Category: Living World

On the Shores of Lake Erie, Endangered Birds Catch a Lucky Break

By Hannah Gavin | August 16, 2017 2:11 pm

Endangered piping plovers are a precocial species, which means they mobile after emerging their egg. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Protecting species in peril doesn’t happen overnight. Rather, it’s all about stringing together small wins that, in the long-term, make all the difference. A little luck can also go far.

When waves surged on the Pennsylvania coast of Lake Erie early this summer, it could easily have been the end for a nest of piping plover eggs caught in the water’s path. Fortunately, a dynamic team of biologists, zookeepers and volunteers swooped into action, rescuing the eggs and rearing them at a quiet facility at the tip of the Michigan mitten.

Recently, young birds from those very eggs were released, in the hopes that they will join the 75 nesting pairs of birds sustaining this endangered population.

A Piping Plover Nest in Distress

The day was sunny, but all was not well on the Pennsylvania coast of Lake Erie.

As a pair of piping plover parents anxiously hopped about, waves swept over a shoreline nest and carried four eggs from their sandy home. Washed into shallow waters ten feet afield, the would-be shorebirds seemed to have met their demise.

Unbeknownst to them, regional wildlife diversity biologist Tim Hoppe was at the same moment searching cabinets for Tupperware and cotton balls – the construction materials for an impromptu egg container. In fact, an entire team of adoptive plover parents was mobilizing in what Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife biologist Cathy Haffner describes as “basically a flurry of texting!”

Earlier the same morning, shared electronic communications had been celebratory: the first piping plovers to nest on Erie’s Pennsylvania shores in 60 years had just successfully hatched their chicks. Come afternoon, however, things turned more somber. A bird monitor noticed water and wind threatening the state’s second, un-hatched nest.

It was Sunday, and business offices were closed, but the monitor got in touch with Catherine, who contacted Tim. He arrived at the beach just in time to pluck the washed-out eggs from the water. A trip to a local tractor supply, 10 minutes before closing, yielded an incubator that would keep the eggs warm for the night.


Plover eggs stay warm and safe in an incubator until hatching. (Courtesy: Bonnie Van Dam, Detroit Zoological Society)

Safe Haven

The rescue was novel in Pennsylvania, but similar scenarios have played out for years in the Midwest. In fact, Catherine did her graduate research with University of Minnesota ornithologist Francesca Cuthbert, who first incorporated captive rearing programs into the Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation efforts. When they first began rescuing abandoned and washed-out eggs, Dr. Cuthbert and her team borrowed time in a 20-by-20-foot room.

The efforts have expanded, and today the Detroit Zoological Society’s Associate Curator of Birds, Bonnie Van Dam, oversees the captive-rearing arm of the conservation efforts. Her team of zookeepers is based at the University of Michigan Biological station each summer. They knew just what to do when this summer’s Pennsylvania eggs arrived in Michigan after a long road trip.

They watched, turned, and weighed the eggs daily. They supervised hatching, which takes up to four days for a given egg. Then they monitored the new chicks, taking weights and delivering worms and observing behaviors.

“We (zookeepers) are basically professional animal stalkers!” laughs Bonnie.

Actually, she notes, piping plover chicks are generally quite independent. Altricial birds, such as robins and condors, are born naked and helpless. Piping plovers, in contrast, are a precocial species, meaning they are relatively mature and mobile after emerging their egg. Just 4 to 6 hours after hatching, each bird resembled a feathered cotton ball on unsteady toothpick legs, scooting toward worms and crickets. With siblings and mirrors for company, and feather dusters for warmth, the chicks were safe.

Back to Nature

Fast forward 20 days, and the plovers had progressed from sand-filled bathtubs, via a kiddie pool, to a lakeside enclosure. They were nearing graduation. Zookeeper Matt Porter predicted the birds were on schedule to be released in just a few days provided there weren’t any setbacks.


Members of the Great Lakes Piping Plover Conservation Team trek down sand dunes to a lakeside release site. (Credit: Hannah Gavin)

They certainly looked ready to go as they ran from waves, squatted among plants, and flew in the longest stretches a 5-meter enclosure would allow. Still, how would they fare, far from their protectively netted home?

Research shows that captive-reared plovers are responsive to potential predators, so the same inborn knowledge that leads them to eat and fly will help defend them upon release. Unfortunately, captive reared plovers produce fewer successful offspring than their wild-reared counterparts. Still, a 2008 study reported that the captive-reared Great Lakes plovers constituted up to 3 percent of the birds in the total population. Plus, more chicks have been successfully reared each summer of the ensuing decade.

Letting Go

Come release day, all chicks get a final weigh-in. Then they are loaded into a plastic pet crate, and zookeepers part with the birds they’ve come to know and love.

Plover banding duo Stephanie Schubel and Sarah Saunders secure the crate in the rear seat of a car, and head for the big lakes. Plover peeps sound out in waves, as if the birds keep re-remembering their excitement about impending freedom.


Freedom! A newly released piping plover explores the beach. (Credit: Hannah Gavin)

On the beach, the crate is opened and the plovers depart with little sentiment. Watching them soar, it’s hard to remember the peril they endured early on. Without help, the Pennsylvania eggs would never have hatched. Even with help, their road wasn’t smooth. Of the nest’s four eggs, one was cracked during the washout. Another was whole, but never hatched; the tumble rendered the embryo unviable. Circumstances certainly weren’t ideal even for the two remaining eggs.

But, Bonnie points out, dealing under non-ideal circumstances is central to the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery efforts. As the newly released plover chicks swoop along the beach to independence, they are a living testament to the team’s success in doing just that.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: animals

When Did People Start Using Money?

By Chapurukha Kusimba, American University | June 20, 2017 1:49 pm

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Sometimes you run across a grimy, tattered dollar bill that seems like it’s been around since the beginning of time. Assuredly it hasn’t, but the history of human beings using cash currency does go back a long time – 40,000 years.

Scientists have tracked exchange and trade through the archaeological record, starting in Upper Paleolithic when groups of hunters traded for the best flint weapons and other tools. First, people bartered, making direct deals between two parties of desirable objects. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

For Funding, Scientists Turn to Unorthodox Sources

By Wudan Yan | June 14, 2017 11:47 am

(Credit: isak55/Shutterstock)

When Donna Riordan first moved to the idyllic Orcas Island just off the coast of Washington state, she had no plans of doing any sort of research, despite her background in science and education policy. But a few years later, in 2012, she learned that Pacific International Terminals, part of marine and rail cargo operating company SSA Marine, planned to build the largest coal transport terminal in North America. She’d be able to see it from her home.

The proposed site was on top of two recently discovered fault lines. Riordan wanted to investigate the seismic hazards — which could influence how the terminal should be built, if at all. But there was one issue: how she could get the necessary money. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: science policy

Meet Dean Lomax, Master of the Prehistoric ‘Death March’

By Jon Tennant | June 12, 2017 12:35 pm

Lomax meticulously studies an ammonite death march. (Courtesy: Dean Lomax)

Paleontologists study creatures that have long ceased to be, all in the hopes of “resurrecting” the history of their lives on Earth.

But paleontologist Dean Lomax, an Honorary Visiting Scientist at the University of Manchester, has made a name for himself recreating a very specific part of ancient creatures’ lives: their final struggle before death. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: paleontology

How Tree Rings Solved a Musical Mystery

By Stephen E. Nash | May 3, 2017 10:15 am

Dendrochronologist Henri Grissino-Mayer and colleagues study the tree rings in the Karr-Koussevitzky double bass. Their analysis ultimately determined that the instrument was built much later than previously thought. (Credit: Henri Grissino-Mayer)

Modern science is full of surprising analytical techniques that can be used in a wide variety of remarkable circumstances.

My favorite technique is dendrochronology—the study of “tree time.” By assigning calendar-year dates to growth rings in trees, scientists can garner information relevant to an astonishing range of disciplines, including archaeology, climatology, the study of fire history, and many others. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: plants

Why Felines Can’t Resist the #CatSquare

By Nicholas Dodman, Tufts University | April 18, 2017 12:40 pm
Image 20170417 25875 1sz58kn

Next best thing to a hidey-hole box? (Credit: Maggie Villiger, CC BY-ND)

Twitter’s been on fire with people amazed by cats that seem compelled to park themselves in squares of tape marked out on the floor. These felines appear powerless to resist the call of the #CatSquare. The Conversation

This social media fascination is a variation on a question I heard over and over as a panelist on Animal Planet’s “America’s Cutest Pets” series. I was asked to watch video after video of cats climbing into cardboard boxes, suitcases, sinks, plastic storage bins, cupboards and even wide-necked flower vases.

“That’s so cute … but why do you think she does that?” was always the question. It was as if each climbing or squeezing incident had a completely different explanation.

It did not. It’s just a fact of life that cats like to squeeze into small spaces where they feel much safer and more secure. Instead of being exposed to the clamor and possible danger of wide open spaces, cats prefer to huddle in smaller, more clearly delineated areas.

Kittens get securely snuggled by their mothers. (Credit: Shutterstock)

When young, they used to snuggle with their mom and litter mates, feeling the warmth and soothing contact. Think of it as a kind of swaddling behavior. The close contact with the box’s interior, we believe, releases endorphins – nature’s own morphine-like substances – causing pleasure and reducing stress.

Along with Temple Grandin, I researched the comforting effect of “lateral side pressure.” We found that the drug naltrexone, which counteracts endorphins, reversed the soporific effect of gentle squeezing of pigs. Hugs, anyone?

Also remember that cats make nests – small, discrete areas where mother cats give birth and provide sanctuary for their kittens. Note that no behavior is entirely unique to any one particular sex, be they neutered or not. Small spaces are in cats’ behavioral repertoire and are generally good (except for the cat carrier, of course, which has negative connotations – like car rides or a visit to the vet).

One variation on this theme occurs when the box is so shallow that it does not provide all the creature comforts it might.

Or then again, the box may have no walls at all but simply be a representation of a box – say a taped-in square on the ground. This virtual box is not as good as the real thing but is at least a representation of what might be – if only there was a real square box to nestle in.

This virtual box may provide some misplaced sense of security and psychosomatic comfort.

The cats-in-boxes issue was put to the test by Dutch researchers who gave shelter cats boxes as retreats. According to the study, cats with boxes adapted to their new environment more quickly compared to a control group without boxes: The conclusion was that the cats with boxes were less stressed because they had a cardboard hidey-hole to hunker down in.

Availability of a cozy box is part of a well-appointed space for a cat. (Credit: Lisa Norwood, CC BY-NC)

Let this be a lesson to all cat people – cats need boxes or other vessels for environmental enrichment purposes. Hidey-holes in elevated locations are even better: Being high up provides security and a birds’s-eye view of the world, so to speak.

Without a real box, a square on the ground may be the next best thing for a cat, though it’s a poor substitute for the real thing. Whether a shoe box, shopping bag or a square on the ground, it probably gives a cat a sense of security that open space just can’t provide.

Nicholas Dodman, Professor Emeritus of Behavioral Pharmacology and Animal Behavior, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: animals

Genomics Is Buried in Too Much Data

By Patrick Chain | April 10, 2017 12:26 pm

(Credit: Alix Kreil/Shutterstock)

When a sore throat and sinus congestion warrant a visit to the doctor, your physician will attempt to determine whether a cold virus or bacterial infection is to blame—oftentimes without success. So, just to be safe, they might write a potentially unnecessary script for an antibiotic.

But what if a nurse could swipe your saliva and run a quick genetic test for bacteria? If the test results are negative, you get a prescription for a decongestant and orders to get some rest, rather than contributing to the widespread overuse of antibiotics. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: genetics

Get Lost in Mega-Tunnels Dug by South American Megafauna

By Andrew Jenner | March 28, 2017 1:39 pm

Looking into a large paleoburrow in Brazil. (Courtesy: Heinrich Frank)

It was in 2010 that Amilcar Adamy first investigated rumors of an impressive cave in southern Brazil.

A geologist with the Brazilian Geological Survey (known by its Portuguese acronym, CPRM) Adamy was at the time working on a general survey of the Amazonian state of Rondonia. After asking around, he eventually found his way to a gaping hole on a wooded slope a few miles north of the Bolivian border.

Unable to contact the landowner, Adamy couldn’t study the cave in detail during that first encounter. But a preliminary inspection revealed it wasn’t the work of any natural geological process. He’d been in other caves nearby, formed by water within the same geology underlying this particular hillside. Those caves looked nothing like this large, round passage with a smooth floor.

“I’d never seen anything like it before,” said Adamy, who resolved to return for a closer look some day. “It really grabbed my attention. It didn’t look natural.”

Read More

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MORE ABOUT: paleontology

Phosphorus Is Vital for Life, and We’re Running Low

By Vera Thoss, Bangor University | March 15, 2017 11:05 am

A farmer sprays field with a nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium fertilizer. (Credit: oticki/Shutterstock)

All life needs phosphorus and agricultural yields are improved when phosphorus is added to growing plants and the diet of livestock. Consequently, it is used globally as a fertilizer – and plays an important role in meeting the world’s food requirements.

In order for us to add it, however, we first need to extract it from a concentrated form – and the supply comes almost exclusively from phosphate mines in Morocco (with far smaller quantities coming from China, the US, Jordan and South Africa). Within Morocco, most of the mines are in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony which was annexed by Morocco in 1975.

The fact that more than 70 percent of the global supply comes from this single location is problematic, especially as scientists are warning that we are approaching “peak phosphorus”, the point at which demand begins to outstrip supply and intensive agriculture cannot continue to provide current yields. In the worst case scenario, mineable reserves could be exhausted within as little as 35 years.

So what is going on – and how worried should be?

Here be phosphorus. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Natural Limits

In nature, phosphorus only exists bound to oxygen, which is called phosphate. It is in this form that it is mined. Chemists can remove the oxygens bound to it to get elemental white phosphorus, which glows in the dark, but it is so unstable that it spontaneously ignites on exposure to air.

Phosphate easily diffuses through soil or water and can be taken up by cells. When phosphate meets free calcium or iron, they combine to give highly insoluble salts.

In the first half of the 19th century, Justus von Liebig popularized the law of the minimum for agriculture, which states that growth is limited by the least available resource. It was soon discovered that this was often some form of phosphorus.

As a consequence, bones – comprised mostly of calcium and phosphate – from old battlefields were dug up to use in farming. Guano, large accumulations of bird droppings, also contains high concentrations of phosphorus and was used to fertilize crops. But supplies of this were soon depleted. As demand increased, supplies had to be mined instead.

But this applied inorganic phosphate fertilizer is highly mobile and leaches into watercourses. In addition, phosphate rock weathers and is also ultimately washed into the ocean where it either deposits as calcium phosphate or is taken up by marine organisms who also eventually deposit on the ocean floor when they die. Consequently, terrestrial phosphorus doesn’t really disappear, but it can move beyond our reach.

Natural Wastage

To complicate matters further, even the phosphorus we can use is largely wasted. Of the phosphorus mined as fertilizer, only a fifth reaches the food we eat. Some leaches away and some is bound to calcium and iron in the soil. Some plant roots have the ability to extract the latter, but not in large enough quantities to retrieve all of it.

In addition to these inorganic forms, phosphate is also converted into cellular compounds, creating organically-bound phosphorus, such as phospholipids or phytate. After the death of an organism, these organic phosphorus compounds need to be returned into the useable phosphate form. How much organically-bound phosphorus is present in soils depends on the number and activity of the organisms that can do this.

Phosphorous boosts crop yields. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Agricultural soils are usually rich in inorganic phosphorus while in undisturbed ecosystems, such as forests and long-term pastures, organically-bound phosphorus dominates. But agricultural land is often depleted of phosphorus during harvest and land management practices such as ploughing, hence the addition of phosphate-containing fertilizers.

Spreading manure and avoiding tillage are ways of increasing microbial abundance in the soil – and so keeping more phosphorus in an organically-bound form.

The risks of peak phosphorus can be countered with some simple solutions. Eating less meat is a start as huge amounts are used to rear livestock for meat. The chances are that agricultural yields are limited by phosphorus availability and will be further stretched as the global population grows.

Humans are themselves wasteful of phosphorus, as most of what we take in goes straight out again. Fortunately, technologies have been developed to mine phosphorus from sewage, but at present are too expensive to be practical.

Peak phosphorus does not mean that phosphorus will disappear, rather that the reserves with mineable high concentrations are depleting. Instead, we are increasing the background concentrations of phosphorus and adding it to the ocean floor. More sustainable phosphorus use requires a greater appreciation and understanding of the many organisms that make up soils – and the part they play in phosphorus distribution – or we may no longer be able to feed the world at an affordable price.


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: chemistry

The Frog Tongue’s Sticky Secrets Revealed


(Credit: Shutterstock)

How does one get stuck studying frog tongues? Our study into the sticky, slimy world of frogs all began with a humorous video of a real African bullfrog lunging at fake insects in a mobile game. This frog was clearly an expert at gaming; the speed and accuracy of its tongue could rival the thumbs of texting teenagers. Read More

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MORE ABOUT: animals

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