Courtesy Craig Dietrich - FlickrA huge solar energy farm in the Mojave Desert seems to be having one serious side effect: passing birds in flight are bursting into flames.
What's going on is that 300,000 mirrors on the ground are directing sunlight to huge towers that convert that energy into electricity. Bugs are attracted to the bright light from the mirrors drawing hungry birds to get into the path of the reflected light. And that concentrated light energy is causing the birds to catch fire, sometimes at a rate of one every two minutes. The flaming birds have been noticed since the plant powered up in February and its estimated that the total bird kill this year could top out at 28,000. Researchers estimated that one bird they found dead had been roasted by light beams that were nearly 1,000 degrees F.
Plans for building a second plant are on hold while investigators study the situation at the current site. What do you think? Is the potential of killing many birds a worthwhile cost for increased clean, "green" electricity?
Courtesy M. McCormickFor more than 20 years, zebra mussels have gone unchecked in midwest waters. Introduced to North America as stow-away passengers on the bottoms of Great Lakes shipping vessels that came from Europe, the invasive species have exploded to fresh waters in 34 states at an alarming rate.
But their days may be numbered. A New York-based researcher has discovered a bacterium that can kill zebra mussels (and also the related invasive species quagga mussels) without disrupting the rest of the food web.
After rounds of lab testing, the Environmental Protection Agency has okayed the commercial production of Pseudomonas fluorescens strain CL145A, which can then be applied to waters and kill the menacing mussels. In lab tests, the bacterium killed over 90 percent of the the invasive mussels in came in contact with.
Along with pushing out other species in the waters, the invasive mussels have also become a nuisance by clogging up intake pipes at water plants and attaching themselves to docks, piers and other submerged water equipment. Plans are still being developed on how to apply this new bacterium to the waters. All wise zebra mussels might want to start packing their bages and heading back to Europe before they find out what this new bacterium has in store for them!
Courtesy apc33According to a new study presented at the recent Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamicsin Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, many species of mushrooms create their own breezes to help disperse their spores. Most times, mushrooms rely on wind to spread their offspring around the environment. But using indirect measurements, along with high-speed video and scaling analysis of fluid mechanics, researchers from Trinity College and UCLA have shown that before releasing their spores, some fungi create their own air movement through the release of water vapor that produces a convective dynamic to cool the air and get it moving. As slight as the breeze may seem, it's enough to move the spores to an adequate distance away from the mushroom parent.
Scientific American story
Construction on a new sewage treatment plant nearby has stopped as researchers are trying to figure out why the Fajardo Grand Lagoon at the Nature Reserve of Las Cabezas de San Juan in Puerto Rico has suddenly lost its glow. The lake, informally referred to as a lagoon, has long been a popular tourist stop at night. Kayakers have been able to cruise the waters and see the glow of bioluminescent microorganisms in the water. The creatures give off a glow when disturbed by a passing paddle or waving hand.
While some worry run off from the treatment plant under construction might be the cause of the darkness, others point to recent rains and high winds creating waves on the lake. In the short term, researchers are hoping to minimize as many factors as possible to be able to zero in on the cause.
A local group also collects water samples from the lake three times a week to record data including temperature, salinity and precipitation. That data will also be analyzed in this current study.
The lake also went nearly dark for a short time in 2003, but had since rebounded to it's original levels of glow.
So what do you think is happening in the lake to make it go dark? Share your ideas with other Science Buzz readers in the comments section.
Courtesy VictorgrigasStart talking about giant cloning projects, and the conversation is going to quickly turn to Jurassic Park, the film that "what iffed" the cloning of dinosaurs. It was all for fun, if beyond hypothetical.
But giants of another kind, trees, are being cloned in an effort to help turn the balance of deteriorating conditions here on Earth. California's iconic, and incredibly tall, redwood trees are getting the cloning treatment. You can read the full details about the project here. And today, Earth Day 2013, the project is going global as clones of these redwoods are being planted in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, Germany and the U.S.
Why clone just behemoth trees? The guys running the project surmise where better to find the strongest, hardiest genetic codes to withstand the coming climate pressures than in these huge redwoods, many which have lived for over 4,000 years.
The current crop of plantings come from the DNA of giant trees cut down about a century ago. Even though the bulk of the trees are just stumps today, those stumps are very much alive. They have live shoots emerging from the stumps, which the researchers can extract DNA from to serve as the basis for their cloning work.
The new plantings have a long way to go. They're only about 18 inches tall right now. The big challenge, the researchers say, is to find people and resources to nurture this little trees into viable, independent growers.
Redwoods are considered best suited to absorb massive volumes of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas primarily responsible for climate change.
What do you think? Is this a good application for cloning? Can these huge trees make a difference with climate change over the long haul? Should we be tinkering around with this kind of science?
Courtesy Mark RyanA cat in Florida got loose on one side of the state and managed to find its way back home to the other side, baffling both the delighted owners and scientists. Holly, the directionally-savvy 4-year-old tortoiseshell cat traveled from Daytona Beach to within a mile of her owners’ home in West Palm Beach. It took her about 50 days to traverse the 200 mile distance. When found, the poor kitty was weak and emaciated, had a croaky meow, and displayed signs of hoofing it over long distances.
“Her pads on her feet were bleeding,” said Bonnie Richter, who along with her husband, Jacob, are the happy owners (read: service staff) of the migratory feline. “Her claws are worn weird. The front ones are really sharp, the back ones worn down to nothing.
Skeptics might conjecture that the found cat is merely a stray that just looks like the long-lost Holly, and that the distraught owners only think it’s their cat because they miss her so and want to believe it’s her. Well, they couldn’t be more wrong. The scruffy cat in question had an implanted microchip that proves it is indeed Holly.
The Richters’ tale is but one of many incredible stories about lost or separated pets finding their way back home across vast distances. And surprisingly, science doesn’t seem to have any answers as how the animals do it.
“I really believe these stories, but they’re just hard to explain,” said Marc Bekoff, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Colorado. “Maybe being street-smart, maybe reading animal cues, maybe being able to read cars, maybe being a good hunter. I have no data for this.”
New York Times story
Courtesy Wikimedia CommonsIf you're a bird, the human-built world has some mysterious hazards. You're flitting about, minding your own business, maybe munching seeds at the birdfeeder in someone's yard. Life is pretty good. But then you take off from your perch, zip through the air, and suddenly BAM! crash into an invisible force field whose impact leaves you stunned at best and, at worst, sends you to the giant suet ball in the sky.
The transparency of windows and the tendency of their shiny surfaces to mirror the trees and outdoor spaces that they overlook makes them deadly--birds mistake them for open passages, flying straight into them and conking their little melons on the glass. A recent study in Canada suggests that collisions with house windows alone kills some 22 million Canadian birds each year.
But, there's hope for all these noggin-smashing avians. A German company has developed an ultraviolet-reflecting coating modeled on the reflective properties of the orb-weaver spider's web. The UV-reflecting properties of the spiders' webs--and the treated windows--allow birds to see and avoid them even as they remain invisible to us, since birds can see parts of the spectrum, including ultraviolet, that humans cannot.
Bird-visible window treatments are just one instance of biomimicry, the imitation of natural materials and systems for technological applications. It seems that the humble orb-weavers have already been using a bird-deterring system that we humans are just now figuring out. Let's hope that technologies like UV-reflective coatings can help save birds' lives. If they do, we can thank an engineer, but let's not forget to also thank a spider.
About a month ago, a frack-sand mining operation near Grantsburg, WI, spilled some fine-grained sediment from a settling pond into a tributary of the St. Croix River. Local news media covered the story, and more details, for example, can be found in the Pioneer Press story by Dennis Lien.
So what’s the big deal?
Well, there are standards regarding water turbidity, which means that as a society we’ve decided that we don’t like cloudy water, at least in some settings and at some levels. For a naturally clear-water system like the St. Croix, increasing turbidity would alter the food chain at all levels. Algal primary producers rely on sunlight blocked by turbidity. Sight-based predation at the top of the food change would be altered. Benthic (bottom-dwelling) organisms that depend on coarse substrates could be smothered by siltation. Especially in the St. Croix, one of the last refugia for freshwater endangered mussel species, we must be on guard against too much fine sediment. And finally, where does the sediment end up? It’s filling up not only man-made reservoirs but also treasured natural lakes, iconically Lake St. Croix and Lake Pepin. These lakes are filling in with fine-grained sediment at about 3X and 10X their natural rates, respectively. (How do we know? See work done by the Museum’s St. Croix Watershed Research Station.)
Hey, it’s only a little bit...
Or was it? How much is a little? A little here, a little there, and a little more from over there -- it starts to add up. All water in a watershed runs downhill to the river, efficiently carrying both particles and dissolved materials. The river ultimately sees it all: all the disturbances, however seemingly minor, throughout the watershed. Rivers die a death of a thousand cuts. We have enough difficulty trying to control nonpoint sources of sediment and other pollutants. Stopping discharge of fine-grained materials from a mining operation is eminently fixable. It’s the right thing to do. Fortunately, all parties seem in agreement on this, including the mining company, which has repaired its leaky dike.
Courtesy Public domainImagine you’ve been transported back in time to the Late Jurassic and you’re sitting on a gently sloping hillside watching a large herd of the gigantic sauropod dinosaurs chowing down on tons of vegetation in the valley below. What’s the one thing you might need to worry about? The herd of sauropods suddenly stampeding the hillside? A truck-sized carnivore eyeing you from the shadows? Tiny burrowing mammals gnawing at your ankles? While all these scenarios would have been possible, the most likely worry would probably be (if you’re downwind anyway) getting inundated by a warm blast of dinosaur farts.
That’s right, dinosaur flatulence - tons of it - wafting over you like a huge, stinky old blanket. Ewww.
Researchers from Liverpool John Moore's University, the University of London, and the University of Glasgow have calculated that herds of sauropods, those tiny-headed ,long-necked, long-tailed herbivorous dinosaurs that populated the Jurassic landscape about 150 million years ago, would have been eating a lot of vegetation during their lifetimes and in the process releasing a tremendous amount of methane gas from their guts and into the Earth’s atmosphere. That's a lot of cheese-cutting.
In fact, writing in the journal Current Biology, Dr. David Wilkinson and his colleagues claimed that the amount of emission of methane just from the herbivorous dinosaur gassers would have been about the same amount being emitted from all sources today - 500-520 million tons each year. Methane is a greenhouse gas that can absorb the sun’s infrared energy, and heat up the atmosphere. The producers of methane today range from ruminant species such as cows, goats, and sheep, and from human activities such as natural gas drilling, but the effects on the environment could be similar – a warming of the atmosphere. Back in the Mesozoic, average temperatures were about 18 °F higher than today. Wilkinson and his colleagues suggest the dinosaur backfires could have been a big factor in the warming of the prehistoric environment, but admit it wouldn't have been the only source of the gas back then.
"There were other sources of methane in the Mesozoic so total methane level would probably have been much higher than now," Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson’s research interest lays not so much in the sauropods themselves but in the microscopic bacteria that once lined their guts. It was these microbes that converted the vegetable matter into energy and waste, including methane. Could that vast SBD Mesozoic methane source, as the researchers suggest, have been a big contributor to the warmer temperatures back then? Possibly. Or maybe it's just a lot of hot air.
BBC Nature News
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.