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

Why Are Oddly Satisfying Videos So…Satisfying?

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 15, 2017 11:58 am


If you’ve never seen a master lathe operator at work, I highly recommend it. Deft movements and practiced flourishes turn a block of spinning wood into a bedpost, top, bowl or some other circular object, each motion peeling away curls of wood to uncover the beauty hidden inside.

It’s hard to explain why the motions feel so right, but there is an undeniable allure to the work, as if it scratches an itch you didn’t know you had. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: senses

Wait, What Happened in Cuba?

By Carl Engelking | August 11, 2017 4:15 pm

The American embassy in Havana, Cuba. (Credit: Shutterstock)

U.S.-Cuban relations have taken an unusual turn after several U.S. diplomats, and at least one Canadian diplomat, experienced hearing damage after being targeted by a covert “sonic device” in Havana.

Huh? A what?

On Wednesday, U.S. officials who spoke to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity revealed that in the fall of 2016, at least five U.S. diplomats began experiencing unexplainable hearing loss and other physical symptoms while serving at the embassy in Havana—so severe, they returned home to the U.S. for medical treatment. One U.S. diplomat will need to use a hearing aid as a result of their injuries, CNN reports. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: gadgets

Crucial Steps Ahead for Flying Cars

By Christina Reed | July 25, 2017 12:33 pm

An artist’s conception of the AeroMobil flying car. (Credit: AeroMobil)

Flying cars are up against a wall — literally. Turning aircraft into street-safe machines requires manufacturers to prove their safety standards in crash tests. So at least one expensive prototype needs to get smashed to smithereens, while its dummy passengers survive. This is no small financial hurdle, and for a decade the industry has been just a few years away from getting models street-certified. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: transportation

What’s Going On With the World’s Most Destructive Mud Volcano?

File 20170713 2491 2z5a5d

Now abandoned, part of Sidoarjo town is entombed in mud metres thick. (Credit: sawerigading)

The world’s most destructive mud volcano was born near the town of Sidoarjo, on the island of Java, Indonesia, just over 11 years ago – and to this day it has not stopped erupting. The mud volcano known as Lusi started on May 29, 2006, and at its peak disgorged a staggering 180,000 cubic meters of mud every day, burying villages in mud up to 40 meters thick. The worst event of its kind in recorded history, the eruption took 13 lives and destroyed the homes of 60,000 people. But although the mud is still flowing more than a decade later, scientists are not yet agreed on its cause.

The debate is whether the eruption of Lusi was due to an earthquake several days previously, or down to a catastrophic failure of the Banjar Panji 1 gas exploration well that was being drilled nearby at the time. Given the huge impact of the volcano on the communities nearby and the fields that were their livelihoods, why are we still unsure of the cause? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts

What Would It Take to Wipe Out All Life on Earth?

An asteroid smacks into planet Earth.

(Credit: Shutterstock)

The first exoplanet was spotted in 1988. Since then more than 3,000 planets have been found outside our solar system, and it’s thought that around 20 percent of Sun-like stars have an Earth-like planet in their habitable zones. We don’t yet know if any of these host life – and we don’t know how life begins. But even if life does begin, would it survive?

Earth has undergone at least five mass extinctions in its history. It’s long been thought that an asteroid impact ended the dinosaurs. As a species, we are rightly concerned about events that could lead to our own elimination – climate change, nuclear war or disease could wipe us out. So it’s natural to wonder what it would take to eliminate all life on a planet. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: natural disasters

Can Breathing Like Wim Hof Make Us Superhuman?

By Nathaniel Scharping | July 6, 2017 11:24 am
(Credit: Innerfire BV)

(Credit: Innerfire BV)

Take a deep breath. Feel the wave of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide press against the bounds of your ribcage and swell your lungs. Exhale. Repeat.

Before consciously inhaling, you probably weren’t thinking about breathing at all. The respiratory system is somewhat unique to our bodies in that we are both its passenger and driver. We can leave it up to our autonomic nervous system, responsible for unconscious actions like our heartbeat and digestion, or we can seamlessly take over the rhythm of our breath.

To some, this duality offers a tantalizing path into our subconscious minds and physiology. Control breathing, the thinking goes, and perhaps we can nudge other systems within our bodies. This is part of the logic behind Lamaze techniques, the pranayamic breathing practiced in yoga and even everyday wisdom — “just take a deep breath.”

These breathing practices promise a kind of visceral self-knowledge, a more perfect melding of mind and body that expands our self-control to subconscious activities. These may be dubious claims to some.

For Wim Hof, a Dutch daredevil nicknamed “The Iceman,” it is the basis of his success. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Memory Repression: A Dubious Theory That’s Sticking Around

By Ian Graber-Stiehl | July 6, 2017 10:34 am

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Compared to the other generational tragedies of the late ’80s and early ’90s, the rise of memory repression cases is hardly remembered. But nevertheless, during that time hundreds of abuse cases in the courts hinged on unproven theories of Sigmund Freud, tearing hundreds of families asunder and solidifying memory repression in clinical lore. Harvard University psychologist Richard McNally famously called repressed memories “the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy.”

For journalist Mark Pendergrast, it was the start of his career as a science writer. Falling into a rabbit hole of research on Freud for another book on Coca Cola, he began investigating memory recovery therapy. The resulting book, “Victims of Memory,” debunked many of the claims buttressing memory repression, and he painted an uncomfortable picture of a justice system that filed an some 800 criminal cases based on what may amount to pseudoscience.

But far from being a one-time phenomenon, belief in memory repression remains a prevalent notion. So Pendergrast has written two new books on the subject: ‘Memory Warp: How the Myth of Repressed Memory Arose and Refuses to Die,’ and an academic textbook ‘The Repressed Memory Epidemic: How It Happened and What We Need to Learn from It.’ He incorporated new incorporated new research, conducted in partnership with Southern Mississippi University’s Lawrence Patihis, in his new work. Discover spoke with Pendergrast about why he decided to revisit a topic he dug into more than two decades ago.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Designing a Safer Explosive

By David Chavez | July 3, 2017 2:40 pm

(Credit: Shutterstock)

This Fourth of July, as you and your family settle on a sandy beach or grassy lawn to watch a fireworks display, you’re probably not thinking about the science behind the explosives you’re witnessing. In fact, you probably are not even thinking of them as explosives. But that’s exactly what they are—-and there’s a lot of science that goes into creating that dazzling display of fire and colors.

Fireworks often comprise mixtures of oxidizers and fuels that are ready to participate in combustion chemical reactions. When given enough energy to begin the reaction process, the oxidizers and fuels react to generate heat, smoke and reaction products such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water vapor and nitrogen. The heat generated can be used to excite “coloring agents,” or metal ions, that then emit the colored light we are accustomed to seeing in fireworks. The metal ions commonly used in pyrotechnics are sodium (yellow-orange), calcium (red-orange), barium (green), strontium (red) and copper (blue).
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: materials science

Will Robots Rule Finance?


(Credit: Shutterstock)

The year is 2030. You’re in a business school lecture hall, where just a handful of students are attending a finance class.

The dismal turnout has nothing to with professorial style, school ranking or subject matter. Students simply aren’t enrolled, because there are no jobs out there for finance majors.

Today, finance, accounting, management and economics are among universities’ most popular subjects worldwide, particularly at graduate level, due to high employability. But that’s changing. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

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