Floods and foods, dogs protecting cats and microbial munchers

This post contributed by Molly Taylor, ESA Science Writing Intern. Tiny critters: Though all smaller than a millimeter in size, four critters highlighted by Neatorama are much larger in effectiveness. When there is no oxygen around to speak of (or to breathe in), shewanella inhales the likes of uranium and chromium. The bacterium exhales the toxic metals with a few extra electrons, which prevents the toxins from moving through ground water. By surrounding toxic waste sites with the bacteria, scientists are hoping to protect lakes and streams from pollutants. And despite the harsh reputation, E. coli is not all bad either. Not only is it one of the most important bacteria inside the human intestinal tract, its rapid reproduction time has contributed to research exploring the role of chance in evolution. And there is a wormier side to the fountain of youth. A transparent, low-maintenance roundworm that shares 35 percent of human genes may reveal the key to diminishing the effects of aging. Read more at “4 Little Creatures That Pack a Big Scientific Punch.” Floods and foods: Floods, such as those in the Mississippi River valley, raise concerns about food safety. According to a recent Scientific American article, “the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] doesn’t allow any flooded out crops—organic or otherwise—to be sold or consumed by people,” and the FDA policy governing farmers’ response to floods is designed to make sure that consumers have access to safe food. According to a group of Italian researchers working in the Swiss Alps, however, we can expect more floods as long as the global temperature continues to rise. The study showed that global warming does increase flood risk significantly, with so-called “100 year floods” increasing in frequency by as often as every 20 years. Read more at “Sop Soil: Have the Recent Record Floods Compromised the Safety of Organic Farm Produce?” Active learning: Graduate student David Haak wanted to boost the performance of educationally and economically disadvantaged students in introductory science classes. Disadvantaged students were previously more than twice as likely as their classmates to fail the huge intro lecture courses that serve as key portals to higher-level sciences. To address this challenge, Haak turned to the latest K-12 teacher books to design a more structured course, including small group discussions, short weekly exams and class-wide quizzes that enable instructors to get instant feedback on the class’s comprehension. The new design, which was based on an active learning model, saw improved learning for all students, especially the disadvantaged students. “Even as class size more than doubled, lab time was cut by 30 percent and the ratio of teaching assistants-to-students fell...

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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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Army ants, beard microbes and ant-mimicking jumping spiders

Army ant week: Biologist and photographer Alex Wild reported on army ants all last week  in a series of posts on his blog Myrmecos. In one post, he described how army ants link with one another using hooks on their feet: “When the time comes to encamp, they can string together living curtains of ants in a matter of minutes. Army ant bivouacs are made from the ants themselves, a vibrant structure that protects the vulnerable brood and maintains temperature within a single degree of optimal.” Read more or view photos at “Army Ants as Living Legos.” Funky pheromones: Chemical signals, as ecologist and blogger Tracey Switek put it in a recent post on The Olive Tree, “don’t have to just be scents that waft through the air…They can be toxins, which send a very clear signal either because they make the plant taste bad or outright kill or injure anything that tries to eat. We’re all familiar with the culinary herbs such as basil, mint, thyme, cilantro and sage… But the real purpose of those pungent chemicals is to discourage insect predation.” Chemical signals can change the behavior of a species in many ways—for example, pheromones on squid eggs can cause males to become aggressive at the slightest touch (see above video). Read more at “Everybody Stinks: Chemical Signaling in the Undergrowth” and at “Rage-inducing chemical on squid eggs turns males into violent thugs” by Not Exactly Rocket Science. Woody vines: Stefan Schnitzer from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and colleagues gathered data on the abundance of woody vine growth in American tropical and subtropical forests, and the cascading effects they had on biodiversity and water supply. According to a recent Live Science article, “It’s possible an increase in woody vines could change the nutrient dynamics of forests, in part because of differences between their leaves and the leaves of tropical trees, all of which ultimately fertilize the forest floor.” Read more at “Twisted Tropics: Growth of Vines Imperils Ecosystem.” Ant-mimicking spider: Michael Bok described the jumping spider, Myrmarachne plataleoides, in his blog Anthropoda. At first glance, the spider appears to be a red ant, but upon further examination, the  four pairs of legs become noticeable (see above video). “It makes up for a lack of antennae, and an overabundance of legs, by holding its forelegs up, alongside the head,” he wrote. “Its huge anterior medial eyes are colored to match the head when not viewed directly, and the posterior lateral eyes are enlarged, with darkened pigment around them to mimic an ant’s eyes. Also, the cephalothorax and abdomen are deformed and narrowed considerably.” Read more at...

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From the Community: Ecology in uncommon roles

Based on news articles and studies from last week, ecology can be involved in serenading your mother, inspiring fashion, describing the fundamentals of politics and guiding robots in nano-scale terrain. Here are a few examples of ecology in uncommon roles from the second week in May.

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