Stories tagged biodiversity

Krill: a link in the food chain.
Krill: a link in the food chain.Courtesy Wikipedia (Photo by Øystein Paulsen)
The above title is a bit clumsy but it conveys what some scientists claim is going on around the south polar region due to climate change and warming temperatures. Changes in wind patterns across Antarctica are not only affecting the composition and levels of phytoplankton in areas there but rising temperatures are also causing sharp changes in the Chinstrap and Adelie penguin populations that feed on the krill that feed on the phytoplankton. The ecosystem appears to be going out of whack. Read more...

LA Times article
Science article


The entrance to my bedroom: Inside you'll find an Xbox,  dirty dishes, and something like a bed.
The entrance to my bedroom: Inside you'll find an Xbox, dirty dishes, and something like a bed.Courtesy Rita Willaert
Unlike my bedroom, however, the Russians are frantically trying to get to the Lost World. Unless…

Oh, God! Do you think the Russians might be drilling into my bedroom? They probably want my natural resources! The thought of the Reds, bursting through my coal chute, snatching up my… clean socks, or something. Brr. It hardly bears thinking about.

But, yes, I live in a basement. “Tiempos Finales” I call it, and it bears some striking similarities to the “lost world” I read an article about recently.

There are a few key differences. The main difference, I suppose, is that the lost world the article describes is buried beneath about two miles of ice in Antarctica. Tiempos Finales is buried under 2 layers of wood flooring (and some linoleum in the bathroom) in St. Paul. Also, while a healthy person can survive almost indefinitely in the basement (assuming they have the proper protective equipment), you would suffocate, or freeze to death, or both, in Antarctica’s lost world, because it consists of sub-glacial lakes.

And while Tiempos Finales is teeming with mysterious creatures (largely arthropods—there’s rarely more than one chordate present at a time), Antarctica’s lost world only may be teaming with mysterious creatures.

But if there is anything down there, under the ice… it would be a very mysterious creature indeed. And that’s why the Russians are drilling away.

Russians and Brits are both drilling, in fact, but not together. A team of British scientists intends to drop probes into Lake Ellsworth, which they believe to be about 300 feet deep with a bottom covered in thick sediment. The Russians are drilling into the much larger Lake Vostok. Both lakes (and about 150 others) were discovered relatively recently thanks to ice-penetrating radar.

Many scientists think that it’s likely that the Antarctic lakes could hide living organisms (probably microorganisms). If that is the case, those organisms will have been isolated from the rest of the world for somewhere between 400,000 and 2 million years—ever since the ice sheet above the lake was formed. That’s a long time to spend by yourself, evolving in the cold and dark…

Cool. If any organisms are found, they’d likely be pretty different than anything else on the planet (remember my post a few weeks about aliens living among us? I knew you would. This is like that—isolated, extreme environments, etc). Also, the presence of life beneath the Antarctic ice would raise the odds that life could exist elsewhere in our solar system. Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter is the main analogy here. Europa is a frosty little moon (it’s a little bit smaller than our moon). Its surface is entirely covered with ice, but many scientists believe that a liquid water ocean could exist beneath the icy crust. The water could be kept liquid by heat generated by tidal and tectonic activity.

Organisms in the Antarctic lakes would be living under very similar conditions. With no light reaching that far into the ice, they would have to survive by consuming nutrients accumulated in the sediment millennia ago. Life on Europa might be nourished by heat and nutrients from mineral-rich hot water vents on the sea floor.

The British scientists don’t expect to break through the glacier until the Antarctic summer of 2012-2013, and when they finally do they’ll have just 36 hours to drop their probes through the 14-inch hole before it seals up again. They plan to get two probes into Lake Ellsworth. The first probe will capture video, and sample the water for living organisms, or for chemical evidence of them, and it will grab some sediment from the surface of the lakebed. The second probe will be sunk deeper into the lakebed, and will hopefully bring back several feet of sediment.

The Russians don’t plan on putting any probes into Lake Vostok—they just intend to tap into the lake to sample the water. The Russian project is somewhat controversial because their equipment is lubricated with kerosene, and is non-sterile (the British use a sterile, hot water-based drilling technique). There’s a good chance that the Russian equipment could contaminate the otherwise completely pristine lake, which, you know, slightly defeats the purpose. The Russians have had trouble with their equipment, however, and when they will break through the ice is much less certain.

So what do y’all think? Are they going to find anything? If Ellsworth and Vostok are anything like Tiempos Finales, whatever they find will be pretty depressing. Still, this is pretty cool stuff.

That wasn’t a pun.


Measuring to detect changing climate

Jack-in-the-pulpit: photo taken May 3, 2004
Jack-in-the-pulpit: photo taken May 3, 2004Courtesy ARTiFactor
One way to measure climate change would be to keep records of when different species of plants first come up or when they first flower. I often do this with my camera which automatically records the time and date.

The National Phenology Network

The National Phenology Network is recruiting people across the U.S. to record when trees bud, flowers bloom and migrating animals return. I heard the project's executive director, Jake Weltzin, explain how tracking these trends can help scientists better understand climate change on National Public Radio Friday (click link to listen to the broadcast).

Become a phenology observer

Click this link to learn how to monitor plant phenology and sign up to contribute new observations to the USA-NPN national phenology database.

The USA National Phenology Network brings together citizen scientists, government agencies, non-profit groups, educators and students of all ages to monitor the impacts of climate change on plants and animals in the United States.

Select a plant

I especially liked the "select a plant" data base. In addition to telling you how and what to measure, it also tells why a particular plant is important. Click here to see information about my jack in the pulpit.

As the owner of more than a few tie-dyed shirts, I have found my new favorite fish with the recent discovery of the psychedelic fish – the VW van of the aquatic world. Here's National Geographic video of this groovy fish find.

Hey! Why did I now know about this until now? Whose idea was this? And... can I have this when it dies? I could stuff it and hang it above my bathtub.


Don't like the face?: Wait until you see the rectal pouch.
Don't like the face?: Wait until you see the rectal pouch.Courtesy Brauer, A.
Welcome to another edition of “Add it to the list!” Buzzketeers. Or… is this the first edition? It feels like “Add it to the list!” has been a regular feature on Buzz for a couple years now, but, then again, I’ve been suffering from frequent and vivid waking dreams lately. So I might not be the best judge of what “actually exists” (to quote my therapists) right now.


As you possibly know, here on “Add it to the list!” we feature an animal, theory, vegetable, etc. that disgusts me or blows my mind. Such objects and constructs must be added to the list. That way I can keep mental tabs on them. And when the revolution comes, I’ll be able to sort all listed items into the “first against the wall” and “promotions all around” categories with confidence.

Previous items on the list (which may or may not have been featured on Buzz, and may or may not be featured in the future) include electric eels (tagged “Not actually an eel”), hagfish (tagged “Keep your lips off that thing!”), Schrödinger’s Cat (tagged “Please don’t say ‘quantum’ when I’m in the room”), and anglerfish (tagged “nobody wins the battle of the sexes”).

You get the idea, I’m sure.

So what do we learn today? Well, The Telegraph has alerted me to the existence of the barreleye fish. It seems that this singular creature has tubular shaped eyes to gather all available light in its native deep-sea habitat. Do you know what other light-gathering adaptation it has? A freaking see-through head!

OMG! These deep-sea fish! Somebody add that thing to the list!

Check it out:

It was thought that barreleye fish could only stare straight up, so that they might catch the silhouettes of prey swimming above them. Researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, however, have recently observed the fish looking forward. Seeing a fish looking forward is hardly big news, I suppose, but… it’s sort of looking through it’s own head, you know? Yuckers.

Also, some species of barreleye have bioluminescent internal organs (their guts glow). And one species has a glowing rectal pouch.

I’m not sure if this fish is first against the wall, or deserving of a promotion, but, either way it must be recognized and dealt with. So, for glob’s sake, add it to the list!

Endangered species map
Endangered species mapCourtesy National Geographic
National Geographic has a nice map feature highlighting some lesser known endangered or threatened species in North America. The nocturnal American Burying Beetle is a quite attractive creature.


Cargo ships carry invasive species in ballst water
Cargo ships carry invasive species in ballst waterCourtesy AviatorDave
A recently released report warns that the Great Lakes have been invaded by foreign aquatic species resulting in ecological and environmental damage amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Monitor, detect, and take required action

The findings support the need for detection and monitoring efforts at those ports believed to be at greatest risk. The report identified 30 nonnative species that pose a medium or high risk of reaching the lakes and 28 others that already have a foothold and could disperse widely.

The National Center for Environmental Assessment issued the warning in a study released (Jan 5, 09). It identified 30 nonnative species that pose a medium or high risk of reaching the lakes and 28 others that already have a foothold and could disperse widely. (click here to access report)

Flush out ship's ballast tanks with salt water

One preventive measure that works 99% of the time is to flush out the ballast tanks with salty sea water. This usually kills any foreign marine life hitch hiking a ride in the ballast tank water. Both Canada and the United States have made this a requirement for almost two decades now. Both nations also recently have ordered them to rinse empty tanks with seawater in hopes of killing organisms lurking in residual pools on the bottom.

Learn more about invasive species in the Great Lakes


Many bird populations across North America have declined in recent years and researchers have been busy trying to determine why populations of birds are declining.
Dusky flycatcher nest: These dusky flycatcher eggs might be safe when it comes to researchers, but something is still amiss here: those speckled eggs are brown-headed cowbirds, not dusky flycatchers. When they hatch, they'll outcompete the flycatcher chicks for food.
Dusky flycatcher nest: These dusky flycatcher eggs might be safe when it comes to researchers, but something is still amiss here: those speckled eggs are brown-headed cowbirds, not dusky flycatchers. When they hatch, they'll outcompete the flycatcher chicks for food.Courtesy West Coast Birding

My research focuses on factors that could affect survival of birds during the breeding season. The breeding season is an important time for birds because this is the time when individuals have an opportunity to raise young and the ability to successfully raise young can have a big effect on the bird population. However, producing young can be quite difficult for birds. In fact, the number one factor that affects the ability of birds to raise young is nest predation. Nest predation occurs when a predator, such as a chipmunk or squirrel eats the eggs or young in a bird’s nest. But do all birds have an equal chance of survival during the breeding season? Research suggests that the chance of survival for a bird’s nest is not equal and chances for survival change during the breeding season. Why might survival change during the breeding season? I have some ideas or hypotheses that might explain why survival changes during the breeding season. I am investigating whether plant cover, food resources for predators, temperature, or number of predators affects the ability of songbirds to raise their young.
When birds build their nests, they often hide them in plants to reduce the chance that a predator will find their nest. But many birds begin building their nests early in the spring and in early spring we often notice that plants and flowers in the forest are just starting to grow. So birds building their nests during this time have fewer plants to hide their nests in which could make their nests more visible to predators, such as chipmunks and squirrels. Because plant cover may be a key factor preventing predators from eating the eggs or young in a bird’s nest, I experimented with plant cover to test the importance of plant cover. I removed plant cover around Wilson’s Warbler nests and compared the fate (i.e., were the parents able to raise their young) of these nests to nests that did not have plant cover removed. I also measured plant cover at nests of Wilson's Warblers and Dusky Flycatchers and compared the amount of plant cover to the fate of each nest.
In addition to seasonal changes that we see in plants, the amount of food available in the forest for critters to eat also changes as we move from spring to summer to fall. Early in the summer, there may be less food available for the predators because pine cones and seeds from other plants are not yet available. If predators such as chipmunks, mice, or jays have less to eat they spend more time looking for food to eat in the forest. The increase in time spent searching for food could also increase the chance that one of these predators will find a bird nest and eat the eggs or young in the nest. Because the amount of food available might affect survival of a bird’s nest I conducted another experiment to find out if this was the case. I provided food (sunflower seeds and corn) to predators to see if providing extra food to predators will increase the ability of birds to raise their young.
Determining how both vegetation and food affect survival of bird’s nests during the breeding season is challenging but fun because I am able to experiment with nature and find out what happens. As a scientist I am like a detective trying to figure out why bird populations are declining. Finding the answer is challenging and exciting, but hopefully we will find an answer that will prevent further losses of our bird populations.


A bear of constant sorrow: The expression on his face speaks volumes.
A bear of constant sorrow: The expression on his face speaks volumes.Courtesy Sketchzilla
Buzzketeer General Liza put me on to this story last week, and I’m glad she did. Folks should know the plight of the polar bear.

So, you know those images of polar bears standing on the edge of ice sheets, looking sad because the ice is shrinking, and they need that ice to, you know, stay alive? You know what I’m talking about.

Well… it turns out that shrinking ice may be the least of their worries.

How do I put this? There’s trouble down south in the far north? A great big bear has a… Oh, forget it. Polar bears’ genitals are shrinking.

Oh, this is bleak. Two genital-based posts in a row? I don’t like it any more than you do, and I know you don’t like it. But we’re being beaten down and overwhelmed by genitals in the news, and we can’t ignore the news.

So, yes, after millennia of fearlessly swimming in an ocean of ice water, the mighty polar bear is finally suffering from shrinkage. But this isn’t one of the many problems that global warming can solve—this little situation is being caused by pollution, not cold water.

Y’all know about bioaccumulation and biomagnification? Toxic compounds can be found at very low concentrations in the environment, but still end up at dangerously high levels in certain plants and animals. This is caused by organisms taking in toxins faster than they can get rid of them, and by animals eating lots of other animals or plants that already have toxins in them. That’s what’s happening in the arctic. Tiny organisms are absorbing certain organic pollutants from the environment, and those organisms are getting eaten by tiny fish, and those tiny fish are getting eaten by bigger fish, and so on until big fish, with lots of the pollutants stored up in their bodies get eaten by an animal that doesn’t often get eaten by anything else, animals like killer whales, arctic foxes, or polar bears.

Biologists studied preserved polar bear genitals (penises, testicles, and ovaries) collected between 1999 and 2002, and found that individual bears with higher concentrations of these organic pollutants (called “organohalogens”) consistently had smaller bits and pieces. The organohalogens act like hormones in the bears, and we all know the amazing things hormones can do.

Now we must ask ourselves that age old question: “What does this mean for the bears?” Well, it seems that bears can’t rely on personality alone for successful mating. Polar bears don’t reproduce that often in the first place, and shrinking reproductive organs (in both boy-bears and lady-bears) is only going to make things trickier. And then there’s that whole ice-shrinking thing, which has probably taken a back seat in the minds of young bears everywhere.

In related news, a couple of polar bears at a Japanese zoo were having trouble conceiving until their handlers finally realized that they were both female. (I imagine that they would still have trouble conceiving, but I think the pressure is off now.) Apparently telling male and female bears apart is difficult as it is.