From the Community: street lamps, traffic lights and nuclear energy

Songbirds become disoriented by street lamps, plants adapt to the conditions near Chernobyl, a newly discovered spider spins gigantic webs with the strongest known biological material in the world, traffic light experiment shows promise of reducing emissions and easing traffic congestion and researchers discuss the Daily Show with Jon Stewart as an outlet for communicating science to the public. Here are some of the latest stories in ecology for the second to last week in September.

Climate and oceans: In the above video, Rob Dunbar from Stanford University presents data from corals and ice cores to show significant changes in the world’s oceans throughout the last few centuries. For example, Dunbar and colleagues analyzed the cores of coral heads throughout the Galapagos Islands to determine the frequency of devastating events, such as an El Niño, occurring 200 to 400 years ago. The researchers found that the El Niño events from 1982 to 1983 and 1997 to 1998 were unique—that is, the researchers did not see evidence of any other mass mortality events before the 1980s in the coral cores. Read more at “Rob Dunbar: Discovering ancient climates in oceans and ice.”

Songbirds and street lamps: Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany have discovered that street lamps may have an effect on male songbirds, prompting them to sing earlier in the morning. As Cynthia Graber described in Scientific American’s 60-Second Science, “… the males may be weaker because they get less sleep due to the lights. And so females who used to take early singing as a sign of virility may be attracted to weaker males who simply can’t sleep because the lights are on.” Listen to the podcast “Artificial Lighting Changing Songbird Lifestyles.”

“Shielded” plants: “In April 1986, a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine exploded and sent radioactive particles flying through the air, infiltrating the surrounding soil,” wrote Sindya N. Bhanoo of The New York Times. “Despite the colossal disaster, some plants in the area seem to have adapted well, flourishing in the contaminated soil.” According to Martin Hajduch at the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Slovakia in a recent Environmental Science and Technology study, the plants may have altered protein levels to serve as a defense mechanism against radiation. Read more at “Plants Near Chernobyl Appear to Grow a Shield.”

Stealthy sea walnuts: Sean Colin from Roger Williams University examined the feeding mechanism of the sea walnut: a continuous intake-output system (see above video). Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science wrote that the sea walnut “…creates a current that sucks everything in the surrounding water into its tentacle-ringed mouth. The current it creates flows smoothly at just 2 millimetres per second. Only when it passes over the animal’s mouth does it accelerate and warp, spiralling into a corkscrew motion that goes past the tentacles… The sea walnut creates its own conveyor belt of food, a streaming buffet made up of a varied selection of dishes.” Read more at “The stealthy sea walnut sucks to succeed.”

Darwin’s bark spider: Scientists have discovered Caerostris darwini, known as Darwin’s bark spider, in the jungles of Madagascar. The spider spins the strongest and largest known web in the world, spanning 30-square-foot areas above streams and rivers. Bradon Keim from Wired Science wrote, “The spiders’ superior gossamer likely evolved in tandem with C. darwini’s migration to Madagascar’s rivers, and is twice as elastic as silk from other web-weaving spiders. That elasticity is key to the silk’s toughness, and its molecular underpinnings remain to be studied.” Read more at “Gigantic Spider Webs Made of Silk Tougher Than Kevlar.”

Also, traffic lights that adjust to the number of cars could reduce emissions (and minimize congestion), white-nose syndrome shows roots in Europe, nuclear power plants that could run double their expected lifespan and Matthew Nisbet’s thoughts on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart as an outlet for communicating science to the public.

Author: Katie Kline

Moderator of EcoTone and ESA's communications officer.

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