According to researchers in Australia the answer could be 'yes'. But probably not the way you think. The study, which appears online at BMC Ecology, suggests that different plant species actually communicate with each other by sending nano-scale signals through the soil. It makes you wonder if the rhubarb doesn't have some dirt on the begonias.
Talking plants!? That's ridiculous!
Paleontologist Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang found the 314 slides while searching through the vaults of the Survey headquarters near Keyworth, UK. Each slide contains a polished thin section of a fossil plant, prepared for viewing under a microscope. But the best thing about the discovery is that some of the slides are of specimens collected by the young Charles Darwin during his legendary voyage on the Beagle. Darwin’s theory of evolution and subsequent book On the Origin of Species resulted from much of what he discovered during the five-year voyage. Among the specimens collected by Darwin is a piece of petrified wood from an island off the coast of Chile in 1834.
Falcon-Lang figures the collection has been languishing unregistered in the cabinet for 165 years. Joseph Hooker, a botanist and close friend of Darwin, worked briefly for the Geological Survey in the early 19th century, and given the job of cataloging the collection. But before Hooker could properly register the fossils, he left on an expedition to the Himalayas and the collection was soon forgotten. In the passing years the cabinet got moved several times until it reached its current storage place deep in the recesses of the Geological Survey where it was found in April of last year.
According to Falcon-Lang the lost fossils, some of which can be viewed on line, will add greatly to current science, and he expects some great scientific papers to result from the collection.
Courtesy Mark RyanI saw a posting on Facebook yesterday (tip of the hat to the Bell Museum) about a website called Project Noah. It’s a really cool site that allows anyone with a camera and a love of nature to upload pictures or video and help identify the plants and animals that populate our world, both locally and globally. And who doesn’t have a camera of some sort nowadays?
Anyway, according to their website Project Noah is:
"… A tool that nature lovers can use to explore and document wildlife and a technology platform research groups can use to harness the power of citizen scientists everywhere. The purpose of the project is to mobilize and inspire a new generation of nature lovers. It began as an experiment to see if we could build an app for people to share their nature sightings and has evolved into a powerful global movement for both amateurs and experts. The name “Noah” is an acronym that stands for networked organisms and habitats. “
That kind of sums it up. The site is easy to navigate and figure out. I uploaded a couple photos I’d taken recently and it wasn’t difficult at all. You can also join a “mission” dealing with a particular zoological or botanical subject you’re interested in. You can contribute to the mission’s knowledge base by adding your own photographs or some information such as the genus and species of an unknown specimen captured in someone else’s photograph. I like shooting photographs up around Lake Superior so I joined the “Great Lakes Monitoring” mission. It just took a click of a button to become a part of it.
You can even start your own mission. It could be a legitimate study you’ve devised like why "megapug" bees seek out sunflowers or something as simple as a call for the best wildlife photos of the year. Here at the Science Museum we could start a mission called Rotting Pigs. I wonder how many contributions that would garner?
As mentioned, there’s even a Project Noah app that you can download for the mobile device of your choice. I downloaded it for my iPod Touch but noticed the reviews for it seem to be mixed. It only got an average rating overall, but what the hey, it’s free so I’m giving it a shot anyway. You can do the same if you'd like. I already know the site works fine on my laptop.
I’m really excited about this. It’s a novel and cool way to intermingle our ever-changing networking technologies with the rest of the natural world, and contribute something to the science community at the same time.
If you have more questions you might find the answers on Project Noah’s FAQ page.
Courtesy Mark RyanWell, at least the one at the Como Conservatory in St. Paul is in bloom. I've been watching it all week and it finally blossomed yesterday. If you missed it, you can watch this time-lapse replay. The corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) is native to the rainforests of Sumatra, and is a goofy-looking plant somewhat reminiscent of "Audrey 2" in the movie-musical-movie Little Shop of Horrors. It's big. The one at Como (their second) is over six-feet tall and is named "Bob,too". Corpse flowers, when they bloom, give off a delightful "aroma" that smells like rotting flesh. It does this to attract pollinating beetles and flies. I went over yesterday to see it for myself, and the smell wasn't too objectionable. Unfortunately, the days for "Bob,too" are numbered as the plant usually dies soon after it blossoms.
Courtesy Mark RyanDiscover Life looks to be a great site that can help you identify or get vast amounts of information about plants or animals you see or come across in your daily travels, or just want to know more about. The following description comes from their homepage:
"We provide free on-line tools to identify species, share ways to teach and study nature's wonders, report findings, build maps, process images, and contribute to and learn from a growing, interactive encyclopedia of life that now has 1,354,546 species pages."
That's a lot of species pages. I did a search for the common crow and found tons of information and links about the Corvidae family which includes crows, magpies, ravens, jays, and allies. It brought up a list of 128 genera with links to countless (meaning I didn't count them) species. Plus some pages come with photos you can enlarge and zoom into for close-ups of different details. There are also interactive global maps displaying the ranges of species, and when I checked out "crocodile" it led me to this surprising link. I had no idea.
Courtesy Mark RyanIn the latter days of summer my wife and I took a drive up the Gunflint Trail and visited the Magnetic Rock Trail, a spur trail jutting off the Gunflint near Gunflint Lake. Our original plans of lounging about the North Shore of Lake Superior had been scuttled by a mix-up in our cabin reservations, so I saw it as an opportunity to check out first-hand some of the local geology. I had visited the MRT briefly once before and my reasons for wanting to make the 50-mile drive from Grand Marais to revisit the trail were three-fold: stromatolites, meteorite impact ejecta, and, of course, magnetic rocks
Well, as it turns out, I wasn’t very successful,
Courtesy Mark RyanReaders may recall the Ham Lake forest fires raged along the Gunflint Trail in the early summer of 2007, destroying several hundred acres of the surrounding forest along with resorts and private property. The fire, it was later determined, was started by a legal campfire in the vicinity of Ham Lake that had gotten out of hand and spread quickly through the region. It was the second forest fire to rage through the Magnetic Rock Trail (MRT) in the past two decades (there was also a controlled burn in 2002). The latest fire removed much of the pine canopy that covered the area, opening it to more sky and sunlight, and new vistas of the surrounding terrain.
Courtesy Mark Ryan
Courtesy Mark RyanBut as destructive as forest fires can be, they do have their upside. Forests are quick to revitalize after fires. New trees soon rise up from the ashes, and evidence of that in the MRT was apparent in the many jack pines (Pinus banksiana) we saw sprouting up everywhere. But trees aren’t the only affected flora. A lot of the groundcover gets incinerated as well, sometimes exposing patches of bedrock. In the case of the Magnetic Rock Trail, it meant new outcrops of the Gunflint Iron Formation were uncovered, revealing fresh unexplored exposures.
The Gunflint Iron Formation is a mass of iron ore taconite that spans from the Arrowhead region of Minnesota eastward into Ontario, Canada with the majority of the formation located on the Canadian side of the border. Most iron formations on Earth were formed around the same time, about 2 billion years ago during the Middle Pre-Cambrian (Early Proterozoic) times. A shallow sea (the Animikie) covered much of northern Minnesota and eastern Ontario at the time. The sea teemed with cyanobacteria in the form of stromatolites; thick microbial mats that helped oxygenate the Earth’s atmosphere and metabolize iron out of solution through photosynthesis. The iron-oxide sediments later became the iron ranges that span across northern Minnesota and Canada. Much of the rock along the Magnetic Rock Trail is composed of magnetite (Fe3 O4) inter-bedded with layers of chert or shale. Magnetite is the most magnetic of all the naturally occurring minerals, hence its name. The Gunflint Iron Formation is particularly resistant to erosion on the Minnesota side probably due to its nearness to the Duluth Complex intrusives. These influxes of magma moved into the area around 1.1 billion years ago, adding tremendous heat to the existing strata. The portion of the Gunflint Iron Formations (that located in Minnesota) closest to the heat source shows the most resistance to erosion.
Courtesy Jim Miller, MN Geological Survey (top) Mark Ryan (bottom)Preserved within some of the newly exposed outcrops along the MRT are fossil records of these stromatolites, representing some of the oldest fossils found in Minnesota. Gunflint stromatolites contain large numbers of fossils that can be seen under a scanning electron microscope. I had been told that you can walk off the main path and find some of these ancient fossils, so I searched off-trail for a while and found what I thought were stromatolites, and took photos of them.
But later when I consulted with geologist Mark Jirsa, he wasn’t so sure.
“You're looking at thin bedding in the iron formation that dips shallowly in comparison to the dip of the outcrop surface,” he wrote me. “The result is a swirly look, that looks deceptively like stromatolite mounds.”
Jirsa was in the field when I contacted him, and his Internet capability was limited, so when he tried to send me some photos of what the stromatolites actually looked like, they didn’t come through. However, his colleague, geologist Jim Miller (who also supplied welcomed assistance with this post) sent me a stromatolite photo he had taken at MRT.
Personally, I can’t tell the difference, but then I’m no geologist. so I have to bow to the professionals.
My second quest – to locate and photograph ejecta from the Sudbury Impact – wasn’t successful either. The aforementioned Mark Jirsa discovered this record of a 1.85 billion-year-old meteor impact in 2007. I wrote a previous post about it that same year so I won’t go into those details (you can read it here) but I will bring you up to speed on how he’s since interpreted the find.
Briefly, the Sudbury Impact Crater is located in Ontario, Canada, and was made by a meteorite about 10-miles in diameter that slammed into the Earth 1.85 million years ago. The 150-mile wide crater is the second largest known on the planet. The collision sent a tremendous firestorm of superheated material into the atmosphere, and some of it coalesced like hailstones and landed 480 miles away in northeastern Minnesota. This is what Jirsa discovered two years ago: a layer of ejecta mixed with torn up pieces (breccia ) of the Gunflint Formation, and all of it overlain by a younger layer of slate known as the Rove Formation. He published an article about it in Astronomy magazine, and there’s also a PDF file downloadable from Minnesota Geological Survey website (the link is located in the upper left of the MGS homepage).
What Jirsa found was quite remarkable: a layer of churned-up rocks laid down above the Gunflint Iron Formation. The odd jumble of rock included berry-shaped rocks known as accretionary lapilli, intermixed with the Gunflint Iron Formation rock. According to his interpretation, what is seen in the layer essentially shows the events of a single day in the geological record. And a nasty day it must have been.
Three minutes after the initial fireball impact at Sudbury, seismic waves from earthquakes measuring more than magnitude-10 on the Richter Scale reached the Animikie basin, ripping loose the iron formation off the seafloor crust, and redistributed it along a submarine slope. Within 10 minutes, a firestorm of molten material hailed down from the sky covering the region with from 3 to 10 feet of ejecta in the form of accretionary lapilli. Ultra-hurricane-force winds measuring up to 1400 mph(!) blasted over the shallow sea soon after, followed by the coup de grace – titanic tsunamis the likes of which have never been seen since which tossed everything into a stew of breccia (jumbled rock) and berry-shaped ejecta.
This day of horror took place sometime in the 48 million year interim that separates the Gunflint Iron Formation and the time the sediments of the Rove Formation were laid down above it. The entire concoction was later baked and metamorphosed by the intrusive magmas of the Duluth Complex.
How hard could it be to find evidence of a mess like this? Well, considering the MRT covers a large area, and since I had no information pinpointing any locations, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack – a very large haystack. In the end, I soon gave up because I really didn’t know what I was looking for and I realized how futile it probably would be. However, I’ve sure learned a whole lot about it now.
Courtesy Mark RyanInitially, I thought at least my third quest – finding magnetic rock – would be a complete success because just about every rock exposed along the MRT is highly magnetic (I had a magnet with me and I can attest to that fact – see photo). It made sense that the whole reason the trail is called the Magnetic Rock Trail is because of all the magnetic rocks found there. But I’ve since learned I was once again totally wrong. The trail is name after a single large magnetic rock that’s about 1.5 miles up the trail. This 30-foot monolith stands upright and obvious in the middle of the forest and its notoriety dates back to early native American times. It is a chunk of the Gunflint Iron Formation – and highly magnetic like the rest of the rock in the area – but is deemed an erratic moved into place from a short distance away by glaciers during the last Ice Age. Had I read any of the brochures I had collected on our trip sometime other than when I got home, I would have known this before I even got there. But as it was, we didn’t walk that far into the trail so we missed it completely. Oh, well.
Courtesy Mark RyanBut even though my three main objectives for visiting the MRT were pretty much complete washouts, there was one unexpected surprise that will probably draw us back to the region next year: blueberries.
Courtesy Mark RyanWild blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) were all over the place. The low-bush berries thrive in sandy, acid soils of forest clearings, and in rocky areas around pines forests – just the type of environments you find around the MRT. So, once I finished with my failed geological studies, I assisted my wife in picking as many wild blueberries as we needed. We kept them in our cooler for the ride home, and as Mrs. R is prone to do, she jumbled all the berries together into a viscous concoction, all within a flakey crust that was heated over time at a very high-temperature.
The result looked something like the Sudbury Impact ejecta layer found near the Magnetic Rock Trail, but it was much more delicious, and a great way to end the summer.
Courtesy Mark RyanA group of international scientists are planning to barcode the DNA of all of Earth's plant-life so a library can be established that will make it easier for botanists to identify plants. A standard barcode cataloging of a plant's genetic make-up would make it easier to identify it from fragments or from premature forms such as seeds or spores. It could also aide in halting the illegal trade of both indigenous and invasive species. Dr Peter Hollingsworth, head of genetics and conservation at the Royal Botanic Garden, in Scotland and the lead author of the study, says identification is important.
"It is the link between a given plant and the accumulated information available for that species," he said. "It is not possible to know whether a plant is common or rare, poisonous or edible, being traded legally or illegally, unless it can be identified."
I readily acknowledge the fact that I haven’t lived my life quite up to Otzi standards—I don’t have any tattoos (that I know of), I’ve never killed anybody (that I know of), I don’t own a cape…the list goes on—but I hope that when hikers find my frozen corpse, thousands of years in the future, they’ll be as thrilled with it as they are with Otzi. Honestly, every millimeter of our leathery friend is getting the once over and the double take.
Scientists figured out what Otzi’s last meal was years ago (they practically dove into his stomach), but they’re still going over the most minute of minutia of the iceman’s guts. And, you know what? I’m into it.
Archaeobotanists and moss-experts are the last to have taken a swing at Otzi. They have found trace remains of six different kinds of moss in Otzi’s intestines, and were able to identify them under a microscope. None of those moss varieties, interestingly, are the kinds of moss that you’d eat (if there are any kinds of moss you’d eat). They do, nonetheless, add to the details of Otzi’s life.
One of the kinds of moss, the scientists guess, was used to wrap one of Otzi’s last meals (sort of a fuzzy saran wrap, I guess), another probably got into his water, and another was most likely used as a dressing for a wound (he probably chewed it up and swallowed a little). At least one of the mosses, however it got into him, isn’t known to grow in the region where Otzi was found, adding another location to Otzi’s travel diary. So cross that off your bucket list, little dude.
None of this information is insulating my attic, or buying me dinner, but I still think it’s pretty cool. The same sort of forensic techniques we might use to solve a murder today are being used to learn about the life of a guy who died 53 centuries ago. I like it.