Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

By Sarah Fecht

You’ve probably heard the news that our nation’s bees are in trouble. Pollinators have been disappearing for decades, and the population crash could threaten the global food supply. Now, a small city in Iowa has decided to do something about it.

This spring, Cedar Rapids (population: 130,000) will seed 188 acres with native prairie grasses and wildflowers. The city’s plan is to eventually create 1,000 acres of bee paradise by planting these pollinator-friendly foodstuffs.

Scientists think the pollinator crisis is caused by a variety of factors, including pesticides, pathogens, and climate change. Meanwhile, with farms, parking lots, mowed lawns, and other human developments replacing wildflower fields, bees have been losing habitat and their food supply. While many of the drivers behind bee population decline remain mysterious, the people of Cedar Rapids hope to at least give pollinators places to perch and plants to feed on.

The 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative (http://www.cedar-rapids.org/residents/parks_and_recreation/pollinator_and_natural_resources_initiatives.php#Acre) grew out of a partnership with the Monarch Research Project(MRP), whose goal is to restore monarch butterfly populations. It was Cedar Rapids Park Superintendent Daniel Gibbins who proposed converting 1,000 acres into pollinator habitat over five years. So far, the project has secured $180,000 in funding from the state and the MRP.

“With the agricultural boom around 100 years ago, about 99.9 percent of all the native habitat of Iowa has been lost,” says Gibbins, who is spearheading the project. “When you convert it back to what was originally native Iowa, you’re going to help a lot more than just native pollinators. You’re helping birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals—everything that’s native here relies on native vegetation.”

Prairie revival

Cedar Rapids has developed a special mix of grasses and wildflowers to help restore that native habitat. The seed mix includes 39 species of wildflowers, and 7 species of native prairie grasses. While bees and butterflies are mostly attracted to the flowers, the hardy prairie grasses will prevent weeds and invasive species from moving in and choking out the flowers.

Gibbins and his team have catalogued all the unused public land where they could potentially plant the flowers and grasses. The list includes not only the rarely frequented corners of parks, golf courses, and the local airport, but also sewage ditches, water retention basins, and roadway right-of-ways, totaling nearly 500 acres. Cedar Rapids is working with other cities within the county to reach its 1,000-acre target.

Before they can seed the land with the special pollinator plant mix, Gibbins’ crew has to “knock back the undesirable vegetation.” That means mowing down, burning off, or in some cases applying herbicide to get rid of grass, weeds, and invasive species. They’ll lay down the special seed mixture in the spring and fall.

“You can’t just seed them and walk away,” says Gibbins. Although the pollinator habitat will be lower maintenance than a green turf that needs to be mown every week, the prairie grasses will require some care, including mowing once a year or burning every few years.

Everyone can help

You don’t need to have 1,000 spare acres to help bees and butterflies. Even devoting a few square feet of your garden—or even a few small planters—to wildflowers native to your area could make a difference, says Gibbins.

“When creating pollinator gardens, the most important thing is to have a big diversity of wildflowers and heirloom crops that bloom in the spring, summer, and fall,” says Stephen Buchmann, a pollination ecologist at the University of Arizona and author of The Reason for Flowers. (Buchmann isn’t involved in the 1,000 Acre Initiative.)

Buchmann recommends against using herbicides or insecticides, or, if necessary, applying them at night when bees aren’t active. Providing nesting sites for certain bee species can help, too.

“People think they’ll just plant the wildflowers and the bees will come,” he says. “And that’s true in some cases, but the smaller the bee is, the less far it can fly. Some can only fly a few hundred meters.”

Some species nest in hard substrates, like the bare ground (bees hate mulch, says Buchmann), or in holes that you can drill in adobe or earthen bricks. Others nestle in sand pits or dead wood that’s been tunneled through by beetles. And it helps to have mud and water on the premises. The Xerces Society has a handy how-to guide on creating homes for bees.

The 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative is still looking into funding for the next four years, and they don’t expect to see huge jumps in the number of pollinators immediately. But Cedar Rapids is confident it will help, and they hope the project will serve as a model for the rest of the country.

And if enough local businesses and private landowners get involved, there’s no reason to stop at 1,000 acres, says Gibbins. “There’s a big push to extend this initiative up to maybe 10,000 acres in Linn County.”

http://www.popsci.com/Cedar-Rapids-Iowa-save-bee-pollinator#page-4

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by Amina Khan

One day, gardeners might not just hear the buzz of bees among their flowers, but the whirr of robots, too. Scientists in Japan say they’ve managed to turn an unassuming drone into a remote-controlled pollinator by attaching horsehairs coated with a special, sticky gel to its underbelly.

The system, described in the journal Chem, is nowhere near ready to be sent to agricultural fields, but it could help pave the way to developing automated pollination techniques at a time when bee colonies are suffering precipitous declines.

In flowering plants, sex often involves a threesome. Flowers looking to get the pollen from their male parts into another bloom’s female parts need an envoy to carry it from one to the other. Those third players are animals known as pollinators — a diverse group of critters that includes bees, butterflies, birds and bats, among others.

Animal pollinators are needed for the reproduction of 90% of flowering plants and one third of human food crops, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Chief among those are bees — but many bee populations in the United States have been in steep decline in recent decades, likely due to a combination of factors, including agricultural chemicals, invasive species and climate change. Just last month, the rusty patched bumblebee became the first wild bee in the United States to be listed as an endangered species (although the Trump administration just put a halt on that designation).

Thus, the decline of bees isn’t just worrisome because it could disrupt ecosystems, but also because it could disrupt agriculture and the economy. People have been trying to come up with replacement techniques, the study authors say, but none of them are especially effective yet — and some might do more harm than good.

“One pollination technique requires the physical transfer of pollen with an artist’s brush or cotton swab from male to female flowers,” the authors wrote. “Unfortunately, this requires much time and effort. Another approach uses a spray machine, such as a gun barrel and pneumatic ejector. However, this machine pollination has a low pollination success rate because it is likely to cause severe denaturing of pollens and flower pistils as a result of strong mechanical contact as the pollens bursts out of the machine.”

Scientists have thought about using drones, but they haven’t figured out how to make free-flying robot insects that can rely on their own power source without being attached to a wire.

“It’s very tough work,” said senior author Eijiro Miyako, a chemist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan.

Miyako’s particular contribution to the field involves a gel, one he’d considered a mistake 10 years before. The scientist had been attempting to make fluids that could be used to conduct electricity, and one attempt left him with a gel that was as sticky as hair wax. Clearly this wouldn’t do, and so Miyako stuck it in a storage cabinet in an uncapped bottle. When it was rediscovered a decade later, it looked exactly the same – the gel hadn’t dried up or degraded at all.

“I was so surprised, because it still had a very high viscosity,” Miyako said.

The chemist noticed that when dropped, the gel absorbed an impressive amount of dust from the floor. Miyako realized this material could be very useful for picking up pollen grains. He took ants, slathered the ionic gel on some of them and let both the gelled and ungelled insects wander through a box of tulips. Those ants with the gel were far more likely to end up with a dusting of pollen than those that were free of the sticky substance.

The next step was to see if this worked with mechanical movers, as well. He and his colleagues chose a four-propeller drone whose retail value was $100, and attached horsehairs to its smooth surface to mimic a bee’s fuzzy body. They coated those horsehairs in the gel, and then maneuvered the drones over Japanese lilies, where they would pick up the pollen from one flower and then deposit the pollen at another bloom, thus fertilizing it.

The scientists looked at the hairs under a scanning electron microscope and counted up the pollen grains attached to the surface. They found that the robots whose horsehairs had been coated with the gel had on the order of 10 times more pollen than those hairs that had not been coated with the gel.

“A certain amount of practice with remote control of the artificial pollinator is necessary,” the study authors noted.

Miyako does not think such drones would replace bees altogether, but could simply help bees with their pollinating duties.

“In combination is the best way,” he said.

There’s a lot of work to be done before that’s a reality, however. Small drones will need to become more maneuverable and energy efficient, as well as smarter, he said — with better GPS and artificial intelligence, programmed to travel in highly effective search-and-pollinate patterns.

http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-robot-bees-20170209-story.html#pt0-805728

By Drake Baer

Everybody knows that humpback whales make excellent professional wrestlers: With zero hesitation, these gentle giants will leap out of the sea, corkscrew their bodies, and then slam back into the water with 66,000 pounds of fury.

It turns out that these cetaceans aren’t just doing this to show off: According to a recent paper in Marine Mammal Science, the breaching serves as an acoustic telegram, communicating with far-off pods. It’s like how European or African peoples would send sonic signals from village to village via drum, or how wolves howl at the moon. Make a big enough splash, and the percussion speaks for itself.

As noted in the marine-life publication Hakai magazine, University of Queensland marine biologist Ailbhe S. Kavanagh and colleagues observed 76 humpback groups off the coast of Australia for 200 hours between 2010 and 2011. They found that breaching is way more common when pods are at least 2.5 miles apart, with fin- or fluke-slapping deployed when fellow whales are nearby.

The breaching probably carries better than whales’ signature songs: “They’re potentially using [these behaviors] when background noise levels are higher,” Kavanagh tells Hakai, “as the acoustic signal possibly travels better than a vocal signal would.” Given that whale songs have regional accents, you have to wonder if their aerial gymnastics have a certain patois, too.

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/02/why-whales-jump-into-the-air.html

Thanks to Pete Cuomo for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

A pair of new studies links childhood cat ownership and infection with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) with later onset schizophrenia and other mental illness. Researchers published their findings in the online Schizophrenia Research and Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica.

In the Schizophrenia Research study, investigators compared two previous studies that suggested childhood cat ownership could be a possible risk factor for schizophrenia or another serious mental illness with a third, even earlier survey on mental health to see if the finding could be replicated.

“The results were the same,” researchers reported, “suggesting that cat ownership in childhood is significantly more common in families in which the child later becomes seriously mentally ill.”

If accurate, the researchers expect the culprit to be infection with T. gondii, a parasite commonly carried by cats. At this point, though, they are urging others to conduct further studies to clarify the apparent link between cat ownership and schizophrenia.

The Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica study was a meta-analysis of 50 previously published studies to investigate the prevalence of t. gondii infection in people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders compared with healthy controls.

In cases of schizophrenia, researchers said evidence of an association with T. gondii was “overwhelming,” CBS News reported. Specifically, people infected with T. gondii were nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia as people never infected with the parasite, according to the report.

The meta-analysis also suggested associations between T. gondii infection and bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and addiction. No association, however, was found for major depression.

—Jolynn Tumolo

References

1. Fuller Torrey E, Simmons W, Yolken RH. Is childhood cat ownership a risk factor for schizophrenia later in life? Schizophrenia Research. 2015 April 18. [Epub ahead of print].

2. Sutterland AL, Fond G, Kuin A, et al. Beyond the association. Toxoplasma gondii in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and addiction: systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. 2015 April 15. [Epub ahead of print].

http://www.psychcongress.com/article/studies-link-cat-ownership-schizophrenia-other-mental-illness

By Alice Klein

Ants beat us to it. A Fijian ant first started planting fruit crops 3 million years ago, long before human agriculture evolved.

The ant – Philidris nagasau – grows and harvests Squamellaria fruit plants that grow on the branches of various trees.

First, the ants insert seeds of the fruit plant in the cracks in tree bark. Workers constantly patrol the planting sites and fertilise the seedlings, probably with their faeces.

As the plants grow, they form large, round hollow structures at their base called domatia that the ants live in instead of building nests. When the fruit appears, the ants eat the flesh and collect the seeds for future farming.

Guillaume Chomicki at the University of Munich, Germany, and his colleagues discovered that each ant colony farmed dozens of Squamellaria plants at the same time, with trails linking each thriving hub. The connected plant cities often spanned several adjacent trees.

The researchers found that Squamellaria plants are completely dependent on the ants to plant and fertilise their seeds. At the same time, Philidris nagasau ants cannot survive without the food and shelter provided by the plants. The Fijian phenomenon is the first documented example of ants farming plants in a mutually dependent relationship.

Trees in nearby Australia have been observed with similar-looking ant-filled plants growing along their branches, but no one has known why, says Simon Robson at James Cook University in Australia. The plants are from the same family as Squamellaria, suggesting they have the same symbiotic farming relationship with ants.

Chomicki’s team also conducted a genetic analysis to study the history of the Fijian ant-plant interactions. The results showed that the ants lost their ability to build nests around 3 million years ago, at the same time as the plants developed roots that could grow in bark. This signals the beginning of the mutual relationship, which emerged when Fiji and Australia were still connected.

Brainy ants
Only a handful of other species have been found to farm their food. For example, Yeti crabs cultivate bacteria on their claws and sloths grow algae gardens on their fur. Ants have been known to cultivate fungi, but this is the first time they have been found to plant crops in such a mutualistic manner.

The fact that ants have developed such sophisticated food production skills confirms the impressive teamwork of ants, says Kirsti Abbott at the University of New England, Australia.

“Ants are a lot smarter than we think they are – we call them superorganisms because they form networks that are much like our brains,” she says. “The information flow among ant colonies is just insane compared to human social systems, so this finding does not surprise me in the slightest.”

Journal reference: Nature Plants, DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2016.181

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2113410-fijian-ants-grow-their-own-plant-cities-and-farm-tropical-fruits/

by Russell McLendon

Competition and cooperation aren’t mutually exclusive. Just ask a coyote or a badger.

Both are crafty carnivores, and since they often hunt the same prey in the same prairies, it would make sense for them to be enemies, or at least to avoid each other. But while they don’t always get along, coyotes and badgers also have an ancient arrangement that illustrates why it can be smart for rivals to work together.

An example of that partnership recently unfolded on a prairie in northern Colorado, near the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center. And it was captured in photos, both by a wildlife camera trap and by sharp-eyed photographers:

While it’s relatively rare to capture such good photos of a hunt like this, the phenomenon is well-documented. It was familiar to many Native Americans long before Europeans reached the continent, and scientists have studied it for decades. It has been reported across much of Canada, the United States and Mexico, according to Ecology Online, typically with one badger hunting alongside one coyote.

(In one study at the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming, 90 percent of all coyote-badger hunts featured one of each animal, while about 9 percent involved one badger with two coyotes. Just 1 percent saw a lone badger join a coyote trio.)

But why would these predators work together at all? When one of them finally catches something, they aren’t known to share the spoils. So what’s the point?

The point, apparently, is to improve the likelihood that at least one of the hunters will snag some prey. Even if that means the other one ends up empty-handed, the partnership seems to pay off for both species in the long run.

Each member of the hunting party has a distinct set of skills. Coyotes are nimble and quick, so they excel at chasing prey across an open prairie. Badgers are slow and awkward runners by comparison, but they’re better diggers than coyotes are, having evolved to pursue small animals in underground burrow systems. So when they hunt prairie dogs or ground squirrels on their own, badgers usually dig them up, while coyotes chase and pounce. The rodents therefore use different strategies depending which predator is after them: They often escape a digging badger by leaving their burrows to flee aboveground, and evade coyotes by running to their burrows.

When badgers and coyotes work together, however, they combine these skills to hunt more effectively than either could alone. Coyotes chase prey on the surface, while badgers take the baton for subterranean pursuits. Only one may end up with a meal, but overall, research suggests the collaboration makes both predators better at their jobs. If you’re a prairie dog trying to escape this dynamic duo, good luck.

“Coyotes with badgers consumed prey at higher rates and had an expanded habitat base and lower locomotion costs,” according to the authors of the National Elk Refuge study. “Badgers with coyotes spent more time below ground and active, and probably had decreased locomotion and excavation costs. Overall, prey vulnerability appeared to increase when both carnivores hunted in partnership.”

Badgers and coyotes aren’t always friendly, though. While the majority of their interactions “appear to be mutually beneficial or neutral,” Ecology Online notes they do sometimes prey on each other. The two species have developed “a sort of open relationship,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), since they tend to collaborate in warmer months, then often drift apart as winter sets in.

“In the winter, the badger can dig up hibernating prey as it sleeps in its burrow,” the FWS explains. “It has no need for the fleet-footed coyote.”

Not at the time, anyway. But winter eventually turns to spring, and these two hunters may start to need each other again. And just as they have for thousands of years, they’ll make peace, embrace their differences and get back to work.

http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/blogs/coyote-and-badger-hunt-together

by Alanna Ketler

An estimated 400,000 flowering plant species exist in the world, and, understandably, it can be difficult to keep track. The vast majority of us can only recognize and name a handful of plants, even if we would like it to be otherwise. If you would like to sharpen your knowledge in the wonderful realm of plant species, I have some good news for you. Like everything else: there’s an app for that.

If you ever walk by a specific plant that you would like to identify, or you have extensive knowledge about plant species that you would like to share, then the PlantNet app is for you. Available for iPhone and Android devices, it is essentially the Shazam for plants. It’s pretty awesome to consider what technology is capable of these days.

The app works by collecting data from a large social network which uploads pictures and information about plants. Scientists from four French research organizations including Cirad, IRA, Inria/IRD, and the Tela Botanica Network developed the app.

The app features visualization software which recognizes many plant species, provided they have been illustrated well enough in the botanical reference base. PlantNet currently works on more than 4,100 species of wild flora of the French territory, and the species list is provided through the application. The number of species included and images used by the application grows as more users contribute.

While only a small percentage of plant species can be identified so far, the more users who join, and the more participants from different countries become involved, the more diverse this app will become. So if this is something that interests you, get the app and start contributing today.

While at the moment it doesn’t focus on edibles, this app lays the frame work for herb collecting and identifying plants in nature that could either be dangerous to you or that you would love to learn more about. The average person these days is enjoying a greater appreciation for nature this app can help them outfit their home and living space with plants they love.

In the future, an edible database could help foragers pick from the wild spread nature has to offer. Not only are wild sources of plants and herbs cleaner and free of pesticides, but they also can be picked fresher and be more nutritious.

At the same time, this app is inevitably going to get people out in nature more as now they can walk about trails and nature with a keen curiosity to learn more about what’s around them.

http://www.collective-evolution.com/2016/03/10/the-shazam-for-plants-will-identify-any-plant-from-a-picture/