Ecology in videos and podcasts

Oysters proposed for cleaning up New York’s rivers, mall music has a bigger impact than boosting sales, cephalopods advance research in neuroscience and robotics, how gut bacteria might be shaping brain development and behavior and E.O. Wilson discusses a life of research on ants. Here are the remaining links from January. Oyster-tecture: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a study today showing heavy contamination in the Gowanus Canal in New York City. In the above TED video, landscape architect Kate Orff discusses plans to reestablish oysters to the Canal as a way to filter pollution and create habitats for other species. “One oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day,” said Orff, “…and they become the bedrock of any harbor ecosystem.” Read more at “Reviving New York’s rivers — with oysters!” Lowering music emissions: Stanford University journalism students put a new spin on the term noise pollution: They calculated just how much energy is used to play background music in malls in the U.S. As explained in the Scientific American podcast 60-Second Earth, “[the students] crunched the numbers on how much energy it takes to play all that pop and came up with a figure of 1.18 gigawatt-hours. Given the present energy mix that means Mantovani adds more than 3,000 metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year.” Read more and listen at “Another Reason to Hate Shopping Sound Tracks.” Cephalopod brains: In a lengthy BoingBoing video, science journalist Maggie Koerth-Baker explains the cephalopod—such as octopuses and squid—brain and how it is used for communication, object detection and predator avoidance. “The secret to the octopus’ success: its brain,” she said in the video. “This incredibly weird structure, from our biased vertebrate mammalian perspective…is the result of an evolutionary process hundreds of millions of years removed from our own, creating an organ that looks on the surface nothing like what we’ve come to expect an honest brain to be.” Koerth-Baker applies these brain functionalities to neuroscience and robotics. Read more at “everybody loves cephalopods.” E.O. Wilson on ants and life: In an Encyclopedia of Life podcast, E.O. Wilson, now 81, discusses his lifelong study of ants—including the red imported fire ant that he discovered at the age of 13 in Alabama—and what drives him to continue his research. “I think my life proves, if you are truly a dedicated naturalist, if you’ve known the joys of exploring  biodiversity, and you’ve become fairly familiar with ecosystems that feel like home to you when you step into them…that it is a source of lifelong pleasure, adventure, challenge and excitement,” he said in the podcast.  Read more and listen...

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Snow fleas: helpful winter critters

As the Northeast of the United States was hammered by thundersnow this week, students, parents and perhaps those working from home had the opportunity to indulge in outdoor winter activities. For many, being in the snow again is losing its luster. As an Associated Press article noted, “The Northeast has already been pummeled by winter not even halfway into the season. The airport serving Hartford, Conn., got a foot of snow, bringing the total for the month so far to 54.9 inches and breaking the all-time monthly record of 45.3 inches, set in December 1945.” However, those who are venturing outside might discover that snow forts and shovels are not the only things littering the fresh snow. At close examination, perhaps in melting snow around the base of a tree, tiny black flecks might be found sprinkled in the snow. They probably look like bits of dirt at first glance, but they are actually tiny soil animals known as snow fleas. Officially, they are called springtails and are not actually fleas (or even technically insects). On any given summer day, hundreds of thousands of springtails can populate one cubic meter of top soil; at 1-2 mm, they largely go unnoticed by people. In the winter, however, two species of dark blue springtails— Hypogastrura harveyi and Hypogastrura nivicol—can be easily spotted against the white backdrop of snow. These hexapods may have acquired the nickname of snow fleas due to their ability to jump great distances, a feat fleas boast as well. Whereas fleas use enlarged hind legs, springtails have a tail-like appendage called a furcula that unfolds to launch the hexapods great distances. But unlike fleas, springtails are not parasites; they feed on decaying organic matter in the soil (such as leaf litter) and, therefore, play an important part in natural decomposition. Snow fleas in particular are able to withstand the bitter temperatures of winter thanks to a “glycine-rich antifreeze protein,” as reported in a study published in Biophysical Journal. The protein in the snow fleas binds to ice crystals as they start to form, preventing the crystals from growing larger. In addition, by isolating this protein, researchers have been able to study the medical potential of its structure. Specifically, Brad Pentelute from the University of Chicago and colleagues suggested the possible applications of this protein in safely preserving organs for human transplantation. LIN, F., GRAHAM, L., CAMPBELL, R., & DAVIES, P. (2007). Structural Modeling of Snow Flea Antifreeze Protein Biophysical Journal, 92 (5), 1717-1723 DOI: 10.1529/biophysj.106.093435 Photo Credit (distance snow fleas): Jean-Sébastien Bouchard Photo Credit (snow flea close-up): Daniel Thompkins As the Northeast of the United States was hammered...

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Animal-made art, medicine and language

An impressive work of wasp art is discovered in an ordinary attic, lizards that use venom to lower the blood pressure of prey could contribute to new medications, researchers translate prairie dog alarms and discover a language, contestants submit ideas for bridges designed to prevent wildlife from becoming roadkill and street art in China raises awareness of wooden chopstick waste. Here are stories in ecology and the environment from the end of January 2011. Intricate wasp nest design: Some wasps create nests by creating a paper-pulp-like material from saliva and wood fibers. The colorful nest pictured above was discovered by a plumber in an attic in the United Kingdom. Luckily for the photographer and the plumber, the wasps that created this massive nest had already abandoned their home by the time it was found.  Read more or visit the original photo stream on Flickr. Medicine from lizard venom: By surveying two dozen species of anguimorphs, researchers have found that some lizards previously thought to be nonvenomous actually are able to administer toxins. The results—published in the journal Molecular and Cellular Proteomics—provide insight into the venom delivery mechanisms of lizards. In addition, the researchers suggest the potential for developing new blood pressure medications. That is, peptides in the lizards’ venom immobilize prey by lowering its blood pressure. Read more at “Researchers take lizard venom to heart.” Prairie dog language: A recent National Public Radio (NPR) article, describes the work of Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University, who has been studying the warning calls of prairie dogs for 30 years. Using computer programs to analyze sounds, Slobodchikoff and colleagues have found that these social rodents have more than just a couple of alarms—they seem to have an entire language. At one point, the researchers recorded prairie dog responses to four humans dressed exactly the same except for the color of their shirts. As Slobodchikoff explained in the NPR article, “Essentially they were saying, ‘Here comes the tall human in the blue,’ versus, ‘Here comes the short human in the yellow.'” Read more and hear the calls at “New Language Discovered: Prairiedogese.” Wildlife crossing: Architects and designers submitted entries to the International Wildlife Crossing Infrastructure Design Competition to develop the most effective structure to transport wildlife across highways. The goal of the competition was to create bridges, tunnels and other paths that would encourage wildlife to safely traverse roads, thereby reducing incidents of vehicle collisions with wild animals. As described by The New York Times, the winning “bridge is broad enough to allow for strips–lanes, actually–that resemble forests, shrubs and meadows, with the aim of satisfying the tastes of any of the...

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Two surprising critters living in the tiny world of moist soil

The unseen world of soil microbiota is full of surprises: Take, for instance, tiny animals called water bears that thrive in almost any location on Earth (and even outer space) through suspended animation. And even a shape-shifting slime mold that cultivates bacteria in order to  harvest it in the future. These are only two of the organisms populating soil—yet there are hundreds of other microcritters on which plants and larger animals rely. Water Bears Water bears, which are named for the bear-like gait with which they walk, use claws at the end of eight pudgy legs to cling to leaves, moss and other debris. Stylets at the end of a tubular mouth pierce plant cells and small invertebrates (and even other water bears in some cases) while a pharynx sucks out the juices. Water bears—officially called tardigrades and also known as moss piglets—possess a compartmentalized brain and nervous system, intestine, eye sockets, anus and, in most cases, gonads.  Some species reproduce internally through intercourse while others rely on fertilizing eggs externally. Water bears are found in moist soil and in extreme environments as well. They also thrive in an ecosystem in Antarctica, in boiling hot springs and can even tolerate long periods (up to a decade) of dehydration. Whereas a majority of living organisms die if exposed to extreme dryness, called dessication, water bears have evolved a unique characteristic: “They can reversibly enter a state of suspended animation called cryptobiosis, in which their metabolism screeches to a halt and their water content plunges to a hundredth of normal,” as the blog The Artful Amoeba described. “This helps protect their DNA, and a sugar called trehalose helps protect their membranes.” In addition, water bears are the only animals to survive the radiation-intense, extremely dry vacuum of space—and later recover to breed again. Slime molds These are definitely not your garden variety slugs. Technically Dictyostelium discoideum, also called slime molds, are social amoeba commonly found in soil. And despite also being featured in science labs as a model organism, it was not until recently that researchers discovered these single-celled organisms were also avid farmers. When times get tough, such as when there is a shortage of bacteria for the slime molds to consume, the individual amoebas will join forces to form a slug and migrate to another location. Once it arrives at a suitable locale, the slug again changes shape—this time into a plant-like formation complete with a stalk and a spore. D. discoideum stays “planted” in this shape until food becomes available; then the stalk dies and the spore breaks free to form amoeba once again. D. discoideum research published...

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When it comes to economics, diversity is key

A study published this week in Nature compared the U.S. economic downturn with a current ecological issue: a decline in biodiversity. In the study, economist Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England and zoologist Robert May of Oxford University basically described the financial system as having similar weaknesses as a monoculture. That is, if all banks are run equally, they are more susceptible to a uniform crisis; much in the way that a pest invasion would have a farther-reaching impact on a plot of land with all of the same species. According to a Scientific American article, “One way to combat this issue is to establish more self-contained “nodes” as has been employed in forest management and even computer networks, so that if one element takes a hit, it doesn’t take down the entire system.” As Sarah Zielinski explained in today’s Surprising Science post, “There are lessons to be had from the world of ecology, say Haldane and May. We could be promoting and managing ecosystem resilience better by requiring banks to have a larger proportion of liquid assets on hand in case of some sort of shock to the system. Taking a lesson from epidemiology, we could focus on limiting the number of ‘super-spreaders’ within the network; but instead of quarantining infected individuals we would somehow limit the number of ‘super-spreader institutions,’ those banks more familiarly labeled as ‘too big to fail.’” Discover’s blog 80beats implied that the current structure could be affected like a trophic cascade: “Modern ecologists recognize that the failure of key species could cause non-linear, cascading ripples that cripple a whole ecosystem.” Some might propose that these comparisons oversimplify the financial system; however, the overall recognition that industry could draw on ecological science to reevaluate such a complex network is a valid argument to make. “Whether or not experts agree that biology is a useful lens through which to study financial markets, Haldane and May suggested that financial regulation is already ‘following in the footsteps of ecology, which has increasingly drawn on a system-wide perspective when promoting and managing ecosystem resilience,’” concluded the Scientific American article. Photo Credit: Dirk...

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