Courtesy elpresidente408Or whatever. Apparently Yale sends an expedition to a tropical rainforest each year, with the mission of finding, you know, neat stuff. And being tropical rainforests, there’s plenty of neat stuff to find. (That is to say, the rainforests have tremendously biodiversity, and each of the thousands of species that live in them has interesting features to study, etc.)
After analyzing all the samples the team gathered from last year’s expedition to the Amazon Rainforest, they’re announcing some interesting findings. Among them is the discovery of a species of fungus that can digest polyurethane.
Polyurethane, of course, is a very versatile plasticky material used in all sorts of products. Unfortunately, it also sort of lasts forever, and it isn’t biodegradable—nothing we know of eats it or helps it decompose.
Nothing we knew of until now, that is! The Yale team discovered several organisms that could digest polyurethane, and one—the fungus in question—that can do it in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment. In fact, it can survive on polyurethane alone in either aerobic or anaerobic environments. The fungus itself, or the enzyme it produces that allows it to break down the plastic, could potentially become part of a solution for truly disposing of polyurethane materials, as opposed to putting them in landfills (where they’ll stay forever), burning them (which is toxic), or throwing them on the neighbor’s roof (which is fun, but limited in capacity).
The discovery also sort of goes to show you—or goes to show me, at least, because I don’t spend much time thinking about things that aren’t cats or guns—that searching for exciting and useful new species isn’t as straightforward as one might think. The polyurethane-eating fungus, for example, isn’t just some old mushroom sitting around in the jungle. It’s actually a microorganism that lives (harmlessly) inside the tissue of plants. So, like a mint hidden in the cushions of a crappy old chair, it could so easily have been overlooked and lost forever when we burned the chair down to make more room for soybeans and cattle.
Oh, I’m all mixed up. Pretty neat though, huh?
Courtesy splorpGather ‘round, Buzzketeers, so that I might tell you all a story.
“What story,” you ask?
Is it the one about the little blond girl who is killed by bears for breaking and entering? No, not that story.
Is it the one about the boy who killed an acromegalic man by cutting down the tree that held his fort? No, it’s not that story either.
Could it be the story about the little Blood member who couldn’t tell the difference between a wolf and her own grandmother, and was subsequently devoured by that very wolf? Oh, I wish it were, but it’s not that story.
No, the story I have for you all is even more enduring and horrifying than all of those. It is the story of biodiversity, and how it will freaking destroy you if you mess with it.
Sure, snort dismissively if you must, but you’ll soon be singing a different tune. A sad tune about how everything you ever knew and loved has been taken away from you.
“But how can a concept—and a boring concept like “biodiversity”—hurt me?” Ah, see, but what you don’t know can hurt you. You’re like the little blond girl, screwing around in a house that belongs to bears. She might not have known that it was a bear house (although it’s hard to imagine that she could have missed all the signs), and yet she was destroyed. So listen up.
You see, all biodiversity is is the degree of variation of living things in an ecosystem. Lots of biodiversity in an ecosystem, lots of different things living there. Little biodiversity in an ecosystem, few species living there. And biodiversity includes all forms of life, from your vampire bats and hagfish, to your streptococcus and your slime molds.
At the moment, biodiversity on the planet is on its way down. Lots of the things we do these days make life harder for other species, until there are very few or none of them left. And, sure, no one wants to see a panda get hit by a train, or watch an eagle being run over by road grading equipment, but who cares about the smaller, grosser stuff, like algae or germy things? We could probably do with a few less of those, right? Right?
Wrong, Goldilocks! An attitude like that is bound to get you turned into bear meat.
And here’s where my story begins (again)…
Once upon a time, long, long ago, everything died.
Well, not everything-everything, but pretty well near everything. It was called “the Permian extinction” (we’ve talked about it on Buzz before: here), and more than 90% of all marine (water) species and 70% of all terrestrial (land) species on the planet went extinct. It was way worse than the extinction that would eventually kill off the dinosaurs, and it took the planet a lot longer to recover from the Permian extinction.
What caused the Permian extinction? Oh, you know, a lot of stuff. Probably a lot of stuff. See, while we can more or less say that the dinosaurs were killed off by a giant space rock, it’s harder to say what did in the creatures of the Permian period. After all, the Permian ended almost two hundred million years before the extinction of the dinosaurs. But people have plenty of good guesses: maybe a few smaller space rocks hit the planet, maybe massive volcanic eruptions in what would become Asia kicked dust and poisonous gas into the atmosphere, maybe the oceans suddenly released massive amounts of methane… probably it was a combination of these things and more, and the extinction probably happened in waves before the planet became a good place to live again.
But here’s another straw for that dead camel’s back: the algae died. Not all of it, but lots and lots of the algae died. But why, and why did it matter? After all, it’s just algae.
Scientists aren’t sure exactly what cause so much alga—microscopic plant-like ocean life that turns sunlight into food—to die, but it looks like a sudden rise in the levels of sulfur in the oceans might have had something to do with it. It could be that there was an explosion in the population of sulfur using, hydrogen-sulfide releasing bacteria in the oceans, which would poison the algae.
In any case, there was a large die off of the sort of species we don’t give a lot of thought to. And what happened? The bear meat hit the fan!
Because they turn so much sunlight into so much food, algae act as the basis for most marine food chains. When the algae were gone, photosynthetic bacteria took its place to some extent, but the bacteria were a poor substitute, and the oceans were left with much, much less food. Also, algae produce a significant amount of the planet’s oxygen, and their absence would have created atmospheric changes as well.
This alone might have been enough to cause extinctions, and combined with the other natural calamities of the end of the Permian, it’s no wonder there was such a massive extinction event.
What a good story, eh? Now, if someone asks you what’s so great about biodiversity among the slimier and more boring species, you can just repeat this post, word for word. Or you can repeat this, the short version, word for word: “Because, Mom, if the algae die, we’ll be left choking and crying among the ruins of humanity for the rest of our short lives. And happy birthday.”
Courtesy plainsightPlease, students, have a seat. Dinner will be served momentarily, but first I need your attention for a few words. Thank you.
Well well, my little wizketeers. You have been bad, very bad indeed.
I think you all know what it is I am referring to, but I will say it anyway: owl thievery is through the roof, and I’m inclined to think that many of you are nothing but stinking little owl thieves.
I know that some of you are from muggle families, and have only recently been introduced to the traditions of wizardry, but even you should know that owl stealing is one of the worst crimes of the wizarding world. Worse than sealing a goblin in an empty pumpkin juice cask and burying it in the woods. Do you understand?
Here: extend your right arm. Place your hand on the shoulder of the wizard or witch sitting to your right. Now remove your hand from their shoulder, and thrust your finger into their eye. Either eye will do. And, for those of you sitting at the extreme left of your row, I ask that you poke your own eyeballs as well.
How did you all like that? Well, that was nowhere near as bad as stealing an owl. Do you know who else was an owl thief? Voldemort. Also, Hitler. It was certainly the least of their crimes, but no one would disagree that it was indicative of their characters.
You see, owl populations have been shrinking on the Indian subcontinent. (And, for those of you who haven’t pursued geography outside of our more magic-based curriculum, India is a massive chunk of the Earth, which is the planet we live on.) India is tremendously rich in biodiversity, but its 30 or so species of native owls are disappearing thanks, in part, to the illegal sale of owls as pets.
Oh. Gosh. Where could those owls be going? What a mystery. Wait… By Godrick’s beard… Could they maybe, just maybe, be going to one place in the world you’re most likely to find spoiled children with pet owls, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?!
It’s not as if you even take care of them. Believe me, I’ve pulled enough dead owls out of the toilet traps in this school to know.
And what’s worse is that you’re encouraging others to buy owls as well. I can—and believe me, I will—personally hunt down and punish each owl-owning student in this school, but there’s little I can do about the legions of muggle children you are inspiring to buy owls. The most I can hope for is that they all catch salmonella from careless pellet handling. But that does the owls little good, and all the while Indian ecosystems are becoming weaker and unbalanced, because top predators are being eliminated. Without creatures like owls to keep them in check, rodent populations will boom. They, in turn, can over-consume the plant life of an ecosystem and outcompete other animals.
But then, what would you all understand of ecology. Most of you can barely handle basic sums. Such is the drawback of the narrow focus of our school.
So I will make it simple for you: if I catch any of you with an owl, you will be transferred to Slytherin House. Have you ever seen Syltherin? Those kids are the worst. I’ve been in the Slytherin common room once, and I got some sort of fungus there. And if you already live in Slytherin, owl possession will earn you room and board in the forest. Does that sound fun? It’s not. The forest is like the Jersey Shore for elves. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, at least remember this: always keep an eye on your drink.
Well. I think you all have got the message now. Remember: I’m only stern with you because I care so much for you. You little poachers.
Now let’s eat!
Courtesy Andreas Trepte
Climate change. Rising seas. GMOs. Humans have such an incredible impact on Earth's environment that it's clear we're now the dominant force of change on Earth. This situation has even led some scientists to rename this geologic epoch the Anthropocene, or the human epoch. But as we alter, tweak, and pollute more each year, what will it mean for the survival of other species into the future?
According to Dr. Stephen Kress, they can look forward to human stalkers and creepy mechanical scarecrows. Kress began his career in the islands along Maine's coast during the late 60s and early 70s. In response to the loss of bird species diversity on many islands, he decided to start a human-led migration program that would move puffins to some of the islands. Puffins had once been abundant in the area, but their population dwindled due to overhunting and egg harvesting.
Still others accused Kress of trying to play God. “We’d been playing the Devil for about 500 years,” says Tony Diamond, a Canadian seabird researcher who has collaborated with Kress for decades. “It was time to join the other side.”
(same article as above)
Amid the skepticism of fellow scientists and the stubbornness of birds, Kress persevered and now boasts growing puffin populations on a few islands. But after several attempts to set natural protections and population controls in place, including a mechanical scarecrow to ward off predators, Kress and assistants continue to monitor and protect the puffins themselves. It's the only way they can maintain the new populations. After all, in a human-dominated environment, we get all the benefits and all the responsibilities--a job some might conclude is for the birds.
We are as gods and have to get good at it.
Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline
Another sad day for wildlife lovers as yet another one of the world’s beautiful creatures is declared extinct. The Alaotra grebe from Madagascar was added to a growing list of modern day extinctions of bird species, nearly 190 total out of the 10,000 bird species remaining in the world. I shudder to think how the threatened and endangered list will change with this terrible oil spill in the gulf.
Throughout the ongoing debate about exactly how, to what extent, and the ethical implications, the indisputable fact remains that humankind has altered the planet. Back when the human population was only a few thousand strong and agriculture and cooked food were the latest inventions, it was easy for the Joneses to pick up and move camp when the water ran dry, the soil stopped producing tasty wheat, or the garbage piled too high in the backyard. The same can’t be said for the populations of world cities today.
Advances in public health, industry, and agriculture have blown the human population out of the brush. There will soon be 9 billion people on the face of planet Earth! Coupled with rising affluence, our ballooning population’s resource consumption and waste outputs are wrecking havoc on natural systems. New research (see several links below for more info) suggests that within a fixed amount of space, humankind is in danger of causing our own extinction and the only way out is to discard traditional ideas of industrialization and embrace sustainability.
Courtesy Go Gratitude
The first step to bailing out humankind is to investigate how close to failure the world actually is. This was the point of a recent international collaboration: to calculate safe limits for pivotal environmental processes. The key idea here is that of “tipping points,” which can be thought of as thresholds or breaking points. Think about being pestered by your brother or sister: aren’t you able to put up with the annoyance for even a little while before you get so upset you retaliate? That’s your tipping point – the last straw that put you over the edge.
Led by Stockholm Resilience Center’s Johan Rockstrom, a group of European, Australian, and American scientists – including the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment’s director, Jonathan Foley – identified nine processes reaching their tipping points. Three (climate change, nutrient cycles, and biodiversity loss) have already been pushed past their tipping points, four (ocean acidification, ozone depletion, freshwater use, and land use) are approaching their tipping points, and two (aerosol loading and chemical pollution) do not yet have identified tipping points because they require more research. The Institute on the Environment recently released a YouTube video addressing the conclusion of this new research:
Blissfully, there are things we can do to stop hurting the planet and begin patching its wounds. According to Foley’s article, we can’t let ourselves get any closer to the tipping points and piecemeal solutions won’t cut it because of the interconnectedness of the issues. Instead, we should focus on switching to low- or no-carbon fuel sources, stopping deforestation, and rethinking our approaches to agriculture.
The conclusions of this research have been well-accepted, but there has been some criticisms for 1) attempting to establish tipping points at all, and 2) for the appropriateness of the establish tipping points. If you would like more information, including commentaries, please check out the following sources:
Article in Nature: A safe operating space for humanity
Article in Scientific American: Boundaries for a Health Planet
Article in Ecology and Society: Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity
Two questions to consider as you watch the YouTube video and take a look through the links and articles referenced above are:
1) What are the consequences of being past our tipping points?
2) How do the solutions discussed prevent us from reaching tipping points?
You are encouraged to post your thoughtful answers below!
Courtesy Milo Winter
You’re probably familiar with Aesop’s classic fable The Tortoise and the Hare: Mr. Hare challenges Mr. Tortoise to a foot race. Mr. Tortoise accepts. Mr. Hare dashes from the start line, but stops just before the finish line to take a nap. In the meantime, Mr. Tortoise plods along to win the race!! The moral of the story? University of Minnesota professor and Institute on the Environment resident fellow, Dr. Peter Reich’s award-winning take on the fable may surprise you.
Dr. Reich studies leaves. In particular, Dr. Reich has discovered three characteristics of leaves that allow researchers to identify where and how plants live: longevity, productivity, and nitrogen content. Longevity measures how old a leaf lives. Did you know leaves in the tropics live only 5-6 weeks whereas Canadian spruce leaves can live up to 18 years old? Productivity measures how much sugar the leaf makes (yes, leaves make sugar called “glucose,” which nearly every animal uses to fuel their body – that’s why your momma tells you to eat your vegetables!). Finally, nitrogen is like a vitamin for plants: they need it to grow big and strong. How much nitrogen a leaf has is important because it determines how much energy a plant can make.
Courtesy Steven J. Baskauf
What about the moral of The Tortoise and the Hare? Dr. Reich’s research says there are basically two types of leaves: ones that are like Mr. Tortoise and ones like Mr. Hare. Tortoise-like leaves work slowly, but steadily. They’re the marathon runners of the leaf world. Hare-like leaves work really fast! But they can’t keep it up for long. They’re sprinters. Could you run a marathon at your top sprinting speed? Probably not, and neither can leaves be both ultra-fast and long-lasting at the same time. Instead, leaves “tradeoff” speed for endurance. Like human runners, leaves don’t have to be all fast and short-lived or all slow and long-lived; they can fall somewhere inbetween and be medium speed and medium-lived.
So who cares about marathon and sprinting leaves anyway? Lots of people! Dr. Reich just won the BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award in recognition of this important research. Being able to group the thousands of plants out in the world into a handful of groups is allowing scientists to do incredible research that can be used around the world.
For example, Dr. Reich’s newest research is looking at the different responses of tortoise-leaves versus hare-leaves to changing environments, such as higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air caused by climate change. As each generation of leaves reproduces, new genetic combinations are created. New genetic traits that are helpful to the plant’s survival are passed on to the next generation. The more genetic combinations created, the better chance a species has of “finding” the right traits in a changing environment. This is where Dr. Reich’s interpretation of the moral of The Tortoise and the Hare may surprise you: because hare-leaves have fast, short lives, they reproduce more genetic combinations and are better able to deal with change. Tortoise-leaves will struggle more to adapt. That is, for leaves, slow and steady does not always win the race!
Want to know more?? Dr. Reich recently gave a lecture as part of the Institute on the Environment’s Frontiers on the Environment series. You can hear it here.
We post plenty of stories here on the Buzz telling the sad stories of impending, or completed, animal extinctions. Here's a great story on how over the past 50 years, Minnesota's surplus bear population has helped bring back Arkansas's nearly extinct bear population back from the brink. No word on what, if any, role Bill Clinton played in this effort.
It's a little on the long side, but the video below shows amazing footage of a sea turtle hunting down a tasty snack. The camera work is with the same technology – the Critter Cam – that's given us awesome views of penguins, falcons and other predators at work.