Thursday, November 24, 2016

New maps ... not related to the election

It's been a great month for new maps. Not all of them were published this month, but several started getting some of the attention they deserve.


Authagraph map of the globe
First off, there was Authagraph, Japanese architect Hajime Narukawa's award-winning method of mapping the globe to a flat rectangle that preserves the true relative sizes and shapes of the continents. It's a remarkable achievement. The article "It’s Not a New Earth, Just a New Perspective: AuthaGraph World Map’s Accurate View" by Tamar Melike Teg√ľn in Interesting Engineering does a nice job of reminding us of some of the other attempts to lay out a spherical globe on a flat surface and of sketching the steps involved in creating this new map. Remember Antarctica appearing enormous along the bottom of many map projections? Remember Greenland looking enormous and Africa more-or-less South America's size? Look again.

Maps of Animal Movement

Spiraling path of vultures riding thermals
The National Geographic highlighted some amazing maps of animal movement in the article "These Beautiful Maps Reveal the Secret Lives of Animals" by Greg Miller. All present data gathered from tracking sensors. Some of these maps (like the one at right showing the spiral path of a griffon vulture as it riding updrafts high into the air in its search for food) show us just minutes of movement. Others show months of data on migratory or just plain long-term wandering patterns for baboons, Australian crocodiles, grey-headed albatrosses, jaguars, and more. Nature films do a wonderful job of showing the daily lives of animals and hinting at their daily, seasonal, or yearly movements. These maps foreground those movements in beautifully diverse ways.

Best New Maps, According to Cartographers

The article, "Best New Maps, According to Cartographers" by Betsy Mason in National Geographic gives a taste of some of the 32 extraordinary maps in volume 3 of Atlas of Design, published by the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS). Some show new ways to use satellite imagery to create better maps of what we've seen before (like "Denali and the Alaskan Range"), while others map what we've been told about but never seen, like this map to the left. It shows where in the Mediterranean each person who died or disappeared trying to reach Europe from Africa or the Middle East. Mason also shows us a retro map of natural resources in the US, a wonderful, data-rich map of elk migrations and more in Yellowstone National Park, and a map of mythic monsters claimed by each state in the US.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Helen MacDonald

"On Nature" column in the New York Times Magazine

Helen MacDonald, author of H is for Hawk, is now writing a monthly column in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Wonderful writing. All worth reading. The most recent, on "hides" and hiding and more and less, will lead you to the others, if you like this one. (Or see the columns linked below.)

Hiding From Animals

The Island Mere Hide at the Minsmere nature
preserve on the Suffolk coast of England.  
Credit Giles Price for The New York Times
What you see from hides is supposed to be true reality: animals behaving perfectly naturally because they do not know they are being observed. But turning yourself into a pair of eyes in a darkened box distances you from the all-encompassing landscape around the hide, reinforcing a divide between human and natural worlds, encouraging us to think that animals and plants should be looked at, not interacted with. Sometimes the window in front of me resembles nothing so much as a television screen.

To witness wild animals behaving naturally, you don’t need to be invisible. As scientists studying meerkats and chimps have shown, with time you can habituate them to your presence. But hiding is a habit that is hard to break. There is a dubious satisfaction in the subterfuge of watching things that cannot see you, and it’s deeply embedded in our culture. More ...

Other Recent "On Nature" Columns (copied from NYT)

  1. Identification, Please

    Learning how to use a field guide can make you feel at home anywhere in the world.
  2. Flight Paths

    Tracking animals as they migrate across the globe is addictive: It’s hard not to see ourselves in their journeys.
  3. The Living Beauty of Wicken Fen

    In one of Britain’s oldest nature reserves, Darwin collected beetles and Saxon warlords hid from invaders. But walking there now is much more than a visit to the past.
  4. A Falcon in the City

    Watching a wild falcon hunt pigeons in an industrial ruin ushers you into a silent world.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Termite & Termite Mound Stories

Termites & Termite Mounds & Symbiogenesis

Two of my favorite science writers wrote stories on termites and termite mounds more or less recently. These amazing symbioses across living kingdoms highlight the complex webs that are life. Follow the "More ..." links to read the full stories.

Ed Yong, "The Guts that Scrape the Sky" 

(National Geographic Phenomena, 9/23/14)

Left: Termite mound in Senegal, by H. Grobe. Right: Macrotermes soldier by Discott.
Take a walk through the African savannah and you might stumble across huge mounds, made from baked earth. They tower up to 9 metres tall, and are decorated with spires, chimneys and buttresses. These structures are homes, nurseries, and farms, all in one. They are also guts. They’re part of one of the most fascinating digestive systems on the planet—a distributed organ that begins inside the bodies of tiny insects and expands into towers that scrape the skies.  More ...

A couple more of Ed's stories on termites and their tiny familiars:

Natalie Angier, "Termites: Guardians of the Soil"


A termite mound in Kenya. Such mounds can reach 30 feet high and 80 feet across. 
Credit G. Sosio/De Agostini, via Getty Images
The giant termite mounds that rise up from the sands of the African savanna are so distinctive it’s tempting to give them names, like “Art Deco Skyline” or “Trumpeting Elephant” or “Flagrantly Obvious Fertility Totem."
Whatever the metaphor, the charismatic megaforms dominate their landscape, and not just visually. As scientists are just beginning to appreciate, termites and the often elaborate habitats they construct are crucial to the health and robustness of a broad array of ecosystems: deserts and semideserts; tropical and subtropical rain forests; warm, temperate woodlands; possibly your local park.  More ...

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Jennifer Frazer's "The Artful Amoeba"

The Artful Amoeba

Jennifer Frazer is a wonderful writer, and one of the few mycologist science writers. She has a good eye for the eco-eco-devo worlds of complex symbioses, holobionts, and microbiomes.

Here are teasers for three of her recent posts. (Click on the "Read more ..." links to see her whole posts.) Her blog at Scientific American, called The Artful Amoeba has become a favorite of mine and is well worth following.

Dying Trees Can Send Food to Neighbors of Different Species via ‘Wood-Wide Web’

By Jennifer Frazer | May 9, 2015

Douglas-fir by Gary Halvorson, Wikimedia.
No tree is an island, and no place is this truer than the forest. Hidden beneath the soil of the forest understory is a labyrinth of fungal connections between tree roots that scientists call the mycorrhizal network. Others have called it the wood-wide web.  

The connections are made by the filaments of fungi that grow in and around plant roots and produce many of the forest mushrooms we know and love. They bond trees so intimately that the more you learn about them, the more it is a struggle to view any tree as an individual. Forest trees and their root fungi are more or less a commune in which they share resources in a fashion so unabashedly socialist that I hesitate to describe it in detail lest conservatives reading this go out and immediately set light to the nearest copse.   Read more ...

Root Fungi Can Turn Pine Trees Into Carnivores — or at Least Accomplices

By Jennifer Frazer | May 12, 2015

A fungal perp walk.
Springtails are little leaping insects far too small to catch the notice of the naked human eye. But with a little magnification, some of them turn out to be adorable beyond belief.
So it is with some dismay that I must relate a little story I came across when researching my last post. Because these little guys are the victims.

And here are their vicious killers. This is Laccaria bicolor, a common and edible forest mushroom. The mushrooms you see above are only one tiny and ephemeral reproductive portion of a fungal body that surrounds tree roots and sends out filaments into the soil in search of water, minerals — and apparently, springtails. It’s also an ectomycorrhizal fungus that grows in association with the roots of many trees, making that old familar barter of nutrients and water from the soil for food from the tree.  Read more ...

Swapping Symbionts Enabled Mediterranean Lichen to Conquer the Arctic 

By Jennifer Frazer | June 3, 2015

Genetic diversity of lichen fungi
In 2003, the Mediterranean coral Oculina patagonica did something that was supposed to be impossible: it destroyed bacteria that had formerly been bleaching and killing it. This was a great shock, because the prevailing wisdom is that corals do not possess immune systems like ourselves, and thus have no ability to develop immunity. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Resurrection Ecology

An upcoming TEDx session at the National Geographic Society is called "De-Extinction", but I like Brian Switek's phrase "resurrection ecology" as a description of the almost religious and often extraordinary efforts to bring back individual extinct critters as well as devastated ecosystems.

The session (and the times) have sparked a wave of related stories. I was just putting together a list of my own to send when I found this list at the top of Ed Yong's "Missing Links" for this week. No better place to start. Here's Ed:

All the buzz this week is about de-extinction – bringing extinct species back from the dead. Start with Carl Zimmer’s great story for National Geographic. And here’s more:
But, typically, Ed didn't include any of his own related pieces, so here are a couple:

A piece "resurrected" itself from last year, when it was written, "Will we ever bring back the woolly mammoth?"

And, just posted, on resurrecting and cloning a gastric brooding frog, a frog that swallows her own eggs, stops making acid in her stomach so that they can survive, even as they grow and collapse her lungs so that she has to breathe through her skin until she "propulsively vomits" them into the world as little froglets: "Resurrecting the Extinct Frog with a Stomach for a Womb"

Zuckerman's Flower Lifecycle Videos

Wonderful, very short (17-33 secs) Vimeo time-lapse videos of the life cycle of flowers. The flat white backgrounds make them look like animations. Great use of sound, too, to highlight pace, by artist Andrew Zuckerman. Three contrasting styles:

"White Lily"


"Pink Lily"

You'll find several more of Zuckerman's films on the Vimeo website.

Maria Popova at Brain Pickings spotted these: "Andrew Zuckerman’s Extraordinary Portraits of Flowers"

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Zombie Science

Katharine Harmon at Scientific American is fascinated by zombies ... in particular, animals whose parasites turn them into zombies. Here are three pieces from her ongoing series. (Sorry I'm late for Halloween with this post. Ah, well, zombies are always timely.)

Start by watching her 2-minute video on Scientific American's "Instant Egghead":

How Do Animals Become Zombies? Instant Egghead [Video]
Scientific American explains how animals--and possibly humans--can become real-life zombies
ZOMBIE WORLD: Parasites are responsible for many of the real-life zombies in the wild kingdom.Image: Instant Egghead
It may sound like something straight out of a horror movie, but many animals can come under the zombie-like control of parasites. So what about humans? Scientific American editor Katherine Harmon fills us in on the ghoulish side of Nature ...
[Note: The cat isn't our zombie here, in spite of the eyes. But house cats are the source a parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, which may infect 20% or so of us humans. T. gondii can change our hormone and dopamine levels, making us "more sociable, but also reckless".]


Then take a look at her overview article and slide show of zombie critters:

Zombie Creatures: What Happens When Animals Are Possessed by a Parasitic Puppet Master? [Slide Show]
From fungi to flies, some parasitic species have figured out how to control their host's behavior to get what they need. See what happens when bugs go really bad
ON THE DARK SIDE?: Some tiny organisms can make much larger animals do their dirty work for them. Find out how parasites can take control of bodies and minds.Image: STEVE YANOVIAK


And, finally, take a look at her most recent article on how being a zombie-ant fungus isn't without its dangers ... in the form of parasitic fungi of its own:
Undead-End: Fungus That Controls Zombie-Ants Has Own Fungal Stalker
A specialized parasite fungus can control ants' behavior. But that fungus also faces its own deadly, specialized parasites
ZOMBIE-ANT FUNGUS FEAST: New research is uncovering how zombie-ant fungus might control its hosts. But this parasite also has its own fungal threats.Image: Wikimedia Commons/David Hughes/
Maj-Britt Pontoppidan/PLoS ONE
An unsuspecting worker ant in Brazil's rainforest leaves its nest one morning. But instead of following the well-worn treetop paths of its nest mates, this ant stumbles along clumsily, walking in aimless circles, convulsing from time to time.
At high noon, as if programmed, the ant plunges its mandibles into the juicy main vein of a leaf and soon dies. Within days the stem of a fungus sprouts from the dead ant's head. After growing a stalk, the fungus casts spores to the ground below, where they can be picked up by other passing ants.
This strange cycle of undead life and death has been well documented and has earned the culprit the moniker: "zombie-ant" fungus—even in the scientific literature. But scientists are just learning the intricacies of this interplay between the Ophiocordyceps parasitic fungus and the Camponotini carpenter ants that it infects. Fossil evidence implies that this zombifying infection might have been happening for at least 48 million years. Recent research also suggests that different species of the fungus might specialize to infect different groups of ants across the globe. And close examination of the infected ant corpses has revealed an even newer level of spooky savagery—other fungi often parasitize the zombie-ant fungus parasite itself ...