Extreme weather, campaigning honeybees and tracking whale sharks

This post contributed by Molly Taylor, ESA Science Writing Intern. Extreme weather: The rare multi-vortex that hit Joplin, Missouri on May 22 has claimed more than 100 lives and destroyed countless homes and buildings. Unfortunately, this is not the only natural disaster to devastate the U.S. this year. According to a recent Washington Post article, this storm season is turning out to be one of the most violent on record. The extreme weather, Brian Vastag and Ed O’Keefe reported in the article, is due at least in part to La Nina: “The jet stream’s river of cool air high in the atmosphere pulls warmer, more humid air from the ground upward, forming thunderstorm ‘supercells.’ Such a pattern drove the outbreak of more than 300 tornadoes that swept from Mississippi to Tennessee in late April, killing at least 365…” But according to the Post, researchers have also been exploring the potential role of climate change in recent weather patterns. Read more at “Storm season on deadly path; Obama to visit Joplin.” Campaigning honeybees: In the spring, beehives can reach capacity, basically overflowing with honey and bee larva. This overcrowding can cause the hive to literally burst in two, leaving half of the population in need of a new home. The old queen leads one half of the homeless pack to establish a new colony at a separate location, while a new queen takes charge of the existing hive. But where do the homeless bees go? Despite the royal title, the queen is not ruling a monarchy—worker bees actually vote for their favorite location. “The older, more experienced bees…fly off looking for options,” wrote NPR’s Robert Krulwich, and upon their return, they “announce their ‘finds’ by dancing.” That is the point when the “waggle dancing” begins (and yes, that is the official term), whereby the scouting bees use dancing to signal their sister bees. This encourages the sister bees to have a peek at the potential new home, and if they like what they see, they start doing the same dance. “This is how bees ‘vote,’” wrote Krulwich. “They dance themselves into a consensus.” Read more at “Nature’s Secret: Why Honey Bees Are Better Politicians Than Humans.” Tracking whale sharks: “With the help of algorithms designed to guide the Hubble telescope’s starscape surveys, conservation-minded coders have designed software that helps biologists identify whale sharks by their spots,” wrote Brandon Keim in a recent Wired Science article. “The program enlists the help of citizens with cameras, and lets researchers track Earth’s biggest fish across time and oceans.” In the past, researchers have found whale sharks to be too elusive to track as...

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The evolution of beer yeasts, seedy pants and vampire bat venom-turned medicine

Beer yeasts: Researchers at Lund University in Sweden tracked the history of two yeasts—Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Dekkera bruxellensis—used in alcohol fermentation to pinpoint their role in ethanol production. They found that, around 150 million years ago, competition with other microbes, and the overall increase in sugar-rich fruits, encouraged the yeasts to withstand high ethanol concentrations—an adaptation that would allow them to survive in places other microbes could not. “Now, scientists are closing in on just how and why yeast evolved to [ferment sugars into alcohol],” wrote John Roach in an MSNBC article. “No, it wasn’t to get humans drunk.” Read more at “The why of yeast’s buzz-giving ways” or the press release “Wine yeasts reveal prehistoric microbial world.” Camouflaged cuttlefish: “Cuttlefish are masters of camouflage. Like their relatives, the squid and the octopus, cuttlefish can change the colour of their skin to perfectly match a bed of pebbles, a clump of algae, or a black-and-white chessboard,” wrote Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science (see below video of previous research). Alexandra Barbosa from the University of Porto found that cuttlefish use visual cues to alter their appendages as well. In other words, when the cephalopods were placed against backgrounds of various striped patterns, they adjusted their tentacles to match the pattern that they saw. Read more and see photos at “Pocket Science – will all camouflaged cuttlefish please raise their tentacles?” Seedy pants: One of the most topical quotes this week—“I wish nature would stop getting it on in my eyeballs”—was uttered by a fellow allergy sufferer. Allergy season is in full force in temperate locales, such as some parts of the U.S. East Coast, as trees flood the air with pollen in the hopes of reaching a female counterpart. There are several ways that pollen travels, such as the wind, but most of us have probably never considered the role of pants in tree pollination. Yes, pants not plants. As quoted in a recent NPR article, “‘Because of his great mobility,’ [British botanist Edward] Salisbury wrote (projecting from his personal data set), ‘man is probably the most active agent—though usually an unconscious one—for [the] external transport of seeds.’” Read more at “Strange Things Happen To Guys Who Wear Pants.” Vampire bat venom: Scientists have tapped vampire bat saliva as a potential medication for treating stroke in humans, and the drug is actually called “Draculin.” It was announced this week that the drug would enter Phase 2 tests. “When vampire bats bite their victims, their saliva releases an enzyme called desmoteplase, or DSPA, into the bloodstream, which causes blood to flow more readily,” wrote Patrick Morgan on Discover’s blog...

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Noise pollution in the ocean damages cephalopods’ auditory structures

Pollution is not limited to toxic chemicals in the air and water—light pollution in urban environments, for example, has been shown to affect the mating rituals of some birds. Research has also shown that noise pollution in the oceans alters the behavior and communication of marine life such as dolphins and whales that depend on sound for daily activities. And a recent study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (e-View) indicates that noise pollution could have a more widespread impact on the ocean environment. That is, Michel André from the Technical University of Catalonia in Barcelona and colleagues found that low frequency, high intensity sound in the oceans causes massive damage to the auditory structures of cephalopods, like squid and octopus. As Andy Coghlan described today in New Scientist, “It’s not just dolphins and whales that suffer from the noise of shipping, sonar and oil prospecting. Experiments on squid, cuttlefish and octopuses show that their balancing organs are so badly damaged by sound similar to submarine noise pollution that they become practically immobile. The consequences seem permanent.” Specifically, André and colleagues examined the statocysts—fluid-filled sacs responsible for determining balance and positioning in cephalopods—of cuttlefish, squid and octopus that had been exposed to low frequency sound bursts. The researchers found that all of the squid experienced damage to the hair cells inside the statocysts (compared to cephalopods that were not exposed to the sound), and those that were exposed to longer durations of the sound showed large lesions in their statocysts. Read more at Live Science, Science Now and in the Ecological Society of America’s press release. André, M., Solé, M., Lenoir, M., Durfort, M., Quero, C., Mas, A., Lombarte, A., van der Schaar, M., López-Bejar, M., Morell, M., Zaugg, S., & Houégnigan, L. (2011). Low-frequency sounds induce acoustic trauma in cephalopods Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment DOI:...

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From the Community: December Edition

The following links highlight ecology from the month of December, but there are several science-related end-of-year lists floating around as well.

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Mechanized planet? Where geoengineering stands

Several proposals for geoengineering projects are being explored–including cloud seeding, ocean iron fertilization and afforestation–as a plan for mitigating climate change. Monica Kanojia explores these methods and the current economic and technological issues surrounding them.

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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 communication science to the public. Here are some of the latest stories in ecology for the second to last week in September.

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ESA Policy News: August 10

Here are some highlights from the final ESA Policy News by Piper Corp, ESA’s outgoing Science Policy Analyst. Thanks, Piper, for keeping EcoTone readers informed about policy for the last couple of years and for your many other insightful posts. We will miss you! Read the full Policy News here.

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