Category: Living World

Unintended Consequences: The Sinister Side of Species Protection

By Susan Brackney | April 6, 2016 1:49 pm
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One of 13 bald eagles found dead on a farm in Maryland. (Credit: Maryland Natural Resources Police)

There’s something dark at work when it comes to certain human-animal interactions.

A recent report from the Ecological Society of America admits that calling attention to plants and animals in need of special protections can actually result in “perverse consequences,” ultimately putting some species in harm’s way—even in the face of stiff penalties.

Killing a bald eagle is a federal offense punishable by up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. “A subsequent conviction under the Bald and Golden Eagles Act, raises the maximum penalty up to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine,” says Neil Mendelsohn, assistant special agent in charge at the Northeast Regional Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

He’s currently investigating the mysterious deaths of 13 bald eagles discovered in Federalsburg, Maryland in late February. The reward for information now stands at $25,000. Necropsies show the birds didn’t die of disease or natural causes, and officials are keeping mum so far—other than to say human intervention is suspected.

Why do some people target and kill protected animals? It’s a question scientists have asked before. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts

South Asia’s Vultures Back From the Brink

By William H. Funk | April 4, 2016 8:00 am
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A long-billed (Indian) vulture (Credit: Vaibhavcho, CC)

Unlovely, unloved and utterly necessary for controlling disease and stabilizing ecological health, vultures are under attack around the world.

In Africa, populations of a half-dozen species are nearing collapse due to a combination of human-caused killings ranging from poaching for bushmeat and religious objects to the deliberate poisoning of poached elephant carcasses to destroy the circling scavengers.

In southern Asia, and particularly in India, the chief villain has been a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac, widely used to treat arthritis symptoms in cattle and water buffalo. Diclofenac causes acute kidney failure in vultures feeding from the carcasses of recently treated livestock, and has caused catastrophic declines in all three species of vulture populations in the genus Gyps, including the white-rumped, the long-billed and the slender-billed vultures; the first of these listed species declined by more than 99.9 percent between 1992 and 2007, with tens of millions of individuals dying across South Asia. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts

Bacteria Give Feet 4 Distinct Odors

By Jason Tetro | March 24, 2016 12:44 pm

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Foot odor comes in four main varieties: sweaty, cheesy, vinegary, and cabbage-y. That’s because of chemicals produced by the bacteria down there.

Methanethiol is a key component in the flavor of cheddar cheese. Acetic acid is a result of sugar fermentation—and is better known as vinegar. Byproducts associated with rot, such as propionic acid and butyric acid, can leave feet smelling like rancid cabbage. The most common foot-related chemical, isovaleric acid, is responsible for the smell we call “sweaty.” Our noses are up to two thousand times more sensitive to this chemical than the others, and many of us can recognize it even at the slightest concentration. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: microbes & viruses

Archaeologists Race Against Climate Change to Save Cultural Treasures

By Hannah Hoag | March 22, 2016 1:40 pm
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The remains of a 500-year-old Inuvialuit village are sliding into the ocean as the coast gives way. Archaeologists are moving quickly to excavate the most impressive of the semi-subterranean dwellings to understand the people who lived there. (Credit: Max Friesen)

(This post originally appeared in the brand new, online anthropology magazine SAPIENS. Follow @SAPIENS_org on Twitter to discover more of their work.) 

On a bright and buggy day in July 2014, Max Friesen, whiskered and encased in denim and Gore-Tex, inched across a stretch of tundra overlooking the East Channel of the Mackenzie River, where it unravels into the Arctic Ocean. The archaeologist pushed his way through a tangle of willow brush that grew thick atop the frozen soil sloping towards the ocean.

Friesen was searching for signs of a long-buried house, feeling for the berms and sharply defined depressions in the ground that pointed to subterranean walls and rooms. The work was difficult and stressful. Shrubs obscured the ground. Friesen had to trust that what he felt beneath his boots was in fact the structure of a large home hundreds of years old.

“I was under horrible pressure,” says Friesen from his office at the University of Toronto a year later. “I had this crew of 10 that I wanted to get digging. But if you make a mistake, you’ve devoted 10 people’s labor for weeks at incredibly high costs to get the project going, and if you came down on a crappy house it would be really terrible.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Are Hatcheries Helping, or Hurting, Wild Fish Populations?

By Matthew Berger | March 3, 2016 12:52 pm
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A spawning steelhead trout works its way up the Lewis River at Lucia Falls near Vancouver, WA. (Credit: Greg Shields/Flickr)

The Columbia River basin, stretching from Idaho down through Washington and Oregon, is dotted with more than 200 hatcheries in which salmon and steelhead trout are raised before being released to supplement wild populations.

Those wild fish have struggled on their own, due to fishing, dams that block migration routes and other human-related pressures. Hatcheries can help stabilize populations, allowing fishing operations to continue, but only if they produce fish whose offspring can thrive in the wild.

Michael Blouin, a biology professor at Oregon State University, has long known that fish raised in the concrete troughs of a hatchery are different than wild fish. Blouin and his fellow researchers discovered this back in 2011. Their 19-year examination of steelhead trout — an anadromous fish in the same genus as Pacific salmon — found that steelhead raised in captivity were adapting to the evolutionary pressures of the hatcheries within a single generation. The steelhead that best adapted to hatcheries did worst, in terms of reproductive success, once they were released into the wild. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts

Are Stone-Throwing Chimps Performing ‘Sacred’ Rituals?

By Laura Kehoe, Humboldt University of Berlin | March 2, 2016 11:54 am

Stone throwing – in action and on site. Top line: Adult male tossing, hurling and banging a stone. Bottom line: Stones accumulated in a hollow tree; typical stone throwing site; and stones in between large roots. (Credit: Kühl et al [2016]).

I trampled clumsily through the dense undergrowth, attempting in vain to go a full five minutes without getting snarled in the thorns that threatened my every move. It was my first field mission in the savannahs of the Republic of Guinea. The aim was to record and understand a group of wild chimpanzees who had never been studied before. These chimps are not lucky enough to enjoy the comforts of a protected area, but instead carve out their existence in the patches of forests between farms and villages.

We paused at a clearing in the bush. I let out a sigh of relief that no thorns appeared to be within reach, but why had we stopped? I made my way to the front of the group to ask the chief of the village and our legendary guide, Mamadou Alioh Bah. He told me he had found something interesting – some innocuous markings on a tree trunk. Something that most of us wouldn’t have even noticed in the complex and messy environment of a savannah had stopped him in his tracks. Some in our group of six suggested that wild pigs had made these marks, while scratching up against the tree trunk, others suggested it was teenagers messing around.

But Alioh had a hunch – and when a man that can find a single fallen chimp hair on the forest floor and can spot chimps kilometers away with his naked eye better than you can (with expensive binoculars) as a hunch, you listen to that hunch. We set up a camera trap in the hope that whatever made these marks would come back and do it again, but this time we would catch it all on film. Read More

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

How the Malheur Occupation Hamstrung Science

By April Reese | February 8, 2016 12:14 pm
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In this January 2013 photo, piles of wood from a thinning project designed to reduce wildfire risk to an adjacent town burn on a hillside at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Similar projects are in limbo while armed militants continue to occupy the site. (Credit: USFWS – Pacific Region/Flickr)

Last month, a flock of trumpeter swans alighted on the wetlands of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, repeating an annual ritual that dates back centuries. But for the first time in 80 years, biologists were not there to count them. 

The annual winter bird count, which dates back to 1935, provides key data on multiple species for a national migratory bird monitoring program. Biologists and volunteers count ibis, sandhill cranes, horned larks and other birds that stop at the refuge – an oasis in the high desert of the Great Basin.

But this year, the only people inside the refuge at the start of bird-counting season were a small group of armed militants. Instead of counting birds, refuge scientists are counting days. Monday marks the 38th day of the occupation, orchestrated by ranchers and others angered by a five-year prison sentence handed to local cattlemen Steven and Dwight Hammond for arson – and, more broadly, federal oversight of cattle grazing on public lands. Last week, 11 of the occupiers were arrested while traveling to a meeting, including the movement’s ringleader, Ammon Bundy. Another man, Arizona rancher Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, was killed by local law enforcement. But four holdouts remain at the refuge, and the site remains closed. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts

5 Extreme Examples of Evolutionary Prowess

By Marla Broadfoot | November 25, 2015 11:00 am
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An illustration of the water bear. (Credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki/Shutterstock)

Hidden among us are survivors – living, breathing beings that have pulled off some pretty remarkable feats in order to live another day. They can be found ambling through the moss beneath our feet, drifting in our oceans and our streams, even stuck in the local pet store or on the subway. You just have to know where to look.

These creatures give clues into how we could withstand extreme conditions, regrow damaged tissue or missing limbs, turn back the hands of time, guard ourselves from illness, and perhaps even achieve humankind’s most elusive goal – immortality. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts

Animal Hair Could Inspire Self-Cleaning Technologies

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Watch a fly land on the kitchen table, and the first thing it does is clean itself, very, very carefully. Although we can’t see it, the animal’s surface is covered with dust, pollen and even insidious mites that could burrow into its body if not removed.

Staying clean can be a matter of life and death. All animals, including us human beings, take cleaning just as seriously. Each year, we spend an entire day bathing, and another two weeks cleaning our houses. Cleaning may be as fundamental to life as eating, breathing and mating. Read More

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

Meet the Parasites That Control Human Brains

By Ben Thomas | October 29, 2015 9:00 am
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(Illustration credit: Triff/Shutterstock)

It’s time to enjoy some monster stories, and the scariest monsters of all are those that actually exist.

Join us as we share tales of some of the creepiest parasites around — those that control the brains of their human hosts, sometimes leaving insanity and death in their wake. These are the tales of neurological parasites. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain, Top Posts
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