Category Archives: science

CAT in WATER Kickstarter Launch!

Support the Kickstarter project to document them in the wild  here.

The fishing cat is up and running! We have 90 days to raise the first round of funds for the CAT in WATER expedition. Check out our Kickstarter project and watch the short video. You can also learn about all the paybacks in store for our supporters. Who wouldn’t want a care package from Thailand and the knowledge they are helping a gorgeous, wild animal in need?



Water flea: small critter, big genome

Daphnia pulex (water flea) with a brood of genetically identical future offspring.

Daphnia pulex (water flea) with a brood of genetically identical future offspring. (Photo/Paul D.N. Hebert, University of Guelph)

In an interesting science factoid of the week, researchers at the University of Guelph have just found the animal with the most genes.

Ringing in at a whopping 31,000 genes, the winner is a near-microscopic crustacean called daphnia, or water flea. In case you’re wondering, humans tally a mere 23,000, about 8,000 less than this little aquatic critter.

Daphnia‘s high gene number is largely because its genes are multiplying, by creating copies at a higher rate than other species,” said project leader and CGB genomics director John Colbourne in a press release. “We estimate a rate that is three times greater than those of other invertebrates and 30 percent greater than that of humans.”

So let that be a lesson. Just because you’re little, doesn’t mean you can’t be big at something.


First some good news, then the Chesapeake gets a sinking feeling

In Norfolk, Virginia, some residents are starting to raise their houses to counteract sea-level rise. (Photo/Morgan Heim)

In Norfolk, Virginia, some residents are raising their houses in order to fight flooding and counteract sea-level rise. (Photo/Morgan Heim)

Chesapeake Bay residents can breathe a little sigh of relief. The magnitude of absolute sea-level rise, the volume and mass of sea water, happening along its coastlines is a mere fraction of the global average, according to a new study. That’s a break the highly populated coastline needs because the other half the study shows that the land around the Chesapeake is sinking, a lot.

New research led by John Boon with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) found that absolute sea-level along the Chesapeake Bay is rising on average 1.8mm per year, about 50 percent of the global rate. “The bad news,” said Boon in a press release, “is that local subsidence more than makes up for it.”

Dense development along the coastline of the Chesapeake Bay (Photo/Morgan Heim)Development and land use practices, such as increased population and groundwater withdrawals, are putting the pressure on the Chesapeake, literally causing the land to sink. In fact, the land is subsiding so much that it leads to an overall picture of sea-level impacts that outstrips many other regions around the world, said the study.

On average, relative sea-level rise – the amount of water rise in relation to land – for the Chesapeake is between 2.91 and 5.8 millimeters per year. To put that in perspective, either of those values is higher than the highest rates recorded for many other places, according to the press release. And while, 5.8mm per year might not sound like much, this adds up to about a 2-foot rise over the course of 100 years.

A flooded neighborhood in Virginia Beach, Virginia, after a July 2010 rainstorm dumped a month's worth of water in a 2-hour perioed. (Photo/Morgan Heim)

A flooded neighborhood in Virginia Beach, Virginia, after a July 2010 rainstorm dumped a month's worth of water in a 2-hour perioed. (Photo/Morgan Heim)

This is especially important news for Bay communities already threatened by increased flooding hazards from hurricanes and Nor’easters, said the study. Boon encourages further monitoring and mapping of sea-level trends that could aid in the adjustment of emergency response plans.


Cane toads heart climate change

Cane Toad, AKA Bufo marinus, AKA troublemaker extraordinaire (Photo/ Eli Greenbaum)

Cane toads like it hot, and with climate change poised to raise temps in Australia, this persistent, invasive species could soon be living it up even more.

At least that’s the word coming out of new research from the University of Sydney and presented at the Society for Experimental Biology’s annual conference in Prague.

A lot of what we hear about climate change focuses on habitat loss (cue rising sea levels) or species extinction (sorry red wolf and coral reefs), but here’s another way the pesky, poisonous cane toad can flip the amphibian bird to mankind – warmer climes mean prolific times as far as the toad is concerned.

“The negative effect of high temperature does not operate in cane toads, meaning that toads will do very well with human induced global warming,” said Professor Frank Seebacher from the University of Sydney in a press release.

Many of you reading this are probably familiar with the story of the cane toad, but here’s the quick shake down. In the mid 1930s, Australian biologists, hoping to stem the onslaught of beetles ravaging cane fields, introduced cane toads to Queensland and the Northern Territory. Unfortunately, toads passed on the beetles, instead turning their appetites towards lizards, snakes and other native wildlife. To compound factors, the toads secrete a toxic substance that can do a serious number on just about anything that tries to eat it. So the cane fields now have beetles and bucket loads of poisonous toads. Sigh.

And because of research by Seebacher, we now have a good idea that toads are going to thrive even more as temperatures rise from climate change. Warmer weather makes for stronger, or at least more efficient, heart and lungs in the cane toad, Seebacher found. And if that’s not unsettling enough, the study also states “the cane toad can adapt its physiology in response to a changing environment repeatedly and completely reversibly many times during its lifetime.”

Will nothing temper their proliferation?

Before you totally throw up your hands and say, “Why do I read this if all you’re going to tell me is bad news,” here’s a ray, or sliver, of hope. Maybe, just maybe, this phenomenon will prove true for other toads, ones we actually would like to see stick around. I’ll get back to you when Seebacher conducts that study.


Changing Chesapeake Bay acidity endangers oysters

New research shows that the shell growth of Crassostrea virginica from Chesapeake Bay could be compromised by current levels of acidity in some Bay waters. (Photo/Chris Kelly, UMCES Horn Point Laboratory)

Growing up at the mouth of the Lynnhaven River in Virginia, where the river meets the Chesapeake Bay and the bay meets the ocean, I can’t tell you how many mornings I woke up and looked out my window to see neighbors wading in rubber boots, harvesting oysters from the beds just off our riverbank. For some, like my neighbors, oysters were a way to connect with the land and make a little extra dough. For others it was their livelihood. The act was something that just was. It never occurred to me that the oysters could one day be gone.

That’s why I was especially alarmed to read this new report from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences. Rising acidity levels in the Chesapeake Bay are making it harder for oysters to grow their shells. I’ve heard the news before that rising ocean acidity from sources such as carbon dioxide can spell disaster for marine wildlife, but this new study shows that acidity is rising faster in the Chesapeake Bay than in the ocean and having a measurable impact on Bay wildlife.

“With oyster populations already at historically low levels, increasingly acidic waters are yet another stressor limiting the recovery of the Bay’s oyster populations,” said marine biologist Dr. Roger Newell of the UMCES Horn Point Laboratory in a press release.

But don’t turn around to blame climate change just yet. The story is a bit more nuanced than that, though the source of the problem still has to do with us. In the saltier areas of the bay, the acidity is going up, leading to thin shell growth that makes oysters more vulnerable to predators, including crabs. But in more freshwater portions of the Bay, acidity is actually going down, said the study, which looked at more than 20 years of historical water quality data from the Bay.

The difference seems to be not atmospheric carbon dioxide, but the base of the food chain. In freshwater areas along the upper Chesapeake, sewage and agricultural runoff cause phytoplankton blooms, which consume carbon dioxide and lower acidity, said the study. Sounds good at this point right? Here’s the catch. As phytoplankton drift through the Bay, they are eaten by animals and other bacteria, releasing the carbon dioxide that the plankton so diligently consumed in the first place. This carbon dioxide lingers in the water, leading to spikes in acidity in the saltier regions of the Bay near the ocean.

“While these variations in acidity may improve conditions for shellfish in some areas, they may also magnify detrimental impacts in others,” said lead author Dr. George Waldbusser of Oregon State University in a press release. “What our study indicates is there may be an important shifting baseline and without better measurements we will fail to fully understand impacts on estuarine biota.”

Beyond the science itself, this study highlights how connected and varied our environment is. It lays out a pathway of human-induced consequences to an ecosystem, and teaches that we need to look beyond one-to-one cause and effect. Erin Voigt, an undergraduate student who worked on the study puts it well. “The complex response of oyster shell formation to temperature, salinity, and acidity highlights the need to understand how the entire ecosystem is changing, not just acidity,” she said.

And that ecosystem includes us.

You can view the article online in the journal Estuaries and Coasts.


Red squirrels are people too. They adopt

Red squirrel taking an adopted baby from nest. (Photo/Ryan W. Taylor)

In another life, I must’ve been a dog. Whenever I’m out walking and see a squirrel, I have an almost uncontrollable urge to see how close I can get to it before the scrappy rodent scrabbles up a tree. Inevitably, a staring contest ensues, which the squirrel usually ends up winning.

My suppressed animal urges aside, I do notice something kind of educational about squirrels. They tend to be alone. When they’re not, they are usually chasing each other like crazed maniacs in a not too friendly manner without regard to life or other happenings.

That’s why it might come as a surprise that they practice a typically human behavior – they adopt. And they adopt outside their social group. A new study by researchers at the University of Alberta determined that red squirrels will take in abandoned or otherwise parent-less young and raise them as their own, a seemingly altruistic act. The behavior turns out not to be as charitable as it sounds – the squirrels do get a survival perk. But the discovery is nonetheless an unusual one in the animal kingdom, with its own squirrely flare to boot.

Jamieson Gorrell, a Ph.D. student in evolutionary biology at the University of Alberta and lead of the study, was observing a population of Yukon red squirrels and noticed a lone female had taken a baby from an abandoned nest to raise as her own. When Gorrell sifted through 20 years of red squirrel research from the area, he found four other instances of the same behavior. Not only that, but in each account, the baby adopted was a relative.

Gorrell found that despite their antisocial tendencies, red squirrels are still able to recognize, and decide to care for, relatives. Right now the predominant notion is that the chitter-chatter squirrels screech out to mark territory or ward off others contains vocal clues about relativity. So an encroaching squirrel could hear the calls of another adult, and recognize kinship. If that other mother disappears, the encroaching squirrel may recognize the kinship of the abandoned nest and take action.

In addition to the novelty factor of the behavior, the study authors also state that this finding proves a long-standing evolutionary theory true. It is a concept known as Hamilton’s Rule, which suggests that despite “the law of the jungle and survival of the fittest,” animals can be altruistic.

Though for red squirrels, it’s a tempered altruism. The red squirrel is still helping out a member of its bloodline, and will only help one baby out of a litter. Adopting more than one is “out of the question,” according to the study, as the strain of adding more than one baby to a single mother’s already full house would outweigh any benefits.

You can read more about the study in the online journal Nature Communications, or visit this link http://www.redsquirrel.ca/KRSP/Media.html to get more info, cute pics, and free copy of the study.


Inuit knowledge helps scientists learn something new about Arctic weather

Disclosure: I work as the science writer for CIRES, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, the institute behind this research.

Inuit forecasters equipped with generations of environmental knowledge are helping scientists understand changes in Arctic weather. (Photo/Shari Gearheard, NSIDC)

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Using skills passed down through generations, Inuit forecasters living in the Canadian Arctic can look to the sky and tell by the way the wind scatters a cloud whether a storm is on the horizon or if it’s safe to go on a hunt.

Thousands of miles away in a lab tucked in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, scientists take data measurements and use the latest computer models to predict weather. They are two practices serving the same purpose that come from disparate worlds.

But in the past twenty years, something has run amok with Inuit forecasting. Old weather signals don’t mean what they used to. The cloud that scatters could signal a storm that comes in an hour, instead of a day.

Now a melding of indigenous environmental knowledge with modern science is helping researchers learn something new about what’s happening to the Arctic climate.

“It’s interesting how the western approach is often trying to understand things without necessarily experiencing them,” said Elizabeth Weatherhead, a research scientist with University of Colorado at Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. “With the Inuit, it’s much more of an experiential issue, and I think that fundamental difference brings a completely different emphasis both in defining what the important scientific questions are, and discerning how to address them.”

For years, researchers had heard reports of unpredictable weather coming in from Arctic communities. But their stories didn’t seem to match up with the numbers. By scientific measurement, weather around the world appeared to be growing more persistent with less variation, said Weatherhead. The disparity left scientists scratching their heads.

“I had heard about this problem from other environmental statisticians for a number of years,” said Weatherhead, who also works closely with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., and is chief author on a new study on the subject. “But the Inuit used a different language than what we statisticians used, and none of us could really figure out what matched up with their observations.”

That’s where Shari Gearheard, a scientist with CU-Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, also part of CIRES, comes in. Gearheard lives in Clyde River, Nunavut, Canada, an Inuit community on eastern Baffin Island, and for the past ten years has been working with Inuit hunters and elders to document their knowledge of the environment and environmental change.

Weather carries with it a special importance in Arctic environments, where a reliable forecast can mean the difference between life and death. There are those in the Inuit community who possess the skills to predict the weather, but that’s knowledge that is dying off as both the culture and climate change, said Gearheard.

“The impacts of that are a loss of confidence in those forecasters, and concerns about incorrect forecasts. Forecasters don’t want to send somebody out to go hunting if they’re going to be unsafe and be in poor weather conditions,” said Gearheard.

Gearheard meticulously collects the stories told to her by the Inuit and makes systematic records of indigenous environmental knowledge. Through this, patterns begin to emerge, she said.

Changes experienced during spring, a time of transition for many environmental processes, are of particular importance to the Inuit. During a predictable spring, for example, the Inuit would notice that the top layer of the snow melts during the day and refreezes at night, forming a crust.

“In fact in a lot of places, the season is named after a particular process by the Inuit,” said Gearheard. “In cases like this where the Inuit are not seeing that process anymore, it is an indicator to them that something had changed.”

Gearheard’s records created a resolution of detail for Arctic weather observation that, by bringing the two studies together, gave Weatherhead the information she needed to bridge indigenous knowledge with scientific knowledge. “What was incredibly helpful was Shari’s detailed description of what they were experiencing on what sort of timescales,” said Weatherhead. “That just really allowed us to start focusing in our statistical tests and try to find exactly what matched their observations.”

Statistical analysis of day-to-day temperatures at Baker Lake, Nunavut, showed that in May and June the persistence of temperature had recently declined, matching Inuit reports of greater unpredictability at that season. “People hadn’t previously looked at persistence in this way,” said CIRES fellow Roger Barry, also director of the World Data Center for Glaciology at the National Snow and Ice Data Center and a study co-author along with Gearheard.

What they found was a scientific story more in line with what people were witnessing on the ground. Weather along the Arctic latitudes was behaving more unpredictably than in other parts of the world. “That’s an incredibly important parameter to care about,” said Weatherhead. “The way I try to describe it to some people is if we get an inch of rain out at my house in the month of July, I don’t need to turn on the sprinklers. But if we get an inch of rain on July 1, and no rain after that, my lawn is dead.

Ecosystems have evolved under a certain type of pattern. So if that is changing, that could be just as important as a small increase in temperature or some of the other changes we’re talking about,” Weatherhead said.

The new study helps scientists refine and test climate models, while also providing such models with a new category of information to consider, said Weatherhead. And Gearheard’s work with the Inuit is demonstrating the value of indigenous environmental knowledge to modern climate science.

“When we first started talking about this, indigenous knowledge didn’t have the place it does now in research,” Gearheard said. “It’s growing. People are becoming more familiar with it, more respectful of it.”

Weatherhead and Gearheard are intrigued by the insights incorporating indigenous knowledge has provided climate studies, but they don’t want to stop there, they said. The new study has sparked an interest in the type of environmental knowledge other communities could provide to climate scientists, from ranchers and farmers to indigenous groups. “That’s when exciting stuff happens,” said Gearheard. “When you treat these perspectives as different forms of evidence or knowledge and see where that takes you.”

The study appears this month in the journal Global Environmental Change. The National Science Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada provided funding for the study.


Migratory birds prefer organic

Going organic isn’t just a popular choice for eco-savvy dieters, turns out migratory birds like it too. A new study out of Lund University in Sweden shows that migrating birds lean towards green when it comes to large-scale monoculture farms, with higher abundances and diversity of birds choosing to stop at organic farms than conventional ones. The findings offer new crops for thought when it comes to managing agriculture for wildlife well-being.

The idea that organic farming is good for wildlife is nothing new. Farming practices that hit overdrive and heavy pesticide use have been linked to drops in wildlife populations. But previous studies focused largely on bugs or resident bird populations. Juliana Dänhardt and Martin Green of Lund University decided to take the research a step further, focusing on migratory bird species.

Migratory birds get hit with a double whammy when dealing with environmental stress. They contend with a lot of the same environmental pressures as resident birds, but enjoy the added baggage that comes from moving into a temporary living situation. These visitors tend to show up at tilling time to an unfamiliar landscape and must fuel up in a hurry before embarking on the next leg of their journey.

Dänhardt and Green wanted to see if organic farming and more diverse cropland would helped alleviate some of these pressures. In 2005, they and their team selected a dozen pairs of farms in Falsterbo, Sweden, one of the richest agricultural regions of the country. The pairs were set up to compare organic versus conventional and diverse versus simple crop farms. During the fall migratory season, they conducted bird surveys to see what happened. Dänhardt and her colleagues found the relationship between birds and farm preference to be a complicated one.

The strength of bird populations was all over the show. Some types of birds did prefer diverse organic farmland, while others were less discerning. And certain species, such as geese and golden plovers, showed a penchant for wide-open monoculture fields. But one overarching trend did emerge from the complexity. Turns out, birds that chose the wide-open fields also preferred the organic version.

At the moment, ag trends in Sweden lean towards encouraging crop diversity as a way to bolster wildlife populations, but this study indicates that supporting organic or low-impact farming practices on large-scale monoculture farms could be another method for helping out those hard-flying, fast-eating, stressed out migratory birds.

The study is published in the online early edition of the journal Oikos.


Looking to the skies to predict hantavirus outbreaks

Captive bred Peromyscus maniculatus (Deer Mouse). Originally published at RodentFancy.com (Photo Courtesy 6th Happiness)

When faced with plagues of deer mice and outbreaks of deadly hantavirus, checking in with the weatherman probably isn’t on most people’s minds. But new science shows that maybe it should be.

Scientists report in the Journal of Animal Ecology that they have been able for the first time to quantify the link between weather events, like El Niño, and booms in potentially hazardous deer mouse populations. Best take this news seriously. We’re in the middle of an El Niño season.

Their findings may help public health officials develop better hantavirus prevention strategies as well as enable scientists to predict how climate change could affect the severity and locations of deer mouse outbreaks.

The Sin Nombre hantavirus is an illness not worth wishing on your worst enemy. It’s a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transferred from animal to human. The first recognized U.S. outbreak occurred in 1993 in the Four Corners region, and on average, 20 to 40 cases are reported each year, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Unlucky victims can look forward to flu-like symptoms and respiratory and heart failure, and survivors face recurring symptoms for the rest of their lives. The disease is transferred by deer mouse droppings, urine and the animal itself.

Biologist Angela D. Luis with Pennsylvania State University, Richard J. Douglass at the University of Montana and colleagues combined capture-release, climate and vegetation data with computer models to find out if deer mouse population and disease presence were influenced by weather. 15 years and more than 4,700 mice later, Luis and her colleagues found the connection.

At first glance, it sounds like more rain means more food, more mice and more hantavirus, as rainy years create better food crops for the cute but pesky disease carriers. But the relationship is not so straightforward. The “more rain equals more everything else” scenario is partially influenced by season. Luis found that higher temperatures and rain in the summer through early winter months bode well for mouse populations, but not so well during the spring.

This could be particularly key for the Southwest, as during El Niño years, this region typically experiences significantly more rainfall. The study isn’t perfect, factors like predation, migration, and competition could also be affecting deer mouse outbreaks, but the weather connection appears to be strong.

Right now Luis and her colleagues are expanding their study. So far they’ve looked at habitat in Montana only. They are looking at more types of environments throughout the state, including sagebrush and pine forests, which will help determine whether their model could be applied to multiple regions.


Dosed: Livestock scavenging vultures consume cocktail of veterinary drugs

A griffon vulture soars through canyons of the Douro River in Portugal. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

Griffon, their name conjures images of legend and mythology, but in the skies above Spain and Portugal, thousands of real life griffon vultures survey the earth looking for their next meal. And to a griffon, nothing says “yummy” quite like a fresh pile of pork carcasses – well, maybe sheep.

Don’t knock it. They are one of nature’s best cleaner-uppers. But it turns out that griffon vultures and at least two other vulture species are ingesting something not on their carrion menu, drugs and lots of them.

Vulture numbers have soared in Europe since the 1980s, thanks in part to the common practice of carcass dumping of dead livestock, also called muladares, which provide vultures with a ready and reliable supply of chow. But in cattle, drugs abound. And lunch at a muladar promises a chemical cocktail of veterinary medicine as well as protein.

A griffon vulture soars in the skies above the Douro River in northeastern Portugal. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

A new study by Guillermo Blanco with Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid showed that the proportion of vulture nestlings testing positive for antibiotics rose from 0 percent in 2001 to 70 percent in 2006, and now scientists are seeing a triple threat. Blanco found griffon, Egyptian and cinereous vultures, contained combinations of antibiotics, anti-parasitics and non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin, in their system, a never before seen combination in a wild animal, according to the researchers.

Scientists are still studying what this chemical cocktail could spell for the vulture, and the three species did show variance in the amounts and types of drugs found in their systems, possibly due to the differences in how they feed. But Blanco and his colleagues do mention possible reasons for why and how the drugs are building up in the birds’ bodies.

Vultures typically split mealtimes between muladares and “vulture restaurants,” scavenging from the carcasses of free-ranging livestock. Drugs abound in both food sources, but reside in much greater concentrations and types in the bodies of farm-raised cattle – farm-raised livestock require more drugs due to their compact living quarters. Recent European Union regulations aimed at curbing the spread of mad cow disease made it illegal to abandon carcasses of free-roaming cattle in the countryside. As an unintended consequence of the rule, this practice eliminated one key source of food for the vulture, concentrating food in the veterinary drug-laden muladares. The regulation has also been reputed to be a probable contributor to the vulture’s decline since 2003.

Side-effects could include increased disease, due to exposure to immuno-suppressants, changing delicate bacterial communities in the vulture’s system and a rise of infection or transmission at feeding sites.

One remedy would be to allow for carcass abandonment to resume according to the study. “There is no evidence of BSE [mad cow] transmission risk due to the abandonment of unstabled livestock carcasses in the countryside,” wrote the study authors. “Therefore, this traditional practice in the Mediterranean regions should be legally permitted in order to increase availability, dispersion and quality of food for scavengers.”

You can read more about Blanco and his colleagues’ findings in the December 2009 issue of the journal Animal Conservation.


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