- Feds Criticized in Fight Against Killer Bat Disease
- A Visit to a Site of the Batpocalypse
- Jupiter’s Missing Stripe Reappears
- High-Speed Video Reveals Cats’ Secret Tongue Skills
- Powdering the Equator With Mineral Dust Could Fight Climate Change
- Sea Lions Surprise Scientists by Adopting Orphaned Pups
- What It’s Like to Live in a Science Museum for a Month
Posted: 12 Nov 2010 04:00 AM PST
As an apocalyptic bat disease threatens to spread across the United States, the stage is set for a showdown between the federal government and environmentalists who feel enough isn't being done to stop it.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the second draft version on Oct. 27 of its national response plan for White Nose Syndrome, which has killed more than a million cave-dwelling bats since emerging four years ago.
On the same day, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity issued a press release excoriating the plan, calling it a "slow-motion response" to a disease that's already destroyed a major part of the animal kingdom in the eastern U.S., and shows no sign of slowing.
"You have to pick a model [for response] that's appropriate to the situation," said Mollie Matteson, a conservation advocate at the Centers for Biological Diversity. "I'm afraid this one will be perfected by the time White Nose Syndrome reaches California."
Caused by a fungus that eats bat tissues and wakes them from hibernation too soon, White Nose Syndrome (WNS) has spread to 14 states and two Canadian provinces since the first cases were reported in 2006 in upstate New York. That state and Vermont have lost more than 90 percent of their bats, threatening populations with total extinction or, at best, a centuries-long recovery process.
The discovery in Oklahoma earlier this year of Geomyces destructans, the fungus linked to WNS, raised the nightmare possibility of the disease spreading west as well as south and east, conceivably exterminating most if not all 22 species of cave-dwelling, hibernating U.S. bats in the next few decades. It's more than an animal tragedy: Those bats are major consumers of insects, filling a nighttime ecological niche shared by birds in the daytime. The loss could translate to booms of crop-eating insect pests, causing millions of dollars annually in agricultural damage and increased pesticide use.
Researchers and wildlife managers were caught off-guard by the outbreak, which is unprecedented in known mammal history. A handful of state biologists, federal researchers and conservationists scrambled to respond, tracking the disease and conducting basic research on shoestring budgets. The USFWS has coordinated the effort, and the draft plan represents the next, more mature stage of the fight.
For now, it's largely an organizational document, stating priorities and establishing a framework for coordinating activities among dozens of federal and state agencies involved in a large-scale response. The plan also identifies seven key areas of action, including data sharing, developing reliable diagnostic tools, research on the fungus itself, and investigations of how WNS spreads and might be treated.
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Each action area is universally regarded by white nose researchers and conservationists as important. But there is little specific detail in the plan, now two years in the making, or about how these actions will be pursued or funded. The plan "only provides a conceptual framework for responding to the disease," said the Center for Biological Diversity in its press release. It "makes no concrete recommendations for research and management."
According to Jeremy Coleman, the WNS syndrome coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, such broad outlines had to come before specifics. "It's important to lay out the groundwork," he said. After a 60-day comment period, the draft plan will be revised. When that's finalized next year, a detailed "implementation plan" will follow. "We've been doing all these other pieces that are critical to actual implementation," said Coleman.
"As far as the plan goes, it's fine," said Nina Fascione, executive director of Bat Conservation International, a nonprofit conservation group that worked with the USFWS on developing the draft plan. "It's just not that descriptive." Fascione noted the inherent complexity and slowness of coordinating multiple government agencies, saying the proof of the plan will be in its implementation stage.
But Matteson said the federal effort doesn't reflect the urgency of the disease, comparable in magnitude only to Chytridiomycosis, a disease that's caused die-offs and extinctions in 30 percent of all amphibian species. "They've failed to put the crisis in that light," she said.
The Center for Biological Diversity wants the USFWS to immediately declare a national wildlife emergency, develop a plan for closing caves to people who might pick up the fungus and spread it elsewhere, and dedicate $10 million for WNS funding in the next agency budget.
The USFWS is now spending roughly $2.4 million of its existing $2.87 billion annual budget on White Nose Syndrome research and management. While that $2.87 billion is a relatively small sum with which to manage a vast nation's wildlife — more can easily be spent on a couple local highway projects — $2.4 million per year seems paltry in light of a threat to an entire ecological niche.
In comparison, the USFWS budget request for 2011 notes that improvements to its email system and data centers will save $2.45 million, or slightly more than its dedicated WNS funding.
Additional money has come from Congress, which two years ago gave the USFWS an extra $1.4 million for WNS research and management, and unexpectedly increased that number to $1.9 million in 2010. The money has been well spent, providing much-needed assistance to underfunded state wildlife agencies and supporting crucial basic research.
However, the USFWS now intends to give that extra $500,000 back. "The Service proposes to discontinue this unrequested funding in [Fiscal Year] 2011 in order to fund higher priority conservation activities elsewhere," reads their latest budget request.
Proposing to return that money may prove to be a standard piece of bureaucratic maneuvering, with the funds later returned when Congress works out its budget for appropriations, or "earmarks." The appropriations budget for the current fiscal year is supposed to be determined in early December, and conservationists have pushed for $5 million in WNS earmarks.
But even if funding is scarce, "it wouldn't cost much to say, 'This is a wildlife emergency. We need all hands on deck. This is a total crisis,'" said Matteson.
Images: 1) A little brown bat with White Nose Syndrome./Ryan von Linden, New York Department of Environmental Conservation. 2) Map of White Nose Syndrome spread./Cal Butchkoski, Pennsylvania Game Commission. 3) Northern long-eared bat./Brandon Keim.
Posted: 12 Nov 2010 03:59 AM PST
ROSENDALE, New York -- Until several years ago, about 100,000 bats hibernated in an abandoned limestone mine outside of town. I visited the site with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation's bat biologists on Nov. 8.
White Nose Syndrome, the virulent bat-killing disease first seen in 2006 in upstate New York, reached here in 2008. About 1,500 bats are thought to have survived.
Note: With the help of Spot.us and Wired, I'm writing a citizen-funded feature on White Nose Syndrome. Spot.us is a micropayment-based service that enables people to directly support journalism they care about. And for a limited time, you can raise money for my story — and dozens of others — just by taking a poll. (Go to the pitch, click on "Free Credits and register.") It's as simple as that.
Images: Brandon Keim
Posted: 11 Nov 2010 01:46 PM PST
Jupiter's lost cloud belt may be coming back.
One of the gas giant's characteristic red stripes, the South Equatorial Belt, faded late in 2009 and had vanished completely by early May, 2010. The band had waned and returned several times in the past, astronomers noted, and kept an eye out for its return.
A few amateur astronomers just spotted signs of a return. The image above, captured Nov. 9 by amateur astronomer Christopher Go in the Phillipines, shows a white plume piercing the cloud tops where the belt belongs.
This tiny spot, called an outbreak, is actually a high altitude cloud. These spots are what makes the South Equatorial Band red, Go told Wired.com in an email. Small disturbances like this one are an omen of more spots and swirls to come, ultimately reviving the great brown stripe.
Other astronomers followed up in infrared wavelengths (below), which show the spot much more clearly.
"The spot was pretty small and unimpressive in normal light," said astrophotographer Don Parker of Florida. "When I started imaging in the methane band, the images that appeared on my monitor blew me away! The spot was big and brilliant. This indicated that it had a very high altitude above Jupiter's cloud deck and was a powerful towering convection plume — indeed something special."
As of Nov. 11, the eruption is the single brightest spot on Jupiter in all wavelengths.
"Will this outbreak fully revive the SEB? Time will tell," Go said. "That is why I am encouraging other observers to keep an eye of this outbreak."
If you catch any activity in Jupiter's cloud belt, send us your photos!
Image: 1) Christopher Go. 2) Don Parker. Note that the planet is upside-down, as it would appear through a telescope. The south pole is at the top of the image, and the bright spot is to the left.
Posted: 11 Nov 2010 11:05 AM PST
High-speed videos reveal the strange technique and delicate balance of physical forces cats use to lap milk from a bowl.
Unlike dogs, who use their tongues as ladles to scoop water into their jaws, cats pull columns of liquid up to their mouths using only the very tips of their tongues.
"Cats are just smarter than dogs from the point of view of fluid mechanics," said civil engineer Roman Stocker of MIT.
Cats' tongues operate more like octopus tentacles or elephant trunks, Stocker found. The study's results could have implications for designing soft, flexible robots.
Stocker grew curious about how cats lap about three years ago while watching his housecat, Cutta Cutta, eating breakfast.
"I started to think, there had to be something interesting about the mechanisms of how the cat was getting the water or milk into the mouth, because it had to overcome gravity," he said.
Cutta Cutta's tongue flicked in and out of his mouth too quickly for Stocker to study with his naked eye. So he borrowed a high-speed video camera from a colleague at MIT.
Stocker and his colleagues filmed Cutta Cutta drinking a bowl of water mixed with a little bit of yogurt ("for visual contrast and palatability") at 120 frames per second. The results appeared Nov. 11 in Science.
Video: Pedro M. Reis, Sunghwan Jung, Jeffrey M. Aristoff and Roman Stocker
Posted: 11 Nov 2010 09:07 AM PST
Scattering the dust of a common, semiprecious metal across equatorial soils may sponge carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slow the pace of climate change.
The essence of the process is familiar: When water, CO2 and silica-containing rocks mix, the resulting chemical reactions produce minerals that contain carbon, known as carbonates. These are found in groundwater, responsible in part for making it "hard" and clogging pipes with residue.
When water drains to the sea, carbonates are carried along and buried in its depths, along with the carbon they carry. And since olivine, a silicate, is among the world's most common minerals, some researchers have wondered whether it may be put to carbon-sucking use.
"We know this is already happening. The question is, how much can we dissolve without disturbing the natural environment?" said geochemist Jens Hartmann of Germany's University of Hamburg, lead author of the study published Nov. 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Hartmann's team calculated how much carbon might be absorbed by olivine mined from equatorial deposits, ground to a fine powder and scattered across the Amazon and Congo river basins.
According to their estimates, olivine powdering could, if done every year over most of those regions, theoretically lower atmospheric CO2 levels by 80 to 150 parts per million by the century's end.
Barring radical changes in fossil fuel consumption, global CO2 levels are expected to reach about 700 ppm by that time; about 350 ppm is considered safe, or at least non-catastrophic. Olivine alone wouldn't keep CO2 under control, but Hartmann said it could be "one of dozens of geoengineering methods that can contribute to CO2 management."
Of course, real-world application of olivine would be difficult. Actual efficiency would likely be lower; applying it would require cooperation from millions of individual farmers and landowners, ultimately covering only portions of equatorial soils.
Beyond logistics, there would be safety concerns. Adding carbonate to water changes its acidity, and altering the chemistry of the Amazon and Congo river basins is troubling to imagine.
Concerns about the unintended effects of other geoengineering proposals recently prompted 193 nations to suggest a ban on large-scale projects and tight controls on research.
Hartmann said it's far too soon to consider industrial-scale olivine powdering, but he would like to see small-scale tests designed to give a better understanding of its dynamics and consequences.
"We need research. My personal opinion is that we should be very careful doing these things," he said. But given the amount of CO2 pollution already taking place, "we already do geoengineering now."
Image: 1) NASA 2) Distance of equatorial locales from deposits of dunite, an olivine-rich rock./PNAS.
Citation: "Geoengineering potential of artificially enhanced silicate weathering of olivine." By Peter Köhler, Jens Hartmann, and Dieter A. Wolf-Gladrow. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 107 No. 45, November 9, 2010.
Posted: 11 Nov 2010 04:00 AM PST
Orphaned sea lion pups would take any milk and protection they can get, but decades of behavioral research has shown females viciously reject any unrelated pups who wander too closely.
A new genetic study of California sea lion populations, published Monday in the online journal PLoS ONE, now challenges the idea that sea lions are entirely cold to adoption.
Up to 17 percent of California sea lion females in populations off the coast of Mexico will take in an orphaned pup and raise it as their own, according to the new work. What's more, the study's authors witnessed females adopt orphaned pups and care for them season after season.
"Females are incredibly aggressive toward pups that aren't theirs. They'll bare teeth and bark, sometimes grab and toss pups that aren't their own away," said Ramona Flatz, a marine biologist at Arizona State University who made the discovery through an unrelated research effort. "That they adopt at all really surprised us. We didn't think it happened."
California sea lions number more than 180,000 on the Pacific Coast, inhabiting a huge range from southern Alaskan shores down to the coast of Mexico. Females live for about 20 years and produce one pup each season, nursing it for 6 months.
Flatz and her fellow researchers spent three summers walking around sea lion rookeries on the Mexican islands of San Jorge and Los Islotes, located about 400 miles apart in the Gulf of California, aka Sea of Cortez. Their original mission: to sample the DNA of female-pup pairs for an entirely different study of the animal's paternity.
"After getting my genetic lab results, I saw a bunch of mother-pup mismatches," Flatz said. "I was worried something had gone wrong."
To carry out the study, Flatz and her team used nets, electric razors, specialized crossbows and some guts. When the scientists found a nursing pup, they ran up and grabbed it by the back flippers, clipped a tissue sample from its toe, and gave it a special haircut to identify individual pups from far away.
Flatz captured pups when they were a couple days old to two months old and weighed from 18 to 26 pounds.
"However, they feel like about 50 lbs," she wrote in an e-mail. The team spent five minutes or less processing each pup, without sedation. "They do bite, so speed was helpful."
Before any pup was processed, however, the researchers used crossbows outfitted with nonlethal, tissue-collecting arrows for the roughly 250-pound mother sea lions.
Romana Flatz reels in a sea lion tissue sample captured using a specialized crossbow. Photo: Bobby Fokidis
"The arrows are attached by fishing line, so you shoot, it takes a little eraser chunk of skin out, and then you pull it back. Most females don't even notice," Flatz said.
Back in the lab, comparing the nursing pair's DNA showed that more than 17 percent of females at Los Islotes island raised pups that weren't their own, while 6 percent at San Jorge island adopted orphaned pups.
"I think those results are really thorough, but the thing that made me really confident these sea lions adopt were two individual cases, with photographs and behavioral observations," Flatz said.
In one case she documented a female calling for its pup, which Flatz had given a haircut, for three days. "Then all of the sudden she has a pup" that was unmarked, Flatz said. The other case was a genetically distinct pup-female pair sampled over two seasons. "I have no doubt that these were adoption events," she said.
Flatz can only speculate about California sea lion adoption, but thinks an evolution-backed maternal drive is responsible for the behavior in general. As for the high adoption rate as Los Islotes Island, she said it may be the work of people.
"I wouldn't be surprised if tourism increases adoption. That could spook new mothers and cause them to take off for good, leaving their pups behind," Flatz said. "Whatever is going on, it's a great jumping-off point for more research."
Posted: 11 Nov 2010 03:59 AM PST
Kate McGroarty, a 24-year-old theater teacher from Chicago, beat out more than 1,500 would-be museum-dwellers to spend a month living in Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. Since Oct. 20, she's been exploring the museum's hidden corners, lighting things on fire and dining with astronauts, with a blog and a YouTube channel as her only links to the outside world.
Wired.com caught up with her this week to see what it's like to live, eat and breathe a science museum.
Wired.com: Every science writer I know is super jealous of you. But on your blog you mention that you were never really a science geek growing up. What possessed you to do this in the first place, if not the science?
Kate McGroarty: I'm a very naturally curious person. I had a lot of interests growing up. Science was never at the forefront, but I love learning about things I don't know much about.
I also always have been a huge history nerd, and there's an equal amount of history in this building, along with science. This whole experience is definitely opening up my mind to the possibilities and amazingness of science.
I'm hugely passionate about education, and I was interested to see the reaches of education through social media. A big part of my job here is, I have a blog, I have a Twitter, I have a Facebook, I have a YouTube, using those networks to see what the kind of educational impact can be. That's been really interesting for me.
I also just love doing really strange things. It sounded like the biggest adventure I could ever have, and it's definitely living up to that.
Wired.com: What have you learned about education and social media?
McGroarty: The internet is an interesting place. Each social media outlet is very different. The etiquette rules of each seem to be different. People are more polite on certain social media outlets than others.
The blog is proving to be a really a great way to discuss ideas, and show pictures, and talk about new things I've learned.
And I've really enjoyed doing the videos. They've gotten a lot of great feedback with people going, "Huh, I never knew that!"
Wired.com: It seems like there's two different kinds of exhibits there: historical things that the museum is preserving, and exhibits that were deliberately constructed to demonstrate something about science. How is it different for you from the visitors playing with these different kinds of exhibits?
McGroarty: Even with the objects like the submarine [a German U-boat captured by the Allies in World War II] and the airplanes, the things that are historical artifacts, they do a good job making them interactive.
What's different for me is that where most people get to walk through the submarine, I got to walk on top of the submarine. That was definitely a highlight.
Sometimes I get after-hours tours of things…. I get to walk through the exhibits with people who were instrumental in creating them, and talk to them about why they came up with it, what they were hoping to achieve.
That's been really fun for me, from a lot of different perspectives. Not just to see the museum, but to really get into the inner workings of why people chose to display certain things, how it's working, how people are responding, and what they are going to do to keep it updated.
Wired.com: Where have you gone that regular museum guests don't get to go?
McGroarty: Perfect example: This morning I got to watch the sunrise from the roof!
I went on a nooks and crannies tour, and went into all the hallways and back rooms and storage rooms. I went to Collections the other day, which was really fun. It was like a playground for history nerds….
And the people who run Collections, you'd think, eh, you're just moving stuff around. But they are historians, they are hugely organizational, and they're constantly re-evaluating the collections. It's a very active job. They're storytellers. They love all the stories that go along with the objects in the collections.
Wired.com: What was your favorite thing there?
McGroarty: Oh no, don't make me do that! I really loved this little dial that is like a 1910 version of GPS. It's like you put in a piece of paper, and you start in one location and it tells you the number of miles until the next one. And it would literally say things like "turn left at corner store," or, "See large oak tree. Turn this way." There weren't roads or maps back then. It was like, what do you build first, a car or a road map? Or roads? This was before roads were even built. It was so funny.
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