South Dakota group kills > 100 eagles, >200 raptors (warning – Disturbing image)

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

What do you see when looking at this photos A gorgeous, powerful wonder of nature? A majestic symbol of our nation? Or…a body part to be sold for about $250? For 15 South Dakotans, it’s the latter, as they are charged with killing and selling the carcasses and body parts of over 100 eagles and 200 raptors in total.

Want to buy the head of a Golden Eagle?  It will run you about $250 on the black market.  How about the wings of our national symbol, the Bald Eagle? It’s a bit pricier, as a pair of wings sell for about $900.  What’s that you say?  Black Market? Dead eagles?  Sounds a bit illegal?  Well, that didn’t stop a South Dakota “chop shop” for trafficking in eagle carcasses and parts, as well as other raptors.

The Department of Justice this week charged 15 South Dakotans in conspiring to acquire (aka, kill), process, and distribute the bodies or body parts of eagles and other raptors. The group was known to have killed at least 100 eagles and over 200 raptors in total.  Members of the group face charges for violating the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and the Lacey Act of 1900.  I guess you can forgive the group because these are “new” regulations that have only been around for a minimum of 77 years.  Who knew you couldn’t go out and shoot eagles and sell their parts on the black market?

What I want to know is…why the hell IS there a black market for eagle parts?  What does one DO with the head of a Golden Eagle? The wings of a Bald Eagle? The people who killed and sold all these raptors are disgusting, but so are the people who buy these “treasures”.

I’ve seen some sick things in South Dakota while out birding.  I’ve seen a landowner near Presho, a landowner who himself was later charged with killing eagles and other raptors, duct-tape dead coyotes in a spread-eagle position on telephone poles around his property. Warning…a photo of one of the coyotes is at the bottom of the post, and is rather disturbing.  I’ve seen hunting dog carcasses neatly lined up with bullet holes in their heads, hunting dogs that were temporarily used by out-of-state hunters during the big fall pheasant hunt, and then were “disposed of” when the hunting trip ended. On SEVERAL occasions I’ve come across hunters shooting things they shouldn’t be shooting, such as a pair of South Dakota rednecks driving around in their pickup and stopping at any wetland they passed to blast away at American Coots and other water birds.  I’ve seen a pair of high school girls pull into a wildlife area, drop off their two little brothers, and casually laugh and chatter while the little bastards were out roaming the land and shooting every songbird they could see.  I’ve seen “hunters” shoot and wound a Canada Goose, and then run around chasing the grounded bird and kicking and punching it to death.  I’ve SEEN dead raptors, including a big, gorgeous Golden Eagle, that had clearly been shot. But hey, at least those people were just doing it for “fun”, not for personal profit!!

There’s a reason I’ve gotten more cynical over the 25 years we’ve lived in South Dakota.  I’ve SEEN what some people are like. I’ve SEEN the terrible things people are capable of. When I see stories like this about the killing of hundreds of raptors for profit, I’m sad, I’m sickened, but I certainly can’t say I’m shocked any more.

Coyote - Shot near Presho, South Dakota

I’m sorry for the disturbing image, but, this is one of the most disgusting things I’ve seen while out birding in South Dakota…a land owner near Presho who had shot several coyotes and duct-taped them to telephone poles around his property. This same land owner was charged with shooting raptors, including eagles. Why, you ask? He ran a pheasant and grouse hunting operation, and didn’t want these animals preying on “his” birds. I wish stories like these were isolated cases in South Dakota. They’re not. I’ve been frankly shocked at the attitudes of many people in the state towards our beautiful wildlife.


Meteors in your Gutter, Pollinating Crops with Drones, and more science news – Week of March 12, 2017

This week, let’s try something novel…science news, sans politics.  It seems that politicians in this country have decided we can live without science, so for one week, I’ll try a “news” post where science avoids politics.

Long-horned Bee - Melissodes

A Long-horned Bee, doing what bees do best…collecting nectar and in the process, distributing pollen. If one Japanese researcher has his way, we could soon be using drones to augment nature’s pollinators. A personal comment…let’s hope this never comes to pass.

Who Needs Honeybees when we have Drones? — A first…TWO drone-related stories in one week! While the story above about using drones to acoustically sample birds may seem practical, I admit I don’t see much of a future for this application!  Eijiro Miyako, a chemist in Tsukuba, Japan, was trying to make an electricity-conducting gel in 2007, an endeavor that wasn’t working. His concoction was stored, until 8 years later when he dropped the jar while cleaning out a drawer. Miyako certainly thinks differently than I do, because upon cleaning up the sticky substance, he wondered, “could this be used to pollinate plants”? The decline of honeybees and other pollinators is well-noted, something of potentially devastating consequences to not only natural ecosystems, but to our very survival, given the need to pollinate crops.  Miyako started working with methodologies to pollinate crops, starting out by coating ants with his sticky gel to see if their movements would attract and distribute pollen. It kind of worked, but didn’t seem practical, so he eventually started working with drones.  The drones have a fuzzy material that collects pollen and can redistribute it when the drone brushes up against another plant.  His eventually plan? Build a fleet of 100 or so drones, use GPS and artificial intelligence, and set them loose in a field to pollinate the crops. Well…I guess we all need dreamers, and given how science works, who knows what practical application may come of Miyako’s work?  But hey, how about instead of developing drone pollinators, we instead focus on preserving the natural pollinators we have now?

Norwegian Gutters Clogged with Meteors!! — Jon Larsen, a Norwegian jazz musician, has an interesting hobby.  He’s devoted much of his free time in recent years to looking through material in gutters, downspouts, and drains, searching for extraterrestrial visitors.  Tons of material from outer space enters Earth’s atmosphere every day, much of it microscopic. Larsen has searched through debris in urban settings in search of these microscopic visitors.  His passion has been published in the journal Geology, with a paper that discusses the identification of over 500 “large micrometeorites” from rooftops and other urban settings. Larsen has learned the typical characteristics of micrometeorites, stating “Once I knew what to look for, I found them everywhere”.  Next time you’re up on the roof, cleaning leaves out of those gutters, do it with a smile and a sense of wonder, because it’s extremely likely that you’re cleaning up cosmic debris along with those leaves.

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index - Great Britain

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) for Great Britain, showing relative “greenness” of vegetation at the time. Researchers are studying linkages between NDVI, tree ring width, and volcanic activity to see if vegetation is responding to pre-eruption conditions. Potentially, such changes could be used to help predict an eruption.

Predicting Volcano Eruptions from…the greenness of trees? — I believe this is a poorly written article, but the premise behind it is VERY cool for a scientist like myself who works with satellite imagery.  The title of the story is very poor and somewhat misleading, stating “Can tree rings predict volcanic eruptions”? The story focuses on the work of scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research. In 1973, scientists noted an anomaly on satellite images along Mount Etna’s flank, a streak of trees that were greener than normal.  With satellite imagery, we can measure a “Normalized Vegetation Difference Index”, a measure of live green vegetation.  NDVI measurements in 1973 satellite observations were high along a streak on the volcanos flank, and less than a year later, a flank eruption occurred right along that very streak.  These scientists hypothesized that measuring tree rings from 1973 would also show an anomaly, and thus the title of this story that tree rings could “predict volcanic eruptions”.  However, the actual results showed no difference in tree ring width during that time frame. Given the relationship between tree ring width and how “good” a year a tree has had, I can see why continued research is warranted to try to find relationships between increased NDVI greenness, and tree ring width, and see if other areas have experienced changes prior to a volcanic eruption.  As it is, there’s not much in this initial research that proves a strong linkage.

Spying on Birds with Drones — On-site surveys of birds is a time-intensive and potentially expensive endeavor if trying to systematically survey birds across broad regions. Researchers at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania investigated the use of drones for conducting acoustical surveys of birds. They tried flying a drone and extracting acoustical information from a recorder on the drone, and found that the method was able to sample bird presence for about as large a region as a human observer performing a survey.  They have some kinks to work out, primarily related to the noise of the drone masking some of the low-frequency bird noises (think cooing of a Mourning Dove), but they believe technological innovation will soon make drones quieter and more efficient at sampling bird acoustics. I admit I do kind of roll my eyes when I hear people talking about trying to use drones for photography, and for science applications, because in many cases it seems like a stunt more than an actual practical application.  Gettysburg College may be proving me wrong, as this actually does sound like an interesting use of drone technology.

American Chestnut - Wild Survivor

One of the VERY few wild, mature American Chestnut trees left in the wild. Trees such as this may be resistant to blight, and are being used in efforts to develop a blight-resistant stock for eventual transplantation in the wild. Genetic modification is also being done to introduce Chestnut Blight resistant genes in tree stocks.

American Chestnut, Returning to a Forest Near You? — I often wonder what it would be like to travel back in time, to visit locations before they were touched by man. In the United States, the entire eastern half of the country was once dominated by forest land. While forest cutting started in earnest in the 1800s and even earlier in some locations, remaining deciduous forests by 1900 were still populated by 3 to 4 billion American Chestnut trees. It is estimated that one-quarter of trees in the Appalachians were American Chestnuts.  The American Chestnut was a prolific nut producer, with mast from the trees supporting deer, turkeys, bears, and other wildlife, including the now extinct Passenger Pigeon.  In 1904 a fungal blight was discovered, a disease that eventually wiped out nearly every wild American Chestnut. Asiatic Chestnut trees were imported into the country, but with them came an Asian bark fungus that was lethal to American Chestnuts. The disease spread rapidly, killing every American Chestnut tree in its path.  It is now estimated that fewer than 100 trees of any size are left in their former range. Root systems of surviving trees still send up shoots, but the blight infects the trees as they mature, resulting in practically no American Chestnut stems over 10-years old in the wild.  This story is focused on efforts to genetically modify the American Chestnut to include resistance to the blight. 30 years of research has resulted in the introduction of a gene from wheat that makes the trees able to withstand the blight. They hope to gain approval to publicly distribute the trees within 5 years.However, it will still be a long process to repopulate Eastern forests with American Chestnut. The researchers want to cross-pollinate the blight resistant trees with native wild tree stock. Half of the offspring will be blight resistant, and genetic diversity will be much improved over the current research tree stock.  We’re at the start of a VERY long process to restore the tree to the wild, but hopefully our great-great grandchildren will be able to enjoy the same Eastern forest trees that existed prior to 1900.

10 years until “Snowball Earth” — I admit my scientist side geeks out when I read a story like this, as it’s just so cool to think of the physical changes that have, can, and will again happen to our Earth.  Of course the absolutely catastrophic consequences for mankind put a bit of a damper on that excitement!  Harvard scientists have pinpointed the circumstances that led to “Snowball Earth”, a period about 717 million years ago where the Earth was covered in ice from pole-to-pole.  Models suggest that the climate destabilization that plunged the Earth into polar hell could have happened in a blink of an eye in geologic time. Massive volcanic eruptions back then could have ejected enough aerosols into the atmosphere in just a 10-year period to initiate the rapid freeze.  Don’t worry, it’s not a single volcanic eruption that’s capable of such a long-term change, but instead the kind of massive eruptions that mankind hasn’t experienced in our history. 717 million years ago, it was a string of volcanic eruptions across what’s now Canada and Greenland that set off the freeze.  As I said, from a scientific standpoint, fascinating to think what could happen, but it also points out the fragile balance of our climate system.  “Snowball Earth” happened because of runaway cooling and feedbacks that amplified and accelerated the cooling, primarily with increased ice increasing reflectance of solar radiation in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.  Right now we’re playing a game of “chicken” with our climate system, doing the exact opposite, and removing that ice in a self-reinforcing feedback loop that’s amplifying warming.

Snowy Bison

The Bison, invasive species that forever changed North America! Well, if we were around about 150,000 years ago, they would have been considered an invasive species, one that transformed grassland ecosystems of North America.

Bison Contributing to Mammoth Decline?  — OK, my chosen title here doesn’t reflect the purpose of this research, but after reading the story it did make me curious…did Bison contribute to the decline and eventual extinction of the Mammoth? The story used DNA analysis to establish that the ancestors of North American Bison first arrived between 130,000 and 190,000 years ago.  As the story notes, in this case, Bison were the invasive species, rapidly colonizing North America and forever changing the grassland ecosystems of the continent.  It does make me wonder…if not for the establishment of the Bison as a primary grazer in North America, would the Mammoth and other North American megafauna have been better positioned to withstand climate change and the establishment of man? Interesting story, and a story that shows that not all “invasive species” are those that are introduced by mankind.

Managing Diabetes with your Sweat — Especially as a family that deals with the consequences of Juvenile Diabetes, we’re quite familiar with the frequent finger prick to check glucose levels in blood. Researchers in South Korea have developed a prototype glucose sensing and insulin delivery device that looks like an arm cuff.  Instead of measuring blood glucose, it measures glucose in sweat. It’s not just these guys, there are also other researchers who are looking at measuring glucose levels in tears. There certainly have been many technological advances and devices for testing and treating diabetics, innovations that are certainly welcome! I just wish there were some real advances on actually treating the disease, and not just the symptoms.

Killing Government Science and more — Science, Nature, and Other News

Some news and views from over the last week.  For anyone interested in science, and the huge role that government plays in science in America…it’s been one damned depressing week,as details of the first Trump budget come trickling out. Overall, it’s an absolutely devastating picture for science and environmental funding. A few stories on federal science and environmental funding, followed by some other more cheery stories.

Trump's 4 Horsemen of the Environmental Apocalypse

Seen this week rampaging through the hallways of Federal science agencies were the 4 Horsemen of the Environmental Apocalypse, led by Trump, Steve Bannon, Scott Pruitt at EPA, and, well…one of the original 4 horsemen. I have to include an actual Horseman of the Apocalpyse, as clearly this administration has struck a deal with the devil himself, choosing short term greed and selfishness over the very welfare of the planet.

Trump Budget Kills NOAA Climate Science — Who needs satellites to study weather? And who needs scientists to actually do the science?  Evidently not the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  The proposed Trump budget that has trickled out this week proposes drastic cuts to NOAA, with a 17% cut overall for the program.  For programs that deal with climate change, it’s even more ominous, such as a 26% cut to the Oceanic and Atmospheric Research branch.  Observing what’s happening to our earth’s weather systems? The budget proposes a 22% cut to the satellite data division.  This is a pretty common theme across all of the Federal science agencies, with science evidently something the Nation can afford to sacrifice, so we can build more missiles that are too expensive to actually use, or build outrageously expensive planes that are $164 BILLION over budget and are lacking key functionalities. Government science in aggregate is only 3.4% of the entire budget…yet to pay for a ridiculous $54 billion increase in defense spending (with the U.S. already spending nearly 40% of ALL global military expenditures), science takes a disproportionate hit compared to many other programs.

EPA Budget set for 25% cut — It’s not just NOAA taking a hit.  The Environmental Protection Agency, LONG in the cross-hairs of conservatives who don’t appreciate trivial things like environmental regulation getting in the way of making money, is currently slated to be slashed by 25% in the Trump budget.  The budget proposes cutting 20% of EPA employees, and eliminating or sharply scaling back some major environmental programs. Great Lakes cleanup funds are proposed for a ridiculous 97% cut. Funding for restoring ecosystems in the Puget Sound would be slashed by 93%.  Environmental justice programs would be cut by 79%.  A program to help cut emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane has a proposed 70% cut. I have friends and acquaintances who work for EPA.  The mood there is nothing short of apocalyptic. Wall Street is loving it, given the salivating leaders of corporate America who envision a world without regulation, where they’re free to pollute and destroy the environment, all to squeak out a little bit more in short-term profit.  I’ve said it before…I honestly wonder if any of these people have children, and for those that do, how they can so COMPLETELY ignore their future health, safety, and well-being, all because of short-term selfishness and greed.

Ryan Zinke - Secretary of the Interior

Ryan Zinke, newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior riding his horse to work on this first day. He’s said some of the “right” things in his first few days. He said during his confirmation hearings that he believes in climate change, and that we’re causing it. He’s said he believes science should drive policy, not the other way around. Given a 4% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, we will see if this is just rhetoric meant to placate those who would potentially criticize the direction environmental conservation is going under the Trump administration. Hopefully Zinke realizes the massive responsibility he has for managing our Nation’s lands, and is being honest when he states how important DOI’s scientific research is for supporting sustainable use of those lands.

Department of Interior head “not happy” —  If (just theoretically speaking of course) a scientist was a part of the Department of Interior, things may seem apocalyptic right now as well, but perhaps with just 2 or 3 horsemen of the apocalypse roaming Department halls instead of the full-out 4 horsemen that are set to rampage through some of the other Federal science agencies.  The new DOI secretary is Ryan Zinke, who was confirmed this week, and promptly decided to ride a horse to work for his first day. Rumor has it that Mr. Zinke also has a penchant for proudly proclaiming he’s an ex Navy SEAL, which of course as we all know has direct relevance to managing our Nation’s lands, and the science behind it.  To be fair, Zinke has SAID the right things. As this article points out, he’s “not happy” with the Trump’s proposed 11% cut to Interior.  Few details have emerged so far, but what has become apparent is the disparity in how that cut would be applied across DOI.  Fish and Wildlife is set to take a massive cut compared to other DOI components, primarily because of their role in providing the science that supports the Endangered Species Act.  You can’t enforce the ESA if you don’t have the science behind it, and evidently the strategy of the Trump administration is to simply eliminate the science!  Problem solved, just as eliminating climate science “solves” the climate change issue!  Zinke is a fisherman and hunter, and DOES value the outdoors.  That helps.  Zinke also has a 5% lifetime score form the League of Conservation Voters.  That’s what’s sad, is that someone who has been very environmentally hostile in the past is viewed as a BRIGHT spot in the Trump administration. Here’s hoping that his early rhetoric is actually translated into meaningful action to protect the function of Department of Interior science.  Here’s hoping Zinke means what he says, and he isn’t just saying what’s politically or personally convenient.

Yes, it CAN get too hot for life on Earth — Past theory was that despite the potential for massive global warming to occur, temperatures in the tropics were somehow regulated by an “internal thermostat”, feedback mechanisms that prevented tropical areas from experiencing the same kind of temperature increases found elsewhere in the globe. It was an important theory, because the implication was that the Earth could warm significantly, yet the tropics would be somewhat shielded from that warmth increase, and would still support life. New research demonstrates that this likely isn’t true. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum occurred 56 million years ago, a time of the highest global temperatures of the last 100 million years.  Evidence shows that tropical areas did indeed experience drastic temperature increases, increases that resulted in widespread die-off of tropical biomes that couldn’t handle the increased temperatures.  The most drastic temperature increases we’re currently seeing are in Arctic regions, with temperature increasing over two times as fast as the planet on average.  However, as this study shows, there’s no place on Earth that’s immune from the effects of climate change. As this study shows, it IS quite feasible for temperatures to warm up so much that some parts of the earth become inhospitable for life.

Ten million lives saved – Vaccine effectiveness — Certain Trump administration officials, including Trump himself, have expressed skepticism about vaccines, with some even perpetuating the myths about vaccines causing autism and other harmful effects. Here’s one of the BRILLIANT tweets from Trump, showering the world with his “wisdom” about vaccines:

I’m not against vaccinations for your children, I’m against them in 1 massive dose. Spread them out over a period of time & autism will drop!

There you have it, straight from “Doctor” Trump’s mouth. I’m sure he’s done a lot of research on linkages between autism, and the timing of vaccinations. He has some other gems as well regarding vaccines, and there have been some suggestions that he’s partnering with well-known vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to assess the “dangers’ of vaccines. Although there shouldn’t be any need to provide more empirical evidence to shut the anti-vaxxers up, new research from the University of Illinois-Chicago has gone to the trouble of quantifying just how many lives have been saved due to the widespread use of vaccines. It was the early 1960s when vaccines against these diseases became widespread, thanks to the development of new human cell strain that allowed for safe and rapid production of vaccines.  According to the research, from 1963 to 2015, over 200 MILLION cases of polio, measles, mumps, hepatitis A, rabies, and varicella were prevented in the United States ALONE. Over 450,000 deaths were prevented by vaccine use. Globally the numbers are staggering, with over 4.5 billion individual infections prevented, and over 10,000,000 lives saved.

Climate change…vaccination use…evolution…the science behind all of these is quite clear. I find it hard to see how any rational human being can deny actual empirical evidence such as that provided in the study above.

The cost of Volkswagen’s deception – 1,200 shorter lives — When Volkswagen installed “defeat” devices on their vehicles from 2008 to 2015 to fool pollutant measurements, it did more than increase air pollution.  A new study shows that due to the lower air quality induced by Volkswagens sold in Europe during that time, that around 1,200 people will have substantially shorter life spans, by around a decade. Volkswagens were emitting 4 times as much nitrous oxide as allowed by European law, contributing to the estimates of premature death for hundreds of Europeans. Retrofitting all remaining Volkswagens on the road is necessary to avoid 29,000 “life-years lost”, and over 4 BILLION Euros in increased health care costs. THIS is the type of world being currently pushed by the Trump administration, where regulation is greatly reduced, and companies like Volkswagen can worry more about profit and less about the health and well-being of people.

Panda "AnAn"

A panda munching on a cookie. Hmmm. According to research released this week, the black ears help “convey a sense of ferocity” to potential predators. I’m not quite seeing the ferocity.

Why Pandas are Black and White — Well, screw the esoteric research many scientists devote their lives to.  Here’s a basic “research “question people can relate to…why are pandas black-and-white?  I’m not exactly sure of the value of the research (I’m sure other scientists might say the same about my research), but they looked at the black and white patterns on pandas and tried to relate to other carnivore species to see if there were survival or adaptation advantages to the black-and-white pattern.  Doesn’t sound like much of a surprise in terms of results. They are largely white because it helps them hide in snowy areas. The black?  The body markings help them blend in areas of dappled light and shade, while markings on their head are thought to help them differentiate among each other and communicate with other pandas. Another supposed finding is that things like the black ears will deter predators by providing a “sense of ferocity”.  OK, it may be pretty basic research, but at least they had me interested until that last point.  I have a very hard time looking at a panda bear and having any “sense of ferocity” conveyed my way.

Seven Earth-like planets a potential hotspot for life — Trappist-1, about 39-million light-years from Earth, is very unlike our sun. It’s an “ultracool dwarf star”, with a temperature much cooler than our sun. However, scientists recently found that 7 rocky, earth-like planets orbit the star, with three of them potentially in the “Goldilocks” zone where temperatures are just right for life. They’re very different than our earth. Given that they’re much closer to their sun, they make complete orbits in as little as 1 1/2 earth-days for the innermost planet, to around 20 days for the planet furthest from Trappist-1.  They also are likely gravitationally locked, with the same side of each planet always facing the sun. The next step will be to try to take measurements of the atmospheric composition of each planet, which will give clues to the potential for each to host some form of life.

Refugee scientists on the run, scared — From, a fascinating story of “refugee scientists”, scientist from regions of conflict like Syria who have had to adapt to keep their research alive. Not to mention their very lives. Obviously scientists are only one small segment of the populations that are affected by these conflicts, but stories like this really help put a human face on things. The article provides the stories of four different researchers and the lengths they’ve had to go to to escape their home countries and rebuild their lives.

Women feel more pain then men? — According to new research from scientists at Georgia State University, women feel more pain on average than men because cells in their brains that process pain signals are more active than those in men.  Guys, I hate to say it, but this REALLY makes us look like wimps. During cold and flu season such as right now, there are plenty of stories of men being incapacitated for days by a virus, while the women in their lives soldier on and struggle through it without stopping their normal lives. I guess I had always held out hope there was some biological driving force behind the general wimpiness of men, but no, evidently even biology favors more pain-free lives for men.  We have no more excuses guys…we truly ARE wimps.


March for Science, the “Harry Potter” crab, and more – Science, nature, and other news

Science, nature, environmental, and other news from the week.  Click on the story title for an external link.

March For Science

March for Science, coming to a city near you in a little over 2 months. Here’s hoping the march provides that “spark” that’s been missing between the American public and the scientists that serve them.

Planning continues for April 22nd March for Science — The “March for Science” is still scheduled for April 22nd, a grassroots effort to highlight the role of science within American politics and society.  The march has its roots in the backlash against the ghastly, anti-science tirades made by the Trump administration since the election, but as this story notes, the march is about the American public, and not the scientists themselves. This article from the Chronicle for Higher Education is focused on Caroline Weinberg, one of the March’s organizers. As Weinberg notes, there’s currently a disconnect between scientific research and the people in society whom that science benefits.  I couldn’t agree more with that statement, as scientists sometimes are QUITE terrible at communicating the value of their research to the public.  It’s easy for the public to understand the potential societal benefits of medical research, for example, but much more difficult for them to understand why investments in other scientific fields are societally relevant.  Personally, I am mixed on the March.  As a scientist, as a truly ANGRY scientist who is fed up with both the politicization of science, and with the anti-science attitude that has pervaded an entire major political party of the United States, I want this march to have every bit as much of an impact as the Women’s March held just after the inauguration. On the other hand, I view the March with a bit of trepidation.  We have a child as our President, an insecure, narcissistic man who must have a penis the size of a paper clip, given his tendency to angrily lash out at any entity that dares criticize himself or his actions.  Given Trump’s tendency to angrily push back when he himself is pushed, I fear that the march may end up doing more harm than good, in terms of the short-term political implications.  Despite any potential short-term impact, here’s hoping the march DOES inspire a longer-term engagement between the public and the scientists that serve the public.  Here’s hoping the march helps to reignite the PASSION Americans once held for science.

Solnova Solar Plant - Spain

The Solnova Solar Plant in Spain, an example of the massive global trend in the movement towards renewable fuel sources.

Solar power economics trump Trump — In just a few weeks after the inauguration, it’s quite clear that we already have what’s likely going to be among the most environmentally hostile administrations in history, even “besting” the dark conservation years of Ronald Reagan.  Anne Gorsuch Burford, EPA head under Reagan for nearly 2 years (and mother of conservative Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch), was famed for slashing nearly one-quarter of EPA staff, greatly reducing enforcement of Clean Air Act regulations, severely cutting legal action against environmental polluters, and populated EPA staff with big business executives from the very companies the EPA was supposed to be monitoring.  As bad as Reagan and Gorsuch Burford were…Trump’s team could very well be headed down an even darker path. On the energy front, Trump has vowed to slash Department of Energy funding, with a strong push for older, fossil-fuel energy sources as opposed to continued investment in renewables such as solar and wind power.  As this story notes, however, the very economics of solar energy may end up “trumping Trump” in the end. Costs for solar power now rival those of natural gas, and are cheaper than coal or nuclear energy.  Over two-thirds of new energy production in the U.S. in 2016 was from wind or solar, and with economics continuing to dictate the shift to renewables, even an environmentally hostile administration is unlikely to slow the trend.

Using Rabies to Kill Cancer — Brain cancers can be notoriously difficult to treat. The blood-brain barrier is protects the brain from nearly all pathogens, yet that same protective effect also restricts cancer treatments from reaching cancerous cells in the brain.  Scientists have long known that the rabies virus had the unusual capability to “hijack” nerve cells and use them as a means to bypass the blood-brain barrier.  Now they are using fragments of the rabies virus to coat cancer-fighting drugs, or even create new particles that mimic the characteristics of the rabies virus, enabling them to bypass the blood-brain barrier and reach cancerous brain cells.  The work is in its infancy and there are still many hurdles to overcome before such treatments could be used to treat persons inflicted with brain cancer, but it’s a great example both of the ingenuity of scientists, and the potential biological value of even one of our most feared pathogens.

Cactus Wren - Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus

A Cactus Wren on a blooming Saguaro cactus. A moderately sized songbird such as the Cactus Wren may be able to cope with heat and dehydration somewhat better than smaller songbird species, but they are still potentially threatened by rapidly changing climatic conditions.

Desert birds at risk from climate change — A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy for Science finds that climate change may have a devastating impact on some desert bird species in the coming decades, particularly smaller species such as Lesser Goldfinch.  Higher temperatures increase water needs for birds, particularly as they pant in response to temperature stress. Climate change may make parts of some species range “thermally inhospitable”, with birds potentially succumbing to heat stress and dehydration after just a few hours of exposure at extremely high temperatures.  Geographic population shifts are likely to occur as the climate changes, with birds moving to more hospitable locations, but with human-induced climate change, we are currently embarking on a grand, global-scale experiment on the ability of habitats and their inhabitants to adjust to changing climatic conditions.

Crab named for Harry Potter, Severus Snape — A newly identified crab species off the coast of Guam has been given the honor of being named after a pair of characters from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books.  Harryplax severus is the new scientific name for the species, in honor of Harry Potter and the much maligned, and loved, Severus Snape from the series. A great name for an enigmatic, little understood, newly discovered crab species!

Monarch Butterfly populations take a tumble — Populations of the much beloved Monarch Butterfly have taken a hit over the last year, due to the one-two punch of declining milkweed habitat on their summering grounds, and winter storms that have taken a toll on their wintering habitat in Mexico. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Mexican government measure the winter habitat area used by Monarch Butterflies, a quantitative estimate that serves as a proxy to overall population  health.  2-years ago, Monarch populations hit an all-time low, with only 0.67 hectares of habitat used for over-wintering.  Populations rebounded over the last 2 years, but the harsh conditions this year has results in a loss of over 25% of winter habitat area actively being used.


One of our two spaniels, “Oscar”. According to science, we should have similar personalities to Oscar! He is certainly a beautiful, gentle soul, mirroring the traits of my son and wife! And yet he also has a quirky, neurotic, hard-to-understand side that perfectly mimics his troubled “father”.

Dogs mimic their owners’ personalities — New research from Austria claims that dogs and humans can pass along personality traits to each other, with human beings taking on the carefree, relaxed attitudes of dogs with those personality traits, and dogs adapting the anxiety characteristics from a stressed owner. For any dog owner, it’s not exactly a surprise that dogs are “sensitive to their owner’s emotional state”, but this study actually used measurements of cortisol, a “stress” hormone, to quantify the relationship.

Our planetary footprint shows no bounds — There’s little that frustrates me more than those with a strong religious belief who doubt that mankind even has the capability of significantly altering our planet.  You’ve complete imbeciles like Senate loser James Inhofe who seem hell-bent on ignoring every piece of science that may fall into their lap, with Inhofe doubting in climate change because he doesn’t believe man can affect change at such a massive scale. For idiots like Inhofe, only a god has the capability to have such far-reaching planetary impacts. For scientists, it’s obvious mankind has had such a massive impact on the planet as a whole that we may be in a new geologic era, the “Anthropocene”, characterized by massive environmental change as a result of anthropogenic activity.  This story notes that our effects on the planet extend even down to the deepest ocean trenches, where amphipods from 10,000 kilometers below the ocean’s surface have been found to have extremely high concentrations of PCBs and other man-made, organic pollutants.  It’s tough to deny mankind’s influence when creatures many hundreds of miles from any human settlement, at the bottom of the ocean, are poisoned by our activities.

Human’s driving climate to change at 170X the natural trend — Related to the story above, more evidence of mankind’s massive influence on our environment.  A new study by Australian National University finds that volcanic activity, changes in solar activity, and minor orbital fluctuations have influenced the Earth’s climate over the last 7,000 years, but the impact of mankind’s activities has been 170 times more pronounced than these natural forces. Climate-change deniers have tried to attribute the startling climate trends in recent decades to natural forces, but there’s little scientific evidence to back them. The Australian National University study is just one more nail in the coffin of climate-change deniers (a coffin that’s already been nailed shut for many years now).


Composite image of Jupiter’s moon Europa, from the Galileo and Voyager missions.

Searching for life on Europa — A science mission that even our science-hostile Congress is behind…searching for life in the Solar System.  NASA has preliminary plans to send a probe to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Europa is a cold, hostile place on the surface, covered in ice, but it’s a different story under the surface.  The tidal pull of Jupiter’s gravity is thought to provide an energy source that produces a thick sub-surface liquid ocean.  Cracks on the relatively smooth surface of Europa are evidence of the sub-surface water reaching the surface.  NASA believes they can potentially detect life on the moon by landing a probe on one of these surface breaches, digging down several centimeters into the surface ice, and using multiple instruments to detect microbes or organic signs of life.  Alas, the estimate is that the actual landing is 14 years from now, in 2031, but the proposed mission could finally answer the question of whether there’s life outside of the Earth.

Biggest volcano on the planet discovered — It’s 2017.  We’ve had extensive, periodic, repeating satellite coverage of the earth’s surface for over 40 years.  We’ve seemingly visited every corner of the earth’s terrestrial surface, and have increasingly mapped vast swaths of the hidden world under our oceans. The days of exploration and geographic discovery may seem to be in our far distant past, but as this find shows, there’s a lot we still don’t understand about our home planet.  Scientists from the the U.S., U.K., and Japan have discovered what is currently the largest known volcanic system on the planet.  “Tamu Massif” is a volcanic complex in the north Pacific ocean, about 1,000 miles east of Japan.  The tallest reaches of the volcanic remnants are more than a mile below the ocean’s surface, but the volcano itself covers an area nearly the size of New Mexico.  It’s thought to have last erupted over 140 million years ago, and is a shield volcano similar to the Hawaiian Island volcanoes. Mauna Loa in Hawaii is considered the world’s largest active volcano, with an area of around 2,000 square miles, but that’s a tiny fraction of the size of Tamu Massif which comes in at over 120,000 square miles.


Killer Grizzlies, Ice Twisters, and more – Science, Nature, and other news

Killer Grizzlies, “Ice Twisters”, and more…Science, nature, and other news of the week. Click on each headline for the story itself.

Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos

Taken this morning, A Grizzly Bear, lurking JUST outside the Brandon Valley Middle School attended by my son. STAY BRAVE, MY SON!! We finally have a leader…nay…a HERO…who will stand up for you and your fellow children.  No longer will you cower in fear each day at school, wondering if…wondering WHEN...the next child will be taken by a Grizzly Bear. Prepare for firearm training, my son! Soon you will be able to defend yourself!

Grizzly Bear Scourge Killing Thousands of American Children — With all the testimony this week of potential Trump Cabinet members, the most insightful, meaningful words of wisdom came from Betsy Devos, the woman who (shockingly) is about to lead the Department of Education.  When asked about her stance on guns in schools, Devos first deflected, stating that it should be a local choice.  When pushed, Devos spoke of the one issue that wasn’t discussed NEARLY enough during the fall campaign…the deadly scourge of Grizzly Bear attacks on our children at school.  Yes, that’s right folks, FINALLY we have a Trump Cabinet member who “gets it”, who understands the daily struggles of everyday Americans. Who hasn’t worried about Grizzly Bear attacks when dropping off their child at school in the morning? Betsy, we love you.  You’ve proven you are one of US, everyday Americans struggling with everyday, life-or-death problems.  Hopefully under your watch, teachers, or…better yet…children THEMSELVES will be allowed to carry semi-automatic weapons to combat the Grizzly Bear scourge.  God bless you, Betsy Devos!

Cat toll on wildlife tallied – We had a neighbor with a cat that started showing up on their front step.  They adopted it, although for the much of the time, they kept it as an outdoor cat. Every night it would be out on its own, and often during the day as well.  It was a sweet cat! It was also an evil, bird-killing machine that was seemingly always in our yard. There would be many, many times I’d look out our sun room at the bird feeders, only to see the cat crouched and hiding by a nearby bush. Over the years, the visits to our yard became less frequent, either because 1) it was scared to death of me chasing it out of the yard again, or 2) it progressively got fatter and less agile.  He took a toll on birds in my yard.  I often witnessed him killing a bird, and other times, I’d just find the aftermath, with a pile of feathers or a dead mangled body. One cat, one yard, and likely many dozens upon dozens of kills.  So what is the toll of cats on wildlife?  As this story notes, a wildlife rehab group in Virginia tallied cat-related animal injuries over the years, and found they treated over 80 species that had been attacked by cats, including over 60 different bird species.  This past summer, the neighbor cat disappeared one day, as it didn’t return home after (yet another) night left outside on its own.  I love what pets bring into a home, but admit I was NOT fond of the way the neighbor cat was treated, and what it was allowed to do. Leaving it outside all the time ended up costing it its life, but it also ended up costing the lives of countless small critters over the years.

Tornado - 1884

What’s thought to be the world’s oldest photo of a tornado, taken in 1884. This photo always terrified me, ever since I saw it as a kid. It just looks…evil. And hey, GREAT! THANKS SCIENCE! In addition to every other way a tornado can kill you, now we also know that the inside of a funnel is quite cold! “Ice Twisters”, the SyFy movie, may have actually been a documentary!

Ice Twisters!! — Several weeks ago, my son and I were flipping through the channels, and as we passed the SyFy channel, we saw a movie called “Ice Twisters!” was on.  Typical SyFy movie…government research gone wrong, with drone-related atmospheric research somehow resulting in deadly “Ice Twisters” that were ravaging the landscape. In the movie, the cause of death for those impacted by an Ice Twister wasn’t necessarily wind…no…they froze to death!  Yes, twisters that were THAT cold!  Well, it turns out there’s a hint (the slightest hint) of truth in the show.  The story goes back to 1955, when three employees from a radio station in Nebraska were taking cover from a tornado in the basement of an old stone house. The vortex passed directly overhead, and as it did so, the structure above was blown away.  The three people in the basement noted the difficulty in breathing as the tornado passed overhead, but also felt the temperature dropping very sharply.  Researchers studying the case found that the temperature likely dropped from around 27° Celsius to 12° as the funnel went overhead.  The drop in temperature and the difficulty they had in breathing were related. The density of the air in the funnel would have been equivalent to being at nearly 30,000 feet in elevation, and as warmer, denser air is sucked into low pressure of the funnel, the expansion causes the large drop in temperature.  Touche’, SyFy, Touche’.  Never again will I make fun of your (admittedly sometimes entertaining) movies.  Ice Twisters was simply a movie ahead of its time, ahead of the science behind it.

Move over “Polar Vortex”! Now we have “Atmospheric Rivers” — I just love when the mainstream media gets excited and jumps all over a “new” scientific phenomenon. A few years ago, somebody put a label of “Polar Vortex” on the same kinds of cold snaps the U.S. has always experienced, evidently deciding that just calling it “winter” as we always have wasn’t exciting enough.  Today, I see we have a new entry in the journalistic annals of creating new and exciting ways to describe phenomena that have been around forever. A very significant precipitation event did just recently occur in California, but the same kind of event has occurred countless times throughout history.  The term “Atmospheric Rivers” itself is evidently old, mentioned by a couple of researchers back in the 1990s. Other terms for it in California have been the “Pineapple Express” or “Hawaiian Express”.  Reading this story, however, and you’d think it was the first time such a phenomenon had been discovered or discussed.

February 2016 Temperature Anomalies

An image that shows global temperature anomalies in February of 2016. February was the most “anomalous” month in history up to that point, with the greatest departure from the “normal” for any month that had ever been measured. 2016 as a whole ended up setting yet another global temperature record. Leading the way…much of the Arctic. This graphic shows a temperature anomaly of nearly 12° for much of Arctic, but even greater departures from normal were found this fall and early winter.

3rd straight year of record global temperatures — For the first time ever, we’ve now had three straight years where all-time global temperature records have been broken. As stated by Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, ““What’s going on in the Arctic is really very impressive; this year was ridiculously off the chart”. Parts of the Arctic were 20 to 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) above normal for much of the fall and early winter, including days with temperatures hovering at or above freezing even at the North Pole. Globally, levels of sea ice have never been lower.  Irrefutable evidence of the continued onslaught of climate change…not that more evidence is needed at this stage, but it comes at a time when a new incoming President and his Party are about to take power in Washington D.C.  Which leads into…

Mixed bag for Trump’s Cabinet on Climate Change — Not a single story, but a collection of stories related to confirmation hearings for Trump’s Cabinet members this week. First the good…incoming Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, openly disagreed with Trump’s statements on climate change.  He stated “The climate is changing, and man is an influence”, certainly welcome words from a man tasked to manage the Department that oversees Federal lands and natural resources.  Responses related to the issue of climate change were more reserved and mixed from other Trump nominees.  Scott Pruitt, tasked to lead the Environmental Protection Agency said “I do not believe climate change is a hoax”, but he stopped short of saying man was the major cause, or that we need regulation and change to mitigate the effects. Given that EPA is the Federal Agency that can potentially regulate greenhouse gas emissions, it’s not comforting to see a lack of conviction about regulatory action.  The aforementioned Betsy Devos, who could very well be in charge of the Department of Education (GOD I hope not), didn’t specifically comment on climate change in her confirmation hearing, but did offer a simple statement of “I support the teaching of great science“.  Note the word “simple”, a statement that could be attributed to MUCH of her testimony this week.  It’s not encouraging when the Secretary of Education is clearly not even aware of the many programs her agency is responsible for.  Rex Tillerson, an oilman slated to become Secretary of State, did state that the climate is changing and that greenhouse gases are a cause. However, he also stated that the science was murky, saying “The increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.”  Tillerson’s comments were perhaps the most representative of what’s likely to happen in a Trump administration.  In the face of overwhelming evidence that’s slowly convincing even a scientifically illiterate American public, the stance of many Cabinet members was to recognize climate change as “real”, yet simultaneously state the science is very uncertain. In short, they’re setting the stage to potentially monitor the situation, but not do a damn thing about it.

Sit on your butt and watch your life drain away — That’s the basic message of new research that assessed the biologic “age” of cells, related to the level of physical activity.  Telomeres, little caps on the ends of DNA strands within a cell, gradually shorten as a person ages. Telomeres protect your chromosomes, and a shortening of telomeres is associated with cell “aging”, and increased likelihood of diseases including diabetes and cancer. Interesting study, and one of the first to take this form of measurement and connect it with activity levels.  That’s the price of blogging, I guess…sitting here for hours trying to come up with interesting and clever stories, all while my damned telomeres shorten by the second.

Eating and Sitting

A family sitting AND eating at the same time. As science has proven this week, this could be one of the most dangerous aspects of American life. This, or rampaging Grizzly Bears around our children’s schools.

Don’t eat, live longer — To riff off of Charlton Heston…Damn you, science.  DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!!  FIRST you have the story above about deadly Ice Twisters, amplifying my already well-ingrained fear of tornadoes.  Then you have the story of your DNA rotting away while you sit still.  And now, this story, noting that restricting calories is one way to ensure a longer life. Survival and health of rhesus monkeys was found to be significantly higher as caloric consumption was reduced.  Great.  What.  The.  Hell.  My favorite pastime is lounging on the couch in the basement, hiding from tornadoes, eating a bowl of ice cream.  Little did I know how much I was putting my life in danger. As a scientist, and as an avowed atheist, I do find it incredibly fascinating that so many things that human beings crave in life, are inherently bad for you.  Eating fatty and sugary foods, relaxing and taking it easy.  From an evolutionary and biologic standpoint, does that make sense?  Does it make sense that the very things we crave can kill us? How does simple biology explain that?  It’s times like this where my belief in a “god” may not be reinforced, but it does reinforce my belief in a “devil”.

10,000-km long “wave” on Venus — The Akatsuki spacecraft captured a spectacular image of Venus in December, marked by a massive, vertical “smile” that stretched nearly pole-to-pole.  The 10,000-km long feature is thought to be a “gravity wave”, which would make it the largest gravity wave observed in the solar system.  It’s thought to have developed from air movement over mountain ranges on the surface of Venus, with the feature then propagating higher into the thick Venetian atmosphere. However, such a feature isn’t easily explained by the current understanding of the surface of Venus and near-surface atmospheric conditions. Either some other explanation is in order, or our understanding of the surface/atmospheric interactions on Venus needs to be reevaluated.


6 years, 12 Whooping Cranes Shot by Rednecks

Whooping Crane - Grus americana

A young Whooping Crane in flight. As a young bird, it’s got a rusty wash on its head and spots on the wings, but even so…this is one BIG bird, and there’s really nothing like it. There’s certainly no bird that looks like this that can be legally shot in the U.S. Yet thanks to Homo redneckii, yet another Whooping Crane has fallen to a gunshot, the 12th in just 6 years. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I sometimes wonder if the human race is actually comprised of two species. On the one hand, you have Homo sapiens.  I see the wonderful folks around me….family, friends, and co-workers who 1) care about their fellow human beings, 2) care about the world around them, and 3) care about their children’s future.  On the other hand, you have another species, let’s call them “Homo redneckii“.  Homo redneckii have been QUITE active lately (particularly around early November of last year). Homo redneckii have a strong paranoid streak.  Instead of caring for their fellow human beings and participating in societal functions that ensure overall well-being of the species, Homo redneckii are all about…themselves.  Homo redneckii don’t believe in the greater good.  They don’t believe in social structures such as “government’, “law”, or even basic morality.  Homo redneckii don’t give a damn about their fellow man, and rebel against even something as simple as paying taxes to support social programs. Homo redneckii are insecure and jealous, and sneer at the “elite” educated Homo sapiens who have clearly done better at life than themselves.  Instead of working to better themselves, Homo redneckii will instead take the easy route and viciously try to bring others down to their level.  In summary, Homo redneckii believe they can do whatever they want, that the world around them exists simply for their own personal exploitation, and the well-being of future generations means NOTHING if it might require even the tiniest of sacrifices.

As a scientist, as somebody who cares about the environment, and as someone who cares about my son’s future, the activities of Homo redneckii are often hard to swallow. It even often intersects my “safe haven” of birds and birding, the place I usually go to escape the madness of the world around me.  Today was one of those days.  A bit of backstory…

On three occasions I’ve been to the Platte River in Nebraska in March for the amazing Sandhill Crane migration.  Hundreds of thousands of Cranes foraging in corn fields, flying overhead, roosting on sandbars by the evening…it’s an amazing sight, and that doesn’t even account for the many thousands of Snow Geese and other waterfowl that are also typically around at that time.  In all the times I’ve seen Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska and up here in South Dakota, it’s always in the back of your mind that perhaps, just once if you’re lucky, you’ll see a flash of white, and a bird that’s considerably bigger than all of the others.  It’s always in the back of your mind that perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to spot a migrating Whooping Crane.

Alas, I have yet to see a Whooping Crane, other than a captive bird.  There have been a few false alarms, such as the time a couple of years ago when I saw a small flock of Sandhill Cranes flying overhead. It was from a long distance, but just behind the Sandhill Cranes was a very large white bird with dark wing tips.  WHOOPING CRANE!  That’s what first flashed through my mind, until, alas, the birds got closer and it was clearly “just” an American White Pelican.   These kinds of misidentifications are common when out birding, where you’ll initially see a bird and believe it to be a certain species, only to note it’s a different species when you get a better look. What is quite clear though is that if I ever did come across a Whooping Crane, if I was anywhere within a few hundred yards, it would be quite easy to identify.

When you’re birding, and you initially misidentify a bird, it’s obviously no big deal.  When you have a gun in your hand, it IS a big deal.  One of the most accessed pages on my entire website is a page that helps to differentiate between Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Prairie Chickens.  Do a quick google search, and you’ll find out the reason why. There are a number of hunting forums where somebody asks how to tell the difference between the two species, so they don’t accidentally shoot the “wrong” bird.  It’s not just grouse and prairie chickens, it’s also quite obvious that hunters often have a hard time telling apart duck species or other game.  Given that there may be a legal hunting season for one species, but not for another, somewhat similar-looking species, there’s obviously the potential for a trigger-happy hunter to shoot the “wrong” bird.

Evidently, there have been 12 “trigger-happy misidentifications” over the last 6 years, where hunters have shot and killed endangered Whooping Cranes in the U.S. As of 2015, there were only about 400 wild Whooping Cranes in existence.  That’s up considerably from just 21 birds in the 1940s, but they are still obviously an endangered species, and losing ANY bird is a huge loss, much less having 12 shot by “mistake”.  The latest happened just a week ago, when an adult Whooping Crane was shot and killed in southern Indiana.   This bird was an adult female, one who had just laid an egg this summer and had it hatch.  The youngster later died, but the loss of a breeding female who was able to successfully mate and hatch an egg is a huge loss for Whooping Crane conservation efforts.

Let’s dispense with the bullshit though about “misidentification”. Let’s face it…there’s no mistaking a Whooping Crane, not if it’s within range of a shotgun or a rifle.  It’s the tallest bird in all of North America, and it’s a brilliant white bird.  The only other large, white bird with a body shape and structure anything close to a Whooping Crane would potentially be a Great Egret, but 1) even a Great Egret is much, much smaller than a Whooping Crane, 2) Whooping Cranes have obvious black wing tips that would be visible in flight, and 3) IT DOESN’T MATTER if you confuse a Whooping Crane with a Great Egret, because it’s not legal to shoot EITHER species.  I’ve lost count of how many hunter/hunting related “incidents” I’ve come across while out birding in South Dakota, incidents where I’ve personally witnessed (and reported) hunters shooting creatures they shouldn’t be shooting.  I’ve come across plenty of hunters who are anything BUT sportsmen, men (yes…always men) who love their guns, love to shoot things, and don’t seem to care what they shoot.  Given that it’s practically impossible to mistake a Whooping Crane for ANY legally hunted bird, I won’t give any benefit of the doubt to any of the 12 redneck hunters who shot and killed these 12 Whooping Cranes over the last 6 years.

It was a little over 3 years ago where a Whooping Crane was shot right here in South Dakota. Jeff Blachford, a 26-year old man from Miller, South Dakota, was apprehended and charged with the crime.  Blachford was fined a hefty $85,000…a welcome change from past incidents, because other hunters who have shot Whooping Cranes have sometimes escaped ANY sort of penalty. The last time a Whooping Crane was shot in Indiana, prior to this recent event? It was just back in 2009.  The hunter was identified and fined…ONE DOLLAR. Yes, a $1 fine for shooting one of the rarest birds in the world. It remains to be seen what happens in this latest incident.  It appears that it’s still under investigation, and it doesn’t sound like they’ve found the perpetrator yet. Given the outrage after the last Indiana “sportsman” got off so easily, one would hope that the punishment would better fit the crime, should the redneck be identified.

I worry that homo redneckiism is actually a contagious disease. When Blachford shot the Whooping Crane in South Dakota a few years ago, I blogged about it, and was immediately innundated with emails from angry Homo redneckii from the Miller area.  I’m not a religious man, but if I were? I’d pray for the poor folk around Miller, and other locations where Homo redneckiism has manifested. It’s spreading so quickly.  There are some truly nice folk in South Dakota, but as this last election showed, many are also remarkably susceptible to Homo redneckiism.  Hunting rights, paying taxes, (having a black president)…all issues that have proven to be triggers for homo redneckiism.  In the midst of this major national flare-up of the disease, here’s hoping that a vaccine is on the horizon.

Otherwise, massive, brilliantly white, unmistakable birds like the endangered Whooping Crane might not survive.



In The News – Week of January 8th

Science, nature, and other miscellaneous news for the week:

Binary Star Collision

An artist’s impression of a collision of the two stars in a binary star system. In an unprecedented prediction, two stars are forecast to collide in 2022, potentially lighting up the nighttime skies for several months.

Cosmic collision coming in 2022 — The two stars that are found in a binary star system called KIC9832227 have been forecast to collide in 2022, an unprecedented forecast that, if true, could provide some real celestial fireworks. Scientists are using past observations of collisions from a binary star pair to predict the 2022 collision.  In a past collision, scientists noted that the relative orbital speeds of the two stars sped up in leading to the actual collision, a phenomenon that is currently being observed in KIC9832227.  The actual collision has already occurred, but because the star system is 1,800 light years from earth, the light of the collision won’t be visible until 2022. 1,800 light years is actually relatively close in cosmic terms, which means we could be in for a bit of a show in 2022. The two stars are currently too dim to be seen by the naked eye, but it is thought that for several months, the new star created by the collision of the binary stars will be among the brightest features in the nighttime sky. Along with the total solar eclipse coming to the United States this August, there are some exciting cosmic events happening in the next few years!

Extreme tornado outbreaks increasing in recent decades — The most extreme tornado outbreaks in the United States have been on the increase in recent decades. Outbreaks, defined as 6 or more tornadoes occurring in a relatively short time span, are responsible for the most extensive property damage and loss of life.  According to the research, the largest tornado outbreak occurring in 1965 would have had around 40 tornadoes, while today, the number of expected tornadoes might double to 80.  I’m a bit skeptical of studies that deal with numbers of tornadoes.  We’re so much better at observing tornadoes now compared to several decades ago, both because we simply have a much larger population, but also because we have the technological tools to help us monitor tornado occurrence.  Any empirical record of tornado occurrence is undoubtedly biased towards the present day, in terms of the number of tornado observations.  Still fascinating research. The authors don’t make the case that the increase may be linked to climate change, stating that they found outbreaks are most strongly related to a measure called storm relative helicity, a measure that’s not been predicted to increase under climate change. However the authors have a bit of a “diss” towards climate science, stating that it’s hard to tell whether climate change plays a role “given the current state of climate science”.

Costa's Hummingbird - Calypte costae

A Costa’s Hummingbird male in flight. Scientists have found a remarkable adaptation in the visual motion part of the brain, a characteristic that may enable the rapid and precise aerial acrobatics of hummingbirds.

Seeing like a hummingbird — We’re animals…smart, sometimes amazing, sometimes incredibly annoying, but we share the same biological characteristics as most other animals on the planet.  Nearly every 4-limbed animal on the planet has a part of the brain that focuses on the processing of visual signals related to motion. The processing is focused on motion in a direction that comes from behind a creature…a very useful adaptation for detecting and responding to an attack from behind, for example.  Scientists have found that hummingbirds process motion-related visual cues much differently than other animals.This part of the brain in hummingbirds is larger than in other birds, and unlike other birds, individual neurons  are all tuned to focus on motion in different directions.  It is thought that this enables the amazing aerial acrobatics flying hummingbirds are capable of, as they can quickly process motion cues and adapt flight direction very quickly.

Media in a tizzy over giant iceberg — A check of science-news websites over the past week has shown many stories of the imminent crack-up of a part of the Larson C ice shelf in Antarctica.  It is a dramatic event, as a 60-mile long, 300-foot wide crack has split a part of the ice shelf.  Assuming the crack continues to grow, an iceberg the size of Delaware (!!) will break off.  It’s certainly a cool event, and one the media can sink its teeth into given the “cool” factor.  Of course the angle the story is written about often focuses on climate change (particularly in the mainstream media), but it really is hard to tell the role of climate change.  What IS dramatic is the continued thinning of the ice shelf overall, the incredible loss of ice mass in Greenland in the last decade, or the loss of sea ice in the Antarctic, event that are all definitely related to climate change. However, it’s tougher for the media (and people in general) to recognize the slow, inexorable march of climate change, versus dramatic events such as the Larson C crack.

Breathing option in Beijing — Air quality has been so bad in Beijing in recent years that officials recently established an “environmental police squad” to crack down on illegal burning and other contributors to the poor air quality. Additional measures announced this week include cutting coal-fired power production by 30% this year, revamping the most highly polluting factories in the region, and restriction pollution levels from vehicles in and around Beijing.  Air you can’t breathe, water you can’t drink…that’s what happens when you put economic growth over the environment, over human health. Keep that in mind when Trump and the environmentally hostile Congress start putting in “business-friendly” policies in the coming months.

You have a new body organ! — Have you had your doctor check your mesentery lately?  Have you even VISITED your local mesentery specialist? Well, probably not.  Medicine knew of the these structures in the digestive system, but they didn’t fit the definition of an organ because it was thought they were distinct separate fragments and not one continuous unit.  What bothers me about this article? This statement…from J Calvin Coffey, who “discovered” its an organ, stating this discovery “opens up a whole new area of science”.  Just because they discovered it’s one piece, not several pieces? Just because it fits the definition of an organ, it’s a new science?  The categorization doesn’t affect actual function of the organ.  This all goes with my “in the news” from last week, and how much of the human existence is defined by how we categorize the world around us.


A hagfish, a creature that evidently has the capability to evade shark attacks thanks to its loose saggy skin. Perhaps being ugly and slimy has its advantages.

Escaping a shark attack with “loose skin” — Ever wonder how a hagfish escapes a shark attack?  Well, neither have I. Hagfish are kind of disgusting looking things, akin to a lamprey or slimy eel.  Scientists (well, these scientists) wondered how hagfish escape when sharks attack.  They have a “slime defense”, emitting a cloud of slime that repels an attack, but that’s usually after a shark gets in a bite.  Scientists found it’s their very loose skin that makes it difficult for a shark’s tooth to actually penetrate into flesh, allowing them to react to attack without a fatal wound.  You DO have to give these guys points for creativity though, with their creation of an “indoor guillotine” that they developed to drop shark teeth into hagfish carcasses.

Chicken intelligence — Not a lot of bird-related science news this week, but there was this piece about the intelligence of chickens.  They’re not a bird you generally think of as being that intelligent, although when my son and I visited Reptile Gardens near Rapid City last summer, they had a trained chicken that came roaring out on cue and stole dollar bills from an unsuspecting audience member.  Evidently this research group felt the need to come to the defense of the poor, intellectually maligned chicken.  They determined that chickens are smarter than  you think that they have distinct social structures (a sign of intelligence) and even an ability to deductively reason.  A quote from the study lead:

“A shift in how we ask questions about chicken psychology and behavior will, undoubtedly, lead to even more accurate and richer data and a more authentic understanding of who they really are,” says Marino.

I can’t say as I’ve ever thought about chicken psychology.  But I am thankful that soon I’ll be able to get “a more authentic understanding of who they really are”.  🙂


In the News – Week of January 1st, 2017

A new year, a new set of nature and science news pieces for the week…

Black-tailed Prairie Dog - Cynomys ludovicianus

A “varmint”, a Black-tailed Prairie Dog. I have on several occasions run into “sportsmen” in South Dakota who are lined up at the edge of a prairie dog town, picking them off one by one with rifles. Killing for the sake of killing…and doing twice the intended harm, given the lead that’s ingested by predators when they eat the carcasses.

Ammunition choice in shooting “varmints” — There have been many occasions on my birding trips to the central part of the state where I come across a sight that makes me sick to my stomach.  I’ll drive past a prairie dog town, and see multiple hunters lined up along a fence line, crouched and in a shooting position, picking off prairie dogs for “fun”.  That’s it…there’s no other purpose to it, other than killing for the sake of killing.  The prairie dogs that are killed aren’t used for anything, they’re simply left to rot.  Unfortunately, “sportsmen” who feel this sick need to kill for the sake of killing end up doing even more harm to animal communities.  By leaving the dead bodies, it provides an avenue for predators to consume the dead prairie dogs, and ingest the lead in the ammunition that was used to kill them.  Lead poisoning is a major cause of mortality for many raptor species, and is THE leading cause of California Condor mortality. A simple solution, as this article points out, would be to use ammunition that’s free of lead.  Even that common-sense approach though, one that still allows redneck hunters to kill prairie dogs and other “varmints”, is hated by hunting groups, as they claim that lead alternatives in ammunition don’t perform as well as lead shot and bullets.  Given what I have come across over the years on all my birding excursions, I’ve had a major downturn overall in my attitudes towards hunting…and particularly…hunters.  Stories like this don’t help my perceptions of hunters.

Cheetah numbers down to 7,100 worldwide — Over the last century, cheetah numbers worldwide have dropped from 100,000, to only 7,100 today.  Think about that…in a world with nearly 7 billion human beings, for an iconic, well-known predator such as the cheetah, there are only several thousand left. As with most species’ declines, habitat loss is behind the cheetah’s loss in population.  They range over huge territories, and there simply aren’t “huge territories” available in most parts of their range any more.  Throw in targeted persecution, such as the shooting of cheetahs by poachers and farmers, and this story estimates cheetahs could be extinct in the wild in 20-40 years.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle

Is this the face of Earth’s largest animal migrations? This is a Goldenrod Soldier Beetle from here in South Dakota, and I admit I have no idea if these “migrate” as with some beetles mentioned in this story. By sheer mass, however, this story points out that insect migration likely dwarfs any other migration on the planet.

Biggest migration of land animals on the planet — When you think of what creature may make up the largest migration of any land animal on the planet, in terms of sheer mass, what species do you think of? Or group of species?  When you say “migration”, most people probably think of birds first, and there certainly are mass migrations of birds that are so heavy that weather radar is being increasingly used as a tool to study those migrations. In terms of sheer mass, perhaps some people think of large caribou migrations.  However, as this study notes, one overlooked migration likely has all of these beat…insect migration.  This study notes that around 3.5 trillion arthropods migrate over southern Great Britain each year, accounting approximately 8 times the mass of bird migrations in the same area.  Some winged insects are well-known for their migratory talents, such as the Monarch Butterfly in North America.  But as this study notes, there all sorts of winged and even non-winged creatures that migrate through the atmosphere.

What the heck is a “species” anyway? — People are funny.  We have this intrinsic need to categorize things, put them in neat little bins that help our minds process realty.  Birders sometimes take that to an extreme, with “life lists” that are often incredibly detailed, with “big day” lists (how many species you see in one day), “big years”, “state lists that detail bird species seen within the confines of state boundaries, and more.  What gets bird listers in a tizzy?  Just what IS a species!  The American Ornithological Union and American Birding Association are always making tweaks to their “official” lists of species that have been found in North America.  Just watch birders heads collectively explode if the AOU or ABA does decide to split Red Crossbills into up to six distinct species…life lists will be substantially increased!!  Even with the science of DNA-based splits, it’s still not a precise science in determining what’s a unique species.  As with many things, we’re categorizing things into unique thematic categories, when the phenomena you’re measuring is actually a continuous variable with no definite boundaries.

One, maybe two new comets moving through — Speaking of birders and their lists, I have a friend at work who is a birder, and someone who has a life list.  He also has another, more unusual life list posted on his bulletin board in his office…his “comet life list”!  He’s about to get one, and maybe two new ones for his list.  Comet C/2106 U1 was recently discovered by the “NEOWISE” project, and is potentially visible with binoculars right now, through about January 14th. It would appear in the southeastern sky just before sunrise.  An object called 2016 WF9 was also discovered by NEOWISE, and it will come close to Earth’s orbit in late February.  It’s estimated to be 0.5 to 1.0 km in diameter.  Note the designation “object”, because it’s not clear whether this object is an asteroid or comet (related to the previous story, in that the categorization of what’s a “comet” and what’s an “asteroid” can be fuzzy).

Bird Dropping Moth - Caterpillar - Ponometia

A caterpillar of Ponometia…the “Bird Dropping Moth”. Should a new species of “shit moth” be discovered, I would suggest it be named after Trump, in the same manner that several creatures have been named after Obama in recent years.

Nine creatures named for President Obama — Over the last few years, no less than 9 different creatures have had scientific names that honor Barack Obama.  Multiple fish, a lizard, bird, etc…all have scientific names such as “Nystalus obamai” (A Western Striated Puffbird, in this case). Once Trump leaves office in 4 years (or in a perfect world, once he’s impeached after a year or so), I wonder what creatures will be named after him?  I have many, many classes of creatures where new discoveries should consider his name. There are the Onychophora phylum of worms known for excreting slime. There are the Annelidas…leaches…which would be a wonder creature to name after him.  There’s a moth called Ponometia, and it’s associated caterpillar, that would be good.  Their common name is the “Bug-dropping Moth”.  Naming him after shit would be a perfect way to “honor” him once he leaves office.

Where you’re most likely to get struck by lightning — We had a very unusual Christmas day in South Dakota.  I believe it was 4 years ago when we were absolutely smothered in snow, getting close to 2 feet on Christmas.  We’ve had Christmas’s where the temperature never got above zero.  And then there was this Christmas where we had…a thunderstorm?  In late December? In South Dakota?  We set a record for most rainfall on Christmas Day, getting over an inch in most areas, and the lightning and thunder was the first time that’s ever occurred here on Christmas (or late December for that matter).  I could go into global warming here, but no, the point is the story in the above link.  Standing outside on Christmas Day in South Dakota normally isn’t a high-risk endeavor, in terms of being struck by lightning.  So where are the most active areas on earth for lightning?  Thanks to a satellite called the Tropical Rainfall Monitoring Mission, we now know.  The winner…a Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela.  Over each one square kilometer in the area, one could expect over 230 lightning strikes per year.  The lake is surrounded by mountains, and nearly every night, cool airflow from the mountains hits the warm waters and air above the lake and produces thunderstorms.

Western Meadowlark - Sturna neglecta

A Western Meadowlark, taken with a temp of -10° near Presho, South Dakota, in the winter of 2003-2004. I have a billion Meadowlark photos, but specifically remember this one because it was so rare to SEE one in the heart of winter. Now? They’re everywhere.

Bird migration changing with climate — As I noted in a previous post, I went birding to the central part of the state last week, and was amazed at how many Western Meadowlarks were around.  15 years ago, it was rare to spot one in winter in that part of the state.  Now…I saw hundreds, all across the region.  Global warming? It’s hard to ignore signs like that.  As this story describes, many birds are changing their migration patterns as the climate changes. Many are arriving on the summer breeding grounds much earlier than they used to.  There are also some species where migrations have become shorter, or perhaps such as the case of the Western Meadowlarks, where they’ve simply stopped moving south for the winter.

China bans ivory trade and purchase — A rare bit of good conservation news.  This last week, China announced that they will ban the sale and trade of ivory by the end of 2017. China was by far the largest market for legally sold ivory, with ivory selling for over $1,000 a kilogram.  The Great Elephant Census recently published noted that elephant populations world-wide plummeted by 30% in just the last 7 years (!!!!!), and incredible population decline for such a short time period.  With the shutting of the largest legal ivory market, it’s hoped that poaching pressures will decline.  However, it’s hard to guess what will happen with ivory trade, and if much of this will simply move to the black market.

In The News – Week of December 11th

Science, nature, environment, and related news from the week of December 11th…

U.S. Department of Energy

Not a great time for DOE officials (or other government agencies dealing with climate change). First they’re asked to turn over the names of all employees who work on climate change issues, and then they are given a new department head in Rick Perry who once stated the department should be eliminated.

Department of Energy says Fuck You to Trump — In a rather chilling story from last week, it was revealed that the Trump transition team sent a questionnaire to Department of Energy officials, asking them to provide a list of all Federal employees or contractors who attended United Nation’s meetings on climate change, or had attended meetings or worked on studies that relate to the social and economic costs of climate change mitigation.  This week, the Department of Energy refused to comply, stating “Our career workforce, including our contractors and employees at our labs, comprise the backbone of DOE (Department of Energy) and the important work our department does to benefit the American people. We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department.” We have an Exxon Mobil exec slated for Secretary of State.  We have Rick Perry slated for head of DOE, an agency he once vowed to eradicate.  We have a proposed head of EPA that is an avowed climate change denier.  We have a proposed head of Department of Interior that also is a climate change denier.  And with this DOE request, we have evidence that the Trump administration will actively discriminate against climate science in the Federal government, and those who do climate change work.  There’s plenty of evidence of the new administration’s inability to live in the same facts-based world as the rest of us, but the position being firmed up on climate change is especially frightening.

Rex Tillerson, Exxon CEO, proposed for Secretary of State — And in an obviously related story, Trump formally announced his intention to nominate Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, as Secretary of State.  An oil executive, with no government experience, picked to play the key role in international relations.  What could go wrong? This New York Times piece notes that Exxon has an immense stake in our diplomatic relationship with Russia, with literally billions of dollars at stake should economic sanctions against Russia be lifted or revised.  As noted from the previous story, from an environmental standpoint, the entire suite of proposed administration officials is a complete disaster for the environmental, including stated desires to move away from clean energy towards the old days of oil, gas, and coal.  Nothing exemplifies the forthcoming disaster more than the Tillerson pick.

Dinosaur Tail in Amber

A portion of a feathered dinosaur tail, found perfectly preserved in amber. Bits of feathers have been found in amber before, but what makes this find extraordinary is the presence of 8 complete vertebrate and perfectly preserved connection structures, enabling scientists to state beyond any doubt that the tail comes from a sparrow-sized dinosaur.

Human beings hard-wired to believe blowhards — Recent research has shown that people base their belief system on personal experience, but also place a heavy emphasis on the beliefs of “confident” people that they come into contact with.  As the story notes, people’s beliefs can be swayed by those displaying confidence in their own beliefs and opinions, even in the face of contradictory evidence.  In a world where “fake news” arguably became the biggest meme of 2016, clearly this study is on the mark.  Nowadays, it’s not what you say or whether it’s true, it’s how you say it.

Feathered dinosaur tail found preserved in amber — OK, enough of the depressing news from the week.  Scientists in China have made an incredible find, with a beautifully feathered tail from a pint-sized dinosaur found perfectly preserved in amber.  The tail section is small, less than 2 inches long, but contains 8 perfectly preserved vertebrate.  Based on the vertebrate and other structures in the tail, scientists can definitively attribute the tail section as a portion of a small dinosaur the size of a sparrow. The find has also been a boon for trying to understand the evolution of feathers themselves, as there are characteristics of the feathers that are very different from those in modern birds.

“Winds of sapphires and rubies” found on exoplanet — The story itself is very interesting.  For the first time, scientists have been able to find evidence of active weather systems on a planet outside of our solar system.  Gas giant “HAT-P-7b” (a catch name) was found to have extremely strong wind patterns, an effect that was observable due to shifting patterns of monitored light from the planet. Interesting story, but the headline that was chosen reinforces a major pet peeve of mine…trying to sensationalize science. No, the winds of the planet are filled with sapphires and rubies, as the title suggest.  The atmosphere is likely made of corundum, a mineral that is found in sapphires and rubies.  I understand the desire to capture the attention of a reader, particularly given that people generally have the attention span of your typical 2-year old.  But it’s enough that the mainstream media constantly sensationalizes stories (or focuses on sensationalist material).  We don’t need that kind of mindset in the sciences.

Icefields Parkway - Alberta, Canada

Athabaska Glacier and the Columbia Icefields, in Alberta, Canada. We were there this summer, and in the 15 years from our last visit, the glacier has obviously receded quite a bit. Scientists this week “confirmed” such events are due to climate change. Duh…

Climate changes causes melting glaciers — Scientists looked at 37 glaciers and for all but 1 of them, stated that there’s at least a 90% chance that their decline was due to climate change.  Well, duh.  I need to write this kind of paper, something that restates the obvious but is sure to gather a lot of acclaim and attention.

Reindeer declining due to climate change, human activity — An extremely well-studied group of Reindeer in Russia have suffered dramatic declines of 40% in the last 15 years.Part of the problem is industrial activity within their range, which has led to changes in the migration patterns, but another issue is undoubtedly climate change.  Warming temperatures can drastically alter the environment, but can also have other unforeseen impacts. As shown in another study on caribou in North America, warming temperatures have changed the phenology (seasonality) of Arctic regions.  Melting occurs much earlier in the spring, and open water exists for much longer periods of time compared to several decades ago.  Mosquito populations have boomed as a result, to such an extent that they are having a very detrimental impact on reindeer and caribou populations. Thank goodness though we have a new incoming administration that will categorically state that climate change isn’t real and isn’t affecting anything.  That should solve the problem.


“Loligo vulgaris”, a European squid that is become much more common in waters of the North Sea. The “vulgaris” part sounds about right to me, because although I enjoy calamari, the idea of replacing tasty cod in fish-and-chips with this just seems a bit “vulgar” to me.

Do you want squid with those chips? — Alright, THIS is too much. Melting glaciers?  Whatever.  Reindeer and caribou disappearing?  Meh.  But when climate change starts to impact one of my favorite meals, fish-and-chips, THEN something has to be done!!  In the 1980s, squid were caught in 20% of surveys in the North Sea around Great Britain.  Now, squid are caught in 60% of surveys and numbers continue to increase.  As waters warm, not only are squid being found more often, but warmer water fish such as anchovies and sardines, are increasing.  The center of productivity of a fish-and-chips stable fish…cod…has continued to move north.  As the climate warms and squid become more common, you might have to replace that tasty breaded cod with some squid in your next “fish”-and-chips order.

Distracted while talking — What the hell, I’ll bring up another pet peeve of mine…cell phones and cars. I do wonder just how many accidents are directly related to distracted drivers, given how often you come across drivers weaving all over the road, people driving 15 mph below the speed limit and not even realizing it because they’re on the phone, people who sit there when the light turns green, etc.  As this new study points out, it’s not the fact that you’re using your hands that makes distracted driving such as this dangerous. Just conversing with hands-free equipment greatly reduces a driver’s perception and awareness of their surroundings.

AC/DC Logo

I can multitask! Air guitar while listening to Back in Black is perfectly compatible with simultaneously playing a board game.

Looking to put men in their place this Christmas?  Try some AC/DC!!! — We had family up for Thanksgiving, and one of the most enjoyable aspects was playing UNO and other games for much of the day.  Playing board or card games is something that many do over the holidays, and this study found a way for women to potentially dominate their male counterparts this Christmas.  Men were much more likely to make mistakes in playing board games while listening to music than were females.  The study noted that classical music had little effect on men, but playing something like AC/DC significantly decreased their performance. Interesting study, but I must take offense at the phrase of men being “forced to listen to AC/DC”. No one “forces” you to listen to AC/DC!  If I want play Sorry or Life or Clue or UNO this Christmas, well damn it, I also reserve the right to jam out to “Hells Bells” or “Back In Black” or “Thunderstruck” while I play!  Hmmm…maybe they’re onto something with this story…it is hard to play board games and do justice with my air guitar at the same time…

In The News – Week of November 27th

Yeah, it’s been several days. Holidays, general malaise, busy at work, yada yada yada.  There have been a number of very interesting science/nature/life stories that have come out in recent days however.

Homer, Alaska area

People have a tendency to ignore an issue, until it affects them personally. If you live in a coastal area, or in a place like Alaska (this is near Homer) where the effects of climate change are already having a big impact, then politics-be-damned, people tend to be “believers”. In no case is that more obvious than when someone’s financial interests are threatened, as in the New York Times piece about coastal real estate.

Climate Change, Coastal Real Estate, and Politics — We’ve got a new administration transitioning in who seems hell-bent on ignoring reality, ignoring science.  As a scientist who studies linkages between the landscape and climate change, of course it’s the climate change denial that is the most disgusting to me.  This is a great piece from the New York Times that focuses on the intersection of climate change, coastal real estate, and rising sea levels. People are funny…they tend not to care about an issue until it affects them personally (for another example, see Obamacare and the need for health insurance).  On the climate change side, there’s no doubt that those in coastal zones, those with a vested financial interest in coastal real estate, are taking the issue of climate change seriously. The story certainly highlights the folly of those that do try to wish away climate change or delay long-term action in favor of short-term financial gain.

Melting begetting more melting — Staying with the climate change thread, a story about feedbacks in the climate system in the Arctic, with warming temperatures causing land and water surface changes that reinforce additional warming.  This fall has certainly been an incredible and unprecedented in Arctic, with sea ice levels actually declining during a period the winter freeze is typically in full force. Temperatures have been incredibly high, in some cases nearly 40 degrees above average, with temperatures even staying near or at the freezing point at the North Pole itself.  A “standard” prediction that you see is that the Arctic is likely to be ice-free in summer by 2050, but many scientists are moving that prediction up to a far earlier date.  Part of the problem is that once melting begins, it feeds back on itself.  You’re removing bright white snow and ice, and exposing more open water and older, darker sea ice, which absorbs much more solar radiation and reinforces the warming. Throw in additional feedback loops such as the impacts of melting permafrost and resultant methane releases in to the atmosphere, and it’s a runaway train that’s going to be impossible to stop.

White-throated Sparrow

Having trouble finding your one true love? It could be worse? At least you can potentially couple with 50% of your species. For a bird like this, a “white-striped” variant of the White-throated Sparrow, only 25% of your species’ population is of any interest to you…specifically, you need a tan-striped variant of the opposite sex.

Male? Female? This sparrow has 4 different sexes — When I took up birding and photography back in 2000, it didn’t take me very long to become familiar with the birds that are found in South Dakota.  A (healthy?) obsession in a topic really facilitates some fast learning!  However, there were some species I struggled with initially, particularly those that could have multiple different plumage patterns.  White-throated Sparrows fall into that camp, with some birds having brilliantly white stripes on their heads, and others having tan stripes.  Researchers have found that the plumage patterns go well beyond just appearance, with the two color morphs displaying very different behavior and reproductive traits. Just as X and Y chromosomes drive male and female sex distinctions, they found that White-throated Sparrows have developed another pair of “sex chromosomes”.  In a “normal” reproductive system, an individual can mate with 50% of its species (males and females mating); White-throated Sparrows can only mate with 25% of other individuals of its species.  For example, if you’re a male “white-striped” color variant of the White-throated Sparrow, you will only mate with a female “tan-striped” color variant…one-fourth of the entire species population (assuming white- and tan-color morphs are equally common).  A fascinating read about evolution and the unexpected paths that it sometimes takes.

San Francisco sinking — Ah, the wonders of satellite observation. From a scientific standpoint, there are so many possibilities in what phenomena can be observed, and what scientists can do with that information.  This story focuses on the Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellites, and the use of multiple space-based radar observations to assess changes in surface height.  The 58-story Millennium Tower in San Francisco, for example, has been found to be sinking 40 millimeters (about 1 1/2 inches) every year. The “Millennium” Tower would thus theoretically be ~125 feet lower than where it is right now in a millennium, if sinking continued and the tower could survive!   Land surface subsidence due to ground water pumping, changes in forest canopies due to cutting, elevation shifts after major earthquakes…all fascinating observations that can also be made with similar satellite observations.

Rub Al Khali

Imagine if this environment were…lush! Crocodiles! Hippos! Lakes with fish, and thriving cities! That’s what you would have found in the Sahara 6,000 years ago. Disclosure…this is actually the Rub’ al Khali desert on the border of Saudi Arabia and the UAE! Never have been to the Sahara, have been here and have photos!

Lush environment of the Sahara — Scientists have long known that the region of the Sahara Desert in Africa used to be much wetter.  Archaeological finds have detailed thriving civilizations in the heart of the Sahara, and bones found in the region showed that hippos, fish, and crocodiles were once quite common.  5,000 to 6,000 years ago, a mere blink of the eye in geologic time, the Sahara was a much wetter environment, and scientists aren’t exactly sure what climate mechanism caused the shift to the extremely dry climates that are found there today.  The tropical “rain belt” that provides moisture to many equatorial regions was shifted much further north during that time, but the reasons are unclear.

Life on…Pluto!?!?? — Scientists pretty much all agree that it’s only a matter of time before we find life on another planet.  We’ve already detected many intriguing hints that life was likely once found on Mars (or even could be found there today).  Over the last 10 years though, the list of planets and moons with potential life has risen dramatically, not only with our first confirmation of potentially suitable planets being identified outside of our own solar system, but even within our own solar system.  Pluto would have been about dead last on the list of potential candidates, before the 2015 flyby of the New Horizons spacecraft.  It’s incredibly cold and distant from the sun, and was thought to be a barren, cold world.  Instead, New Horizons provided strong evidence of a massive subsurface “ocean” on Pluto.  As this story notes, that ocean is likely an incredibly harsh environment, still cold and packed with ammonia.  However, as we’ve found on earth, life can thrive in the most inhospitable environments, and any environment with water and organic compounds such as ammonia is a potential breeding ground for life.


Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn that just may harbor life. Beneath the cracked, icy crust of the small moon lies a liquid water ocean, thanks to the gravity and strong tidal forces exerted by Saturn. Spacecraft observations found geysers spouting water into the thin atmosphere, providing further proof of the subsurface ocean that just might be a place to look for life.

Six most likely places to find life in the Solar System — Related to the Pluto story…where else in the solar system might we find life?  This piece highlights six potential candidates.  Enceladus is a small moon of Saturn where the Cassini spacecraft detected geysers spouting ice and water into the atmosphere from cracks in the moon’s surface.  Strong tidal forces from Saturn likely keep a subsurface ocean liquid, and where’s there’s liquid water, life is a possibility.  Titan, another moon of Saturn, is extremely cold, but has liquid lakes of methane and ethane on its surface, organic compounds that could harbor life.  Europa, a moon of Jupiter, likely has much more water in subsurface oceans than the earth has in its oceans.  That water lies below a 10-mile thick crust of ice, but with the discovery of “black smokers” on earth, it’s been shown that light and photosynthesis isn’t necessarily needed as an ingredient for life.  A subsurface ocean with similar heat sources could easily support life.  Mars, and even the atmosphere of Venus, are also discussed as potential reservoirs of life in the solar system.

Einstein wrong? — Einstein’s theory of relativity depends on the assumption of the speed of light being a constant, no matter the situation.  Scientists are now assessing the possibility that the speed of light may not be a constant, that it was once much higher in the early universe.  Such a finding would cause major upheaval in the world of physics. Science never ceases to surprise, and this story is a great example of why we need to keep challenging even our most cherished and “known” scientific beliefs.

Gatlinburg fires the “new normal” — The tragic fires in and around Gatlinburg were something of a surprise, given that massive, destructive fires just aren’t all that common in the southeastern U.S.  That may be changing, thanks to climate change, drought, and increased climate variability.  The southeastern U.S. is a pretty moist location, but major droughts can occur there.  Climate change may be increasing extreme events, including drought, and may make larger fires a much more common occurrence in the southeast.  Note the story also has a number of quotes from Mark Svoboda, a friend of mine who now leads the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Four new element names on the periodic table! — We’ve known about elements 113, 115, 117, and 118, but as newly discovered elements over the last few years, they hadn’t been assigned new names. The new names are  nihonium (Nh), moscovium (Mc), tennessine (Ts) and oganesson (Og).  Don’t expect to find a chunk of “Moscovium” or any of the others while out taking a hike.  All were discovered through the use of particle accelerators, and all are extremely unstable, decaying to more basic elements within a miniscule fraction of a second after they are created.


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