Category Archives: Natural World

DEPRESSION, IT’S OUR HABITAT! Biophilia – Edward O. Wilson.

“I imagined that this place and all its treasures were mine alone and might be so forever in memory, if the bulldozer came.”

To explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in our mental development. Our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents.

To the degree that we come to understand other organisms, we will place a greater value on them, and on ourselves.

Everywhere I have gone, South America, Australia, New Guinea, Asia, I have thought that jungles and grasslands are the logical destinations, and towns and farmland the labyrinths that people have imposed between them sometime in the past. I cherish the green enclaves accidentally left behind.

What if humans, like animals in a zoo, become depressed when we are deprived of access to the kind of landscape we evolved in?

It’s been known for a long time that all sorts of mental health problems, including ones as severe as psychosis and schizophrenia, are considerably worse in cities than in the countryside.

Studies have clearly shown that people who move to green areas experience a big reduction in depression, and people who move away from green areas see a big increase in depression.

One of the most striking studies is perhaps the most simple. They got people who lived in cities to take a walk in nature, and then tested their mood and concentration. Everyone, predictably, felt better and was able to concentrate more, but the effect was dramatically bigger for people who had been depressed. Their improvement was five times greater than the improvement for other people.

Why would this be? What was going on?

We have been animals that move for a lot longer than we have been animals that talk and convey concepts, but we still think that depression can be cured by this conceptual layer. I think the first answer is more simple. Let’s fix the physiology first. Get out. Move!

The scientific evidence is clear that exercise significantly reduces depression and anxiety, because it returns us to our more natural state, one where we are embodied, we are animal, we are moving, our endorphins are rushing. Kids or adults who are not moving, and are not in nature for a certain amount of time, cannot be considered fully healthy animals.

When scientists have compared people who run on treadmills in the gym with people who run in nature, they found that both see a reduction in depression, but it’s higher for the people who run in nature. So what are the other factors?

Biologist Edward O. Wilson, one of the most important people in his field in the twentieth century, argued that all humans have a natural sense of something called Biophilia, an innate love for the landscapes in which humans have lived for most of our existence, and for the natural web of life that surrounds us and makes our existence possible. Almost all animals get distressed if they are deprived of the kinds of landscape that they evolved to live in. A frog can live on land, it’ll just be miserable as hell and give up.

Why would humans be the one exception to this rule? Looking around us: it’s our habitat that’s making us depressed.

This is a hard concept to test scientifically, but there has been one attempt to do it. The social scientists Gordon Orians and Judith Heerwagen worked with teams all over the world, in radically different cultures, and showed them a range of pictures of very different landscapes, from the desert to the city to the savanna. What they found is that everywhere, no matter how different their culture, people had a preference for landscapes that look like the savannas of Africa. There’s something about it, they conclude, that seems to be innate.

Johann Hari

Lost Connections. Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions – Johann Hari

BIOPHILIA

by Edward O. Wilson

ON MARCH 12, 1961, I stood in the Arawak village of Bernhardsdorp and looked south across the white-sand coastal forest of Surinam. For reasons that were to take me twenty years to understand, that moment was fixed with uncommon urgency in my memory. The emotions I felt were to grow more poignant at each remembrance, and in the end they changed into rational conjectures about matters that had only a distant bearing on the original event.

The object of the reflection can be summarized by a single word, biophilia, which I will be so bold as to define as the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes. Let me explain it very briefly here and then develop the larger theme as I go along.

From infancy we concentrate happily on ourselves and other organisms. We learn to distinguish life from the inanimate and move toward it like moths to a porch light. Novelty and diversity are particularly esteemed; the mere mention of the word extraterrestrial evokes reveries about still unexplored life, displacing the old and once potent exotic that drew earlier generations to remote islands and jungled interiors. That much is immediately clear, but a great deal more needs to be added. I will make the case that to explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development. To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents.

There is more. Modern biology has produced a genuinely new way of looking at the world that is incidentally congenial to the inner direction of biophilia. In other words, instinct is in this rare instance aligned with reason. The conclusion I draw is optimistic: to the degree that we come to understand other organisms, we will place a greater value on them, and on ourselves.

Bernhardsdorp

AT BERNHARDSDORP on an otherwise ordinary tropical morning, the sunlight bore down harshly, the air was still and humid, and life appeared withdrawn and waiting. A single thunder-head lay on the horizon, its immense anvil shape diminished by distance, an intimation of the rainy season still two or three weeks away. A footpath tunneled through the trees and lianas, pointing toward the Saramacca River and far beyond, to the Orinoco and Amazon basins. The woodland around the village struggled up from the crystalline sands of the Zanderij formation. It was a miniature archipelago of glades and creekside forest enclosed by savannagrassland with scattered trees and high bushes. To the south it expanded to become a continuous lacework fragmenting the savanna and transforming it in turn into an archipelago. Then, as if conjured upward by some unseen force, the woodland rose by stages into the triple-canopied rain forest, the principal habitat of South America’s awesome ecological heartland.

In the village a woman walked slowly around an iron cooking pot, stirring the fire beneath with a soot-blackened machete. Plump and barefoot, about thirty years old, she wore two long pigtails and a new cotton dress in a rose floral print. From politeness, or perhaps just shyness, she gave no outward sign of recognition. I was an apparition, out of place and irrelevant, about to pass on down the footpath and out of her circle of required attention. At her feet a small child traced meanders in the dirt with a stick. The village around them was a cluster of no more than ten one-room dwellings. The walls were made of palm leaves woven into a herringbone pattern in which dark bolts zigzagged upward and to the onlooker’s right across flesh-colored squares. The design was the sole indigenous artifact on display. Bernhardsdorp was too close to Paramaribo, Surinam’s capital, with its flood of cheap manufactured products to keep the look of a real Arawak village. In culture as in name, it had yielded to the colonial Dutch.

A tame peccary watched me with beady concentration from beneath the shadowed eaves of a house. With my own, taxonomist’s eye I registered the defining traits of the collared species, Dicotytes tajacu: head too large for the piglike body, fur coarse and brindled, neck circled by a pale thin stripe, snout tapered, ears erect, tail reduced to a nub. Poised on stiff little dancer’s legs, the young male seemed perpetually fierce and ready to charge yet frozen in place, like the metal boar on an ancient Gallic standard.

A note: Pigs, and presumably their close relatives the peccaries, are among the most intelligent of animals. Some biologists believe them to be brighter than dogs, roughly the rivals of elephants and porpoises. They form herds of ten to twenty members, restlessly patrolling territories of about a square mile. In certain ways they behave more like wolves and dogs than social ungulates. They recognize one another as individuals, sleep with their fur touching, and bark back and forth when on the move. The adults are organized into dominance orders in which the females are ascendant over males, the reverse of the usual mammalian arrangement. They attack in groups if cornered, their scapular fur bristling outward like porcupine quills, and can slash to the bone with sharp canine teeth. Yet individuals are easily tamed if captured as infants and their repertory stunted by the impoverishing constraints of human care.

So I felt uneasy, perhaps the word is embarrassed, in the presence of a captive individual. This young adult was a perfect anatomical specimen with only the rudiments of social behavior. But he was much more: a powerful presence, programed at birth to respond through learning steps in exactly the collared-peccary way and no other to the immemorial environment from which he had been stolen, now a mute speaker trapped inside the unnatural clearing, like a messenger to me from an unexplored world.

I stayed in the village only a few minutes. I had come to study ants and other social insects living in Surinam. No trivial task: over a hundred species of ants and termites are found within a square mile of average South American tropical forest. When all the animals in a randomly selected patch of woodland are collected together and weighed, from tapirs and parrots down to the smallest insects and roundworms, one third of the weight is found to consist of ants and termites. If you close your eyes and lay your hand on a tree trunk almost anywhere in the tropics until you feel something touch it, more times than not the crawler will be an ant. Kick open a rotting log and termites pour out. Drop a crumb of bread on the ground and within minutes ants of one kind or another drag it down a nest hole. Foraging ants are the chief predators of insects and other small animals in the tropical forest, and termites are the key animal decomposers of wood. Between them they form the conduit for a large part of the energy flowing through the forest. Sunlight to leaf to caterpillar to ant to anteater to jaguar to maggot to humus to termite to dissipated heat: such are the links that compose the great energy network around Surinam’s villages.

I carried the standard equipment of a field biologist: camera; canvas satchel containing forceps, trowel, ax, mosquito repellent, jars, vials of alcohol, and notebook; a twenty-power hand lens swinging with a reassuring tug around the neck; partly fogged eyeglasses sliding down the nose and khaki shirt plastered to the back with sweat. My attention was on the forest; it has been there all my life. I can work up some appreciation for the travel stories of Paul Theroux and other urbanophile authors who treat human settlements as virtually the whole world and the intervening natural habitats as troublesome barriers. But everywhere I have gone, South America, Australia, New Guinea, Asia-I have thought exactly the opposite. Jungles and grasslands are the logical destinations, and towns and farmland the labyrinths that people have imposed between them sometime in the past. I cherish the green enclaves accidentally left behind.

Once on a tour of Old Jerusalem, standing near the elevated site of Solomon’s Throne, I looked down across the Jericho Road to the dark olive trees of Gethsemane and wondered which native Palestinian plants and animals might still be found in the shade underneath. Thinking of “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways,” I knelt on the cobblestones to watch harvester ants carry seeds down holes to their subterranean granaries, the same food-gathering activity that had impressed the Old Testament writer, and possibly the same species at the very same place. As I walked with my host back past the Temple Mount toward the Muslim Quarter, I made inner calculations of the number of ant species found within the city walls. There was a perfect logic to such eccentricity: the million-year history of Jerusalem is at least as compelling as its past three thousand years.

AT BERNHARDSDORP I imagined richness and order as an intensity of light. The woman, child, and peccary turned into incandescent points. Around them the village became a black disk, relatively devoid of life, its artifacts adding next to nothing. The woodland beyond was a luminous bank, sparked here and there by the moving lights of birds, mammals, and larger insects.

I walked into the forest, struck as always by the coolness of the shade beneath tropical vegetation, and continued until I came to a small glade that opened onto the sandy path. I narrowed the world down to the span of a few meters. Again I tried to compose the mental set, call it the naturalist’s trance, the hunter’s trance, by which biologists locate more elusive organisms. I imagined that this place and all its treasures were mine alone and might be so forever in memory, if the bulldozer came.

In a twist my mind came free and I was aware of the hard workings of the natural world beyond the periphery of ordinary attention, where passions lose their meaning and history is in another dimension, without people, and great events pass without record or judgment. I was a transient of no consequence in this familiar yet deeply alien world that I had come to love. The uncounted products of evolution were gathered there for purposes having nothing to do with me; their long Cenozoic history was enciphered into a genetic code I could not understand. The effect was strangely calming. Breathing and heartbeat diminished, concentration intensified. It seemed to me that something extraordinary in the forest was very close to where I stood, moving to the surface and discovery.

I focused on a few centimeters of ground and vegetation. I willed animals to materialize, and they came erratically into view. Metallic-blue mosquitoes floated down from the canopy in search of a bare patch of skin, cockroaches with variegated wings perched butterfly-like on sunlit leaves, black carpenter ants sheathed in recumbent golden hairs filed in haste through moss on a rotting log. I turned my head slightly and all of them vanished. Together they composed only an infinitesimal fraction of the life actually present. The woods were a biological maelstrom of which only the surface could be scanned by the naked eye. Within my circle of vision, millions of unseen organisms died each second. Their destruction was swift and silent; no bodies thrashed about, no blood leaked into the ground. The microscopic bodies were broken apart in clean biochemical chops by predators and scavengers, then assimilated to create millions of new organisms, each second.

Ecologists speak of “chaotic regimes” that rise from orderly processes and give rise to others in turn during the passage of life from lower to higher levels of organization. The forest was a tangled bank tumbling down to the grassland’s border. Inside it was a living sea through which I moved like a diver groping across a littered floor. But I knew that all around me bits and pieces, the individual organisms and their populations, were working with extreme precision. A few of the species were locked together in forms of symbiosis so intricate that to pull out one would bring others spiraling to extinction. Such is the consequence of adaptation by coevolution, the reciprocal genetic change of species that interact with each other through many life cycles.

Eliminate just one kind of tree out of hundreds in such a forest, and some of its pollinators, leafeaters, and woodborers will disappear with it, then various of their parasites and key predators, and perhaps a species of bat or bird that depends on its fruit, and when will the reverberations end? Perhaps not until a large part of the diversity of the forest collapses like an arch crumbling as the keystone is pulled away. More likely the effects will remain local, ending with a minor shift in the overall pattern of abundance among the numerous surviving species. In either case the effects are beyond the power of present-day ecologists to predict. It is enough to work on the assumption that all of the details matter in the end, in some unknown but vital way.

After the sun’s energy is captured by the green plants, it flows through chains of organisms dendritically, like blood spreading from the arteries into networks of microscopic capillaries. It is in such capillaries, in the life cycles of thousands of individual species, that life’s important work is done. Thus nothing in the whole system makes sense until the natural history of the constituent species becomes known. The study of every kind of organism matters, everywhere in the world. That conviction leads the field biologist to places like Surinam and the outer limits of evolution, of which this case is exemplary:

The three-toed sloth feeds on leaves high in the canopy of the lowland forests through large portions of South and Central America. Within its fur live tiny moths, the species Cryptoses choloepi, found nowhere else on Earth. When a sloth descends to the forest floor to defecate (once a week), female moths leave the fur briefly to deposit their eggs on the fresh dung. The emerging caterpillars build nests of silk and start to feed. Three weeks later they complete their development by turning into adult moths, and then fly up into the canopy in search of sloths. By living directly on the bodies of the sloths, the adult Cryptoses assure their offspring first crack at the nutrient-rich excrement and a competitive advantage over the myriad of other coprophages.

At Bernhardsdorp the sun passed behind a small cloud and the woodland darkened. For a moment all that marvelous environment was leveled and subdued. The sun came out again and shattered the vegetative surfaces into light-based niches. They included intensely lighted leaf tops and the tops of miniature canyons cutting vertically through tree bark to create shadowed depths two or three centimeters below. The light filtered down from above as it does in the sea, giving out permanently in the lowermost recesses of buttressed tree trunks and penetralia of the soil and rotting leaves. As the light’s intensity rose and fell with the transit of the sun, Silverfish, beetles, spiders, bark lice, and other creatures were summoned from their sanctuaries and retreated back in alternation. They responded according to receptor thresholds built into their eyes and brains, filtering devices that differ from one kind of animal to another. By such inborn controls the species imposed a kind of prudent self-discipline. They unconsciously halted their population growth before squeezing out competitors, and others did the same. No altruism was needed to achieve this balance, only specialization. Coexistence was an incidental by-product of the Darwinian advantage that accrued from the avoidance of competition. During the long span of evolution the species divided the environment among themselves, so that now each tenuously preempted certain of the capillaries of energy flow. Through repeated genetic changes they sidestepped competitors and built elaborate defenses against the host of predator species that relentlessly tracked them through matching genetic countermoves. The result was a splendid array of specialists, including moths that live in the fur of three-toed sloths.

Now to the very heart of wonder.

Because species diversity was created prior to humanity, and because we evolved within it, we have never fathomed its limits. As a consequence, the living world is the natural domain of the most restless and paradoxical part of the human spirit. Our sense of wonder grows exponentially: the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery and the more we seek knowledge to create new mystery. This catalytic reaction, seemingly an inborn human trait, draws us perpetually forward in a search for new places and new life. Nature is to be mastered, but (we hope) never completely. A quiet passion burns, not for total control but for the sensation of constant advance.

At Bernhardsdorp I tried to convert this notion into a form that would satisfy a private need. My mind maneuvered through an unending world suited to the naturalist. I looked in reverie down the path through the savanna woodland and imagined walking to the Saramacca River and beyond, over the horizon, into a timeless reconnaissance through virgin forests to the land of magical names, Yékwana, Jivaro, Sirioné, Tapirapé, Siona-Secoya, Yumana, back and forth, never to run out of fresh jungle paths and glades.

The same archetypal image has been shared in variations by others, and most vividly during the colonization of the New World. It comes through clearly as the receding valleys and frontier trails of nineteenth-century landscape art in the paintings of Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, and their contemporaries during the crossing of the American West and the innermost reaches of South America.

In Bierstadt’s Sunset in Yosemite Valley (1868), you look down a slope that eases onto the level valley floor, where a river flows quietly away through waist-high grass, thickets, and scattered trees. The sun is near the horizon. Its dying light, washing the surface in reddish gold, has begun to yield to blackish green shadows along the near side of the valley. A cloud bank has lowered to just beneath the tops of the sheer rock walls. More protective than threatening, it has transformed the valley into a tunnel opening out through the far end into a sweep of land.

. . .

from

Biophilia. The human bond with other species

by Edward O. Wilson

get it at Amazon.com

MOONSHOT FOR BIOLOGY. $5bn project to map DNA of every animal, plant and fungus – Hannah Devlin * The Earth BioGenome Project.

International sequencing drive will involve reading genomes of 1.5m species.
The total volume of biological data that will be gathered is expected to be on the “exascale”, more than that accumulated by Twitter, YouTube or the whole of astronomy.

An ambitious international project to sequence the DNA of every known animal, plant and fungus in the world over the next 10 years has been launched.

Described as “the next moonshot for biology”, the Earth BioGenome Project is expected to cost $4.7bn (£3.6bn) and involve reading the genomes of 1.5m species.

Prof Harris Lewin of the University of California, Davis, who chairs the project, said it could be as transformational for biology as the Human Genome Project, which decoded the human genome between 1990 and 2003.

. . . The Guardian

Powerful advances in genome sequencing technology, informatics, automation, and artificial intelligence, have propelled humankind to the threshold of a new beginning in understanding, utilizing, and conserving biodiversity. For the first time in history, it is possible to efficiently sequence the genomes of all known species, and to use genomics to help discover the remaining 80 to 90 percent of species that are currently hidden from science.

A GRAND CHALLENGE

The Earth BioGenome Project (EBP), a moonshot for biology, aims to sequence, catalog and characterize the genomes of all of Earth’s eukaryotic biodiversity over a period of ten years.

A GRAND VISION

Create a new foundation for biology to drive solutions for preserving biodiversity and sustaining human societies.

. . . Earth BioGenome Project

New Zealand’s moose hunt: A century-long quest for a forest’s final secret – Charlie Mitchell.

The idea that moose roam the most remote corner of New Zealand has long been an urban legend. The New Zealand moose is no ‘Bigfoot’. It’s far more plausible than one might think.

It was listed on the map as “unexplored territory”. A dim cove in the mist, separating the fiord from the colossal forests that cloak the steep valleys of Fiordland.

The famous government steamship, the Hinemoa, had rescued shipwreck survivors in the sub-Antarctic and dropped supplies to the lonely lighthouses dotting the southern coast. But when it crept into the gorge at Doubtful Sound, past the waterfalls and the caves and the steep, rolling ridges, it had entered truly inhospitable territory.

Eight men stepped off the ship at Supper Cove, a small arc of sand at the end of the sound. More than a century earlier, Captain James Cook had anchored his ship, the Resolution, nearer the beginning of the fiord for repairs. Cook was struck by the feeling of utter isolation: ”In this bay we are all strangers,” he wrote in his journal.

The Hinemoa’s men hauled 10 large, wooden crates from the steamship, dragged them through the shallows and onto the sand. There were six females and four males, all less than a year old, about a metre and a half in height at the shoulder. The animals stepped carefully into the dim light.

They were here because the governor of Saskatchewan, Canada had received a request from New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Ward, for assistance in complementing a grand vision: New Zealand as the world’s largest game reserve, collecting the Earth’s most prized, living trophies in one place.

The animals were duly caught in the frozen wilds and raised in captivity. They were fed cow’s milk from a bottle. They were docile and thought capable of surviving the treacherous boat trip across the world, through the tropics and into the cold, perpetual rain.

It was the beginning of autumn in 1910 and the air was thick with sandflies. When the animals stepped onto the beach, some were scared and returned to their crates, but the men upended the boxes and they toppled out. One animal, in a panic, attacked another, breaking its leg.

The men returned to the Hinemoa. They sailed back down the fiord, away from the darkness and the cargo they’d left behind.

And so the moose, young, small and afraid, were alone. They dissolved into the mist and the Fiordland bush, strangers in a strange land.

THE PAUSE OF AN ERA

One of the last verified photographs of a Fiordland moose, taken in 1952.

There are millions of trees in Fiordland, and Ken Tustin, a biologist, had them all to choose from when setting up his surveillance network.

He’s had cameras in the bush for more than 20 years, hoping they will capture a glimpse of the ghosts of the forest. As the years progressed, so did his cameras his latest ones automatically triggered upon sensing movement, taking photographs of deer, possums, and the occasional tramper. The cameras took many thousands of photos and videos, weathering some of the world’s harshest conditions, where it rains 20 days a month and tremendous storms emerge from the quiet, rattling the trees and turning paths into creeks and creeks into torrents.

He caught one on video, once. In 1995, the deer like animal wandered into frame; The camera was in time-lapse mode so the image was blurry, but the animal’s shape was distinctive. It was nearly black and had a curved back, a thick neck and a beaked nose, swaying through the bush with the lumbering gait of a large animal, unlike a deer but suspiciously like a moose.

It was too blurry to convince everyone, though. The camera was a “monstrous arrangement,” Tustin says, powered by car batteries and primitive by modern standards. It took a photo every four seconds and would only record video when the animal came close, which happened just as it moved out of frame. Since then, the cameras had caught nothing.

Having failed to capture his target, Tustin decided to retire his cameras late last year.

“That’s it. The end of an era”, he told the local newspaper.

“Well, the pause of an era.”

More than a century after the animals disappeared into the forest, the strange tale of the Southern Hemisphere’s only moose population has entered the realm of New Zealand folklore. The moose have encouraged intrepid explorers seeking sizeable bounties and inspired tall tales told in southern pubs.

There have been blurry photos and stray hairs, suspicious droppings and sinister hoaxes. The gossip circle of the West Coast bush still spits out the occasional story of huge antlers glimpsed in the dark, or a strange, cloying smell disrupting the thick smell of deer.

What there hasn’t been is clear, undeniable proof that the descendants of those 10 moose still roam the forest somewhere in the mist, even as the body of circumstantial evidence has continued to grow.

“We’re just talking about a remnant population, hanging on by the skin of their teeth”, Tustin says in an interview.

“The scale of Fiordland is just monstrous. They’re not living in the open, and there’s very few people who frequent the places under the canopy.”

On its face, it sounds completely implausible. A fully grown Canadian bull moose would be 6ft tall at the shoulder and weigh 350kg, roughly the size of a large horse, with giant, sprawling antlers. How could one creature that size, let alone dozens of them, remain unseen for more than 60 years?

But moose are famously elusive, and the Fiordland bush is a uniquely superb landscape for disappearing. Legendary hunting guide Jim Muir, who hunted Fiordland moose in the 1920s and 1930s, once said he could tell a moose was just metres away by its tracks, but he could not see it through the trees. They are silent and solitary and move like shadows.

“They’ve got all the senses that make humans seem rather clumsy,” Tustin says.

“I can think of half a dozen times where I’ve been within a step or two. You can smell them and you’re surrounded by sign… You feel the hair stand on the back of your neck. Out of all those years, only half a dozen times.”

He began his search for moose in the early 1970s at the behest of his then employer, the Forestry Service. During their 70 days in the bush, his team found a cast antler, what was then the most convincing evidence of a live moose in decades.

At the time, he believed the moose would soon become extinct, they would struggle to compete with deer for food. But shortly afterwards, helicopter deer hunting became popular and mass deer culls greatly reduced the population. It was a respite for the moose.

In the time since, Tustin has spent the equivalent of several years in the bush, much of it joined by his wife, Marg, searching for moose. Although he took his cameras down, he is not capitulating: He had been trying to track one particular moose since 2002, which he believed roamed through Herrick Creek every July up to about 2011. It stopped leaving physical signs, leading Tustin to assume it was dead. The cameras were pointless.

He still ventures into the forest for weeks at a time, despite his advancing age, hoping to map the route of another moose.

“I’m 72 now, which is a pain in the arse, being this old,” he says.

“It’s demanding, and I like it like that. If it was soft and easy you wouldn’t feel you were having such an adventure. I’m still on the case. Maybe not with the same intensity as a few years ago, but we’re still out there.”

‘FOLLOW YOUR NOSE’

The sheep farmer was tramping through the forest when he smelled something unusual, a cloying, honey-like scent, clinging to the wind. An animal, but not a deer, and not any of the plants familiar to him from his previous expeditions into the bush.

Steve Jones had a tarpaulin and a week of food, but chose to walk on. The sun was sinking and the hut was some ways away. He realised later what he had sensed: The elusive moose, likely bathing in a small stream near him in the Hauroko Burn.

“There was a moose not 200 metres upwind from me, and I walked on,” he says. He had ignored his own advice: “Follow your nose”.

The Australian has made several trips to Fiordland in search of the moose. His quest began when he picked up a copy of Australian Deer magazine in the 1990s, which featured a photo of famed Hastings moose hunter Eddie Herrick carrying a bull moose’s head on his back, trudging through the creek which now bears his name, where many historical moose sightings took place.

Only three moose trophies were ever obtained in New Zealand; two were shot by Herrick, including the first bull moose killed under licence, in 1929. One of the moose was old and weak and missing one of its legs, likely as a result of gangrene, it was thought to be the original moose that had broken its leg in a panic 20 years earlier.

Jones recreated that trip, an arduous slog through the wilderness. He enjoys the enormity of the landscape, the sense of wilderness: “It is somehow deeply reassuring and invigorating to be alone with all that silence, moss and vastness,” he says in an email.

He says it wasn’t the first time he had come close. On one trip, he was crawling through a stream when “something very large and dark surged up and thundered off in a cloud of spray further up the stream, giving me just the barest glimpse of it”, he recalled.

It was not a bull, as he could not see its antlers; he followed it to a patch of sand, where he saw its large, fresh prints. The animal ventured into a swamp, where he circled it for an hour, catching occasional glimpses of its leg through bush. He had his gun but refused to take the shot and so was conquered by the coming darkness.

“It simply could not have been anything else,” he says.

“I would never shoot at something I could not see clearly, it would be dangerous and unethical. I’m glad I didn’t though as they are rare and special and it would have been just a waste.”

Jones, who has hunted deer for more than 40 years, has detailed his years long hunt for the moose on his blog. Like others who have gone searching, he says the evidence is unmistakeable: Only a moose could feed on branches three metres high, leave footprints that large.

Around this time every year, Jones yearns for Fiordland. He plans to come back next year to finally capture a moose on camera. He says he has a strategy, which he declines to reveal, but may arrange helicopter supply drops ahead of time so he can stay in the bush for some time, searching.

He’s not sure if he would make the photos public; He seeks personal, not public triumph.

“The herd might be better off if I did not publicise it, so they might just be enlarged on my wall”.

Pioneering wolf becomes first sighted in Belgium for a century – Daniel Boffey * Harmless or vicious hunter? The uneasy return of Europe’s wolves – Patrick Barkham.

Researchers have tracked Naya from eastern Germany into the Netherlands and now Flanders.

Daniel Boffey.

The first recorded wolf on Belgian soil for at least 100 years has made her bloody mark.
Farmers in north-east Flanders have been put on high alert after evidence emerged that Naya, a female originally from eastern Germany that has been making a pioneering trek across Europe, had killed two sheep and injured a third near the Belgian town of Meerhout.

Naya’s arrival in Belgium completes the return of the predator to every mainland country in Europe, turning back decades of persecution, although not every community might welcome it.
“Any sheep farmers should know [they are] in range of this wolf,” said Hugh Jansman, a researcher from the Wageningen University and research centre, who has been following Naya’s westward trek across hundreds of miles of European landscape.

Naya, who will turn two in May, was given a collar with a tracking device when she was six months old by the Technical University of Dresden, but it was only in October last year that she left her parental pack in rural Lübtheener Heide, between Hamburg and Berlin, to push the boundaries for wolf-kind and strike out across Germany, into the Netherlands and, finally, across the border to Belgium on 3 January.

She has seemingly settled in a large military area near the town of Leopoldsburg, about 15 miles (25km) from the Dutch border, in Flemish Belgium, Jansman said

But Naya’s arrival is only the latest sign of the swift repopulation of Europe by the predator. Last year scientists revealed evidence that a breeding pack of wolves had settled in west Jutland in Denmark – the first in the country for 200 years.

“We are at the front of the migratory wave of wolves,” Jansman said. “In 2000 the first wolf pack with cubs was in eastern Germany. Currently there are 74 cub packs with cubs in eastern Germany. And in Lower Saxony, closest to the Dutch border, in 2012 there was only one settled female but currently there are 14 packs of cubs.

“Agricultural areas are being abandoned by people so they are re-wilding again, leaving lots of space for carnivores. The countryside is being abandoned by young people who are moving to the cities.
“This increase in wolves numbers and distribution area is going quite rapidly. So it is not a matter of if wolves are coming to the Netherlands, and probably Belgium, but how fast. We have seen in recent weeks how fast they can go.”

The data from Naya’s transmitter suggests she has been covering between 30km and 70km a night, traversing swamplands and forests as she has sought a home in which to establish her own pack, with reports in the Netherlands of dead sheep neatly tallying with her movements.
“Some wolves just stay in their area, some others, about 20%, go on a trek and walk hundreds of kilometres and settle down,” Jansman said. “Naya is in the blue ocean, as there is so much free habitat for her.
“She passed through four or five natural parks in the Netherlands but she left them all after one or two days showing that she was looking for something else.

“This is the first place where she found a big military area. It could be the smell of humans is much less in a military area. It’s a prime reason to settle down.”
“I followed the places where she stayed,” Jansman added. “We found leftover roe deer and hares, so she has been eating wild animals as well, as expected. And one thing we can tell is that she has totally avoided humans, and anything to do with humans.”

The Guardian

***

Harmless or vicious hunter? The uneasy return of Europe’s wolves

Patrick Barkham

This winter the first wolf in 100 years arrived in Belgium, completing the animals’ return to mainland Europe. But can Europeans relearn how to live alongside the predators?

To some it is a roe deer that eats meat: an adaptable animal capable of living peaceably alongside humans. To others it is a demonic killing machine that ruins farmers – and whose presence is a symbol of the city’s contempt for rural life.

The wolf is on the rise in Europe. This winter it finally reconquered Belgium, the last mainland European country from which it had been absent after decades of persecution.

After crossing the Alps from Italy to France in 1992 and from Poland into Germany at the turn of this century, the wolf has slipped into densely populated territory where people have no memory of living alongside it. Experts say Germany’s wolf population is growing “exponentially”– and spreading, into Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Denmark, which discovered its first wolf pack for 200 years last spring.

The wolf is protected by EU law but a rising tide of hostility is encouraging some politicians to push to kill it. France approved a cull of up to 40 wolves following protests last year. When Germany’s wolf population reached 60 packs, its agriculture minister recently argued that numbers must be regulated by culling. Finland has culled its wolf population down to 150, and this winter Norway is slaughtering about half of its wolf population of less than 100 animals.

The cull sparked protests in cities and towns across Norway last weekend after the courts rejected a legal challenge to the cull by WWF Norway. Conservationists are appealing against the decision but the next court date is in April – after the wolf hunting season has finished.

The Norwegian government wants just four to six litters of wolf puppies each year. “We will be keeping the population down to a level that is critically endangered, which we think is against the law,” said Ingrid Lomelde, conservation director for WWF Norway.

According to Lomelde, the resurgence of hostility to the wolf is driven by political parties seeking votes in rural areas. “There is a perceived conflict between rural and more urban areas. The wolf became the symbol of how people in rural areas would like to take that power back and have less centralised decision-making,” she said.

But for Erling Aas-Eng, a farmer and head of the farmers’ union in Hedmark, where wolves are particularly numerous, the wolf demonstrates the gulf between town and country. “This distance is growing. One generation back, everybody had a grandmother living in rural areas. Now our lives are not familiar to people living in the big cities anymore.”

Norway’s government offers financial support to help wolf-troubled farmers switch from sheep to cattle but it is difficult to change business models and summer pastures won’t always support cattle instead of sheep, according to Aas-Eng. Norway’s upland pastures aren’t lush, so flocks can’t be securely fenced in small areas like in other European countries. “We need a lot of wires and a lot of electricity and most of the time the wolf finds a way through the fence,” said Aas-Eng.

Many farmers would rather Norway’s small wolf population was non-existent. “Our point of view is we shouldn’t have wolves in Norway,” said Aas-Eng. “The original Scandinavian population died out in the 1950s. These wolves are reinvented from the big Finnish-Russian wolf population. It’s not a good idea to allow them in. It makes for big conflict.”

Since the first wolf pack arrived in Saxony in 2000, Germany has led the way in how to adapt to the return of the wolf.

Many German states have “wolf commissioners” who work with farmers to provide them with electric fences and livestock guard dogs. Farmers receive financial support (up to €15,000 (£13,000) over three years in Brandenburg) and generous compensation for dead livestock. In Saxony, a management plan ensures that “problem” wolves that prey on livestock or get too close to humans are GPS-collared to understand their behaviour and may be deterred with rubber bullets; shooting a “problem” wolf is a last resort.

Public education has encouraged acceptance. The government-funded Wolves in Saxony programme educates local people, takes wolf scats into schools (studies show the German wolf’s diet is roe deer, followed by red deer and wild boar) and children pretend to be wolves or deer in role-playing games. In 2006, 84% of the public in Saxony was positive or neutral about wolves but, as the wolf population rises, Philipp Kob of Wolves in Saxony says that figure will have fallen.

What happens next?

“There is an ecological level where the wolf will get to a stable population but the other question is where the acceptance level of the human population is,” said Kob.

Valeska de Pellegrini, wolf commissioner in the German state of Brandenburg, is hopeful. “If we are not used to something, we are afraid,” she said. “When the wolves are new to an area, there is lots of hesitation and people don’t like to have the wolf but if they learn to coexist over the years, people get more friendly with the wolf. But if the political system goes in another direction I’m afraid that it will be a bad time for the wolf.”

The future must be “land sharing”, where humans and wolves co-exist in densely-populated areas, according to Guillaume Chapron, associate professor in ecology at Sweden’s University of Agricultural Sciences.

While Chapron praises German efforts to adapt to the wolf, he said the rest of Northern Europe “is a model to avoid for predator conservation”. He detects more willingness to live alongside wolves in southern Europe, particularly with 3,000 wolves on the Iberian peninsula.

“My intuitive understanding is that in Nordic countries we expect society to be working perfectly, rules are followed and the government takes care of everything. When you have a trouble-making species in a society where everything is supposed to work perfectly, that’s very disturbing. In southern Europe we accept society to be a little bit messy. When wolves create problems, it’s just how life is supposed to be.”

According to Chapron, Europe must learn from Africa. “It’s insulting to the world that one of the richest countries, Norway, cannot have more than 50 wolves, considering Botswana, Mozambique and other extremely poor countries in Africa, are working really very hard to keep their lions. Imagine the outcry if those nations sought to kill half of their lions? We can’t even say Norway is trying but failing – it’s government policy to have as few wolves as possible.

“We need African countries to teach us, rich Europeans, how to live with predators.”

The Guardian

Passing panorama: New Zealand’s glory from a train window – Susan Grossman. 

It’s 8.15am on the dot and with one mellow toot the TranzAlpine passenger train is off on its journey from Christchuch to Greymouth. As we rattle through the flat and fertile Canterbury plains we are soon climbing up steep gorges in the foothills of the Southern Alps, the backbone of South Island. Below, I can see the startling blue water of the Waimakariri river valley. Pink and blue lupins line the tracks along with rows of pines.
The railway covers 223km, tracking its way over four viaducts and through 16 tunnels, taking four and a half hours to Greymouth on the west coast – a tad faster than the stage coaches that took two days to get food across to gold prospectors in 1866. The stage coach was once known as “The Perishable” because of the fruit and vegetables it used to transport along the way.

It’s a very different story now the train has reached its 30th anniversary year. The carriages are modern, with wide, non-reflective windows, wifi and a running commentary in Mandarin and English. The seats are spacious and windows panoramic, perfect for enjoying the wide-screen scenery – from the pastoral Canterbury plains, through forest and lowland rivers, up to tussock sheep stations. The landscape we pass through from the comfort of our carriage tells the story of New Zealand’s prosperity. There are defunct coal mines, stubbly hillsides and saw mills, while the temperate rainforest is dense with native pines, beech and conifers – the same ones used by the Maori to make their traditional canoes.

Two hours into the train journey we arrive at Arthur’s Pass, where, through rolling white mist, we can just about spot snow-capped mountain peaks. This pass, the highest over the Southern Alps, was used by Maori hunting parties long before the railway was built. We approach the 8.5km Otira tunnel, completed in 1923; up to 18 trains a day still climb up and down its 1:33 gradient, transporting coal from west to east. Even now it’s a hazardous process preventing locomotives from overheating and shutting down. The train stops while our duty manager uncouples the carriages to get us through safely.

Soon after, we are in Greymouth, a town known for its hunting and jade-mining past, and also the end of our journey. You can while away an hour or two on a tasting tour at the local brewery or a visit to Shantytown to learn about gold mining. But for most visitors it’s a setting-off point to see the spectacular Fox Glacier, a 13km-long maritime glacier on the west coast that is perfect for ice-climbing and walking. Instead, I stop for a pie and a cup of tea in a local cafe and an hour later start the return journey back to Christchurch.

There, in New Zealand’s third-largest city, badly damaged by the earthquake of 2011, I am surprised to see hoardings and bulldozers, and the cathedral still propped up on splints. When British settlers arrived in 1880, Christchurch was destined to become a model of class-structured England, with churches rather than pubs, and land owned by gentry with English-style gardens.
The earthquake fortunately had little impact on the botanical gardens. Here, the smell of eucalyptus and mock orange wafts through avenues of trees while visitors take a leisurely punt along the Avon river. Creative Christchurch survives in the “container city”, where pop-up shops and banks do business. Cycleways have helped the revival, but those who live there are frustrated with the slow progress of its regeneration.

I head to the Heritage Hotel, a historic local government landmark which now offers 32 stately suites, “Italian renaissance palazzo style”, each with state-of-the-art kitchens. A sweeping central staircase and long corridors remind me of the grand hotels in London’s Park Lane. From Christchurch, I fly back up to Wellington and then I am off again, this time on the Northern Explorer train that runs from Wellington to Auckland and takes 10 hours.

Completed in 1908, after 23 years of construction, it is New Zealand’s longest-running passenger service. My journey starts at 8.55am, rumbling through the heart of the North Island and an ever-changing landscape of baize-green hills with folds like origami and gorges plunging into turquoise lakes. As we cross the Wellington fault line, Kapiti Island, a predator-free bird sanctuary, sits slumped in the Tasman Sea like a giant jelly baby. Photographers pile into the open-sided observation carriage, greedy to capture every vista.
By lunchtime we reach a stop named National Park, where some passengers get off to trek the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand’s oldest national park and a World Heritage area. The rest of us stay put and enjoy lamb shanks and mashed potato with a glass of Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc.

We reach Hamilton at 4.30pm, a small land-locked town on New Zealand’s longest river, the Waikato. I disembark to catch a bus to Rotorua, well known for its geothermal activity and Maori culture. The bad-egg smell of sulphur that greets me is no deterrent. My final destination, the Polynesian Spa, offers mud wraps and a Priori Coffeeberry Yoga Facial for $179NZ (£95), but I decline. Instead, I steam in mineral pools overlooking the lake, and admire the sunset. What better way to unwind after New Zealand’s two most scenic railway trips?
Way to go.

The Guardian 

Cows and Seep. Dairy farming is polluting New Zealand’s water – The Economist. 

NICK SMITH may be the first politician to be immortalised in horse manure. Before the recent general election, a super-sized sculpture depicting the environment minister, trousers down, squatting over a glass, was paraded through central Christchurch. It was carved from dung in protest at an alarming increase in water pollution. Data published in 2013 suggested that it was not safe for people to submerge themselves in 60% of New Zealand’s waterways. “We used to swim in these rivers,” says Sam Mahon, the artist. “Now they’ve turned to crap.”

Mr Smith’s National Party is now out of government. But the real villains behind New Zealand’s deteriorating water quality are still at large: cows. Scrub where sheep once grazed is being given over to intensive dairy farms—some of them irrigated to help the pasture grow. Some 6.6m cattle are now squeezed into the country of 4.7m people, transforming even an iconic arid grassland, the Mackenzie Basin (made famous by the “Lord of the Rings” films), into a tapestry of emerald fields.

The first concern is bovine urine, which is rich in nitrogen. Nitrogen can cause toxic algae to grow when it leaches into water. Nitrogen fertiliser, used to increase fodder yields so that more cows can be raised on less land, exacerbates the problem.

At many of the sites where the government tests the groundwater it contains too much nitrate to be safe to drink—a particular problem in New Zealand, since water in much of the country has long been considered clean enough that it is used as drinking water with only minimal treatment. In Canterbury, one of the most polluted areas, expectant mothers are told to test tap water to avoid “blue baby syndrome”, a potentially fatal ailment thought to be caused by nitrates. The poisonous blooms have killed dogs.

An even greater concern for human health comes from cow dung, which contains nasty bacteria such as E.coli. Three people died last year after a well was contaminated with another bug called campylobacter. Sheep were to blame in that case, yet cows have a proclivity for wading in rivers and their faeces often find their way into water. New Zealanders are twice as likely to fall ill from campylobacter as Britons, and three times more than Australians or Canadians.

And then there is the damage to native flora and fauna. The algal blooms suck the oxygen from rivers. Sediment washed from farmland can also choke the life out of streams. Almost three-quarters of native species of freshwater fish are under threat.

New Zealand is a rainy place, but farmers are also criticised for causing rivers to shrivel and groundwater to fall in certain overburdened spots. One recent tally suggested that just 2,000 of the thirstiest dairies suck up as much water as 60m people would—equivalent to the population of London, New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro combined. Most is hosed on the stony Canterbury region, including the Mackenzie Basin. Earlier this year locals were forced to rescue fish and eels from puddles which formerly constituted the Selwyn river, after drought and over-exploitation caused long stretches to dry up.

Dairies are trying to clean up their act. Farmers have fenced off thousands of kilometres of rivers to prevent livestock from wading in. Some have planted trees along waterways to curb erosion; others remove animals from muddy fields during winter. Some parts of the country are using more sophisticated techniques: around Lake Taupo, the country’s biggest lake, farmers can buy and sell nitrogen allowances in a cap-and-trade scheme. A technique called “precision irrigation” may curb both water consumption and the leaching of nitrogen.

Earlier this year the National Party launched a plan to make 90% of rivers “swimmable” by 2040. Yet it ignored several recommendations of a forum of scientists and agrarians established to thrash out water policy, and removed elected officials from an environmental council in Canterbury after they attempted to curb the spread of irrigation. One of its big initiatives to improve water quality involved lowering pollution standards, making rivers look much cleaner at a stroke.

The Labour Party, now in government, had promised during the election campaign to tax irrigators and use the cash to clean up rivers. But Labour’s populist coalition partner disliked the idea, so it has been dropped. Jacinda Ardern, the new prime minister, says that she will charge companies that bottle and export local water—little more than a gesture, as they account for only a tiny share of water use.

Environmentalists argue that the national dairy herd should be cut to prevent further damage. That may not be as hard on farmers as it sounds, argues Jan Wright, a former parliamentary commissioner for the environment. She says recent growth in the industry has been relatively inefficient, denting margins. Yet the chances of change are slim. The regulations governing Fonterra, a big dairy co-operative, encourage volume more than value, says Kevin Hackwell of Forest & Bird, a pressure group. And pollutants moving through groundwater can take decades to emerge in lakes. The worst may still be to come.

The Economist 

Nasa’s bold new plan to defuse super volcano that could bury US if it erupts – News.com.au. 

Nasa believes the Yellowstone super volcano is a greater threat to life on Earth than any asteroid. So it has come up with a plan to defuse its explosive potential.

Yellowstone National Park is the pride of the United States. It’s an untouched wilderness. It’s overflowing with scenic landscapes. And its colourful hot pools and geysers attract tens of thousands of visitors every year.

But underneath this beautiful – but thin – skin is a lurking monster.

An enormous pool of magma sits high in the Earth’s crust. It’s been calculated to contain about 250 billion cubic kilometres of molten rock.

“I was a member of the Nasa Advisory Council on Planetary Defense which studied ways for Nasa to defend the planet from asteroids and comets,” Brian Wilcox of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) told the BBC.

“I came to the conclusion during that study that the super volcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.”

There are about 20 known super volcanoes on Earth, Nasa says. A major eruption occurs about once every 100,000 years. And these odds are much higher than a repeat of an Earth-changing comet impact of the type that wiped out the dinosaurs.

So Nasa tasked a team with figuring out how to prevent an eruption.

Earth-changing impact

A super volcano is very different from the common conception of tall cones of rock and ash that occasionally catastrophically erupt.

Instead, it’s a vast space of collapsed crust that can cover hundreds of square kilometres. And if it were to erupt, it would not be with a bang.

Instead, vast quantities of searing magma and clouds of fumes would slowly crawl across the landscape – burying much of the United States under a thick coat of ash and lava.

In the case of Yellowstone, it’s enough to change the climate of the world for several centuries.

It’s happened before.

Soil samples have uncovered lava flows hundreds of kilometres long – and kilometres thick – from past eruptions. And the ash falls were even more immense.

A much smaller event in Indonesia, about 75,000 years ago, named the Toba catastrophe, pumped some 4000 tons of hydrogen sulphide gas into the atmosphere along with about 2800 cubic kilometres of ejecta. This produced a global volcanic winter that lasted a decade.

Yellowstone isn’t expected to erupt any time soon. It appears to burst roughly once every 700,000 years. The most recent was 640,000 years ago, with other events 1.3 million years ago and 2.1 million years ago.

This is much more regular than cataclysmic comet impacts.

“When people first considered the idea of defending the Earth from an asteroid impact, they reacted in a similar way to the super volcano threat,” Wilcox said.

“People thought, ‘As puny as we are, how can humans possibly prevent an asteroid from hitting the Earth’.”

Nasa, however, has an idea.

Letting off steam

Nasa’s researchers have told the BBC they have explored what it would take to avert a super volcano catastrophe.

The answer: find a way to cool the magma down.

Super volcanos only spill over when the molten rock is hot enough to become highly fluid.

In a slightly cooler state, it gets thicker. Stickier.

It’s not going anywhere fast.

To achieve this, the Jet Propulsion Labs team calculated a super volcano on the brink of eruption would have to be cooled some 35 per cent.

They propose to do this by pricking the supervolcano’s surface, to let off steam.

But this in itself poses risks.

Drill too deep, and the vent could cause an explosive depressurisation that may set off the exact kind of eruption the scientists were trying to avoid.

Instead, the Nasa scientists propose a 10km deep hole into the hydrothermal water below and to the sides of the magma chamber. These fluids, which form Yellowstone’s famous heat pools and geysers, already drain some 60-70 per cent of the heat from the magma chamber below.

Nasa proposes that, in an emergency, this enormous body of heated water can be injected with cooler water, extracting yet more heat.

This could prevent the super volcano’s magma from reaching the temperature at which it would erupt.

Such a project could cost in excess of US$3.5 billion. But it’s nothing like the reconstruction cost of digging two thirds of the continental United States out from under mountains of volcanic ash.

And it could even help pay for itself.

Steam from the superheated water could be used to drive power turbines.

“You would pay back your initial investment, and get electricity which can power the surrounding area for a period of potentially tens of thousands of years,” Nasa’s Brian Wilcox says.

NZ Herald 

Caesar’s Last Breath. The Epic Story of the Air around us – Sam Kean. 

The ghosts of breaths past continue to flit around you every second of every hour, confronting you with every single yesterday.

Short of breathing from a tank, we can’t escape the air of those around us. We recycle our neighbors’ breaths all the time, even distant neighbors’. Just as light from distant stars can sparkle our irises, the remnants of a stranger’s breath from Timbuktu might come wafting in on the next breeze.

Our breaths entangle us with the historical past. Some of the molecules in your next breath might well be emissaries from 9/11 or the fall of the Berlin Wall, witnesses to World War I or the star-spangled banner over Fort McHenry. And if we extend our imagination far enough in space and time, we can conjure up some fascinating scenarios. For instance, is it possible that your next breath, this one, right here, might include some of the same air that Julius Caesar exhaled when he died?

How could something as ephemeral as a breath still linger? If nothing else, the atmosphere extends so far and wide that Caesar’s last gasp has surely been dissolved into nothingness by now, effaced into the æther. You can open a vein into the ocean, but you don’t expect a pint of blood to wash ashore two thousand years later.

Your lungs expel a half liter of air with every normal breath; a gasping Caesar probably exhaled a full liter, a volume equivalent to a balloon five inches wide. Now compare that balloon to the sheer size of the atmosphere. Depending on where you cut it off, the bulk of the atmosphere forms a shell around Earth about ten miles high. Given those dimensions, that shell has a volume of two billion cubic miles. Compared to the atmosphere at large, then, a one-liter breath represents just 0.00000000000000000001 percent of all the air on Earth. Talk about tiny: Imagine gathering together all of the hundred billion people who ever lived, you, me, every last Roman emperor and pope and Dr. Who. If we let those billions of people stand for the atmosphere, and reduce our population by that percentage, you’d have just 0.00000000001 “people” left, a speck of a few hundred cells, a last breath indeed. Compared to the atmosphere, Caesar’s gasp seems like a rounding error, a cipher, and the odds of encountering any of it in your next breath seem nil.

Consider how quickly gases spread around the planet. Within about two weeks, prevailing winds would have smeared Caesar’s last breath all around the world, in a band at roughly the same latitude as Rome, through the Caspian Sea, through southern Mongolia, through Chicago and Cape Cod. Within about two months, the breath would cover the entire Northern Hemisphere. And within a year or two, the entire globe.

The same holds true today, naturally, any breath or belch or exhaust fume anywhere on Earth will take roughly two weeks, two months, or one or two years to reach you, depending on your relative location.

While on some level (the human level) Caesar’s last breath does seem to have disappeared into the atmosphere, on a microscopic level his breath hasn’t disappeared at all, since the individual molecules that make it up still exist.

So in asking whether you just inhaled some of Caesar’s last breath, I’m really asking whether you inhaled any molecules he happened to expel at that moment.

One liter of air at any sort of reasonable temperature and pressure corresponds to approximately 25 sextillion (25,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000) molecules.

When you crunch the numbers, you’ll find that roughly one particle of “Caesar air” will appear in your next breath. That number might drop a little depending on what assumptions you make, but it’s highly likely that you just inhaled some of the very atoms Caesar used to sound his cri de coeur contra Brutus. And it’s a certainty that, over the course of a day, you inhale thousands.

Nothing liquid or solid of Julius Caesar remains. But you and Julius are practically kissing cousins. To misquote a poet, the atoms belonging to his breath as good as belong to you.

You could pick anyone who suffered through an agonizing last breath: the masses at Pompeii, Jack the Ripper’s victims, soldiers who died during gas attacks in World War I. Or I could have picked anyone who died in bed, whose last breath was serene—the physics is identical. Heck, I could have picked Rin Tin Tin or Jumbo the giant circus elephant. Think of anything that ever breathed, from bacteria to blue whales, and some of his, her, or its last breath is either circulating inside you now or will be shortly.

Why not be more audacious? Why not go further and trace these air molecules to even bigger and wilder phenomena? Why not tell the full story of all the gases we inhale? Every milestone in Earth’s history, you see—from the first Hadean volcanic eruptions to the emergence of complex life—depended critically on the behavior and evolution of gases. Gases not only gave us our air, they reshaped our solid continents and transfigured our liquid oceans. The story of Earth is the story of its gases. Much the same can be said of human beings, especially in the past few centuries. When we finally learned to harness the raw physical power of gases, we could suddenly build steam engines and blast through billion-year-old mountains in seconds with explosives. Similarly, when we learned to exploit the chemistry of gases, we could finally make steel for skyscrapers and abolish pain in surgery and grow enough food to feed the world. Like Caesar’s last breath, that history surrounds you every second: every time the wind comes clattering through the trees, or a hot-air balloon soars overhead, or an unaccountable smell of lavender or peppermint or even flatulence wrinkles your nose, you’re awash in it. Put your hand in front of your mouth again and feel it: we can capture the world in a single breath.

This includes the formation of our very planet from a cloud of space gas 4.5 billion years ago. Later a proper atmosphere emerged on our planet, as volcanoes began expelling gases from deep inside Earth. The emergence of life then scrambled and remixed this original atmosphere, leading to the so-called oxygen catastrophe (which actually worked out pretty well for us animals). Overall the first section explains where air comes from and how gases behave in different situations.

Human beings have, well, harnessed the special talents of different gases over the past few centuries. We normally don’t think of air as having much mass or weight, but it does: if you drew an imaginary cylinder around the Eiffel Tower, the air inside it would weigh more than all the metal. And because air and other gases have weight, they can lift and push and even kill. Gases powered the Industrial Revolution and fulfilled humanity’s ancient dream of flying.

Our relationship with air has evolved in the past few decades. For one thing, we’ve changed the composition of what we breathe: the air you inhale now is not the same air your grandparents inhaled in their youth, and it’s markedly different from the air people breathed three hundred years ago.

You can survive without food, without solids, for weeks. You can survive without water, without liquids, for days. Without air, without gases, you’d last a few minutes at most. I’ll wager, though, that you spend the least amount of time thinking about what you’re breathing.

Caesar’s Last Breath aims to change that. Pure air is colorless and (ideally) odorless, and by itself it sounds like nothing. That doesn’t mean it’s mute, that it has no voice. It’s burning to tell its story. Here it is.

Caesar’s Last Breath. The Epic Story of the Air around us. by Sam Kean

get it from Amazon

How Color Vision Came to the Animals – Nick Stockton. 

ANIMALS ARE LIVING color. Wasps buzz with painted warnings. Birds shimmer their iridescent desires. Fish hide from predators with body colors that dapple like light across a rippling pond. And all this color on all these creatures happened because other creatures could see it.

The natural world is so showy, it’s no wonder scientists have been fascinated with animal color for centuries. Even today, the questions how animals see, create, and use color are among the most compelling in biology.

Until the last few years, they were also at least partially unanswerable—because color researchers are only human, which means they can’t see the rich, vivid colors that other animals do. But now new technologies, like portable hyperspectral scanners and cameras small enough to fit on a bird’s head, are helping biologists see the unseen. And as described in a new Science paper, it’s a whole new world.

Visions of Life

The basics: Photons strike a surface—a rock, a plant, another animal—and that surface absorbs some photons, reflects others, refracts still others, all according to the molecular arrangement of pigments and structures. Some of those photons find their way into an animal’s eye, where specialized cells transmit the signals of those photons to the animal’s brain, which decodes them as colors and shapes.

It’s the brain that determines whether the colorful thing is a distinct and interesting form, different from the photons from the trees, sand, sky, lake, and so on it received at the same time. If it’s successful, it has to decide whether this colorful thing is food, a potential mate, or maybe a predator. “The biology of color is all about these complex cascades of events,” says Richard Prum, an ornithologist at Yale University and co-author of the paper.

In the beginning, there was light and there was dark. That is, basic greyscale vision most likely evolved first, because animals that could anticipate the dawn or skitter away from a shadow are animals that live to breed. And the first eye-like structures—flat patches of photosensitive cells—probably didn’t resolve much more than that. It wasn’t enough. “The problem with using just light and dark is that the information is quite noisy, and one problem that comes up is determining where one object stops and another one starts. ” says Innes Cuthill, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Bristol and coauthor of the new review.

Color adds context. And context on a scene is an evolutionary advantage. So, just like with smart phones, better resolution and brighter colors became competitive enterprises. For the resolution bit, the patch light-sensing cells evolved over millions of years into a proper eye—first by recessing into a cup, then a cavity, and eventually a fluid-filled spheroid capped with a lens. For color, look deeper at those light-sensing cells. Wedged into their surfaces are proteins called opsins. Every time they get hit with a photon—a quantum piece of light itself—they transduce that signal into an electrical zap to the rudimentary animal’s rudimentary brain. The original light/dark opsin mutated into spin-offs that could detect specific ranges of wavelengths. Color vision was so important that it evolved independently multiple times in the animal kingdom—in mollusks, arthropods, and vertebrates.

In fact, primitive fish had four different opsins, to sense four spectra—red, green, blue, and ultraviolet light. That four-fold ability is called tetrachromacy, and the dinosaurs probably had it. Since they’re the ancestors of today’s birds, many of them are tetrachromats, too.

But modern mammals don’t see things that way. That’s probably because early mammals were small, nocturnal things that spent their first 100 million years running around in the dark, trying to keep from being eaten by tetrachromatic dinosaurs. “During that period the complicated visual system they inherited from their ancestors degraded,” says Prum. “We have a clumsy, retrofitted version of color vision. Fishes, and birds, and many lizards see a much richer world than we do.”

In fact, most monkeys and apes are dichromats, and see the world as greyish and slightly red-hued. Scientists believe that early primates regained three-color vision because spotting fresh fruit and immature leaves led to a more nutritious diet. But no matter how much you enjoy springtime of fall colors, the wildly varicolored world we humans live in now isn’t putting on a show for us. It’s mostly for bugs and birds. “Flowering plants of course have evolved to signal pollinators,” says Prum. “The fact that we find them beautiful is incidental, and the fact that we can see them at all is because of an overlap in the spectrums insects and birds can see and the ones we can see.”

Covered in Color

And as animals gained the ability to sense color, evolution kickstarted an arms race in displays—hues and patterns that aided in survival became signifiers of ace baby-making skills. Almost every expression of color in the natural world came about to signal, or obscure, a creature to something else.

For instance, “aposematism” is color used as a warning—the butterfly’s bright colors say “don’t eat me, you’ll get sick.” “Crypsis” is color used as camouflage. Color serves social purposes, too. Like, in mating. Did you know that female lions prefer brunets? Or that paper wasps can recognize each others’ faces? “Some wasps even have little black spots that act like karate belts, telling other wasps not to try and fight them,” says Elizabeth Tibbetts, an entomologist at the University of Michigan.

But animals display colors using two very different methods. The first is with pigments, colored substances created by cells called chromatophores (in reptiles, fish, and cephalopods), and melanocytes (in mammals and birds). They absorb most wavelengths of light and reflect just a few, limiting both their range and brilliance. For instance, most animals cannot naturally produce red; they synthesize it from plant chemicals called carotenoids.

The other way animals make color is with nanoscale structures. Insects, and, to a lesser degree, birds, are the masters of color-based structure. And compared to pigment, structure is fabulous. Structural coloration scatters light into vibrant, shimmering colors, like the shimmering iridescent bib on a Broad-tailed hummingbird, or the metallic carapace of a Golden scarab beetle. And scientists aren’t quite sure why iridescence evolved. Probably to signal mates, but still: Why?

Decoding the rainbow of life

The question of iridescence is similar to most questions scientists have about animal coloration. They understand what the colors do in broad strokes, but there’s till a lot of nuance to tease out. This is mostly because, until recently, they were limited to seeing the natural world through human eyes. “If you ask the question, what’s this color for, you should approach it the way animals see those colors,” says Tim Caro, a wildlife biologist at UC Davis and the organizing force behind the new paper. (Speaking of mysteries, Caro recently figured out why zebras have stripes.)

Take the peacock. “The male’s tail is beautiful, and it evolved to impress the female. But the female may be impressed in a different way than you or I,” Caro says. Humans tend to gaze at the shimmering eyes at the tip of each tail feather; peahens typically look at the base of the feathers, where they attach to the peacock’s rump. Why does the peahen find the base of the feathers sexy? No one knows. But until scientists strapped to the birds’ heads tiny cameras spun off from the mobile phone industry, they couldn’t even track the peahens’ gaze.

Another new tech: Advanced nanomaterials give scientists the ability to recreate the structures animals use to bend light into iridescent displays. By recreating those structures, scientists can figure out how genetically expensive they are to make.

Likewise, new magnification techniques have allowed scientists to look into an animal’s eye structure. You might have read about how mantis shrimp have not three or four but a whopping 12 different color receptors and how they see the world in psychedelic hyperspectral saturation. This isn’t quite true. Those color channels aren’t linked together—not like they are in other animals. The shrimp probably aren’t seeing 12 different, overlapping color spectra. “We are thinking maybe those color receptors are being turned on or off by some other, non-color, signal,” says Caro.

But perhaps the most important modern innovation in biological color research is getting all the different people from different disciplines together. “There are a lot of different sorts of people working on color,” says Caro. “Some behavioral biologists, some neurophysiologists, some anthropologists, some structural biologists, and so on.”

And these scientists are scattered all over the globe. He says the reason he brought everyone to Berlin is so they could finally synthesize all these sub-disciplines together, and move into a broader understanding of color in the world. The most important technology in understanding animal color vision isn’t a camera or a nanotech surface. It’s an airplane. Or the internet.

Wired

The Asteroid that finished the Dinosaurs. A grain of sand hitting a bowling ball. – Liz Dunphy. 

The asteroid impact that doomed the dinosaurs to extinction had such a devastating effect on Earth by pure chance, scientists say.

If it had struck 30 seconds later – or 30 seconds sooner – it would have caused far less damage and the dinosaurs would probably have survived.

As a result, man might never have become the planet’s dominant species, a BBC documentary reveals tonight, according to Daily Mail.

The asteroid struck 66million years ago 24 miles off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, causing a crater 111 miles wide and 20 miles deep. Scientists who drilled into the crater found the rock was rich in sulphur compounds.

The impact of the asteroid vaporised this rock, filling the air with a cloud of dust similar to that created by a catastrophic volcanic eruption.

This blocked out the sun and cooled the planet dramatically – below freezing for a decade – wiping out most life.

Those dinosaurs not killed by fumes, molten rock falling from the sky or tsunamis would have starved as their food ran out.

Yet if the asteroid, which is estimated to have been nine miles across and travelling at 40,000mph, had arrived a few seconds sooner or later, it could have landed in deep water in the Atlantic or Pacific.

That would have meant that mostly sea water would have been vaporised, causing far less harm. Instead, the effect of the impact of a comparatively tiny asteroid was magnified catastrophically.

Sean Gulick, professor of geophysics at the University of Texas at Austin, who organised the drilling with Professor Joanna Morgan, of Imperial College London, said: “That asteroid struck Earth in a very unfortunate place.”

Professor Morgan said research suggests 100billion tons of sulphates were thrown into the atmosphere, adding: “That would be enough to cool the planet for a decade and wipe out most life.”

The asteroid’s impact was so huge that the blast led to the extermination of three quarters of all life on Earth, including most of the dinosaurs.

But this chance event allowed smaller mammals – and ultimately humans – the chance to thrive.

Had the asteroid crashed seconds earlier or later it would have hit the ocean, potentially causing much less vaporisation which may have allowed the dinosaurs to survive, scientists now believe.

Professor Joanna Morgan of Imperial College London has co-led a major new study with Sean Gullick, professor of geophysics at the University of Texas, Austin into the the impact of this earth-changing asteroid.

The results of this major study will be revealed in a new BBC documentary called The Night the Dinosaurs Died which will be screened in the UK tomorrow and is presented by Professors Alice Roberts and Ben Garod.

In the study, researchers have drilled into the peak ring of the Chicxulub crater in the Gulf of Mexico where the asteroid hit.

Their research has unearthed insights into how impacts can help shape planets and possibly even provide habitat for new origins of life.

It also established a new understanding of how violent asteroid impacts cause a planet’s surface to behave like a fluid – previous scientific analysis suggested that such impacts deform the surface by melting most of the rock around the impact.

Prof Gullick said that the asteroid struck the earth at a very unfortunate place – a concentration of sulphur-rich rock which vaporised, catapulting a light-reflecting cloud into the air.

Prof Gullick explained that sulphate particles reflect light, which effectively shaded the earth from the sun, dramatically cooling the planet, limiting plant growth and ultimately cutting off food supplies.

This caused the decline and death of the dinosaurs as a species which had dominated earth for 150m years.

According to Professor Joanna Morgan, the samples suggest that more than 100bn tons of sulphates were thrown into the atmosphere with extra soot from the fires that followed.

“That would be enough to cool the planet for a decade and wipe out most life,” Prof Morgan said as reported by The Times.

But this dark day for the dinosaurs provided an opportunity for mammals and ultimately humans to evolve.

“Just half a million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs, landscapes had filled with mammals of all shapes and sizes. Chances are, if it wasn’t for that asteroid we wouldn’t be here today,” scientist and BBC presenter Prof Alice Roberts told The Times.

Rock analysis has allowed scientists to calculate the size of the impact which indicates that the asteroid was approximately nine miles wide and hit the planet at 40,000mph.

This would make the asteroid equivalent to a grain of sand hitting a bowling ball.

***

The 30 seconds that sentenced dinosaurs to their doom: New BBC documentary reveals the moment an asteroid NINE-MILES long hit the earth and wiped out an entire species. 

Daily Mail

“CHASING ICE” captures largest glacier calving ever filmed – OFFICIAL VIDEO – YouTube. 


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