) and wet – in oceans, lakes and rivers; marshes, fens and bogs; damp moss and rock faces; even on the feathers of some diving birds.

Diatoms probably account for as much as 20% of global photosynthetic fixation of carbon, which is more than all the world’s tropical rainforests.

Basically, diatoms live in glass boxes. The silica shell of the diatom is called the ‘frustule’ and is made of two halves, each in turn composed of several different pieces.

Selections from Ernst Haeckel's 1904 Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature), showing pennate (left) and centric (right) frustules. Source: Wikipedia

Selections from Ernst Haeckel’s 1904 Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature), showing pennate (left) and centric (right) frustules.
Source: Wikipedia

The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco has a collection of artwork, created using diatoms. Created on slides, these pieces are miniature magnificence.

They are beautiful in and of themselves, little works of natural splendor.

Photograph of fossil diatoms collected in Pt. Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California, and arranged on a microscope slide in 1968 by A.L. Brigger. Source: CAS

Photograph of fossil diatoms collected in Pt. Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California, and arranged on a microscope slide in 1968 by A.L. Brigger.
Source: CAS

I’m always looking for work that is at an intersection between the natural world, science and art. These tiny kaleidoscopic works by scientist artists patiently using diatoms as their medium certainly qualify.

Photograph of diatoms arranged on a microscope slide by W.M. Grant. Source: CAS

Photograph of diatoms arranged on a microscope slide by W.M. Grant.
Source: CAS

See more here.

Old Water Ways

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Satellite images of California. Source: NOAA

Satellite images of California.
Source: NOAA/Washington Post

These satellite images show winter snow levels in California in early 2013, when the state was already experiencing drought conditions, and in 2014, when the state is officially in the worst drought on record. Much of the annual fresh water in the state is the result of snow melt.

California is no stranger to the challenges of access to fresh water. The state was practically built on water conflict – too little in the south, enough in the north (or at least, until recently). Anyone who grew up there, as I did, knows about water scarcity – or at least they should, since it is one of California’s defining characteristics.

Now, with several counties and communities on the brink of running completely dry, drastic action is being called for. Desalination technology, an expensive proposition, is looking like the more affordable alternative to parched earth.

But none of this is new. People have known for decades which way the river flows. In the midst of this, there are California farmers using water imported from the Colorado River to grow hay for export to China, a place that has far outpaced its own water resources.

Based on data from the MODIS instrument aboard both the Terra and Aqua satellites, this map contrasts plant health from Jan. 17 to Feb. 1, 2014, against average conditions for the same period over the past decade. Source: NASA Earth Observatory / Discovery

Based on data from the MODIS instrument aboard both the Terra and Aqua satellites, this map contrasts plant health from Jan. 17 to Feb. 1, 2014, against average conditions for the same period over the past decade.
Source: NASA Earth Observatory / Discover Magazine

Even with some of the most progressive environmental laws in the United States, water was always going to be the fly in the ointment for further expansion in the state. Climate change hasn’t helped matters.

Back in 1977, California went through a long drought, its worst before the current dry spell. I remember it well. The normally lush green hills of winter were the color of straw. By spring, the fire season had begun, months early. I used to drive by a local Marin County water resource, the Nicasio Reservoir. Usually it was full of glittering blue water, but by 1978 it was all cracked soil.

There was an old road that once ran through what is now the bottom of the reservoir. It was lost with the building in 1961 of the Seeger dam, a past path submerged beneath the sweet vision of plentiful water that dams and wet years always bring. The drought of 1977-79 – and the current drought – have exposed it again, a defunct road with neither a beginning nor an end.

Nicasio Reservoir, California. December 2013. Photo: Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal

Nicasio Reservoir, California. December 2013.
Photo: Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal

 

 

Playing Favorites

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red-scale-endangered-rwpAs with anything else, there tend to be trends and favorites when it comes to endangered animal species. The polar bear, the orang-utan, the rhinoceros, the tiger, the lion are the iconic poster animals of conservation. The animals that draw attention, affection, and donations. We like to identify with our favorites, and like to think that our favorite animal says something about who we are as individuals.

They are often the alpha creatures of their ecosystems, the main hunters or the largest animals. Maybe it’s in human nature to associate ourselves with the big guys. And from the standpoint of conservation, it’s not the worst approach. Saving the big guys, by definition, means trying to save all the other elements that support their survival. The ecosystems, the prey, and territory.

And then there are the little guys. The ones that fill a niche between smallest and largest, or look like any number of other, similar animals, or are too little known to achieve star conservation status.

These forgotten species come from all corners of the animal world, from snails to clams to sloths to owls. Or, until recently, the pangolin.

What prompted me to write this today, however, was the small news item that a famous pop singer, Lady Gaga, was bitten by a slow loris that had been brought in as a prop for her music video, which was being shot in Los Angeles.

Loris faces Source: Wikipedia / Lydekker, R. (1904)

Loris faces
Source: Wikipedia / Lydekker, R. (1904)

 There was another recent slow loris story when Rihanna had her photo taken with a captive loris in Phuket, Thailand, last year. I’m pretty sure neither of them knew that the slow loris population is rapidly decreasing, and that whoever held a slow loris up next to them had directly contributed to that decline.

All eight species of the slow loris (genus Nycticebus) are currently listed as vulnerable or endangered, due to their popularity in the pet trade, or to their supposed medicinal values. The slow loris is a small primate that doesn’t travel well, it doesn’t breed well in captivity, and it doesn’t make a good pet. I won’t even go into the unspeakable treatment undergone by the slow loris to make it ‘suitable’ for handling. But it has those adorable eyes.

The total number of animal species on Earth is estimated at 8.7 million.  Source: National Geographic / IUCN

The total number of animal species on Earth is estimated at 8.7 million.
Source: National Geographic / IUCN

I suppose, and hope, that the slow loris will win its conservation advocates, perhaps even aided by these stories, because it is particularly cute and looks more like a toy than like a real animal. With any luck, these stories won’t make more people head out to the markets where the slow loris is sold openly, in spite of its status and the ban in all countries on selling it or any of its parts.

I suspect the multitude of endangered arthropods and molluscs won’t have it as easy. The endangered list grows longer by the day, even as there are efforts in the United States to roll back the Endangered Species Act.

It requires a widening of the gaze to stop playing favorites, changing our habits, and an acknowledgement that not all creatures are simply there for our amusement and consumption.

Spawn Skimming

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Coral spawning, Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Tusa Dive / Australian Geographic

Coral spawning, Great Barrier Reef.
Photo: Tusa Dive / Australian Geographic

Coral reefs spawn beneath a springtime full moon, sending up a synchronized release of countless coral eggs and sperm to mingle in the sea, sometimes across great distances. These form planulae, coral larvae, which first float to the water’s surface, then swim back down to the reef or seabed, and form new coral.

And yet, what if they don’t? What if some coral reefs are too damaged to effectively reproduce?

Spawning mountainous star coral off Grand Cayman Island. Photo: Alex Mustard

Spawning mountainous star coral off Grand Cayman Island.
Photo: Alex Mustard

A project was launched last year in Australia to apply the knowledge gained from human fertilization to coral reproduction. Researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science retrieved reproductive material during the spawning season of the Great Barrier Reef in order to cryogenically freeze it far from the ocean’s shores in the Western Plains Zoo, in the New South Wales outback.

The goal is to be able to seed out endangered coral reefs in the future, perhaps even hundreds of years from now.

The project reminds me a bit of the Svalbard global seed vault, a human undertaking to harvest as much of the world’s valuable genetic material as possible, even as genetic diversity is rapidly dwindling.

Will it work? No one knows yet. Is it worth trying? I think the answer has to be yes, absolutely, even as we need to work harder against the various human-caused factors that are destroying the world’s largest single structure made by living beings in the first place.

A lovely video, Coral Sea Dreaming, shows the coral reef spawning process: