March 3, 2014

Martha is Making a Comeback! (Maybe)

How does a bird that once numbered in the billions disappear over the course of a few decades? The birds were shot and trapped. Beds and pillows were stuffed with their feathers. Their fat was used in shortening and soap. When huge flocks of the pigeons passed overhead, people would open fire on the poor creatures from their rooftops.

NORTH WIND PICTURE ARCHIVES/VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS - A woodcut from the 1870s shows passenger pigeons being shot in Louisiana.

On Sept. 1, 1914, Martha (named for George Washington’s wife), the last captive passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. She outlasted George, the penultimate survivor of her species and her only companion, by four years. Don’t the women always outlast the men…

“Martha,” the last known passenger pigeon. Photo by Carl Hansen, Smithsonian Institution, 1985

Plans are in the works to possibly bring the bird back by way of “de-extinction.” Ok, de-extinction…here’s our layman breakdown:

So the DNA of a passenger pigeon and the fragments of an existing band-tailed pigeon meet at a bar. They get together. Insert what results into a band-tailed pigeon stem cell. It becomes a germ cell. Inject these germs cells into developing band-tailed pigeons, and voila! They start mating with each other, and eventually their offspring become more and more passenger pigeon-esque.

Want a more scientific explanation of the process? Check out this article from The Washington Post.

Oh, and check out this awesome song about Martha from the upcoming production of The Great Immensity!

 


September 24, 2012

Icy Antarctica is a Hot Bed For Discovery

Antarctica is known for being a scientific hotspot (despite the freezing cold!) for measuring the effects of climate change, and today there are multiple scientific research stations (such as the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, as well as McMurdo station on Ross Island and Palmer station on Anvers Island) that help scientists stay up-to-date on what climate change is affecting and how.

In 2008, scientists discovered the fossil of a lake ostracod in the Dry Valleys of East Antarctica. No other fossil like it has been found on the entire continent of Antarctica. The fossil finding provided evidence that  this region of Antarctica was much warmer- warm enough to support lake fauna with ostracods- about 14 million years ago. Since that period, it is blatantly apparent that Antarctica has experienced a substantial and intense cooling which has since buried these lakes under layers and layers of ice. What was once a tundra is now an iceland. These findings have given scientists a better understanding of how the Antarctic ice-sheet developed, which will in turn allow them to better understand the effects of global warming.

In recent years, researchers have discovered that the retreat of sea ice in some parts of Antarctica is detrimentally affecting some Antarctic species, and the recent warming of water temperature is adding to the proliferation of  undersea giants in the region.

Look at the size of these sea stars! They’re huge! Antarctica is also the prime location for researchers to follow the changing state of our ozone layer as well as the further implications of global warming’s effects on the environment as a whole.

However, the effects of climate change aren’t the only things Antarctica is revealing to scientists. Researchers are also currently studying adaptations of various life-forms that allow them to withstand the harsh conditions of living in Antarctica as well as how those adaptations may be used to benefit human health. They are also studying how they themselves and other researchers are faring in the conditions of the Antarctic in hopes of learning how humans could survive other extreme ecosystems.

Research in Antarctica may hold many of the answers we seek about the future of the planet in the context of climate change as well as many other fascinating findings. If you want to know more about all the different types of research going on in Antarctica check out the United States Antarctic Program.


February 16, 2012

CSI: Invasive Species

This is a marvelous development in protecting and conserving biodiversity from the Percolator blog of the Chronicle for Higher Education.

Some new research by British scientists suggests that an investigative tool used to help cops find criminals can also help locate the sources of invasive species. (Invasive species are generally considered the second largest cause of biodiversity loss, right after habitat destruction.  Think Asian carp, Nile perch, Real Housewives.  (Just kidding about the last one.)  Anyway:

The tool, known as geographic profiling, has also been used to find patterns in the foraging of animals and the spread of infectious disease.

In criminology, geographic profiling won’t magically point to a serial criminal’s hideout. But it can help determine the probability of where a criminal may live.  To see if it would work on invasive species, the team used a series of computer simulations to compare it with other mathematical methods.

The researchers applied geographic profiling to historical data on 53 species that have invaded Britain: daddy-long-legs spiders, Pacific oysters, Norway spruce trees, and giant hogweed — a noxious weed that can get up to a dozen feet tall and can cause blistering and blindness.

This plant is a giant hogweed, whose spread may be thwarted with geographical profiling. It causes blistering and blindness. It is pretty sinister, come to think of it. Get it off the streets!

In criminology, geographic profiling has two rules of thumb: 1) The probability of a crime decreases with distance from the criminal’s “anchor point,”, like a home or office.  2) There’s a “buffer zone” of lower activity around the criminal’s base. The zone is set partly by the rules of plane geometry and partly because criminals avoid activity near their homes, lest they be discovered.

Turns out invasive species’ spread patterns have similar mathematical properties to criminal-activity patterns: the farther the invasive species are from their source, the more opportunities they have to prosper.  And in some species, the “buffer zone” has even more makes a great deal of sense: for instance, trees from seeds that fall in the shade of the trees’ parents may not do as well as the seeds that make it out to sunnier places.

We can just see the scientists putting on their shades and uttering invasive species one-liners.


February 8, 2012

Team Earth

Conservation International’s stunningly beautiful online magazine Team Earth has launched a new issue (#4 of a series), and it’s full of both amazing photos and stories of good news for the planet.

A family from a floating village, Prek Toal, on Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia.

You can read about the projects they help fund and focus on:  slowing deforestation, preserving healthy, adaptive ecosystems, and bringing oft-ignored indigenous groups to the forefront of political and economic decisions that affect them and their traditional lands.  This issue focuses on a life-giving lake in Cambodia (replete with floating houses!) and how CI is helping the people of Papua New Guinea  preserve their forests, as well as a look forward to the next Copenhagen climate summit.

It always warms our heart to see the good work that so many conservation-oriented organizations are doing in partnership with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government ministries all over the world.  CI is a terrific advocate for all of us who want to respect the Earth’s breathtaking diversity and the sustainability of its resources.

We laugh that these kinds of online treats are what naughty sites are for others.  If it’s wrong, we don’t want to be right. ; )

 


January 19, 2012

Simple measures could go a long way

Anyone who follows news about climate change knows that carbon dioxide is the primary cause of trapped heat in the Earth’s atmosphere which causes temperatures to rise.   But a group of our scientific colleagues have published a study which says simple, low-cost ways to cut methane and soot (a.k.a. “black carbon”) emissions could slow rising temperatures, boost crop production, and save lives.

The Washington Post covered the study, which found that

[J]ust 14 interventions — such as eliminating wood-burning stoves, dampening emissions from diesel vehicles and capturing methane released from coal mines — would offer big benefits.

This is, of course, easier said than done, considering that three billion people — nearly half the world’s population relies on stoves that send soot into the air. (We’ve seen these kinds of stoves all over Central and Latin America in our studies; a New York Times article several years ago reported that soot in developing countries is responsible for up to 18% of global warming.

This solar cooker is an inexpensive and wood-saving alternative for preparing food.

Solar cookers, such as the one pictured above, are a great alternative, but are occasionally slow to catch on with traditonally-minded villagers who prefer the familiarity of a fire.

Other practices touted by the study include plowing agricultural waste under in developing nations, instead of burning it, as is customary practice, which would cost next to nothing.

Our colleagues (an international team of 24) ran computer simulations that showed cutting methane and soot in the air would slow global warming by almost one degree Fahrenheit by the mid-2100s.  And better air quality would help prevent lung and cardiovascular diseases, saving “anywhere from 700,000 to 4.7 million lives annually.”  Not to mention ocean, plant, and animal life (ahem).

Even if all these practices were immediately implemented, CO2 would still be the world’s biggest problem, and the majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from China, the U.S., India, and the European Union.

And that may be the most difficult change of all to implement.

 


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    "The Next Forever" is a song from The Great Immensity. The footage was taken on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal by videographer David Ford. Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman.
     
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