Buffo the truffle-hunting dog, night-blooming balsa trees and fire-ant-made rafts

Truffle shuffle: According to a letter published in the April issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Buffo the truffle-hunting dog made an unusual find: a one-pound Burgundy truffle in the forests of southern Germany in November. As lead author Ulf Büntgen said in a recent Wired Science article, “This wasn’t a small find, but a big and expensive truffle with lots of smaller ones around. It was strange to find it in an area where, so far, this truffle’s existence has never been reported…The season, early November, was also unusual. This led us to ask, ‘what is driving truffle growth here? Is it connected to climate?’” Read more at “Truffle-Hunting Dog Finds Jackpot in Unexpected Place.” Blooming balsa: Large, blooming balsa trees attract wildlife in the night with their nectar-laden blossoms. Natalie Angier elaborated in a National Geographic article: “When [the capuchin monkeys] look up again, their muzzles are speckled with pollen, which from the [balsa] tree’s perspective is the whole point of its flowers: to capture the attention of a pollinator long enough that the animal can’t help but be brushed with the plant’s equivalent of semen, which, if all goes well, the inadvertent matchmaker will eventually deliver to the female parts of another balsa tree’s flowers. The exchange is simple: You get drinks on the house, my gametes get a ride on your face.” Read more at “Panama’s Ochroma Trees.” Deepwater update: One year after the Deepwater Horizon explosion sent oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico, scientists are still researching the longterm ecological impact of an incident that is unique in many ways. That is, “[t]he field of coral was just 11 kilometres from the Deepwater Horizon well head, which earlier in the year had spewed out more than 4 million barrels of oil and a similar amount of methane—the largest ever accidental release in the ocean,” wrote Mark Schrope in a Nature article. “The spill was unique in other ways, too. Located beyond the continental shelf and some 1,400 metres below the surface, it happened in deeper water than any other major spill in history.” Read more at “Oil spill: Deep wounds.” Peacock spots: Mate selection in peacocks may be more complex than previously thought. That is, the number of eyespots on a male peacock’s feathers is likely not the only factor responsible for female’s mate selection.“The threshold idea certainly makes sense at first glance, says Adeline Loyau, a peacock researcher at the CNRS research station in Moulis, France,” in a Science News article by Susan Milius. “The struggle to understand the long-familiar peacock, adds [Loyau], ‘suggests that we are still far from...

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Birth control for Bremen’s cats

As spring days are punctuated with the chirps and trills of bird song, a recent article in the Guardian seems especially timely.  The northern German city of Bremen plans to take action to curtail its burgeoning population of free–roaming cats, estimated to be at least 1,000 strong. Whether feral or domestic—cats take a significant toll on birds and many other small wild animals.  A U.S. Fish & Wildlife fact sheet on bird mortality puts the figure at several 100 million a year in the United States. The German city of Bremen is concerned about both its local songbirds, such as the Sedge warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus) as well as the spread of disease.  Under the proposed new law, all stray cats would be neutered and any pet owner found to have their cat roaming out of doors would be required to pay neutering fees.  Supporters hope that if the law passes in Bremen it will spark similar laws across Germany.  Public official Undine Kurth said in the Guardian article: “It would help a lot if the federal ministry of agriculture would initiate a debate on the wretched situation.” Recent population estimates in the United States put cat ownership in this country at 93.6 million.  Domestic cats (Felis catus) are not native to North America; European colonists brought them here several centuries ago.  Yet unlike our view of dogs, which must be leashed and cleaned up after, many Americans continue to feel that their cats should be allowed to roam free.  And while cat owners may feed their felines gourmet cat food, this does not curb cats’ natural instinct to hunt and kill small prey. Multiple states, veterinary organizations, and bird conservation groups all encourage voluntary steps by cat owners to keep their cats leashed or indoors.  State Departments of Natural Resources offer information on the impact of cats on native wildlife, the American Veterinary Medical Association encourages owners of domestic cats in urban and suburban areas to keep them indoors, and the American Bird Conservancy has a handy brochure of tips to keep an indoor cat happy.   Many of these organizations point out that in addition to helping native wildlife, cat owners who keep their pets indoors also protect them from disease, cars, and predators such as coyotes. Meanwhile, back in Germany, according to the Guardian article, a few other German towns, such as that of Paderborn, introduced castration of stray cats several years ago.  All residents are required to tattoo or implant their cats with a microchip.  And those who give their cats the boot get socked with a steep fine. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/7955467@N03/3488673676          ...

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Policy News: March 25

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Science Policy Analyst Terence Houston. Read the full Policy News here. NUCLEAR CRISIS: LAWMAKERS URGE NRC TO RAMP UP, REVIEW PLANT SAFETY STANDARDS The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee convened March 16 for a briefing on the nuclear plant crisis in Japan and its implications for the United States. Congressional Democrats have expressed concerns about the safety of the nation’s nuclear power plants, especially reactors that lie on fault lines and are calling for new reviews.  Lawmakers with nuclear power plants in their states raised concerns that NRC has not yet taken proactive measures to ensure the safety of the U.S. plants that use similar technology as the Fukushima plant. Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) cited examples in Switzerland and Germany where older nuclear plants have temporarily been shut down in the wake of the Japanese disaster to ensure their safety. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko told lawmakers that 23 of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors use the same General Electric Mark I boiling water containment design as those at the Japanese plant. They stressed that precautions have been taken at each plant to avoid disasters such as the one brought about in Japan from the recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Jaczko maintained that NRC plans to conduct a “systematic and methodical review” of the Japanese situation and would apply that to its review of the safety of U.S. reactors. Chairwoman Boxer and Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE) issued a letter March 17 to Chairman Jaczko seeking a comprehensive investigation of the NRC’s preparedness for natural disasters. This was coupled with a separate letter from Chairwoman Boxer and Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein (D-CA) requesting that the NRC conduct a thorough inspection of the San Onfore and Diablo Canyon nuclear plants in California. In the House of Representatives, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) declared his intention to hold a series of hearings on the nuclear disaster in coming weeks. He also reaffirmed his support for legislative efforts aimed at speeding up the federal approval process for building new nuclear reactors. House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) sent a letter to the NRC requesting more information on the seismic safety features that are included in nuclear reactors currently in operation in the United States. The letter states “there are eight nuclear reactors located near the New Madrid fault line in the Midwest. There are additionally thirty-one nuclear reactors in the United States that are of the...

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Wildlife damage from Japan’s tsunami

Most people have heard about the damage caused by last week’s massive magnitude 9 earthquake that sent a tsunami—at times reaching 33 feet—onto the island nation of Japan. The situation in Japan is dire. According to CBS News, “An estimated 452,000 people are living in shelters following the earthquake and tsunami. Japan’s police agency currently puts the death toll at 6,900 with 10,700 more people still missing.” Meanwhile, the threat of a nuclear meltdown is looming. The effects of the tsunami are devastating and far-reaching. From around the world, search teams, medics and volunteers work tirelessly to locate and help victims of the quake and floods. While the world’s attention is rightly focused on aiding the people of Japan, other nearby island countries are trying to recover from severe damage to their infrastructure as well. One example is the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and Research Station on the Galapagos island of Santa Cruz. As described in a recent Southern Fried Science post, “The tsunami hit the island at high tide on March 11, and the resulting 1.7 meter flood destroyed essential equipment and shut the research station down for the foreseeable future.” Despite extensive flooding in the Marine Laboratory, the animals at the Research Station were relocated in time to be saved. “Lonesome George, the iconic last Giant Tortoise from Pinta island, had been moved to high ground prior to the tsunami as a precautionary measure,” reported the World Heritage Convention. According to the Galapagos Conservancy, the island’s animal and plant life  may have suffered significant damage: “With regard to the flora and fauna, the impacts are being assessed. According to Galapagos National Park reports, some marine turtle nests at Garrapatero Beach on Santa Cruz were destroyed. We had significant damage to the vegetation along the shore of the Research Station. The marine iguana nests that we have been monitoring within the area…seem fine.” In Japan, the wildlife casualties are more severe than in the Galapagos. As described in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website, “A tsunami generated by a powerful earthquake off the coast of Japan struck Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge at 11:36 PM on Thursday, March 10th and continued for the next few hours…Fortunately, no one was injured and no major damage occurred to the island’s infrastructure…” “The short-tailed albatross nest was washed over again, but the [first short-tailed albatross] chick [to hatch on Midway in decades] was found unharmed about 35 [meters] away and returned unharmed to its nest area. A minimum of 1,000 adult/subadult, and tens of thousands of Laysan Albatross chicks, were lost. Thousands of Bonin petrels were buried alive. Spit Island [was]...

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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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Living video games, seed science and bat rescues

Video games that guide the movement of paramecia, dogs trained to aid in data collection, the evolution of seeds in the Amazon Rainforest, environmental degradation captured as art and the successful rescue of more than 100 bats stranded by the devastating floods in Australia. Here are stories in ecology for the third week in January 2011. PAC-mecium: Stanford University researchers have developed, not a life-like video game, but a video game that incorporates life into its programming, according to New Scientist. “A game called PAC-mecium is Pacman with a twist: players use a console to change the polarity of an electrical field in a fluid chamber filled with paramecia, which makes the organisms move in different directions,” explained the article. As shown in the above video, the user shapes the behavior of the organisms according to what the game board shows, such as avoiding “Pacman-like fish.” Read more at “Play Pacman, Pinball and Pong with a paramecium.” Beautiful and dangerous: There has been quite a bit of news surrounding an increase in the prevalence of jellyfish in China, Australia, North America and around the world; the population boom has been linked to ocean acidification, overfishing and climate change. Researchers suggest that the jellyfish numbers indicate a larger issue of imbalanced ecosystems and an overall decline in ocean health. While often times beautiful, jellyfish can also pose a risk to humans and other marine life and have even caused power outages. Scat hunters: According to The New York Times, researchers have been using dogs to sniff out scat, making it easier to collect population distribution data. A study published recently in The Journal of Wildlife Management examined factors that would affect the dogs’ abilities to detect scents in the field. “Trained dogs can detect scat up to 33 feet away about 75 percent of the time, the researchers found,” wrote Sindya Bhanoo. “Humans, on the other hand, can see scat only within three to five feet.” Read more at “Four-Legged Assistants Sniff Out Wildlife Data.” The science of seeds: Botanists examined some of the seeds found in the Amazon Rainforest and cataloged the evolution, distribution and role that these seeds play in the most diverse rainforest in the world. “Some [of the seeds] look like brains, some like arrowheads, others like beads, propellers or puffs of cotton,” began the Scientific American article. “Seeds have evolved many of these striking features to help them propagate in the wild.” Read more at “Seeds of the Amazon” or view the slide show. Degradation as art: The New York Times highlighted the work of photographer J. Henry Fair, who collects aerial images of environmental degradation...

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ESA Policy News: November 23

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by ESA’s Science Policy Analyst, Terence Houston.

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ESA Policy News: May 7

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by ESA’s Science Policy Analyst, Piper Corp.

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