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.