September 11, 2013
If you’re a drone bee, life is tough. You’re born, live for a month or two, and then die. During that time, you’re not a productive member of the hive—you can’t collect pollen or help incubate eggs, like worker bees—and you can’t even sting anyone.
Drone bees live with one purpose in mind: mating with a queen. When they’re lucky enough to achieve it, it only lasts a few seconds, and they die immediately afterward, because their penis and abdominal tissues are violently ripped from the body as part of the process.
Thus, for a drone bee, those few seconds of mating are the peak of existence. And here are those blissful seconds, captured in slow-motion.
The clip is from the new documentary More Than Honey, released last week, which explores the wondrous world of honeybees and Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious affliction that’s causing U.S. bee populations to plummet.
To get shots like this, the filmmakers used mini-helicopters equipped with ultra-high speed cameras (the clip above has 300 frames-per-second) and a so-called “bee-whisperer,” who carefully tracked the activity of 15 different hives so the crew could move them to a filming studio when a particular event was imminent. “The mating queen was the biggest challenge: we spent days on a scaffolding tower attracting drones with queen pheromones,” director Markus Imhoff said in an interview with the Honeybee Conservancy. “Her wedding flight, which was 36 seconds, took more than ten days—and we only actually saw it one and a half times.”
September 6, 2013
The city of Manila, in the Philippines, is home to more than 1.6 million people, packed into an area smaller than 15 square miles—less than a quarter of the size of Washington, D.C. It’s the most densely populated city in the world. Metropolitan Manila, with a population of some 12 million people, is the 10th largest megacity.
This dense urban environment seems like an unlikely place to find a new species. But within the jumble of markets, alleys and skyscrapers of this megacity, Ateneo de Manila University has preserved a 200-acre tract of forested campus, interlaced by ponds and small creeks. Recently, when the university’s biology students and faculty conducted a survey of the forest, they found something remarkable: a new species of water beetle, called Hydraena ateneo, which was previously unknown to science.
The students—Arielle Vidal and Kimberly Go—collected a few dozen closely-related water beetles from shallow rock pools and slow-moving creeks on the heavily forested campus. The insects were feeding on the bacteria and fungi that get trapped in leaf litter.
An analysis showed that the beetles mostly came from six known species, but there were four from a new, unidentified one. The unfamiliar beetles (named ateno after the university) could be differentiated from similar species by slight differences in their size (they range between 1.25 and 1.33 millimeters in length, whereas the closely-related scabara are slightly longer and the palawanensis are a bit shorter), their leg structure and the shape of their aedeagus, the male reproductive organ.
When Freitag compared them to similar beetles housed in the collections of natural history museums in Germany, Denmark and Austria, he found several ateneo specimens that had previously been collected in the Philippines but were unidentified. The group has also since found the new species outside the city, on the island of Mindoro. They speculate that the bug occurs most often in more remote areas, but recolonized the college campus sometime over the past 50 years, as the campus’s formerly sparse forests and dried-up creeks have been allowed to regenerate over that period.
The fact that the beetle repopulated the campus demonstrates the surprising amount of biodiversity that can occur even in the tiny niches that survive among heavy human development—especially in an already biologically rich country like the Philippines. This is the thinking behind the UN’s Urban Biodiversity program and calls to preserve small natural habitats interspersed between the roads and buildings we construct.
Freitag believes that many more unknown species are there to be found within the barely studied Hydraena genus of this newly discovered water beetle. That an unidentified species can be found hiding in an urban college campus, right under our feet, shows just how much of the world’s biodiversity is still yet to be cataloged by science.
Editor’s Note, September 7, 2013: Earlier versions of this post incorrectly stated or implied Ateneo de Manila University was in Manila itself. In fact, the university is in nearby Quezon City, which is a part of Manila’s metropolitan area. To fix this, a few sentences were added to the first and second paragraphs, and the title of the post was changed.
August 30, 2013
Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Western Montana, is home to 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, each tipped with a nuclear warhead. Each of these missiles is housed in an underground silo, staffed by two military personnel around the clock, and can be fired on a moment’s notice.
But in recent years, the base has been dealing with an enemy so relentless that they’ve been forced to call in outside help to defend against it. That fearsome enemy is a species of rodent known as Richardson’s ground squirrel.
The squirrels, each about a foot long and 1-2 pounds, dig extensive underground tunnel networks (they’ve been known to excavate tunnel systems more than 30 feet in length). At Malmstrom, they’ve developed an annoying habit of tunneling underneath the fences that protect each nuclear missile’s silo.
“Anything that breaches the perimeter fence will set off the motion detector,” says Gary Witmer of the National Wildlife Research Center, the latter a USDA-funded organization that deals with human-animal conflicts and was called in to help at Malmstrom. “Security has to go out there and see what’s going on, and they’ve been getting thousands of false alarms each year, so you can imagine how irritating it was.” The silos are scattered over some 23,000 square miles, so in some cases, simply traveling out to check out a false intruder alarm requires a substantial investment in time and resources.
Additionally, over time, the rodents have started damaging the base’s physical infrastructure. “They’re burrowing under foundations, undermining road beds and gnawing on cables,” Witmer says.
In response, his team trapped a few dozen squirrels from the around the base, brought them to the research center in Fort Collins, Colorado, and set about designing squirrel-proof barriers for the missiles. Inside a dirt-filled lab, they tested each of the barriers, setting peanut butter, cantaloupe and cheese on one side and challenging the squirrels to break through.
The researchers’ first attempts ended in failure. For an underground barrier, they initially tested steel fabric (similar to steel wool) and a metal chain-link mesh, but they were no match for the squirrels. “They just tore through steel fabric, with their claws and ever-growing incisors, and squeezed right through the chain-link mesh,” Witmer says.
Eventually, they did find a pair of barriers that stopped the squirrels from getting through, as they presented at last year’s annual Vertebrate Pest Conference (PDF): metal sheets and trenches filled with gravel. “The squirrels aren’t comfortable walking on pea gravel, because it gives way, and they also can’t burrow into it because it keeps caving in,” Witmer says. As far as an aboveground barrier, the squirrels were able to easily climb over the first few materials the team tried, but they discovered that clear sheets of polycarbonate plastic were too slippery for the rodents to scale.
Next month, they’ll be installing a combination of the most successful barriers (metal sheets below ground with the polycarbonate plastic above) on a missile silo mockup located on the base. If they can keep out the squirrels for good, they’ll be installed on the actual silos—and the military will have one less enemy to deal with in the future.
For more background on the base’s battle with the ground squirrels, watch this video produced by the National Wildlife Research Center:
August 29, 2013
The Eastern U.S. is home to exactly one population of wild whooping cranes. Each fall, members of the flock migrate more than 3,000 miles, from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast of Texas. But these enormous, long-lived birds (they can stand up to five feet tall and live as long as 30 years) are endangered, with only about 250 left in the wild.
The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership is trying to change that. Since 2001, the group has bred cranes at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge in Maryland, brought them to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin for nesting, then guided young cranes down to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida for the winter with an ultralight aircraft, just like the technique used in the movie Fly Away Home.
After their first migration, the cranes are left to their own devices and are forced to make the trip on their own every year. But to ensure their survival, researchers carefully track and log the precise routes they take each year, using radio transmitters attached to the birds.
For Thomas Mueller, a University of Maryland biologist who studies animal migration patterns, eight years of records collected as part of this project were an especially appealing set of data. “The data allowed us to track migration over the course of individual animal’s lifetimes, and see how it changed over time,” he said.
When he and colleagues analyzed the data, they found something surprising. As they write in an article published today in Science, the whooping cranes’ skill in navigating a direct route between Wisconsin and Florida is entirely predicated on one factor: the wisdom of their elders.
“How well a group of cranes does as a whole, in terms of migrating most effectively and not veering off route, really depends on the oldest bird in the group, the one with the most experience,” Mueller says. The years of data showed that, as each bird aged, it got better and better at navigating, and that young birds clearly relied heavily on the guidance of elders—the presence of just a single eight-year-old adult in a group led to 38 percent less deviation from the shortest possible route between Wisconsin and Florida, compared to a group made up solely of one-year-olds. Mueller’s team speculates this is because as the birds age, they grow more adept at spotting landmarks to ensure that they’re on the right path.
The data also indicate that the flocks are prone to following one particular elder in any given migration, because total group size didn’t correlate with shorter trips. In other words, it’s not the overall migratory skill of the group as a whole that determines the flock’s route, but the expertise of one key elder crane that does so.
For Mueller, this finding helps to answer a question that researchers have been asking for years: Is the ability to migrate thousands of miles genetic, or learned? The research, which didn’t investigate genetics specifically, nonetheless gives credence to the latter.”This is really social learning from other birds, over the course of years,” he says. At the same time, he notes that “there’s also an innate component to it, because after they’re taught the migration once, the birds initiate it on their own every spring.”
These findings could have important implications for the conservation efforts. For one, they vindicate the current model of teaching young birds how to migrate once with an ultralight aircraft, because at this point, there are so few older birds in the breeding flock that can perform their natural role as migratory leaders. By letting the birds migrate on their own afterwards, though, the program allows them to learn from elders and develop their navigation skills.
The work could also provide hope for one of the crane program’s biggest challenges: getting the birds to breed on their own in the wild. Thus far, very few of the human-reared birds have successfully bred on their own after maturation. But if navigation is a skill that’s developed slowly over time, as the birds learn from others, it’s possible that breeding could operate the same way too. As the flock’s population ages as a whole and features a larger proportion of elder birds, the researchers say, they could gradually get more adept at breeding and pass those skills on to others.
August 23, 2013
This distressing situation nonetheless presents scientists with an opportunity. Because the climate change is so widespread, it can be studied by examining a tremendous range data. Many of these data are collected from satellite images, extracted through analyzing ice cores or found from sifting through atmospheric temperature records. But some are collected from a bit more unorthodox sources. In no particular order, here’s our rundown of 5 unusual ways scientists are currently studying the changing climate:
1. Fossilized Urine
The hyrax—a small, herbivorous mammal native to Africa and the Middle East—has a pair of uncommon habits. The animals tend to inhabit the same cracks in rock for generations, and they also like to urinate in the exact same spot, over and over and over again. Because their urine contains traces of leaves, grasses and pollen, the layers of dried urine that build up and fossilize over thousands of years have given a team of scientists (led by Brian Chase of Montpellier University) a rare look at ancient plant biodiversity and how it’s been affected by broader changes in climate.
Further, the nitrogen in the urine—an element that’s long been important to those who utilize the scientific properties of pee—along with the urine’s carbon content tell an important story as layer after layer of the dessicated substance, called hyraceum, is analyzed. In drier times, plants are forced to incorporate heavier isotopes of these elements into their tissues, so urine layers that contain an abundance of heavy isotopes indicate that the hyrax relieved themselves after ingesting relatively parched plants. Stacked layers of the excretions thus allow scientists to track humidity through time.
“Once we have found a good layer of solid urine, we dig out samples and remove them for study,” Chase told The Guardian in an article about his unusual work. “We are taking the piss, quite literally—and it is proving to be a highly effective way to study how climate changes have affected local environments.” His team’s most valuable data set? One particular pile of fossilized urine that has been accreting for an estimated 55,000 years.
2. Old Naval Logbooks
Few people care more about the weather than sailors. Old Weather, a citizen science project, hopes to take advantage of that fact to better understand the daily weather of 100 years ago. As part of the project, anyone can create an account and manually transcribe the daily logbooks of 18th and 19th century vessels that sailed the Arctic and elsewhere.
The work is still in its beginning stages: So far, 26,717 pages of records from 17 different ships have been transcribed, with roughly 100,000 pages to go. Eventually, once enough data has been transcribed, scientists from around the world who are coordinating the project will use these ultra-detailed weather reports to paint a fuller picture of how microvariations in Arctic weather correspond with long-term climate trends.
Although there’s no pay offered, there’s the satisfaction of adding to our record on climate variations over the past few centuries. Plus, transcribe enough and you’ll get promoted from “cadet” to “lieutenant” to “captain.” Not bad for a modern day scrivener.
3. Satellite Speeds
Not long ago, a group of scientists who study how the atmosphere behaves at high altitudes noticed something strange about several satellites in orbit: They were consistently moving faster than calculations indicated they should. When they tried to figure out why, they discovered that the thermosphere—the uppermost layer of the atmosphere, starting roughly 50 miles up, through which many satellites glide—was slowly losing its thickness over time. Because the layer, made of up sparsely distributed gas molecules, was losing its bulk, the satellites were colliding with fewer molecules as they orbited and thus experienced less drag.
Why, though, was the thermosphere undergoing such change? It turned out that higher levels of carbon dioxide emitted at the surface were gradually drifting upwards into the thermosphere. At that altitude, the gas actually cools things down, because it absorbs energy from collisions with oxygen molecules and emits that stored energy into space as infrared radiation.
For years, scientists had assumed the carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels didn’t reach higher than about 20 miles above the Earth’s surface, but this research—the first to measure the concentrations of the gas this high up—showed that climate change can even affect our uppermost atmospheric layers. The group plans to look back and see how historical changes in satellite speeds might reflect carbon dioxide levels in the past. They will also continue to track satellite speeds and levels of carbon dioxide in the thermosphere to see how our aeronautical calculations might have to take climate change into account in the future.
4. Dog Sleds
Unlike many sorts of climate data, information on sea ice thickness can’t be directly collected by satellites—scientists instead infer thicknesses from satellite measurements of the ice’s height above sea level and a rough approximation of ice’s density. But getting true measurements of sea ice thicknesses must be done manually with sensors that send magnetic fields through the ice and pick up signals from the water below it—the fainter the signals, the thicker the ice. So our knowledge of real ice thicknesses is constrained to the locations where researchers have actually visited.
In 2008, when Scottish researcher Jeremy Wilkinson first traveled to Greenland to collect such measurements on ice thickness, his team interviewed dozens of local Inuit people who spoke about the difficulties thinner sea ice posed for their traditional mode of transportation, the dog sled. Soon afterward, Wilkinson got an idea. ”We saw the large number of dog teams that were on the ice everyday and the vast distances they covered. Then came the light bulb moment—why don’t we put sensors on these sleds?” he told NBC in 2011 when the idea was finally implemented.
Since then, his team has attached the sensors to the sleds owned by a few dozen volunteers. As the Inuits glide over the sea ice on their sleds, the instruments take a measurement of the ice’s thickness every second. His team has now deployed the sled-mounted sensors in each of the last three years to collect the data. The information collected not only helps scientists gauge the accuracy of thicknesses derived from orbiting satellites, but also helps climate scientists better understand how sea ice is locally responding to warmer temperatures as seasons and years change.
5. Narwhal-Mounted Sensors
Narwhals are renowned for their ability to dive to extreme depths: They’ve been measured going as far as 5,800 feet down, among the deepest dives of any marine mammal. Starting in 2006, NOAA researchers have used this ability to their advantage, by strapping sensors that measure temperature and depth to the animals and using the data to track Arctic water temperatures over time.
The strategy gives scientists access to areas of the Arctic ocean that are normally covered by ice during the winter—because the Narwhals’ dives, which can last as long as 25 minutes, often take them under areas of the water that are frozen on top—and is much less expensive than equipping a full icebreaker ship and crew to take measurements. Before using narwhals, temperatures of the Arctic waters at remote depths were inferred from long-term historical averages. Using the unorthodox method has helped NOAA document how these historical averages have underrepresented the extent to which Arctic waters are warming, particularly in Baffin Bay, the body of water between Greenland and Canada.