Category Archives: Natural Sciences

Plunging

Oh, one more from the links pile: a gorgeously illustrated post by Scott K. Johnson about the geology of California’s Sierra Nevada. Is the mountain range rising or falling? We still don’t really know.

That might disappoint people who just want a simple answer, but messy fields of research are interesting fields of research. As Greg Stock [geologist for Yosemite National Park] described it, “Part of what’s been fun about being involved in this issue of Sierra uplift, for a couple of decades now, is that every so often—actually pretty often—a paper will come out that really challenges a lot of what we thought we had accepted before. Even though I know it’s a little frustrating for our interpreter rangers here [at Yosemite], who kind of want a nice clean story to tell the public, I have to tell them—no, no, this is great, because this is the way science works. And it’s a great thing to be involved in a field of study that is this turbulent.”

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Chew on this, Emily

Ed Yong watches John Hutchinson and his team dissect a Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis), our 3-meter long monitor lizard.

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VNPS Winter Workshop 2015

A really strong workshop, with four good speakers, hosted by Virginia Native Plant Society at the University of Richmond. A theme emerged: interactions of plants with other organisms in the landscape, be they herbivorous White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) (as discussed by Henry Wilbur, emeritus at the University of Virginia), or pollinating Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glauca), who pick up pollen from Flame Azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum) on their wings (only the second such association known, as discovered by Mary Jane Epps, postdoc at North Carolina State University [her work will soon be published]), or the unexpected linkage (through soil pH) of invasive Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and the tiny arthopods known as springtails (Collembola), brought to us by Anne Alerding of Virginia Military Institute.

For me, the most interesting talk (and most challenging to follow along with) was Karen Barnard-Kubow‘s explication of her dissertation research on the genetics of American Bellflower (Campanulastrum americanum). This species has a range from the Virginia Coastal Plain to the breadbasket Midwest. Barnard-Kubow’s work has identified distinct clades: one in the East, one or two in the Appalachian Mountains, and one in the Midwest. Cross-breeding experiments on these populations suggests that the plant might be in the process of speciation. Her work also indicates that genetic material in the plant’s chloroplasts is sometimes inherited from the male parent, rather than strictly from the female, as received wisdom has it.

Posted in Botany, Natural Sciences | Comments Off on VNPS Winter Workshop 2015

Some links: 71

Catching up on a lot of bookmarks, so this will be a bit of a link dump.

  • Reduced-meat or meatless diets (Mediterranean, pescetarian, vegetarian) are both better for your health and more sustainable for the environment, as David Tilman and Michael Clark find in a recent paper, and as Elke Stehfest summarizes.
  • I am loving Nature‘s new sharing tools. Susannah Locke explains the journal’s move toward more open access.
  • Emily Dreyfuss signed up to give Wikipedia six bucks a month.

    …Wikipedia is the best approximation of a complete account of knowledge we’ve ever seen.

    It’s also the most robust. The most easily accessed. And the safest. It exists on servers around the world so, unlike the library at Alexandria, it can’t be burned down.

    You should chip in, too. kottke.org

  • The Biodiversity Heritage Library has opened an online exhibit dedicated to women in science who began working before 1922. Some of my recent subjects are there, including Florence Merriam Bailey and Mabel Osgood Wright.
Posted in Agriculture, Food and Cooking, Health and Medicine, History, Natural Sciences, Philanthropy | Tagged | Comments Off on Some links: 71

Into the spotlight

Citizen science has an important role to play in research in a wide range of biological disciplines, as Caren B. Cooper et al. write in a recently-published paper in PLOS ONE:

… the quality of data collected by volunteers, on a project-by-project basis, has generally been found as reliable as the data collected by professionals in community-based research and contributory projects across a wide variety of subjects, including lady beetles, moths, wolves, trees, air pollution, light pollution, plants, pikas, invasive plants, and bees.

However, volunteer data collection is largely “invisible:” in the reports that Cooper et al. examined, citizen science participation was recognized in a paper’s acknowledgements section, if at all. The authors make the case that volunteer data collection should be more widely appreciated for its scientific value. Furthermore, as Cooper says in a supporting blog post by Hugh Powell, participants should self-identify as citizen scientists, not merely as, say, birders or volunteer water quality monitors.

“…people who have been doing a hobby for years have tons of expertise, and they can make a very real contribution.”

The research paper also reinforces the point that volunteer data collection can go where full-time professionals can’t, into spatiotemporal domains spanning decades and land masses. And often, data collected for one area of study can be repurposed to examine some other phenomenon, as we see with various phenology datasets being used to understand climate change.

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Five white tufts

lunchTIL, thanks to Arthur V. Evans’ recent Beetles of Eastern North America, that a Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica) has five white tufts along each side of the abdomen. You can just make them out in this image I snapped a couple of summers ago at Black Hill of a Wheel Bug (Arilus cristatus) munching on one of the beetles.

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Secondary factors

Robert W. R. Parker and Peter H. Tyedmers present research results that indicate that energy consumption by fishing fleets has a significant greenhouse gas effect, perhaps even as important as the tropic level of the fish that’s caught. Fishing for small fish like mackerel and sardines is the least energy-intensive, while going after crustaceans like shrimp and lobster can be worse by a factor of 50, consuming nearly as much energy as raising terrestrial livestock. The disparity is even more pronounced in Europe, where crustaceans are scarcer. April Fulton interprets the results.

So why is all this fuel getting burned? As the fishing industry has evolved in the last century from throwing out a few lines over the local dock to industrialized operations, we’ve been able to fish in more parts of the ocean and freeze our catch right on the boats….

And the boats – not the packing plants or trucks transporting fish to the store — are where the bulk of the burn comes from, Parker says. The energy needed to get fish to the dock accounts for 60 to 90 percent of the fishing industry’s total energy use and emissions.

Posted in Climate Change, Energy Sources and Consumption, Natural Sciences | Comments Off on Secondary factors

Back to nature

Joshua J. Tewksbury et al. make the case for restoring natural history’s importance to answering questions of public health, food security, and biology as a whole. They see citizen science projects as an important means of working with big data that can’t be developed in the lab or in silico.

As evidence of natural history’s contribution to public health, they relate the anecdote of a simple means of blunting cholera epidemics: filtering drinking water through the cloth of human garments.

The discovery that Vibrio cholerae has free-living populations associated with copepods and other zooplankton (Colwell and Huq 1994) forms the foundation of model predictions of temporal and spatial changes in human cholera outbreaks, because these models are based on the dynamics of the zooplankton and phytoplankton on which they feed. With this natural history in hand, public health experts now use satellite sensors to monitor phytoplankton chlorophyll as an early-warning system for cholera outbreaks. The same discovery also explains why filtering polluted water through cloth is surprisingly effective in reducing exposure to cholera: although the cloth does not capture V. cholerae individually, it filters out the zooplankton to which most V. cholerae are attached (Huq et al. 1996).

And, in the area of natural history and recreation and conservation, the Federal Duck Stamp program gets a shout-out:

It is often the collective focus on natural history by hunters, fishers, wildlife watchers, and conservationists that allows consensus-based management of fish and game species. The waterfowl conservation movement in the United States serves as an example. This partnership was set in motion in the early twentieth century by observations of large-scale duck mortality caused by botulism brought on by invertebrate die-offs in wetlands and by lead poisoning in high-intensity hunting locations. In both cases, observations by hunters and bird watchers alerted managers to the issue. The initial focus on disease was fortunate, because it provided a common enemy, and, at least for botulism, the most effective management centered on the designation of federal and state bird refuge areas in wetlands (Bolen 2000). More generally, the many groups that came together to change state and federal policies around these issues led to the creation of powerful hunting and conservation groups. These collaborations also led to a hunting license fee structure that supports the more-than-500-unit federal wildlife refuge system in the United States. The success of waterfowl conservation efforts, and the hundreds of other species that they support, comes in large part from the diverse interest groups that recognized the importance of basic natural history in setting management and policy objectives and that created a stable funding stream to support the collection of that information.

Posted in Citizen Science, Habitat Conservation, Natural Sciences | Comments Off on Back to nature

Some links: 70

A roundup of conservation and natural history links:

  • A team at Towson University has launched a microsite and apps (for Android and iOS) for tracking the spread of the highly invasive Wavy-leaf Basketgrass (Oplismenus hirtellus ssp. undulatifolius).
  • Janet Fang summarizes a paper by Railsback and Johnson: simulations of coffee plantation activity indicate that 5% land coverage in trees maximizes coffee yields. The overstory of trees reduces the amount of space for coffee shrubs, but it invites birds, who forage on destructive borer beetles.
  • Nancy L. Brill describes the survey that a team of entomologists made of invertebrate life in 50 ordinary Raleigh, N.C. homes. The typical house was host to 100 different species of arthropod.

    Several families were found in more than 90 percent of homes: gall midges (Cecidomyiidae), ants (Formicidae) and carpet beetles (Dermestidae), along with cobweb spiders (Theridiidae), dark-winged fungus gnats (Sciaridae), cellar spiders (Pholcidae), scuttle flies (Phoridae) and book lice (Liposcelididae). Most houses also had dust mites (Pyroglyphidae).

    Pics and interpretation at Arthropods of Our Homes.

  • Tovar Cerulli argues that hunters and non-hunters have more in common than they might think.

    When clashes occur, it is all too easy to fall back on reductive notions about liberal, elite environmentalists and conservative, redneck hunters—the “greens” versus “the hook-and-bullet crowd.” With partisans on both sides invoking stereotypes and the media portraying hunters and environmentalists as opponents, it is tempting to imagine stark lines between the two.

    But such divisions are too simplistic.

  • An American Bird Conservancy post makes the connection between coffee farming… and hummingbirds!
  • The Birding Wire picked up my profile (for Friends of the Migratory Bird [Duck] Stamp) of Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
  • A leader in Nature highlights a paper by Joshua J. Tewksbury et al., which calls for a revival in the practice of natural history. (I have the Tewksbury paper bookmarked but haven’t read it yet.)

    As natural history has been de-emphasized, molecular biology, genetics, experimental biology and ecological modelling have flourished. But here is the problem: many of those fields ultimately rely on data and specimens from natural history….

    No biology student should get a diploma without at least a single course in identifying organisms and learning basic techniques for observing and recording data about them.

Leta

Posted in Agriculture, Biodiversity and Species Preservation, Birds and Birding, Citizen Science, Entomology, Habitat Conservation, Natural Sciences | Tagged | Comments Off on Some links: 70

Caveat lector

Jennifer Richler posts a good piece about what to expect from good popular science writing—and what to expect from yourself, the reader.

…when you finish reading a piece of science writing, you [should not] think, “‘Wow, I better make some serious changes to the way I eat/talk to my children/use my credit cards,’ but rather ‘Hmmm, I wonder how likely it is that this advice will turn out to be worth following.’” That curiosity should spur you to seek out good information continually. Over time, if the research appears to converge on a particular conclusion—the overwhelming consensus that there is no link between autism and vaccines, for example—then you should probably take it seriously.

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Flotsam

Tracy Mincer and Linda Amaral-Zettler report their findings from examining the small bits of plastic floating in the ocean. Using DNA analysis and electron microscopy, they found 50 species of microorganism living there, including a two-level trophic web.

As with many ecosystems, the bottom of the food chain was occupied by things that photosynthesise. These included unicellular algae called diatoms and dinoflagellates, and photosynthetic bacteria known as cyanobacteria. Usually, such creatures swim freely in the ocean. They therefore have to work hard to stay near the surface, where light for photosynthesis is abundant. By hitching a ride on a piece of floating plastic, they can stay near the surface without effort.

They also found evidence that suggests, but does not clearly establish, that bacteria are actively breaking down these energy-rich, petroleum-based substances.

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Nice work

Malcolm Kenton speaks for the beavers.

Beaver ponds attract and sustain other wetland-dependent creatures—such as turtles, herons, otters, ducks, and many types of birds and fish. They also do a good job of retaining stormwater runoff, allowing pollutants to settle out before the water moves downstream. Beavers have also become a unique cultural asset to cities and towns: they are local celebrities in places like the Bronx River in New York and Chicago’s Lincoln Park.

But perhaps the best-known “downtown beaver” success story comes from Martinez, California, a Bay Area city that rehabilitated part of the creek that runs through the center of town. When a beaver colony established itself there in 2008, the local government threatened to have them removed. But citizens’ organization Worth a Dam rose to the creatures’ defense, and the city has come to celebrate its newfound furry, feathered and finned denizens…

Posted in Golden State, Natural Sciences | Comments Off on Nice work

Some links: 65

Snow days are good for cleaning up the inbox of bookmarks.

  • Jeff Kelly shows how to build your own RFID data logger for $40 or less. It’s suitable for tracking birds at feeders, nest boxes, anywhere they hang out. The system works with any animal species large enough to carry an RFID tag; a battery at the logging station provides the power.
  • A new paper by G. Bohrer et al. describes an “exclusion zone” approach to siting wind turbines in an urban environment, as Roberta Kwok explains. The approach manages the tradeoff between maximizing the power produced by an array of turbines and minimizing its adverse effects on wildlife.
Posted in Energy Sources and Consumption, Natural Sciences, Tools and Technology | Tagged | Comments Off on Some links: 65

Stargrazing

Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring), discovered just this January, is expected to come within 100,000 km of Mars in October 2014, as O.M. reports (as Babbage). Perhaps even closer: the track of a comet is not as predictable as that of an asteroid, as the flying snowball ejects mass on its approach to the sun. Astronomers, professionals and amateurs alike, are looking at the possibility of an even closer approach, and an actual impact is not out of the question at this point.

Update: More reporting on the story, with a fabulous hed and subhed for us Cole Porter fans.

Posted in Music, Natural Sciences | Comments Off on Stargrazing

Some links: 64

Clearing the bookmarks for things that I had intended to post more fully about:

  • William J. Ripple and Robert L. Beschta report on trophic effects due to reintroduction of Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) into Yellowstone National Park. Some herbivore species are down, but aspens, cottonwoods, and willows are up. And, perhaps surprisingly, species that depend on woody plants like beavers are up, too.
  • The key to Broadway success might be in assembling a creative team with a mix of old hands and newcomers, suggests research by Guimerà et al. and summarized by Matt Golosinski for Northwestern’s KelloggInsight. The optimal number of team members has remained constant at seven since about 1930.
  • Vi Hart’s “Doodling in Math Class” videos (independent, pre-Khan Academy) are smart and delightful. Perhaps the centerpiece is her three-part demystification of the Fibonacci sequence.

    I am as far as possible from the only two other leaves in the universe!

  • Related: Alexander Mitsos and Corey Noone report that the optimal arrangement of mirrors in a solar energy collector follows the pattern of a Fermat spiral.
Posted in Computing and Mathematics, Energy Sources and Consumption, Natural Sciences, Theater | Comments Off on Some links: 64