Researchers at the University of Bristol in the UK have again made an intriguing discovery.  This time, the team studied silkworm moths to uncover their ability to throw hungry predator bats off their trail.

Silkmoth
Photo 140237557 / Silkmoth © Tom Meaker | Dreamstime.com

An acoustic decoy mechanism involving elongated hindwings on some silkmoths is well known among the folks who know about such things.  (I am not part of that esteemed group, by the way.)  The twisted shape of these wings creates strong echoes, consequently misdirecting the bats.  However, not all silkmoths have these structural features. 

The team wanted to understand if there were other acoustic mechanisms at work.  Using specialized tools, they recorded and analyzed thousands of echoes that were created by bouncing sound waves off of the moths at different angles.  The analysis revealed that some moths have a forewing reflector that also acts as an acoustic decoy.   This is a newly described mechanism.  The team also believes that no species have both types of decoys. 

The team’s next step will be to study the relative advantages that each type of decoy offers the moths.

To learn more about this research, reference the press release here:  https://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2021/september/moth-wingtips.html

@drtomneil  @BristolBioSci

 

D 204656644 © Gerald D. Tang | Dreamstime.com

If you live along the West Coast of North America, you may have seen a common wildflower called the Western False Asphodel (Triantha occidentalis).  This plant was originally described in the late 1870s.  Given its considerable distribution and how long people have known about the plant, it’s surprising that until recently, it still harbored a secret. 

Botanists from the University of British Columbia discovered that this plant is carnivorous.  One feature that makes this plant unique is that it traps insects near its insect-pollinated flowers.  

This is the first carnivorous plant to be identified in 20 years. 

You can read more about the science behind this discovery here:  https://news.ubc.ca/2021/08/09/insects-beware-this-west-coast-plant-wants-to-eat-you/

@ubcnews

If you live in the Southwest United States and have a farm, you are probably familiar with Palmer amaranth (Amaranthus palmerii), one of the most aggressive and competitively successful pigweed species in the world.  

In today’s New York Times, H. Claire Brown’s article, Attack of the Superweeds, offers insight into the devastating potential of this plant and the undeniable resilience of nature.

    “Superweeds — that is, weeds that have evolved characteristics that make them more difficult to control as a result of repeatedly using the same management tactic — are rapidly overtaking American commodity farms, and Palmer amaranth is their king.”

Even after applications of incredibly dangerous herbicides such as dicamba or the more deadly paraquat, which can kill humans, this weed will re-establish and grow again. Pulling them out of the ground is not necessarily a successful eradication method either.  Seeds from the previous year’s plants may be dormant in the ground and will emerge.

Palmer amaranth, unlike most commodity crops, is genetically diverse and may produce random mutations in its offspring, which is key to its success.  Consequently, genetically resistant plants survive.  Consider that a single plant generates approximately 250,000 seeds and you’ll begin to understand how this plant can quickly dominate a landscape.

Palmer Amaranth © Drzaribu | Dreamstime.com

Additionally, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, this weed will grow 2 to 3 inches per day to a height of 6 to 8 feet. As a result, farmers have reported yield losses of up to a staggering 91% of their planted corn and 79% of their soybeans.

Farmers and scientists now believe that most herbicides will be useless against this and other superweeds in approximately 10 years.  If current farming practices continue, superweeds will ultimately overrun many domestic crops.  

In February 2021, a related paper was published in the journal, Weed Research which focused on understanding this plant’s phenology cycle.  The research describes the air and soil warmth patterns to determine when the plant would first emerge, then begin to flower, and begin to produce seed, as well as other stages within its life.  Clues to the weed’s vulnerabilities may be identified, reducing the need for increasingly toxic herbicides.  

The NYT article mentions that the farmer portrayed in the story is attempting to plant the crop rows closer together to block out the sun from the palmer amaranth seedlings.  I don’t know if this will work, but it is an interesting idea that acknowledges how the weeds function. 

Perhaps more new farming ideas could be tested as well. Maybe it is time to move beyond monoculture.  We need to at least try. 

Sources:

To read the excellent article, Attack of the Superweeds by H. Claire Brown here is the link:  https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/18/magazine/superweeds-monsanto.html

If you can’t get behind the paywall, check with your local library to see if they can help you access a copy in print or digitally. 

Minnesota Agriculture report on Palmer amaranth — https://www.mda.state.mn.us/plants/pestmanagement/weedcontrol/noxiouslist/palmeramaranthAn

An abstract of the phenology model of this weed — https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/wre.12470

Have you ever thought about seagrass?  If you’ve walked into the ocean and tiptoed between the slimy blades waving with the tide, you’ve trodden upon seagrass.  I must admit, I’ve always considered seagrasses to be an annoyance.  They block my view of the ocean floor and feel icky on my feet. I couldn’t understand their value or purpose.  I was so wrong.

First, seagrasses are plants, not seaweeds.  They act as the “lungs of the sea.” They can photosynthesize up to 10 liters of oxygen per square meter per day.  Further, a single acre of seagrass can support more than 40,000 fish and 50 million small invertebrates such as snails, sponges, and sea anemones.  They are literally biodiversity hotspots.

This is more than enough to solidify their worth, but they do still more.  Seagrasses filter the surrounding water, removing excess nitrogen originating from chemicals.  Too much nitrogen can contribute to acidification and diminish the ocean’s health.

Another contributor to acidification is carbon dioxide.  Again, seagrasses help to correct the issue.  They absorb carbon as they photosynthesize.  Seagrass meadows are up to 35 times more effective than the Amazon rainforest in their carbon uptake and storage abilities.

The impact of acidification is profound.  As an example, it causes juvenile oysters to struggle to build and maintain their shells.  Even slight acid increases can dissolve their calcium carbonate infrastructure.  This is just one of many consequences resulting from an acid imbalance in the ocean.

Seagrasses offer at least one more vital benefit.  We’ve heard a lot about the benefits of mangroves to prevent coastal erosion, but seagrasses are equally important in this battle.  Seagrasses reduce the force of waves with their leaves and encourage the sediment carried in the water to drop to the seafloor, not accumulate further onshore. 

Again, a seemingly inconsequential plant is actually a necessity for the sustainability and survival of many other species.  I have a new respect for seagrasses.

Sources:

Smithsonian Ocean Portal on seaweed – https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/plants-algae/seagrass-and-seagrass-beds

More about seagrass and nitrogen filtration – https://aslopubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/lno.11241

More about seagrass and carbon dioxide buffering – https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/seagrasses-turn-back-clock-ocean-acidification

and here – https://oceanfdn.org/calculator/why-go-blue/

A monograph about seagrass – http://www.reefresilience.org/pdf/Managing_Seagrass_for_Resilience_to_CC.pdf

Dandelions (Taraxacum) are found throughout much of the United States and in some European countries. They are also cultivated in some countries such as India.  

You probably know that all parts of the dandelion are edible.   The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked (steamed, fried, boiled, etc.) as a vegetable.  You can make tea with the roots and the flowers.   Or, maybe dandelion wine or jelly is more to your taste.  

The plant also purportedly treats many types of ailments.  For example, dandelions are consumed act as a diuretic.  They may also remove toxins from your liver.   The plants boast 25 times more Vitamin A than tomato juice.   These can be a beneficial addition to your diet if you collect them from a safe source.  

Additionally, dandelions contribute some surprising scientific insights.   Russian and European researchers use dandelions to create a new type of rubber.   The team is now developing a previously unknown process to manufacture this natural form of rubber.  This new type of rubber may replace that which currently comes from rubber trees in Southeast Asia, where they are under threat from a fungus.  

The plants, or rather their seed-heads, are influencing physics too.  Those fluffy white seeds disperse in a way that helps physicists to understand how to improve parachute performance.  The seeds have a high drag rate without compromising stability, yet they contain minimal structure.  The seeds are a nature engineering marvel.  Some of the knowledge will influence future drone design and the design of other aircraft. 

Finally, dandelions are good for your lawn.  Their roots aerate the soil by breaking up hard-packed earth.   Further, those long roots help to stabilize the land and prevent erosion.  So please don’t disdain the dandelions and don’t destroy them with weedkiller.  Instead, admire or even consume them!

Sources:

More about dandelions as food and medicine — https://www.mofga.org/resources/weeds/ten-things-you-might-not-know-about-dandelions/

https://georgiawildlife.com/out-my-backdoor-defense-dandelions

More about dandelion rubber – https://www.tum.de/nc/en/about-tum/news/press-releases/details/32382/

More about physics of dandelion seed dispersal – https://www.newswise.com/articles/the-physics-behind-dandelion-seed-plume-dispersal-revealed

 

Once in a while researchers discover some tidbit about one of the foods we love.  Today, we have two such tidbits.  Since these foods are from plants they are fundamentally part of nature. 

First, let’s talk about watermelon.  As I write this it is 91℉ and a slice would be great.  Instead, I will share that a team from Washington University in St. Louis discovered that the current origin story for watermelon is incorrect.  For about 90 years, scientists believed that this originated from the South African citron melon.  However, new genetic information proves that the sweet, red pulpy fruit is derived from wild forms in western and northeast Africa.  

You may not be aware that current domesticated watermelon stock comes from a very small gene pool.  Consequently, it is susceptible to disease.  The wild relatives have some resistant genes which may be bred into future varietals.  

While this is important for continuity, perhaps more interestingly, the team also discovered some Egyptian tomb paintings that suggested that the Egyptians were enjoying watermelon too.  This represents another cultural link with our 4,000-year-old ancestors.  

 

Watermelons aren’t the only food crops that are at risk due to our over-dependence on a few or single species.   Peanuts are also at risk.  

A team at the Wild Peanut Lab at the University of Georgia is focused on improving the resilience of our peanut crops.  They started by locating some wild peanut species in South America, the likely origin of these legumes.  These wild ones may not have eye-appeal and are difficult to harvest but they do have some strong resistant genes.  

The research team will continue to work with these to establish hybrids with the desirable features of both current and wild species.   Hopefully, using the benefits of wild species will ensure that we continue to have delicious peanut butter in our future.  

Happy eating!

Sources:

Watermelon – https://source.wustl.edu/2021/05/a-seedy-slice-of-history-watermelons-actually-came-from-northeast-africa/

Peanuts – https://news.uga.edu/new-peanut-wild-past-domesticated-present/

 

Lately, much of the mass media science news has been about discoveries in physics and astronomy.  The news is interesting but it is so speculative that it is likely to be obsolete next week. Alternatively, a few earth-based stories caught my eye.  This information has relevant and immediate application.  

The first report is from the Frontiers in Marine Science.  The paper announced a small victory for Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas) that use the Cayman Islands as nesting sites.  

A research team from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at Loggerhead Turtlethe University of Exeter and the Marine Resources Unit in the Grand Cayman worked together to review data collected during 22 years of nest monitoring.  By comparing the most recent 5 year period to the earliest 5 year period, they found an increase in green turtle nests from 82 to1,005 nests.  Similarly, loggerhead nests increased from 10 to 290.  

These numbers demonstrate a strong recovery for two species that were on the verge of local extinction. 

Progress was supported by several conservation efforts including a captive breeding program for the green turtles, some changes to artificial lighting usage, and changes to the turtle fishery regulations which introduced restrictions for legal capture.  Since 2008, there have not been any legal captures of turtles by the fishing community.

The Caymans historically have one of the world’s largest sea turtle nesting populations.  While not discussed in the research paper, perhaps the Caymans’ environmental leaders leverage the goodwill and appeal of these turtles to attract volunteers for nesting site education and protection.  Sea turtles also capture the attention of many tourists.  I can attest to the success of such programs in Florida and Trinidad.  People will protect what they appreciate.

You can read more about the efforts here:  https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2021.663856/full

@doecayman @UniofExeter @BrendanGodley

 

Do you know which pollinator species are helping out in your vegetable garden?  Moths, butterflies, and bees, plus some wind, help corn plants exchange pollen.  But do we know which types of bees, for example?  What if the specific bee or butterfly species was at risk for extinction and we didn’t even realize their role in pollinating one of our most critical food crops?  One research team has been thinking along these lines concerning the cocoa plant pollinators.

Cocoa PlantA few years ago, there were articles in the press about the pending extinction of cocoa (Theobroma cacao) plants that would spell the end of chocolate.  Climate change, fungal diseases, and other threats prophesized chocolate’s demise within 50 years.  

Subsequently, an international team led by the University of Gottingen initiated a study of specific pollinators for cocoa grown in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.  Indonesia was the third-largest cocoa-producing country in 2020.  

The team focused on flower visitations and the factors that influence the visitations.  These include the habitats for the potential pollinators, such as the amount of leaf litter present, the canopy coverage and distance to the surrounding forest, and the abundance of cocoa flowers.

The study showed that ants and flies (Diptera) were directly and indirectly involved in pollination.   However, the ceratopogonid midges (you might know them as no-see-ums) were conspicuously absent.  They did not play their predicted role.

The team used some cool techniques to gather their data. For example, they added glue to more than 15,000 flowers in more than 500 trees over eight months. That is some serious dedication!

One significant finding showed that the forest proximity and the abundance of leaf litter increased the number of pollinators.  The presence of shade trees and the encouragement of other biodiversity enhance the future sustainability of this precious crop.  This information could have a long-term impact on this type of agroforest management.

To read more about this, see:  https://www.uni-goettingen.de/en/3240.html?id=6246 

The scientific synopsis is available here:  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320721001580

@MToledoMX

On this beautiful, unusually warm April Friday, I will be spending most of the day outside.   Consequently, this will be an abbreviated note about things I recently learned.  These items hopefully will be of interest.  By no means do they encompass all I’ve learned lately.

As always, if you have any “discoveries” of your own, please feel free to share them.  Here are my findings:

  • Pineapples are almost synonymous with Hawaii.  So, it was a surprise to me to learn that they are not indigenous to the islands.  They originated somewhere around southern Brazil and were imported into Hawaii as a commercial crop.  More surprising, pineapples are not a single entity but are a collective fruit, meaning many berries are fused into one.  
  • Owls are well-known for their exceptional binocular vision.  So, it may be a bit of a shock to learn that they don’t actually have eyeballs.  Instead, they have eye tubes.  These eyes are also relatively heavy, weighing up to 3% of the owl’s total body weight. For comparison, your eyes weigh approximately .0003% of your weight.
  • Soon it will be mosquito season.  It occurs at some point each year in every country.   Except in Iceland.  While the reasons have not been fully explained, there is speculation that the rapid and frequent weather changes prevent the mosquitoes from safely progressing through their lifecycle.  Additionally, though not a country, there aren’t any mosquitoes on Antarctica either.  You probably anticipated that one. 

Sources: 

Pineapples — https://www.lovebigisland.com/quick-and-remarkable-facts-about-hawaii/pineapple/

Owls — https://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/birds-eye-view-wbt/

Mosquitos — https://icelandmag.is/article/reason-non-existence-mosquitoes-iceland

If you live in one of 30 states, including those in New England, as I do, you’ve probably heard about the invasive Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) and the destruction they inflict on ash (Fraxinus) trees.  

Ash TreeMany projects have tried to slow the spread of the insects and to prevent further tree damage.    One such project recently published some unexpected results.   The study focused on compromised Black Ash (Fraxinus nigra) found at the test site in the wetlands of Minnesota.  Black Ash trees usually dominate these ecosystems and their demise threatened their entire balance. 

Researchers implemented adaptation strategies including the planting of several different tree species.  The trees were tested under a variety of conditions.  Growth and 8-year survivability were measured.  So far, nothing seems too unexpected.  

However, when the results were calculated, one tree species showed an 81% success rate.  That species is the American Elm (Ulmus americana).  This is the same species that fell victim to Dutch Elm Disease, which was first identified in the Netherland in 1921, one hundred years ago!  By 1970, it wiped out almost all the American Elms within the United States. 

Since then, tree geneticists have succeeded in breeding disease-resistant Elm variants.  Isn’t it ironic that one species under attack could be replaced by another that may be making a comeback? 

Sources:

Scientific article about the research project— https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0378112721000475

More about American Elms and Dutch Elm Disease — https://www.thespruce.com/dutch-elm-disease-on-american-elm-trees-2131195

Results just published on March 4, 2021, in Current Biology now explain why catnip works as a powerful mosquito repellent.  Researchers from Northwestern University and Lund University explored the mechanisms by which catnip and its active ingredient, Nepetalactone, successfully ward off a wide array of insects.  

Simply put, a catnip metabolite functions as a powerful natural insect repellent because it activates an insect receptor, TRPA1, that is triggered by noxious and irritating chemicals. No wonder it creates a significant aversive effect!

As a result, this may be an excellent target for next-generation repellents that exploit the same mosquito irritant receptor.  Hopefully, new products based on this work will be safer and as effective (or more so) than current options.

 

Source:  Press Release, Northwestern University https://news.northwestern.edu/stories/2021/03/catnip-insect-repellent/

Current Biology publication DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2021.02.010

You don’t have to look very far to find something unexpected in nature.   Today we will explore two examples. 

Rebecca Brunner, a conversation ecologist and PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, recently discovered that the glass frogs (Sachatamia orejuela) in Columbia and Ecuador were “waving” hello.  The male glass frog moves its hands and feet and bobs its head along with a vocal call in an attempt to attract a mate.

These frogs are found near waterfalls which are fairly loud.   They apparently evolved to include these visual displays to supplement the vocalizations which may not have always been loud enough to get the desired response.  This is a relatively rare behavior amongst frog species.

Check out Brunner’s Youtube video here:  https://youtu.be/U6prmVIyxXI

The frog movements may be subtle to humans but they work for them!

More unexpected nature:  The plant world is also full of surprises. 

We know that species evolve in response to stimuli in their environment, such as developing a toxin to deter animal grazing.  Taking it one step further, in November 2020, three scientists reported in the journal Current Biology, that plants can also evolve as a result of pressure from human harvesting activities.   

Fritillaria delavayi is usually a bright green wild plant that grows amongst the scree on the mountalns in southwest China.  It is frequently harvested as a traditional Chinese medicine.  Amazingly, some of the plants have responded to the pressure by changing their coloration to gray so that they blend in with the rocky ground, making the plants more difficult to find.  In fact, areas with the greatest harvesting activity also exhibited the greatest degree of color change.

Science News has a great overview and a nice side by side set of photos to compare the coloration.   Look here:  https://www.sciencenews.org/article/plant-camouflage-people-china-traditional-medicine-fritillaria