Category: Living World

The Banana As We Know It Is Dying…Again

By Nathaniel Scharping | December 27, 2017 3:24 pm
(Credit: Shutterstock)

(Credit: Shutterstock)

The bananas your grandparents ate were different than the ones you eat today. And the bananas your grandchildren know will probably be entirely different as well.

For the moment, we are in the age of the Cavendish, a banana cultivar that accounts for 99 percent of imports to the Western world. But the Cavendish is in trouble. Like its predecessor the Gros Michel, the Cavendish may soon pass from our lives, potentially taking with it an entire industry. Read More

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

A Semi-Autonomous Cricket Farm to Feed the World

By Carl Engelking | December 19, 2017 4:12 pm
A feeding bot rolls through the racks of crickets at Aspire Food Group's test farm in Austin, Texas. (Credit: Aspire Food Group)

A feeding bot rolls through the racks of crickets at Aspire Food Group’s test farm in Austin, Texas. (Credit: Aspire Food Group)

When Gabe Mott, Shobhita Soor and Mohammed Ashour proposed building a commercial-scale cricket farm optimized with robots and data, the idea earned the McGill University students the $1 million Hult Prize, the largest student competition for social good, in 2013.

But when it came to launching the concept, they needed to leave convention behind, including most of what had been written in science journals about rearing billions of crickets. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: food, sustainability

Jane Goodall, Redux

By Mark Barna | November 7, 2017 1:58 pm
Jane Goodall in Gombe,

Jane Goodall in Gombe Stream National Park, circa 1965. (Credit: The Jane Goodall Institute)

Jane Goodall has been a flashpoint in science circles. Was her years-long study of chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania real science? Or was it too subjective to have scientific value?

The questions arise anew in the wake of a new documentary, Jane, that looks back at Goodall’s career and how she became a household name in the 1960s. In 1965, her CBS special Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees was watched by 25 million people in North America. A paper published last month in Scientific Data on an aspect of her research has also added to the conversation. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

When Wealth Inequality Arose

By Mark Barna | October 20, 2017 12:30 pm

Anthropologist Teresea Fernandez-Crespo examined megaliths, or stone burial sites, in north-central Spain to learn more about how farmers lived in the Late Neolithic. (Teresea Fernandez-Crespo)

We’ve heard how great times used to be, and I don’t mean in 1950s America.

For eons, our hunter-gatherer ancestors shared their spoils with one another, didn’t own much and had very little social hierarchy. Sure, it wasn’t all kumbaya and high-fives. But the fact that individuals had so few personal possessions took the bitter dish of economic inequality off the table.

So how’d we get to a world today where 1 percent of the population controls so much of the wealth? Read More

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

Brazil’s Moon Tree Warrior

By Andrew Jenner | October 2, 2017 3:46 pm

Vilso Cembranel tends to the moon tree he saved from the brink of death. (Credit: Andrew Jenner)

On a warm, windy August day in 1981, a crowd gathered at the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa for the final event of the soybean fair that’s held every other year in the small city in southern Brazil.

Schools had let out so local students could attend, along with curious fairgoers and a collection of bigwigs whose rank rose all the way up to João Figueiredo, then the president of Brazil. Speeches were made, the national anthem played, and then, around 1 p.m., a small tree was planted to symbolize a new ecological consciousness that was stirring in the heart of Brazilian farm country.

“The moment the tree was planted, all the city’s church bells started ringing,” recalls Nilso Guidolin, president of the 1981 soybean fair. “It was a joyful moment.” And it was a very special tree: a Sequoia sempervirens, or California redwood, grown from a seed that had traveled to the moon. After being planted with much fanfare, this symbolic tree was forgotten, neglected and abused over the following years. It almost died. It needed a hero. Read More

How Vulnerable Are Societies to Collapse?

By Jim O'Donnell | September 28, 2017 12:28 pm

Research findings on three early Native American cultures from the southwestern United States show how each responded to environmental challenges in different ways that dramatically altered their people’s futures. (David Williams/SAPIENS)

Along the cottonwood-lined rivers of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, the Mimbres people did something unique: By the year 1000, these farmers were producing stunning ceramics decorated with naturalistic images of fish, people, and rabbits, as well as magical creatures and elaborate geometric patterns. And then, rather abruptly, they stopped.

After roughly a century of higher than normal rainfall, the area the Mimbres inhabited suffered a powerful drought, as indicated by the archaeological record. Big game—already scarce—became even less abundant, and it became harder to grow the beans, corn and squash that the Mimbres relied on. By about 1150 the Mimbres were no longer making their signature pottery. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts

Earth’s Oldest Rocks Are Revealing Life’s Origins, Fueling Controversy

By Eric Betz | September 27, 2017 12:35 pm

A NASA image depicts what planet Earth may have looked like some 4 billion years ago when it was getting pummeled with space rocks. (Credit: NASA)

Earth’s first life evolved in hell.

The earliest lifeforms emerged at least 3.95 billion years ago, at a time when a near constant barrage of comets and asteroids were bombarding our still solidifying planet. That’s the implication of new research published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

A group of Japanese scientists journeyed into a remote stretch of northern Labrador, Canada, where they chiseled samples from some of Earth’s oldest rocks. They braved bugs, bad weather and polar bears; they returned with what could be evidence for some of the oldest life on Earth. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

How the Folsom Point Became an Archaeological Icon

By Stephen E. Nash | August 25, 2017 9:39 am
This broken spear point found between two bison ribs ultimately changed not only the field of archaeology but also the narrative surrounding the arrival of Native Americans in North America. (Credit: DMNS/E-51)

This broken spear point found between two bison ribs ultimately changed not only the field of archaeology but also the narrative surrounding the arrival of Native Americans in North America. (Credit: DMNS/E-51)

The Folsom spear point, which was excavated in 1927 near the small town of Folsom, New Mexico, is one of the most famous artifacts in North American archaeology, and for good reason: It was found in direct association with the bones of an extinct form of Ice Age bison. The Folsom point therefore demonstrated conclusively, and for the first time, that human beings were in North America during the last Ice Age—thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

The Folsom discovery marked the end of a long series of sometimes serendipitous, sometimes deliberate actions by an intriguing cast of characters. As such, it helps us understand that archaeology—like most fields of study—has very few “Eureka!” moments in which a brilliant sage comes upon an insight that suddenly changes the world. Instead, archaeology is cumulative, often slow, and painstaking. And while an individual artifact can indeed be important, it’s context (where it was found) and association (what it was found with) are often more important than the object itself.

Lucky Break

The story begins in 1908. In the late afternoon heat of August 27, an unusually strong summer thunderstorm dropped 13 inches of rain—75 percent of the yearly average—on Johnson Mesa, northwest of Folsom. The resulting flash flood swept through the town and the usually dry drainages in the vicinity. In so doing, it exposed buried features and artifacts that hadn’t seen the light of day in thousands of years.

A local cowboy named George McJunkin soon went out to inspect and repair fence lines broken by the flood. McJunkin was a fascinating character. Born into slavery in Midway, Texas, in 1851, he migrated west in 1868 to escape his awful past, and in Folsom he found a welcoming community. Though effectively self-taught as a naturalist, McJunkin maintained a collection of artifacts and specimens amassed during the long hours he spent chasing cattle. While surveying along Wild Horse Arroyo after the flash flood in 1908, he noticed large bones eroding out of a newly exposed wall at the base of the arroyo some 10 feet below the surface.

For 14 years after he made the discovery—until his death in 1922—McJunkin either kept the Folsom Site a secret or (more likely) was unable to convince anyone of its scientific importance. But on December 10, 1922, Carl Schwachheim, a naturalist and collector from nearby Raton, visited the Folsom Site with local banker Fred Howarth. Both must have known McJunkin; the community is very small even today. Perhaps McJunkin’s death had inspired them to finally visit the hard-to-reach site.

Recognition At Last

On January 25, 1926, Schwachheim and Howarth made a business trip to Denver. While there, they stopped by the Colorado Museum of Natural History (now the Denver Museum of Nature & Science [DMNS], where I work) to discuss the site and its contents with scientific experts. First they met director Jesse Dade Figgins, who told them to send bones to the museum for conclusive identification. Once they did so several weeks later, honorary curator of paleontology Howard Cook confirmed that the bones were from an extinct form of Ice Age bison, Bison antiquus. Cook’s identification and Figgins’ authorization finally set institutional and scientific wheels in motion.

A flash flood in 1908 exposed this profoundly important archaeological site near Folsom, New Mexico. (Credit: DMNS/02-2048A.1)

A flash flood in 1908 exposed this profoundly important archaeological site near Folsom, New Mexico. (Credit: DMNS/02-2048A.1)

Cook and Figgins went to the Folsom Site in early spring of 1926 to develop a plan of action; Schwachheim’s excavation team entered the field in May. Their goal was to secure an exhibition-quality bison skeleton for the museum—they had no way (yet) of knowing that the site contained evidence of ancient humans. Indeed, most scientific experts at the time thought that Native Americans had been in North America for only a few thousand years.

In mid-July, Schwachheim’s team discovered the base of a broken stone spear point. Unfortunately, they found it in a pile of the soil that had been removed by mule teams in order to gain access to the bone bed. As such, they could not prove it was directly associated with Ice Age mammals.

When told of the discovery, Figgins immediately recognized its scientific importance and potential. He told Schwachheim in no uncertain terms: If the team finds other points in the bone bed they should be left exactly where they are so that the deposit can be examined by specialists. Disappointingly, none were discovered that year.

Schwachheim’s team returned to the site in 1927 with the exact same directive: Newly discovered points were to be left precisely where they were found until specialists could be called in. On August 29, the moment of truth finally arrived: They exposed a complete spear point between two bison ribs.

According to plan, Schwachheim telegrammed Figgins, who then contacted prominent archaeologists to announce the discovery and ask them to come see, and hopefully confirm, for themselves. Serendipitously, two of those archaeologists, though based on the East Coast, were already in Pecos, New Mexico—only 200 miles away from Folsom.

The wait, though less than a week in duration, must’ve been excruciating for Schwachheim and his team. They had worked for months under difficult conditions and now had to wait for specialists to confirm what they already knew—they had made a major scientific discovery. Over the next several weeks Alfred Vincent Kidder, Frank H.H. Roberts, and other specialists confirmed the initial field assessment: The point was indeed directly associated with the bison, proving that Native Americans had hunted large mammals during the last Ice Age. That Folsom point instantly became an icon, and it remains prominently on display at DMNS, still in its original sediment block.

Barnum Brown and Carl Schwachheim at bison Quarry, Folsom, New Mexico. Brown and Schwachheim are sitting at site of arrowhead in situ. (Credit: Jesse Dade Figgins)

Carl Schwachheim (left) shows the Folsom point, in its original excavation context, to visiting paleontologist Barnum Brown on September 4, 1927 (Credit: Jesse Dade Figgins)

The One That Mattered

The now iconic Folsom point was in fact the third spear point found at the Folsom Site. In addition to the broken point found in the soil pile in July 1926, Schwachheim’s team discovered a second point on July 14, 1927. For some reason, they ignored Figgins’ explicit directive and sent it, encased in a large block of sediment, to Denver. Figgins confirmed their discovery in the lab, but he knew from personal experience that they still needed a point in the field in order to convince the experts.

In 1924, Figgins had been involved in a remarkably similar project at the Lone Wolf Creek Site in central Texas. He had discovered Stone Age spear points in the laboratory, in sediment blocks that had been sent to the museum, just like the second point from Folsom. But he never found a point in the field at Lone Wolf Creek, which is why he was so adamant in his directive to Schwachheim’s team. Figgins must have been infuriated when their sediment block arrived in Denver in 1927. But he, like any good scientist, was patient, discerning, and critical.

The expert in-field confirmation that Figgins sought for so long, and eventually obtained, is the sole reason that the term “Folsom” is now given to a site, an artifact type, and a world-famous archaeological culture. By comparison, the Lone Wolf Creek Site is unknown, has no eponymous artifact type, and there is no archaeological culture bearing its name. Such is the nature of science.

Although the discovery and confirmation chapters of the Folsom story took place in both the field and the laboratory, it did not include research on museum collections. And it failed to answer some (now) basic archaeological questions: How old was the site, in years? How many animals were killed? Where did the raw material for the Folsom points come from? As we shall see in my next post, the Folsom story is still being written through the use of new analytical techniques and the reanalysis of archives and artifacts curated by museums.

[This work first appeared on SAPIENS under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license. Read the original here.]

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

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

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