Gardening at Last

  • When is a species extinct?

    It may sound like a silly question but the world is a large and complex place. To this day, there are credible sightings of species thought to have been extinct for decades. So what determines is a species is, in fact, extinct?

    From the Extinction entry on Britanica.com.  

    How Do Scientists Decide a Species Has Gone Extinct?

    Writing in The Scientist, Andy Carstens begins by detailing recent sightings of the near-mythical ivory-billed woodpecker, which was thought to have gone extinct in the 1930s. As a result of credible recent sightings by, among others, Mark A. Michaels of the National Aviary, US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) were convinced this past January to offer the bird a 6-month stay of execution. A ruling of “extinct” would have meant the removal of protections required under the US Endangered Species Act, such as preserving habitat and taking other steps to try to increase population size.

    An ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) in 1932. Arthur A. Allen and The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

    The ongoing case highlights some of the challenges researchers face in determining whether a species has actually gone extinct. It’s “difficult to prove the absence of something,” says H. Resit Akçakaya, an ecologist at Stony Brook University, and so a lack of verifiable sightings is not necessarily evidence of extinction. According to guidelines issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an organization that tracks species’ conservation statuses on the basis of surveys, modeling, and expert opinion, “A taxon is Extinct when there is no reasonable doubt that the last individual has died.” But researchers typically don’t know when or if that last death has occurred, Akçakaya adds.

    The outline of a bird at the center of this photo, taken in Louisiana in 2021, is one of the pieces of evidence for the existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker cited in a preprint coauthored by ornithologist Mark Michaels.

    There are perils on both sides of this equation. Continuing to classify an actually extinct species as endangered can lead to underestimating extinction rates, and obscuring the bigger conservation picture, as well as misdirecting financial resources away from protecting vulnerable species to searching for ones that no longer exist. On the other hand, declaring something extinct when it really isn’t can inflict further harm on a struggling species. Additional issues can arise if a species that’s been declared extinct is later found. Discovery of such a “Lazarus species” can cause the public to lose faith in scientists, according to Akçakaya, and may increase poaching demand in some cases.

    To aid consequential extinction decisions, IUCN has developed a methodology to help scientists make the best use of available data, says Akçakaya, who also chairs the organization’s Standards and Petitions Committee as a volunteer. One approach uses so-called exhaustive surveys conducted throughout the species’ historic range during times and seasons when it’s expected to be present. The second estimates extinction probability based on the extent and severity of threats that a species faces. The methodology has value, according to Stuart Butchart, an ornithologist at BirdLife International who was one of the first scientists to test it. For the ivory-billed woodpecker, Butchart’s analysis estimated a 75% probability of extinction using the threat-based method, a result primarily due to habitat loss. From surveys and recorded sightings, the odds of its extinction were lower—around 20%.

    Kelsey Neam, a conservationist with the nonprofit Re:wild, has tested IUCN’s framework on amphibians, although she hasn’t yet used it to recommend the extinction status of a species, in part due to the dearth of information. Lack of data is the biggest challenge for extinction declarations. Whatever the level of available data, decisions ultimately come down to the verdict of a jury of experts. As an assessment facilitator for IUCN’s Amphibian Specialist Group, Neam leads working groups of experts from particular regions in reviewing species’ status. “Sometimes it’s unanimous,” she says. “Everyone goes, ‘Of course, this is totally extinct.’ Other times, there’s a lot of debate.” Her job as an expert in using the IUCN criteria is to remain unbiased. “I often do feel like I’m the head juror,” she says. “It’s a lot of pressure.”

    Tasmanian tiger extinction dated to late 1990s

    Long considered a poster child for 20th Century species’ extinction, it turns out the Tasmanian tiger may have endured almost until the 21st Century!

    Photograph is of the last captive Thylacine, taken on 19th December 1933 at the Hobart Zoo by zoologist David Fleay (image courtesy David Fleay trustees).

    An international group of researchers led by the University of Tasmania has taken a fresh look into the disappearance, and conceivable reappearance, of the Tasmanian tiger thylacine. The last thylacine confirmed killed in the wild was in 1930, and the last specimen in captivity died at a Tasmanian zoo in 1936. Since then, sightings have regularly persisted across Tasmania, though no captured creatures or images have been offered to prove its survival.

    With the possibility that the creature had persisted well past its addition and eventual removal from the endangered species list with an official designation of “extinct,” the researchers wanted to model the most likely last refuges of the iconic predator. In the paper, “Resolving when (and where) the Thylacine went extinct,” researchers modeled 1,237 reported sightings from 1910 to the present day.

    For the study, published in Science of The Total Environment, researchers pulled from every available source: records from government archives, published reports, museum collections, newspaper articles, contemporary correspondence, private collections or other miscellaneous citations and testimony. The team even poured over microfilm records to compile their sighting database.

    This resulted in median extinction dates of 1999 and 2008, with the most likely (overlapping) termination date by the late 1990s—a highly controversial result unless you are a Tasmanian tiger enthusiast hoping they may still be out there. However, when restricting data to physical specimens, the models indicated extinction by 1941. Looking at the data as a whole, the annual number of reports in the six decades spanning 1940 to1999 was relatively constant but fell substantially from 2000 to the present. This suggests the possibility of a small group of thylacine beating the odds of extinction by retreating to more remote areas, vanishing just a few years before smartphone cameras could have captured conclusive evidence.

    Endangered vulture returns after being extinct for 36 years

    Cinereous and Griffon Vultures feeding in the wild. Credit: Hristo Peshev, Fund for Wild Flora and Fauna

    The Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus)—also known as Black Vulture, Monk Vulture or Eurasian Black Vulture—is the largest bird of prey in Europe. Globally classified as Near Threatened, its populations in southern Europe, once abundant, have been experiencing a dramatic decline since the late 1800s. So dramatic, in fact, that by the mid-1900s, these birds had already been nowhere to be seen throughout most of their distributional range across the Old Continent. In Bulgaria, the species has been considered locally extinct since 1985. Thanks to the re-introduction initiative that was started in 2015 by three Bulgarian non-governmental organizations: the leading and oldest environmental protection NGO in Bulgaria: Green Balkans, the Fund for Wild Flora and Fauna and the Birds of Prey Protection Society, the species is now back in the country.

    The re-introduction of the Cinereous Vulture is the latest in a series of conservation projects focused on birds of prey in Bulgaria. An article published in Biodiversity Data Journal details the process.

    These animals went extinct in the wild. Scientists brought them back

    Writing for CNN back in 2021, Rebecca Cairns details sixteen animals that were extirpated in the wild, then brought back from the brink of extinction in captivity and reintroduced to their former habitat. A rather gorgeous pictorial accompanied the article, and included such iconic species as: the Eurasian lynx, the Tasmanian devil, and the Steppe bison.

    Hunted for its meat, hide and horns, the Arabian oryx disappeared from the wild in the 1970s but has since been reintroduced in Israel, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

    Personally, I would make a lousy adjudicator for the IUCN. I would always be inclined to believe that a species is still alive. The world becomes so much poorer when we lose even one!

    From Getty Images.
  • And the winner is…

    The edible sea snail will now have its entire genome decoded to benefit science and humanity.

    Underdog snail wins Mollusc of the Year

    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.

  • 2023 March World Water Day

    In honour of World Water Day, which is today, I thought we’d review some recent articles about that most essential element for gardeners.

    Major water-related events in 2022. Credit: Global Water Monitor 2022 Summary Report

    Global water & climate change

    A new report shows alarming changes in the entire global water cycle. Behind the changes expected under climate modelling scenarios, are troubling signs the entire global water cycle is changing. A research team led by Albert Van Dijk from Australian National University, analyses observations from more than 40, merged with data from thousands of weather and water monitoring stations on the ground. Drawing on those many terabytes of data, they paint a full picture of the water cycle over a year for the entire globe, as well as for individual countries. The findings are contained in a recently released report. The key conclusion? Earth’s water cycle is clearly changing. Globally, the air is getting hotter and drier, which means droughts and risky fire conditions are developing faster and more frequently.

    A satellite image of Siberia Lena delta that flows in the Arctic Ocean. Credit: NASA

    Why rivers matter for the global carbon cycle


    Writing from École Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Rebecca Mosimann notes that, until recently, our understanding of the global carbon cycle was largely limited to the world’s oceans and terrestrial ecosystems. Tom Battin, who heads EPFL’s River Ecosystems Laboratory (RIVER), has now shed new light on the key role that river networks play in our changing world. These findings are outlined in a review article commissioned by and published in Nature. Writing with a dozen experts and using the most recent data, this work demonstrates the critical importance of river ecosystems for global carbon fluxes—integrating land, atmosphere and the oceans.

    Image courtesy of Farooq Khan on Pexels.

    Pollution & Water Treatment

    When I was running the Canadian Environment Industry Association* in the late 1990s, one persistent problem with water treatment was removing pharmaceutical residues from drinking water. This has remained an issue for some classes of drugs but he last couple of decades have seen impressive advances. Prof. Dr. Juergen Kolb, an expert in environmental technologies at the Leibniz Institute for Plasma Science and Technology (INP), explains the current state of research. “We combine classical physical processes for wastewater purification with new technologies such as ultrasound, pulsed electric fields and plasma technology. This allows us to break down chemical compounds such as drug residues but also other man-made contaminants and convert them into harmless substances.” These methods have already proven their potential in various INP research projects. Currently, the approaches are being transferred to practice-relevant environments. “Our approach is currently mobile plants that can be used in hospitals, for example, where water contamination with pharmaceutical residues is particularly high. Particularly in view of the increasing number of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms, we see an acute need for action here,” Kolb adds. The technologies are also suitable for municipal sewage treatment plants as a fourth purification stage. The full article is titled: Innovative technologies to remove pharmaceutical residues from wastewater.

    (CEIA no longer exists, but its Ontario provincial counterpart does. See Ontario Environment Industry Association.)

    Image of a stormwater pond from the website of Kanata-South councillor Allan Hubley.

    Living alongside the Ottawa River, stormwater management is a neighbourhood issue. Following flooding events in 2017 and 2019, the National Capital Commission has been busy rebuilding the retaining wall between us and the river. Sadly “green infrastructure” is not part of their engineering solution, which started instead with clear-cutting almost every tree along the river side of the wall.

    Trees felled by NCC for “flood control” along the Ottawa River. Photo courtesy of Andrew Scott.

    Green stormwater infrastructure

    Writing in Phys.Org, Leslie Lee of Texas A&M University discusses green stormwater solutions to the stormwater runoff issues caused by growing populations, more hard surfaces from expanding cities, and climate change-driven extreme weather events. To help cities grow their stormwater management strategy portfolios, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and AgriLife Extension staff at the center in Dallas are working on many stormwater-related projects. The idea behind green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) is to take downstream effects of water management into consideration and to promote more rainwater to infiltrate the soil and replenish aquifers, rather than simply running off into the nearest body of surface water.

    Although many U.S. cities have been slow to adopt, a research review published in WIREs Water proposes strategies for municipalities and decision-makers to overcome barriers and use green stormwater infrastructure for long-term benefits.

    Image from New Phytologist, Volume: 238, Issue: 1, Pages: 33-54, First published: 23 January 2023, DOI: (10.1111/nph.18762).

    How plants are inspiring new ways to extract value from wastewater

    Scientists from The Australian National University (ANU) are drawing inspiration from plants to develop new techniques to separate and extract valuable minerals, metals and nutrients from resource-rich wastewater. The ANU researchers are adapting plant ‘membrane separation mechanisms’ so they can be embedded in new wastewater recycling technologies. This approach offers a sustainable solution to help manage the resources required for the world’s food, energy and water security by providing a way to harvest, recycle and reuse valuable metal, mineral and nutrient resources from liquid wastes. The research is published in New Phytologist.

    Rain barrel at the side of Rebecca’s home. Photo by Jon Last.

    Potential Contaminants in Residential Rain Barrel Water

    In a new paper on ResearchGate, Linda Chalker Scott notes residential gardeners often use rain barrels to collect rainwater from roofs as a supplement to summer irrigation. Rainwater is a natural and unchlorinated water source for aquatic plants and animals. However, rooftop runoff can be contaminated by chemical and biological pollutants from atmospheric deposition, bird droppings, and the roofing material itself. This publication examines the state of knowledge on residential rain barrel water safety in North America over the last 20 years. Among the simple, research-based practices gardeners can use to take advantage of collected rainwater, while also reducing the risks of contamination exposure are:

    • Knowing your local pollution issues
    • Avoid collecting rainwater: when air quality is low (smoggy, temperature inversions, low wind speeds); if you have recently used a moss removal product on the roof; or if pesticides have been recently applied nearby.
    • Use good garden hygiene, including: keeping your barrels well sealed, and using mosquito netting on the top of them; not drinking rainwater or touching your wet hands to your mouth or eyes; washing your hands after handling rainwater; and cleaning the barrels regularly.
    • Wash garden produce before eating it.
    • Install a diverter for the first flush of rain to capture the worst of the contaminants.

    Closer to Home

    Photo from Ontario Parks website.

    Ontario wetlands under threat

    Angelica Marie Sanchez from University of Waterloo, quotes Dr. Rebecca Rooney, a wetland ecologist and professor in the Department of Biology. “Wetlands are a portfolio of ecosystem services: including flood prevention, breaking down pesticides, storing large amounts of carbon, and provide habitat for more than 32% of Ontario species at risk who rely on these wetlands to mitigate climate change.” Canada is home to 25% of the world’s wetlands. But according to Rooney, Canada has lost more than 60% of its wetlands over the years. In agricultural areas, wetlands have been drained to make space for farming. While in urban and suburban areas, Canada has lost the majority of its wetlands due to them being drained for housing development. Stormwater ponds are engineered solutions created to effectively replace wetlands across Ontario. However, these ponds only address some of the problems including flood prevention, but they need to provide the full portfolio of ecosystem services that wetlands provide.

    While the More Homes Built Faster Act, formerly known as Bill 23, aims to address the housing crisis in Ontario, it will be devastating for the province’s wetlands. The proposals posted to the Environmental Registry of Ontario included changes to the Ontario Wetland Evaluation System, which is the instrument the provinces uses to determine whether a wetland gets classified as provincially significant. “… Unfortunately, the changes that are being proposed to the Ontario wetland evaluation system will dramatically undermine its efficacy and endanger wetlands across Ontario,” says Rooney. “There is a huge amount of scientific evidence that connects these pockets of wetlands into a whole integrated network,” says Rooney. “If you start chipping away at the wetlands and you destroy one piece of it, the whole network is going to suffer under the current proposals.”

    Rooney encourages people to act by learning more about the act and its impact on Canada’s wetlands.

    Aerial view of the Dezadeash River, Yukon, meandering through vegetated permafrost. (Photo credit: Alessandro Ielpi). Image from Stanford Earth Matters magazine.

    Arctic river channels changing

    A team of international researchers monitoring the impact of climate change on large rivers in Arctic Canada and Alaska determined that, as the region is sharply warming up, its rivers are not moving as scientists have expected. Dr. Alessandro Ielpi, an Assistant Professor with UBC Okanagan’s Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science, is a landscape scientist and lead author of a paper published in Nature Climate Change. Dr. Ielpi says the assumption of faster river channel migration owing to climate change has dominated the scientific community for decades. “But the assumption had never been verified against field observations,” he adds. To test this assumption, Dr. Ielpi and his team analyzed a collection of time-lapsed satellite images—stretching back more than 50 years. They compared more than a thousand kilometers of riverbanks from 10 Arctic rivers. “We found that large sinuous rivers with various degrees of permafrost distribution in their floodplains and catchments, display instead a peculiar range in migration rates,” says Dr. Ielpi. “Surprisingly, these rivers migrate at slower rates under warming temperatures.” One reason why is that warmer temperatures mean more vegetation, which helps to stabilize river banks.

    Good News Stories

    In 2004, frontyard lawns were prohibited for new subdivisions in the Las Vegas area. Above, the suburban community of Mountain’s Edge. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

    How Las Vegas declared war on thirsty grass

    Writing in the LA Times, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Ian James report on how Las Vegas has emerged as a leader in water conservation, and some of its initiatives have spread to other cities and states that rely on the shrinking river. Its drive to get rid of grass in particular could reshape the look of landscapes in public and private spaces throughout the Southwest. In 2002, as the reservoir level dropped, the Southern Nevada Water Authority used more than its allocation of Colorado River water. At that point, the agency’s leaders decided to pivot quickly toward conservation. Cash rebates to encouraged residents to rip out lawns and put in landscaping with desert plants. In 2003, the Las Vegas area’s consumption of Colorado River water shrank more than 16%. Those conservation gains continued as the area’s water suppliers strengthened their rules, targeting grass. As the article details, not everyone is happy with the restrictions, but they are helping to conserve valuable water resources.

    Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.

    Drought detection on the cheap

    Meanwhile researchers at University of Barcelona recently published a study in the journal Trends in Plant Science that presents a set of techniques that enable researchers to detect and monitor drought stress in plants in a cheap, easy and quick way. The study responds to the need to establish effective and low-cost protocols to easily detect and study how droughts affect plants. Specifically, the authors present a battery of very accessible techniques that can be applied with basic laboratory equipment: precision balance, microscope, centrifuge, spectrophotometer, oven, camera and computer.

    Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

    In other good news Everglades restoration moves closer to reality with a crucial groundbreaking. Elsewhere Albania’s ‘wild river’ now a national park.

  • Oddities

    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.

    Miss Mango the Magnificent (not an oddity) is the “exotic animal” who lives in our house. Illustration by Carol English.

    Exotic Animals in Strange Places

    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.

    A fennec fox. Right: A wallaby. Photo by Michael Elliott | Dreamstime, Ondřej Novotný | Dreamstime. From Sofia Misenheimer’ s article “9 Exotic Animals You Can Legally Own In Canada (But Good Luck With That Upkeep)” on MTLBlog.

    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.

    Problems with exotic pet ownership include:

    • Wild capture and illegal trading,
    • Poor welfare for the animals, and
    • Potential harm to humans, such as the tragic death of two young brothers who were killed by an escaped African rock python in Campbellton, N.B.
    Illustration by John P. Dessereau from the New York Times.

    Cocaine Bear, Meet Cannabis Raccoon and McFlurry Skunk

    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.

    Researchers of the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University have been investigating dogs’ reactions to wolf howls. Credit: Gáti Oszkár Dániel

    Wolves of the wilderness are calling. Will your dog answer?

    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 in Communications Biology.

    Geoffroy’s horseshoe bats hanging from cables in an abandoned bunker. Photo by Dr. Eran Levin.

    Endangered Bats Find Refuge in Abandoned Army Bunkers

    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.

    Bats hanging from structures added to the metal ceilings for them to grasp. Photo by Dr. Eran Levin.

    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.”

    This Polystoechotes punctata or giant lacewing was collected in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2012 by Michael Skvarla, director of Penn State’s Insect Identification Lab. Credit: Michael Skvarla / Penn State.

    Rare insect found at Walmart sets record

    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.

    (See also: A Jurassic-Era Insect Rediscovered and Rare insect found at Arkansas Walmart sets historic record, points to deeper ecological questions)

    This tiny sharpshooter insect urinates and forms a droplet of pee on its anal stylus (aka ‘butt flicker’), before flicking it off. (Image credit: Georgia Institute of Technology)

    Butt catapults on glassy-winged sharpshooters

    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 journal Nature Communications.

    Micromelo undatus, colloquially known as the Wavy Bubble Snail, eats bristly ringworms.

    Their time to slime

    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.

    The real Keanu Reeves from IMBD.

    Keanu Reeves, the molecule: New active ingredient from bacteria could protect plants

    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.

    Carlos Magdalena, scientific and botanical research horticulturist, and Lucy Smith, botanical illustrator, holding the Guinness World Records title for Victoria boliviana, the world’s largest species of giant waterlily, in the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew Gardens in West London. Credit: Adam Millward, Guinness World Records.

    It’s official: World’s largest giant waterlily recognized by Guinness World Records

    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.

  • 2023 March Eye-Candy

    Looking out at the slowly diminishing piles of grungy snow that characterize Ottawa in late winter, I think it’s time for some pretty pictures!

    The overall winner: Charlie Page’s image of a red fox in Lee Valley Park, London. Photograph: Charlie Page/British Wildlife Photography awards

    British Wildlife Photography awards 2023

    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.

    Our favourite positive environmental story from 2022: World’s oldest two-headed tortoise celebrates 25th birthday. Copyright  REUTERS/Pierre Albouy.

    Positive environmental stories from 2023 so far

    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.

    Image from Plantings – World Sensorium/Conservancy article.

    The Winter Garden at Wakehurst Place in England

    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.

    End of Day Persian Pond (detail), 2022 by Chihuly.

    Chihuly in the Garden 2023

    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.

    From the Ware Collection of Blaschka glass models of plants, Harvard University Herbaria / Harvard Museum of Natural History © President and Fellows of Harvard College

    Glass Menagerie, 1863–1936

    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.

  • Light Pollution

    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.

    Composite view of Earth at night from the Suomi NPP satellite in polar orbit 512 miles above the surface, from April 18, over nine days and for 13 days ending October 23, 2012. Source NASA-NOAA Satellite Reveals New Views of Earth at Night.

    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.

    This long-exposure photo shows insects attracted to a streetlight. Photo by Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Light pollution upending the natural world

    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.”

    A fleet of Internet Star Link satellites in orbit above Earth. Scientists worry about their impact. Photo: Shutterstock

    Satellite ‘Mega-Constellations’

    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.

    Two night scenes. On the left, stars fill the sky over the Coconino National Forest. (Credit: Coconino National Forest, U.S. Forest Service.) On the right, a dark sky covers a brightly-lit Los Angeles. (Credit Douglass Clem, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

    Turning on the night sky

    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.

    A comparison of sodium lights (on the left) and white LEDs (on the right). Author provided

    LED streetlights

    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.

    Sadly, Dr. Boyes passed away shortly after this article was written.

    Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island), north Wales has today (23.02.2023) received International Dark Sky Sanctuary certification by the International Dark Skies Association (IDA).STEVE PORTER

    Europe’s First ‘Dark Sky Sanctuary’ is in Wales

    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 a 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.

  • Plants in History

    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.

    A 2000-year old loaf of bread. Image courtesy of Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

    2000-Year old Roman bread recipe

    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.

    Close-up of carving on wood, Patrai, Greece (De Agostini via Getty Images)

    Drinking culture

    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’s International Centre for Brewing and Distilling is using 200-year-old barley in a project with Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh. Credit: Holyrood Distillery

    200-year-old barley for modern whisky

    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. 

    “The Houses of Parliament, Sunset,” by Claude Monet (1913). Image credit: Active Museum/Active Art/Alamy Stock Photo.

    Hazy impressionist landscapes

    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 journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    The son of study first author Zhuo Feng, of Yunnan University in Kunming, China collecting a leaf of Bauhinia that shows signs of symmetrical insect-feeding damage. Image credit: Zhuo Feng (CC BY-SA).

    Plants ‘slept’ with curled leaves 250 million years ago

    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.

    Evidence of insect feeding damage on the leaf of the now extinct Gigantopterid. Image credit: Current Biology/Feng et al. (CC BY-SA).

    “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 journal Current Biology, provide the strongest evidence to date of nyctinasty in ancient plant species.

  • The Sky at Night

    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.

    Composite view of Earth at night from the Suomi NPP satellite in polar orbit 512 miles above the surface, from April 18, over nine days and for 13 days ending October 23, 2012. Source NASA-NOAA Satellite Reveals New Views of Earth at Night.

    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.

    This long-exposure photo shows insects attracted to a streetlight. Photo by Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Light pollution upending the natural world

    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.”

    A fleet of Internet Star Link satellites in orbit above Earth. Scientists worry about their impact. Photo: Shutterstock

    Satellite ‘Mega-Constellations’

    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.

    Two night scenes. On the left, stars fill the sky over the Coconino National Forest. (Credit: Coconino National Forest, U.S. Forest Service.) On the right, a dark sky covers a brightly-lit Los Angeles. (Credit Douglass Clem, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

    Turning on the night sky

    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.

    A comparison of sodium lights (on the left) and white LEDs (on the right). Author provided

    LED streetlights

    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.

    Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island), north Wales has today (23.02.2023) received International Dark Sky Sanctuary certification by the International Dark Skies Association (IDA).STEVE PORTER

    Europe’s First ‘Dark Sky Sanctuary’ is in Wales

    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.

    What we can do

    The International Dark Sky Association recommends that we can take action, including:

    • Assessing the lighting around your home.
    • Using dark sky friendly lighting at your home and business.
    • Talking to your friends, family, and neighbors.
    • Spreading the word online!
    • Becoming a community scientist.
    • Advocating for a lighting ordinance in your town.
    • Visiting an International Dark Sky Place!
  • Getting it Right

    In my last post, which was about changing diets, I referred to Stephen Barstow, author of “Around the Word in 80 Plants”. Unfortunately, I relied on my not-so-good memory for my remarks about Stephen’s background. I’m grateful to him for setting me straight on the following:

    • His biology is self-taught and his career was actually as and “ocean wave climatologist”, which he describes as “like a meteorologist for the ocean waves”.
    • Stephen doesn’t live in Sweden but in “mid-Norway” at latitude 64.3°N. For reference, this is about the same latitude as Frobisher Bay.
    Photo from an article in Driftless Journal, September 19, 2019.

    Most importantly, Stephen notes that he no longer suggests people eat any part of tulips. He was originally inspired to decorate a salad with the petals by NYC chefs. However, relooking at this a few years ago, he found only a few references in the traditional literature of flowers and sometimes also leaves and bulbs being eaten, but this was wild species in the Himalayas. He also found a reference to the fact that the petals contain the alkaloid tuliposide although in lower concentrations.

    In fact, Stephen always checks his facts carefully. He reviews the traditional record via Google Scholar before recommending any new plant. Many thanks to Stephen for setting me straight.

    From Google maps, a look at what’s on the 63rd parallel in Canada.
  • Changing Diets

    This is the third and final post in my series on how we are responding to those twin threats to our food supply – climate change and peak oil. My own experience, from several decades of trying to grow my own food, is that self-sufficiency is not possible without both more land that I have in my tiny suburban garden, and a much more concerted effort than I’ve been able to muster. However, the biggest successes in my edible garden have been from perennial plants. They take much less work and produce far more food than most of the annual veggies I grow.

    Serviceberry in bloom in Rebecca’s front garden. Photo by R. Last.

    In the early 2000s, I started studying and implementing permaculture practices. I planted my garden with edible woody plants such as currants (Ribes spp.), hazelnuts (Corylus americana), a Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa) and a serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis).

    Cover art on Stephen Barstow’s book, which is still my bible for learning about edimental plants.

    About a decade later, I attended a talk by an amazing, if slightly mad, Englishman called Stephen Barstow. Barstow introduced me to the concept of “edimentals” – a term he uses to describe ornamental plants that are also edible. I loved the idea and bought a copy of his book. His Edimentals website contains hundreds of postings describing how he uses the many plants that grow in his garden. By the way, Bartstow’s garden is in northern Sweden, not far from the Arctic Circle. If he can grow it, then I can too, here in Ottawa. The big difference between edimentals and permaculture is the the former focuses much more on herbaceous, rather than woody, plants, and it introduced me to the idea of eating plants that I’m already growing for their looks. A couple of years ago, I even gave a short talk on this topic, which you can still find on YouTube. So let’s dive into how changing our diets might help save the planet, and how the twin threats of climate change and peak oil might force us to change our eating patterns anyway.

     Two recent global events – COVID 19 and the war in Ukraine, serve to highlight the fragility of our globalized food system. More recently, a flurry of stories out of the UK highlight the perils of nationalism. Brexit has not worked out well for anyone in the UK interested in eating fresh food! See for example:

    Photo from The Guardian UK. Empty fruit and vegetable shelves in a north London supermarket. Photograph: James Veysey/REX/Shutterstock.

    Empty supermarket shelves symptomatic of a dysfunctional system

    Writing in The Guardian UK, Jay Rayner puts current UK food shortages into the larger context of a food system where the retail sector is dominated by just a dozen companies and where food challenges are exacerbated by a government that prioritizes cheap food over healthy food from sustainable sources. He describes how local growers are being pushed off land so it can be used to build houses. He notes the idiocy of post-Brexit seasonal work visas that aren’t long enough for farmers to bring in workers for the full growing season. Then came the energy crisis. The government chose not to subsidise the energy costs of growers. Last week APS Group, one of the largest tomato growers in the country, admitted it had left some of its glasshouses unplanted for the first time in almost 75 years. Rayner argues that cheap food is not the answer. He writes, if we structure our food system so that those in poverty can access it, we will only further damage our agricultural base. We need on the one hand to deal with the functioning of our food system and on the other with poverty, with a chronically unequal distribution of wealth. We need to stop talking about food poverty and just call it poverty.

    Graphical abstract. Credit: One Earth (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.oneear.2023.01.005

    Can we produce all our own food?

    One logical response to both climate change and peak oil is to shorten supply chains. Researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands asked if nations could produce all their own food. According to the study published in One Earth (2023), for half of the world population the answer would be yes. For the other half: maybe? Leiden environmental researcher and head author Nicolas Navarre explains, “With improvements to crop yields, reductions in food waste, and changes in consumption patterns, 90% of people could live in countries that don’t need to trade for food.”

    From Smithsonian Magazine “Five Ways to Start Eating Insects” by Emily Matchar. Photo caption and credit: Fried insects, anyone? © Steven Vidler/Corbis.

    Using insects as food for humans and livestock

    Giving a whole new twist to the term “grub’s up”, wo pairs of academics are making the case for using insects as a food source in Perspectives pieces published in the journal Science. The first pair, Arup Kumar Hazarika and Unmilan Kalita, with Cotton University and Barnagar College, respectively, both in India, argue that a strong case can be made for using insects to meet the growing need for food around the world in the coming years. Arnold van Huis with Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands and Laura Gasco with the University of Torino in Italy argue that there is a strong case to be made for using insects as feed for livestock.

    In the first paper, the authors note that humans eating insects is not novel. People have been eating them for as long as there have been people. And many people in the world today still eat them; however, most do not. In the second paper, the authors note that currently, most livestock feed is made from fishmeal and soybean meal. They also note that the production of meat worldwide uses between 70% and 80% of all agricultural land and yet produces about 25% of the protein consumed by humans. They suggest that replacing conventional feed with feed made from insects would free up large parcels of land now used to grow food for livestock. It would also be a healthier food source for the animals. Also, farming insects is likely to become more feasible as the planet continues to warm.

    Credit: pbd Studio/shutterstock

    Cool things to know about pulses

    Writing in The Conversation, researcher Nadia Radzman explores the food potential of an under-used category of plants. If insects aren’t to your taste, consider pulses. Each year on February 10, the United Nations commemorates what probably sounds to many like a strange occasion: World Pulses Day. But, as a researcher focused on forgotten and underutilised legumes, I think the initiative is an important step towards food security. Getting people to eat more pulses can ultimately help achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger. Pulses are the dried seeds of legumes. Among the promising aspects of pulses:

    • The legumes that grow pulses thrive in poor soil and don’t require nitrogen-based fertilizers. In fact, most legumes fix their own nitrogen by forming symbiotic relationships with friendly bacteria known as rhizobia.
    • Thanks to their nitrogen-fixing ability, pulses are nutritional powerhouses: high in protein and fibre, and low in fat.
    • The common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) comes in many varieties around the world. It’s able to fix nitrogen in different environments, making it a resilient legume species.
    • Among the oldest domesticated plant, the pea (Pisum sativum) inspired Gregor Mendel’s pioneering work in plant genetics. The rich genetic diversity of the pea is also a valuable resource for important crop traits that can withstand various weather conditions due to climate change.
    • Many pulses are drought tolerant and use less water for production than animal-sourced proteins, especially beef. Chickpea (Cicer arietinum) is known to be highly drought tolerant. Scientists are looking for beneficial traits that can reduce the yield loss in chickpeas during drought. This may contribute to a more secure food source in the midst of climate change.
    • White lupins (Lupinus albus), yellow lupins (Lupinus luteus) and pearl lupins (Lupinus mutabilis) can form special roots to get more nutrients without the need for additional fertilisers. These plants have unique root modifications called cluster roots that can liberate phosphorus from soil particles when the nutrient is low. These cluster roots exude negatively charged compound called carboxylate that can liberate phosphorus from the soil and make it available for the plant to use. So lupins do not have to rely on phosphate fertilisers and can even help neighbouring plants by increasing the phosphorus level in the soil.
    Microscopy image of PulseON® flour showing starch, stained blue, inside intact chickpea cells. Credit: Cathrina Edwards, the Quadram Institute

    Bread made from a new type of flour keeps you fuller for longer

    As an example of how useful pulses can be, consider this new types of bread made from whole cell pulse flour. It an can lower blood glucose (sugar) levels and keep you fuller for longer. A study published recently in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by researchers from King’s College London and the Quadram Institute looked at the effects of replacing regular wheat flour with ‘cellular chickpea flour’ on feelings of fullness, fullness-regulating hormones, insulin and blood sugar levels in people who ate it. The study is the first of its kind and is based on the design of a new pulse ingredient that is now being commercialized for food industry use as PulseON by Pulseon Foods Ltd. Eating healthy pulses including chickpeas, lentils and beans is known to help support healthy weight maintenance and decrease the risk of heart disease. A lot of the benefits seen from these foods are due to the fiber structure of the pulses themselves, with normal flour milling generally considered to reduce the beneficial effects of fiber structure. However, new methods in food technology developed by the scientists have allowed them to make whole cell flours that preserve the dietary fiber structure of the whole pulses, providing a new way to enrich flour-based food with beneficial nutritional qualities for improved health.

    From a 2014 advertising poster by Intermarché, a French grocery chain that aimed to reduce food waste by charging less for “ugly” produce.

    ‘Ugly’ fruit and vegetables could tackle food waste

    The world is facing a significant food waste problem, with up to half of all fruit and vegetables lost somewhere along the agricultural food chain. Globally, around 14% of food produced is lost after harvesting but before it reaches shops and supermarkets. The authors go on to elaborate the how consumers’ desire for perfect-looking food contributes to food waste. (If you thought women have difficulty living up to unreasonable expectations about our appearance, try being a vegetable!) When imperfect fruit and vegetables don’t make it to supermarket shelves, it can be due to cosmetic standards. Supermarkets and consumers often prefer produce of a fairly standard size that’s free of blemishes, scars and other imperfections. This means fruit and vegetables that are misshapen, discoloured, or even too small or too large, are rejected before they make it to supermarket shelves. A growing trend of selling such “ugly” fruit and vegetables, both by major supermarket chains, as well as speciality retailers appeals to some customers, but not others. So how can producers and retailers boost the amount of non-standard fruit and veg that not only reaches our shelves, but also our plates? Our recent research suggests a separate channel for selling ugly produce would increase profits for growers, lower prices for consumers and boost overall demand for produce. The researchers propose six strategies:

    • Educating consumers
    • Reducing supermarkets’ cosmetic standards
    • Direct sales from farmers
    • Encouraging supermarkets to donate ugly food instead of wasting it
    • Using the ugly produce to create value-added food (e.g, for soups, casseroles, etc.)
    • Composting anything that cannot be salvaged
    ‘Ugly’ produce might be just as delicious but still gets rejected based on looks. Rosie2/Shutterstock