Following my Oddities post last week, I know many of you were dying to know. In the end it was neither beauty, nor gymnastic mating rituals that won the public over. In voting the Chilean abalone to victory in the international “Mollusc of the Year” contest on Thursday, people seem to have voted with their stomachs. The edible underdog—known commonly as the “loco”—pulled in 42% of the global votes, despite being up against some formidable opponents.
To complete the roundup of eye-candy, oddities and miscellany for this month, let’s look at the oddities. A lot of the weirdest stories I’ve seen recently are about animals. It turns out that, as populations of wild animals plummet, more and more humans have taken to adopting exotic pets, and that’s not a good thing.
Writing in the New Yorker, Rachel Monroe explores the recent rash of exotic animal thefts from the Dallas Zoo, linking it to wildlife trafficking and perhaps also to the enduring frontier mentality of the state. Texas’s laws governing exotic-animal ownership are notably permissive. The state is home to enough privately owned (and poorly secured) big cats that Texas Monthly once ran a column with the title “A Brief History of Tigers on the Loose in Texas, 2021 Edition,” which detailed numerous cases of escaped, seized, and rescued pet tigers in the first five months of that year alone. Recently, there’s been a spate of escaped pet kangaroos. In the past few decades, as drought and rising temperatures have made cattle ranching less feasible, thousands of landowners have stocked their ranches with antelope, sheep, and goat species native to Africa and Asia. While hunting native animals is restricted to certain months, no law limits when you can shoot, say, an impala or a Cape buffalo. So, hunting operations can run year-round.
According to the Texas-based Exotic Wildlife Association, this industry contributes a billion dollars to the state’s economy, and Texas’s exotic-hunting ranches have increasingly positioned themselves as conservationists who are also capitalists. WildLife Partners, an exotic-species breeder and broker, touts the animals as an investment whose growth “continues to out produce many traditional investment vehicles such as stocks, bonds and mutual funds.” And because hunters will pay a premium to bag a rare species—tens of thousands of dollars, in some cases—ranchers are incentivized to cultivate animals that are, in their native habitats, endangered by poaching and habitat loss. Certain species, such as the addax and the mountain bongo, both critically endangered, are more plentiful in Texas than in Africa.
After reading Ms. Monroe’s article, I was curious about the Canadian situation. Back in January, Parks Canada issued a plea or people to stop abandoning their pets and exotic animals after a three-fold increase at Rouge National Urban Park in recent years. Sofia Misenheimer’ s article “9 Exotic Animals You Can Legally Own In Canada (But Good Luck With That Upkeep)” on MTLBlog provides details of the care challenges of some of the exotic animals it is legal to own in Canada. Back in 2016, writing in The Toronto Star, Liam Casey noted that owning exotics is a growing trend in Canada thanks to outdated and inconsistent laws and bylaws. Owning exotics — wild animals taken from their natural habitat or bred in captivity and not native to the country — is a growing trend in Canada, according to animal welfare activists, who blame a patchwork of outdated and inconsistent laws and bylaws. Rob Laidlaw of Zoocheck, a wildlife protection charity based in Toronto, has been fighting for animals’ rights for decades. Reliable data on the number of exotic animals in Canada is difficult to come by, he says. Based on his research, Laidlaw believes there are hundreds of thousands of exotic animals in the country, the vast majority being reptiles. Among the patchwork of provincial and municipal laws and regulations, “Ontario is probably the worst jurisdiction in the country for exotic animal laws and has been for quite a long time,” Laidlaw says. Ontario leaves this regulation up to municipalities.
Part of the problem is laws based on “negative lists,” he says, which must be constantly updated. Instead, he says, Canada should adopt a “positive list” approach used in several European countries that allows ownership of only listed animals.
Writing in the New York Times last month, Emily Anthes details the strange but true origins that inspired the new movie “Cocaine Bear”. She also addresses a few other weird stories about animals getting into human things they shouldn’t. Some of their stories are amusing, even relatable. “I received a call of a skunk out behind a hotel, running around in the parking lot with a McFlurry cup on its head,” said Jeff Hull, an environmental conservation officer for New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation. But animals’ taste for human goods — licit and illicit — can also bring trouble for them and for us.
Anyone who has gone wilderness camping in Canada will identify with the need to keep food out of the reach of bears. Bears are notorious for getting into human provisions, especially as winter approaches and they need to pack on the pounds. “Essentially, they’re an eating machine,” said Dave Wattles, a black-bear and fur-bearer biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Sometimes, they even break into homes. In the Berkshire Mountains, one bear burglar routinely sought out frozen treats.
The article goes on to details other animal misadventures with food and drugs, but not all of these are human’s fault. Many gardeners who own fruit trees, for example, have probably seen squirrels, racoons or birds get drunk on late-season fermented fruit.
Are there dogs that are more prone to reply with howling? Are these dogs genetically closer to wolves? To answer these questions, the effects of the dogs’ breed, age and sex on their behavior were tested in this study. Results of this extraordinary research were published inCommunications Biology.
Thanks to reader Desre Kramer for alerting me to this story by Abigail Klein Leichman. In 2006, Eran Levin entered an abandoned bunker on the Israel-Jordan border and saw a colony of bats hanging from cables and from metal shelves full of old cigarette packs. Levin had found his missing link. Then a PhD student, he was studying bats in the Judean Desert. He knew that after mating in April, greater mouse-tailed bats begin migrating north to the Sea of Galilee and Hula Valley. But where did they stop on the way? He and Aviam Atar from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) decided to look for roosts in the Jordan Rift Valley.
Abandoned after Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994, these underground army bunkers have become a haven for thousands of diverse bats in a model of peaceful coexistence. After gaining permission from IDF, Levin and colleagues were able to transform the bunkers into more bat-friendly habitat. The bat population in the bunkers has been rising steadily. The first counting in 2014 totaled 2,311. By 2021, the bats numbered 7,380. Levin goes on to note: “A whole ecological system has developed around them. Snakes feed on the bats and many invertebrates feed on the bat feces.”
A giant insect plucked from the façade of an Arkansas Walmart has set historic records. The Polystoechotes punctata (giant lacewing) is the first of its kind recorded in eastern North America in over 50 years—and the first record of the species ever in the state. The giant lacewing was formerly widespread across North America, but was mysteriously extirpated from eastern North America by the 1950s. This discovery suggests there may be relic populations of this large, Jurassic-Era insect yet to be discovered, explained Michael Skvarla, director of Penn State’s Insect Identification Lab. Skvarla found the specimen in 2012, but misidentified it and only discovered its true identity after teaching an online course based on his personal insect collection in 2020. He recently co-authored a paper about the discovery in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington.
Writing in LiveScience Charles Q. Choi shares recent research about the amazing speed with which some tiny insects can dispose of their waste. Relatives of cicadas known as sharpshooter insects can catapult pee droplets at superfast speeds, revealing the first known example of “superpropulsion” in nature, a new study finds.This newly discovered effect helps the bugs save energy during peeing and may inspire better self-cleaning devices and soft robotic engines, scientists noted.
In the new study, researchers examined relatives of cicadas known as glassy-winged sharpshooters (Homalodisca vitripennis). These insects, which are about half an inch (1.2 centimeters) long, feed on sap from xylem, the woody part of a plant that brings water and dissolved nutrients up from the roots, as opposed to the phloem, which brings sugar down from the leaves. The sharpshooter’s diet is 95% water, and poor in nutrients. So the bugs constantly drink xylem sap to get enough to eat, and pee up to 300 times their body weight per day. (For comparison, humans pee about one-fortieth of their body weight per day.) The scientists detailed their findings online in the journalNature Communications.
The annual Mollusc of the Year competition is underway. Will you choose beauty? The carnivorous Wavy Bubble Snail, perhaps, with its billowing skirts shimmering under UV light. Or will it be age? Like the venerable 500-year-old Methuselah oyster. Or will you be seduced by the leopard slug with its gymnastic mating ritual? The list of finalists for Mollusc of the Year has something for everyone. In a public vote ending Sunday, five species of soft-bodied invertebrates are vying to follow in the illustrious trail of previous winners, dubbed the “world’s most beautiful snail” and “weirdest octopus”. The grand prize? The triumphant species will have its genome decoded to better understand its evolution and potential benefits to humanity. The International Mollusc of the Year competition, which kicked off this month, is run by the LOEWE Center for Translational Biodiversity Genomics, based in Germany.
Ok, so the actor is a hottie, but the bacteria named in his honor has some pretty nifty properties too. Bacteria of the genus Pseudomonas produce a strong antimicrobial natural product, as researchers at the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology (Leibniz-HKI) have discovered. They proved that the substance is effective against both plant fungal diseases and human-pathogenic fungi. The study was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society and highlighted in an editorial in Nature.
At an event hosted at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in West London, an official from Guinness World Records has presented Mr. Juan Carlos Crespo Montalvo, the Bolivian Charge d’Affaires to the UK, with an official Guinness World Records title for the world’s largest giant waterlily, the recently-named Victoria boliviana. The species, which was named new to science in July 2022, has been described as one of the ‘botanical wonders’ of the world following years of investigation that culminated in the publication of a paper in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science.
The Guardian UK published the top winners in this year’s British Wildlife Photography awards – arguably one of the world’s most prestigious nature photo competitions. You can view the full list of winners, plus winner from past years on the BWPA website.
It may still be early in the year, but EuroNews has a round-up of positive environmental stories that will gladden your heart. Included are the birthday of a 2-headed tortoise, the rescue of a family of tigers that had spent 15 years living in a train carriage, and how it feels to own Britain’s ugliest dog.
Writing in World Sensorium/Conservancy, acclaimed interdisciplinary artist, scholar and conservationist Gayil Nalls treats us to some luscious images of winter gardens. These should inspire us to leave more plant material in place as we go into next winter.
The fabulous glass artist Chihuly will be on display at Missouri Botanical Gardens from May 13 through August 27, including Thursday–Sunday nights, 6–10 p.m. During Chihuly Nights, view Chihuly’s dramatically illuminated works of art with live music, cocktails, and pop-up offerings all summer long. Advance purchase recommended to guarantee admission; sellouts are expected.
Thanks to reader Michel Leblanc for highlighting this event.
The father-and-son duo Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka crafted thousands of scientifically accurate models of plants and sea creatures as teaching aids. This article includes a link to a slide show, which includes some rather gorgeous illustrations of their work. The illustration above of a golden bellapple (Passiflora laurifolia) from 1893 highlights the father-and-son duo’s careful attention to textures. In some cases, the natural look of leaves was recreated by assembling multiple layers of glass with different metal contents.
One of my favorite categories of garden-related science stories is one I call “eye-candy, oddities & miscellany”. It includes articles that celebrate the beauty of nature and our gardens, stories that make me say “wow” – sometimes out loud, and reports of general weirdness. I last posted something on this category in mid-January. Since then, I’ve accumulated so many such stories that I’m breaking the category into three. Let’s start with historical notes relating to plants.
While many occupied their COVID lockdown time learning to bake bread, how about a truly historical recipe? Mihai Andrei, editor in chief at ZME Science shares a sourdough recipe from Pompei and how it came to be rediscovered thanks to archaeology and chemistry research.
In Salon, staff writer Troy Farah interviews UBC philosophy professor Edward Slingerland about his provocative theory and the book it inspired. In his 2021 book, “Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization,” Slingerland lays out the case that alcohol may have even been the impetus for humans developing agriculture and complex societies. Slingerland found evidence that, as he writes, “various forms of alcohol were not merely a by-product of the invention of agriculture, but actually a motivation for it — that the first farmers were driven by a desire for beer, not bread.”
When asked for examples, Slingerland notes the following. “When I started doing the research, I encountered this movement in archaeology that I think is gaining adherence and seems quite plausible. That’s called the Beer Before Bread hypothesis. So 13,000 years ago or so, we’re coming together, building these monumental religious sites and feasting. And feasting involved eating meat and other kind of high value items, but also drinking beer. Sites like Gobekli Tepe, [the world’s oldest surviving permanent human settlement], we don’t have direct chemical evidence, but we have these big vats. They were drinking some kind of liquid. And we know from other sites in the area, they were making beer at this time. In some cases beer, probably laced with psychedelics. So in that respect, the desire to get intoxicated actually directly led to civilization. It’s what motivated hunter gatherers to start cultivating crops and settling down. And you see this pattern around the world, not just in the Fertile Crescent but also Mideast, which is now the modern Turkey area, where agriculture first got started.”
Heriot-Watt University’s Dr Calum Holmes is working to develop new whiskeys using old strains of barley. Experts from Heriot-Watt’s International Centre for Brewing and Distilling (ICBD) are working with Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh to find out whether old species of barley could create distinctive new whiskies. Over the next six years, they’ll test at least eight heritage barley varieties and provide the scientific evidence needed to classify the flavours and aromas they bring to a dram. “There’s hope that using these heritage varieties of barley might allow for recovery of favourable aroma characteristics.”, says Dr. Holmes. 200-year-old Chevallier is one of the varieties they’ll be distilling. It was the most popular barley in Britain for 100 years but fell out of favour when tax rules changed. They’ll also test Hana, which was originally grown in Czech Moravia and was used to make the first blond Pilsner lager in 1842. Golden Promise is from the 1960s and grows predominantly on the east coast of Britain, from Angus down to Northumberland. It is best known as the barely behind the iconic Macallan bottlings from the sixties. The team hopes that the research will create new single malts for Holyrood Distillery and increase knowledge and awareness about the positive traits of heritage barleys.
Impressionist artists like Claude Monet and Joseph Mallord William (J. M. W.) Turner are famous for their hazy, dreamlike paintings. However, a new study finds that what these European painters were really depicting in their works wasn’t a figment of their imagination, but an environmental disaster: air pollution. Scientists examined approximately 100 artworks by the two impressionist painters, who dominated the art scene between the mid-18th and early 20th centuries, during the Industrial Revolution. The team discovered that what some art enthusiasts had long believed was Monet and Turner’s style of painting was actually them “capturing changes in the optical environment” that were associated with a decrease in air quality as coal-burning factories began dotting European cities and spewing pollutants into the air, according to the study, published in the journalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Each night at sunset, a handful of plants “fall asleep.” Species as diverse as legumes and daisies curl up their leaves and petals for the evening and do not unfurl until morning. Now, a new study suggests that plants may have been folding their leaves at night for more than 250 million years. By tracking the unique bite marks that insects inflict only upon folded leaves, the authors determined that one extinct group of plants were likely nyctinastic — the scientific term for plants curling up in response to darkness.
“Since it is impossible to tell whether a folded leaf found in the fossil record was closed because it experienced sleeping behavior or because it shriveled and bent after death, we looked for insect damage patterns that are unique to plants with nyctinastic behavior,” study co-author Stephen McLoughlin, curator of Paleozoic and Mesozoic plants fossil collections at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, said in a statement(opens in new tab). “We found one group of fossil plants that reveals a very ancient origin for this behavioral strategy.”
After examining hundreds of specimens and photographs of gigantopterid fossils, the authors discovered symmetrical holes indicating that the leaves of these prehistoric plants were mature and folded when they were bitten. The results, published in the journalCurrent Biology, provide the strongest evidence to date of nyctinasty in ancient plant species.
Light pollution seems an odd thing for us to be worried about but a growing body of research suggests too much light at night can cause harm to plants, wildlife and even us humans.
A good place to start our exploration is with Terri-Lee Reid’s blog post on the Canadian Wildlife Federation website. She notes that migratory birds are especially vulnerable to striking lit windows at night. All too often these widow strikes are fatal to the birds. So much so that Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) Canada has developed a whole program to educate the public in general and building managers in particular. You’d think the opportunity to turn off lights at night and save money and birds would be an easy win-win. Sadly this is not always the case.
Writing in The National Observer earlier this month, Sarah Scoles reviews Johan Eklöf’s new book “The Darkness Manifesto”. In the book, Eklöf describes an evening deep inside Malaysia’s Krau Wildlife Reserve. “One evening, during dinner, one of the film crew’s large lights was left on, directed up toward the sky,”. Lured into the tight column of illumination, a “heavy stream” of the forest’s winged inhabitants “danced in a spiral down toward the light,” he writes. According to Eklöf, this is known as the “vacuum cleaner effect,” and it’s just one way artificial light has a profound effect on the natural world.
The nocturnal illumination that sustains our modern existence seems to disrupt the lives, and circadian rhythms, not just of insects but of animals as varied as bats, birds, plants, turtles, coral, and clownfish (AKA Nemo). Eklöf, a bat researcher and self-proclaimed “friend of the darkness,” is concerned about the cascading ecological effects of what he and other experts call light pollution. In 42 short and digestible chapters, he makes the case that light pollution is a crucial feature of the Anthropocene Epoch. The seeds of light pollution were sowed more than 150 years ago. Artificial light, according to Eklöf, accounts for 10% of our energy use, but just a fraction is actually useful. “Badly directed and unnecessarily strong lights cause pollution that is equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions of nearly 20 million cars,” he writes.
Scientific research into how light pollution has affected life on Earth is still relatively sparse but drops in insect populations are one example. “The reasons for insect death are many, from urbanization and global warming to the use of insecticides, large-scale farming, single-crop cultivation, and disappearing forests,” writes Eklöf. “But for anyone who’s ever seen an insect react to light, it is obvious that light pollution is a major cause.” Around half of insects are nocturnal and use the dark hours to feed and find reproductive partners. “The night’s limited light protects these insects, and the pale glow from stars and the moon is central for their navigation and hormonal systems,” Eklöf writes.
As for bats, they hunt nocturnal insects, of course, while using the cover of darkness to hide from predators. Particularly in Eklöf’s home country of Sweden, bats live in church towers. In the 1980s, he writes, two-thirds of churches in southwest Sweden had their own personal bat colonies. But Eklöf’s own research suggests that number has dropped by a third. “The churches all glow like carnivals in the night,” he writes. “All the while the animals — who have for centuries found safety in the darkness of the church towers and who have for 70 million years made the night their abode — are slowly but surely vanishing from these places.”
Artificial light also disrupts humans. Most of us cannot see the stars at night, or the Northern Lights. Artificial light disrupts our bodies’ production of melatonin, the hormone that helps control the sleep cycle, with profound effects on our natural sleeping rhythm, writes Eklöf. “We may not be able to cure or prevent depression all at once by cutting down on electric lighting,” he maintains, “but we definitely increase the chances of good sleep in the long run.”
Writing in Explorersweb, Andrew McLemore explores the conundrum: is it better to look up at the night sky or down at our phones? Driven by private companies, there is a movement to surround Earth with brightly lit machines. It is ostensibly about connection, bringing 5G cell service to every corner of the globe. Yet many scientists and astronomers have begun vocalizing their opposition to telecommunications networks that block our view of the final frontier. Light from satellites has begun interfering with the Hubble telescope, prompting astronomers to consider moving it further into space and away from the visual noise. Lovers of the outdoors want to preserve a natural view of the sky — uninterrupted by the streaks of satellites now more common than shooting stars. In a moving polemic published in the Ecological Citizen this month, scientist Kate McFarland made an environmental argument, positing that increased brightness at night could threaten delicate ecosystems throughout the planet. Unlike the light pollution of a metropolis like LA, the brightness created by satellites can’t be avoided by driving to the Nevada desert.
Writing in News Decoder, which aims at children and educators, Tira Shubart outlines the challenges of night-time lighting and how it interferes with the natural world and our view of the stars. At the end of this piece, she asks her young readers to look at local artificial lighting and how it impacts their neighbourhood and what they can see at night.
Writing in The Conversation, entomologist Douglas Boyes discussed how the predictable cycles of day and night have become increasingly blurred. Between 2012 and 2016, satellite measurements revealed that the global area polluted by artificial light grew by 2% each year, intruding ever deeper into biodiversity hotspots like tropical forests. In the UK, as in many other countries, older less efficient sodium street lights are being replaced by brighter and more energy efficient LED lighting.
This change in the colour of artificial light is predicted to have major consequences for wildlife. That’s because white LEDs emit light across the entire visible spectrum. The more wavelengths emitted, the greater the diversity of species and biological processes that are likely to be disrupted. For example, insects are known to be more sensitive to shorter, bluer wavelengths of light, which are largely absent from sodium lighting. Biological processes that are controlled by daylight and internal circadian rhythms, such as reproduction, are more likely to be disrupted or prevented by white LEDS.
To test this hypothesis, Boyes worked with a team of researchers from the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Newcastle University and Butterfly Conservation, I searched the Thames Valley area for roadsides with both lit and unlit habitats. Around 500 potential locations were whittled down to only those that were more or less identical – apart from the presence of street lighting.
The results, published in Science Advances, were striking. Lighting reduced the numbers of caterpillars by between one half and one third. Lit areas almost universally had lower numbers than their darker counterparts. Sites with white LEDs also had a steeper reduction in numbers compared to sites with sodium lamps. They suspect the reason there were fewer caterpillars in lit areas was because the lighting prevented females from laying eggs, a behaviour that has evolved in darkness. In addition, adult moths can be drawn up to streetlights, where they’re easy pickings for bats. Their recent review article revealed many other plausible mechanisms through which lighting could cause population declines throughout the moths’ life cycles.
I was saddened to learn that Dr. Boyes passed away shortly after this article was written. My deepest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.
To end this post on a more hopeful note, Jamie Carter, Senior Contributor at Forbes, writes about one of few places in the world where an immaculate dark sky is stuffed with stars while the night air is filled with spooky rasping screams. Just two miles long by half a mile wide, the island of Ynys Enlli two miles off the west coast of North Wales has been named an International Dark Sky Sanctuary—only the 17th in the world and the first in Europe—by the International Dark-Sky Association.
The last few posts have been a bit intense, so I thought we’d take a break today and just enjoy some pretty pictures.
It was a glorious late winter day in Ottawa today, but the days are getting longer, there’s some actual warmth in the sun, despite the cold temperatures. You can tell – spring in coming!
Amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.) are a wonderful indoor treat in mid-winter.
Soon the first crocus will make an appearance.
Next, the lovely native bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) will make an appearance. I like to pair these snow-white flowers with the intense red colour of the species tulip praestans ‘Unicum’.
Two classic non-native harbingers of spring are the annual forget-me-not (Myosotis arvensis) and lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis). Both are now considered invasive species but they do look pretty in a posey.