Plants That Kill: Ackee

Adapted from pages 158-159 of Plants That Kill:

Although it has also been introduced to the other Caribbean islands, Central America and Florida, ackee is widely eaten only on Jamaica. In fact, it is Jamaica’s national fruit, and ackee and saltfish is the national dish. The leathery fruit are 7.5–10 cm (3–4 in) long, bright red or yellow-orange when ripe, and split open into three sections to expose three shiny black seeds, each surrounded by a large yellow or whitish aril. Only arils from ripe fruit that have naturally split open are eaten. To remove any residual toxicity, they are cleaned of all red fibre (the aril membrane) and boiled, and the water they are boiled in is discarded. Cooking unripe arils does not destroy their toxicity.

The ackee tree (Blighia sapida) has pairs of glossy leaves. Its fruit ripen to red and, when they split open, the cream arils within can be eaten after cooking.
Photo credit: Shutterstock, twiggyjamaica

Before the toxicity of ackee was understood, eating unripe arils frequently caused poisoning known as Jamaican vomiting sickness, which occurred as an annual epidemic. Symptoms included vomiting, convulsions and, frequently, also coma and death, with mortalities being more common in children, particularly those already suffering from malnutrition. The underlying cause was eventually linked to the consumption of unripe ackee arils. This results in low blood sugar levels (hypoglycaemia) through a blockade of the liver’s ability to synthesize glucose and a reduction in fatty acid metabolism (both normal routes for increasing levels of blood sugar), as well as depletion of the liver’s carbohydrate reserves. 

Poisoning is due to the presence of an amino acid derivative, hypoglycin A (2-amino-3-(methylenecyclopropyl)- propionic acid), which is also found in other plants of the soapberry family, such as lychee (Litchi chinensis). In ackee, the concentration of hypoglycin A is high in unripe arils and reduces significantly as they ripen, although low levels remain in the aril membrane. The seeds also contain the less toxic hypoglycin B (the gamma-glutamyl conjugate of hypoglycin A), with concentrations significantly increasing as the seeds ripen. 

Plants That Kill: A Natural History of the World’s Most Poisonous Plants
By Elizabeth A. Dauncey & Sonny Larsson

This richly illustrated book provides an in-depth natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth, covering everything from the lethal effects of hemlock and deadly nightshade to the uses of such plants in medicine, ritual, and chemical warfare.

Featuring hundreds of color photos and diagrams throughout, Plants That Kill explains how certain plants evolved toxicity to deter herbivores and other threats and sheds light on their physiology and the biochemistry involved in the production of their toxins. It discusses the interactions of poisonous plants with other organisms–particularly humans—and explores the various ways plant toxins can target the normal functioning of bodily systems in mammals, from the effects of wolfsbane on the heart to toxins that cause a skin reaction when combined with the sun’s rays. This intriguing book also looks at plants that can harm you only if your exposure to them is prolonged, the ethnobotany of poisons throughout human history, and much more.

A must for experts and armchair botanists alike, Plants That Kill is the essential illustrated compendium to these deadly and intriguing plants.

  • Provides an authoritative natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth
  • Features hundreds of color illustrations throughout
  • Looks at how and why plants produce toxins
  • Describes the effects of numerous poisonous plants, from hemlock and deadly nightshade to poppies and tobacco
  • Explains poisonous plants’ evolution, survival strategies, physiology, and biochemistry
  • Discusses the uses of poisonous plants in medicine, rituals, warfare, and more

 

Insect of the Week: the American Lady

Adapted from page 49 of Butterfly Gardening:

Some American Ladies overwinter as adults in northern climates, so sightings of this wide-ranging butterfly often begin early in spring. The actual northern limit of American Lady overwintering has not been firmly established, and questions persist regarding the life stage in which they overwinter. Some reports suggest that only adults overwinter, while others indicate that both adults and chrysalides overwinter. Additionally, American Ladies are migrants, so as the weather warms each spring, butterflies from the south move northward, laying eggs as they progress. However, one fact is clear; American Ladies are widespread and common in gardens!

This patch of Parlin’s pussytoes had only recently been planted before an American Lady stopped by to lay eggs.
Photo credit: Jan Dixon.

To the nascent butterfly watcher, American Ladies look quite similar to Painted Ladies, or in the western United States, to West Coast Ladies as well. Painted Lady, with more than 100 recorded host plants, needs no special planting plans, and West Coast Lady caterpillars accept a variety of plant, some of which are weeds, but if you wish to watch the life cycle of American Lady, you will need to provide its caterpillar food plants. These are native plants that are lovely to include in gardens—western pearly everlasting, some of the species of pussytoes, and the similar but rather unattractively named cudweed.

Pussytoes are a group of plants that are easy to incorporate into gardens or wild plantings—their cultural needs are not great, and in fact they can be used as a ground cover in dry areas with poor soil. Approximately 40 different species of pussytoes are native in the United States, although many are not commonly for sale. Native-plant nurseries usually carry at least one species, with shale barren pussytoes, rosy pussytoes, and the oddly named woman’s tobacco being fairly common.

Butterfly Gardening: The North American Butterfly Association Guide
By Jane Hurwitz

Butterfly gardening creates habitats that support butterflies, connecting us with some of the most beautiful creatures in the natural world and bringing new levels of excitement and joy to gardening. In this engaging and accessible guide, lavishly illustrated with more than two hundred color photographs and maps, accomplished butterfly gardener Jane Hurwitz presents essential information on how to choose and cultivate plants that will attract a range of butterflies to your garden and help sustain all the stages of their life cycles.

An indispensable resource for aspiring and experienced butterfly gardeners alike, Butterfly Gardening is the most gardener-friendly source on the subject, covering all the practical details needed to create a vibrant garden habitat that fosters butterflies. It tells you which plants support which butterflies, depending on where you live; it describes what different butterflies require in the garden over the course of their lives; and it shows you how to become a butterfly watcher as well as a butterfly gardener.

While predominantly recommending regionally native plants, the book includes information on non-native plants. It also features informative interviews with experienced butterfly gardeners from across the United States. These gardeners share a wealth of information on plants and practices to draw butterflies to all kinds of gardens–from small suburban gardens to community plots and larger expanses.

Whether you are a gardener who wants to see more butterflies in your garden, a butterfly enthusiast who wants to bring that passion to the garden, or someone who simply wants to make their garden or yard friendlier to Monarchs or other butterflies, this is a must-have guide.

  • An essential guide for aspiring and experienced butterfly gardeners
  • Encourages readers to rethink gardening choices to support butterflies and other pollinators in their gardens and communities
  • Introduces gardeners to butterfly watching
  • Includes regional lists of plant species that are time-proven to help sustain butterflies and their caterpillars
  • Features informative interviews with expert butterfly gardeners from across the United States

 

 

Mark Serreze: The Value of Climate Science

 

Modern climate science is based on facts, physics and testable hypotheses. There is ample room for debate about what to do about climate change, but the underlying science is rock solid.

Modern climate science builds on a long track record of scientific inquiry on environmental and health issues that has benefited society. Through scientific analysis, it was discovered that DDT, widely used as a pesticide, was becoming concentrated in the food chain. As a result, laws were passed to curb its use. Tetraethyl lead was once added to gasoline to reduce engine knock. Through science, we learned that lead in the environment poses severe health hazards, so the use of lead in gasoline was consequently phased out. It was through science that we learned how CFCs were destroying stratosphere ozone. In turn, through many decades of research, we have developed a strong understanding of how the climate system works, how humans are affecting climate, and what is in store if society continues to follow its current path without taking corrective action.

Until the middle off the 20th century, climate science was pretty much a backwater. Climatologists, by and large, were bookkeepers, compiling records of temperature, precipitation and other variables. From these records, much effort was spent classifying climate types around the world, ranging from tropical rain forests to monsoons to semiarid steppes to deserts. Climate data certainly had value to farmers and the home gardener, civil and structural engineers and the military planning. But the focus was largely on statistics, with relatively little emphasis on climate dynamics – the processes that control the climate system and how it may evolve. There were notable exceptions, such as Svante Arrhenius, who, in the late 19th century, speculated on how rising concentrations of carbon dioxide would lead to warming, but for the most part, climatology was a largely descriptive and rather boring field of science.

The shift from simple bookkeeping to a more physically-based view of how the climate system works paralleled developments in meteorology—the science of weather prediction. The rapid advances in meteorology following the Second World War, in turn, largely paralleled the development of numerical computers. With computers, it became possible to translate the physical processes controlling weather systems into computer code. It was readily understood that the physics controlling weather were part of the broader set of physics that control climate, which led to the development of global climate models, or GCMs for short. GCMs were quickly seen as powerful tools to understand not just how the global climate system works, but how climate could change in response to things like brightening the sun or altering the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Using early generation GCMs developed in the 1970, pioneers like Jim Hansen of NASA, and Suki Manabe of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton confidently predicted that our planet was going to warm up, and that the Arctic would warm up the most, something that we now call Arctic amplification. But the more mundane chore of compiling climate records never stopped, and indeed, its value grew, for it was only with ever-lengthening climate records that it could be determined if things were actually changing. And as these records grew, it slowly became clear that the planet was indeed warming. From numerous GCM experiments, it also became clear that this warming, and all the things that go with it, such as the Arctic’s shrinking sea ice cover and Artic amplification, could only be explained as a response to rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Climate scientists of today need to know:

  • The processes that can change how the earth absorbs and emits energy
  • How the atmosphere and weather systems work
  • How the atmosphere interacts with the oceans
  • How the atmosphere interacts with the land surface
  • And how the land interactions with the ocean.

But whatever our area of specialty, we all try and make contributions to our understanding, but those contributions are, to the best of our ability, based on facts, physics, and sound methodology. In science, there is no room for wishful thinking. As a society, need to get past partisan bickering, step back, and listen to what climate science is telling us: the climate is changing, we know why, and the implications must not be ignored. This is the value of climate science.

Mark C. Serreze is director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, professor of geography, and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the coauthor of The Arctic Climate System. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Bird Fact Friday– the American robin, a wood thrush & their song

Adapted from pages 2-4 of Listening to a Continent Sing:

Use this QR code to hear the American robin’s song.

A robin begins to sing, 5:34 a.m., about half an hour before sunrise. His low, sweet carols drop from above one by one, cheerily, cheer- up, cheerio, cheerily. He accelerates now, adding a single high screechy note, a hisselly, after each caroled series, but soon there will be two or more such high, exclamatory notes. He combines sequences of different caroled and hisselly notes to express all that is on his mind, sometimes even singing the two contrasting notes simultaneously with a low carol from his left voice box and a high hisselly from his right, but for now the effort of deep listening is too much like work. 

A wood thrush joins in. He awakes with sharp whit whit calls, as if a bit peeved, then gradually calms to softer bup bup notes, and soon he’s in full song. Emerging are five different half- second masterpieces of rising and falling, rich, pure notes. And the flourishes— what a pity that I cannot slow them down now and hear the pure magic in the way the thrush must hear it, with his precision breathing  through his two voice boxes producing the most extraordinary harmonies imaginable.

Use this QR code to listen to the wood thrush’s song.

The robin and thrush now travel back in time together in search of their roots, meeting up with me some hundreds of millions of years ago, when we all had the same ancestor, when we were one. We belong to an extended family, each of us an extraordinary success story, each of us with an unbroken string of successful ancestors dating back to the beginning of time. The robin, the thrush, and I are equals: “Mitakuye oyasin,” the Sioux would say as they end a prayer, “all my relations.”

The robin, the wood thrush . . . Yes, I know why I’m here. Disjointed thoughts surface with jumbled words that do no justice to the certainty of purpose . . . to celebrate life, and the lives of other creatures along the way . . . to hear this continent sing, not only the birds but also the people, flowers and trees, rocks and rivers, mountains and prairies, clouds and sky, all that is . . . to discover America all over again, from the seat of a bicycle . . .to embrace reality, leaving behind the insanity of a workplace gone amuck . . . to simply be, to strip life to its bare essentials and discover what emerges . . . and in the process, perhaps find my future . . . by listening to birds!

KroodsmaListening to a Continent Sing
Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific
By Donald Kroodsma

Join birdsong expert Donald Kroodsma on a ten-week, ten-state bicycle journey as he travels with his son from the Atlantic to the Pacific, lingering and listening to our continent sing as no one has before. On remote country roads, over terrain vast and spectacular, from dawn to dusk and sometimes through the night, you will gain a deep appreciation for the natural symphony of birdsong many of us take for granted. Come along and marvel at how expressive these creatures are as Kroodsma leads you west across nearly five thousand miles—at a leisurely pace that enables a deep listen.

Listening to a Continent Sing is also a guided tour through the history of a young nation and the geology of an ancient landscape, and an invitation to set aside the bustle of everyday life to follow one’s dreams. It is a celebration of flowers and trees, rocks and rivers, mountains and prairies, clouds and sky, headwinds and calm, and of local voices and the people you will meet along the way. It is also the story of a father and son deepening their bond as they travel the slow road together from coast to coast.

Beautifully illustrated throughout with drawings of birds and scenes and featuring QR codes that link to audio birdsong, this poignant and insightful book takes you on a travel adventure unlike any other—accompanied on every leg of your journey by birdsong.

 

Plants That Kill: Capsaicin

Adapted from pages 122-123 of Plants That Kill:

The fruit and seeds of species of chilli peppers (Capsicum spp.) in the potato family (Solanaceae) contain a pungent compound, capsaicin, that makes food ‘hot’. As well as being used by humans as a spice for thousands of years, capsaicin also has medicinal applications, and the burning discomfort and pain it causes have found roles in riot-control and self-defence. 

The chilli or chili pepper (Capsicum annuum) is a small shrub from Mexico and Guatemala, with simple leaves and pendant, star-shaped flowers that appear singly and are followed by elongated, brightly coloured fruit. Numerous cultivars have been bred that vary in the size, shape and pungency of these fruit. They include the large, sweet bell peppers, as well as mild to hot chilli peppers. The taxonomy of chillies is complicated, however, with some cultivars of C. annuum having characteristics that overlap with those of two other species, the Tabasco pepper (C. frutescens) from Bolivia and western Brazil, and the very hot bonnet pepper (C. chinense), which despite its specific epithet is from Bolivia, northern Brazil and Peru. Some prefer to treat these three species and their cultivars as the ‘annuum–chinense– frutescens complex’. 

To alleviate the ‘heat sensation’ from chilli, try eating a yogurt raita containing chopped mint (Mentha spp.) leaves, as the menthol from the mint stimulates ‘cold sensation’ neurons. Photo credit: one photo, Shutterstock

Some culinary traditions use more chilli pepper than others, with the highest number being eaten in the species’ native Mexico (one chilli per person per day). Chilli has also been embraced in many of the countries to which it has been introduced, particularly India, where it is a key ingredient in curries, and Thailand. Either the fresh fruit and seeds, or the powdered or flaked dried fruit, are used for seasoning during cooking or as a condiment. 

The pungent compounds in chilli peppers, including capsaicin (8-methyl-N-vanilloyl-6-nonenamide), are capsaicinoid alkaloids, which bind to vanilloid receptors on sensory neurons (known as transient receptor potential vanilloid (TRPV) channels). These same receptors can also be stimulated by heat and pain, so the binding of the capsaicin results in the sensation of heat. The degree of burning and reddening is related to the concentration of capsaicinoids (see box) and duration of exposure (a dose-related response). TRPV channels are common to all mammals, and thereby deter rodents and other mammalian pests from eating chilli crops. Birds lack the capsaicin-binding site of these channels, however, so eat the ripe red fruit and disperse the seeds without harm. 

In addition to the sensation of heat and burning in the mouth, eating large amounts of hot chillies can cause irritation of the gastrointestinal tract. It is the burning discomfort and pain that chillies or concentrated chilli extracts cause to the eyes and nose that can be most distressing. Pepper sprays have proved to be effective weapons since they were first employed by Mayan Indians, and police forces in a number of countries now use them in the control of unruly individuals and crowds. However, the legality of using pepper sprays for self-defence varies around the world. 

Plants That Kill: A Natural History of the World’s Most Poisonous Plants
By Elizabeth A. Dauncey & Sonny Larsson

This richly illustrated book provides an in-depth natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth, covering everything from the lethal effects of hemlock and deadly nightshade to the uses of such plants in medicine, ritual, and chemical warfare.

Featuring hundreds of color photos and diagrams throughout, Plants That Kill explains how certain plants evolved toxicity to deter herbivores and other threats and sheds light on their physiology and the biochemistry involved in the production of their toxins. It discusses the interactions of poisonous plants with other organisms–particularly humans—and explores the various ways plant toxins can target the normal functioning of bodily systems in mammals, from the effects of wolfsbane on the heart to toxins that cause a skin reaction when combined with the sun’s rays. This intriguing book also looks at plants that can harm you only if your exposure to them is prolonged, the ethnobotany of poisons throughout human history, and much more.

A must for experts and armchair botanists alike, Plants That Kill is the essential illustrated compendium to these deadly and intriguing plants.

  • Provides an authoritative natural history of the most poisonous plants on earth
  • Features hundreds of color illustrations throughout
  • Looks at how and why plants produce toxins
  • Describes the effects of numerous poisonous plants, from hemlock and deadly nightshade to poppies and tobacco
  • Explains poisonous plants’ evolution, survival strategies, physiology, and biochemistry
  • Discusses the uses of poisonous plants in medicine, rituals, warfare, and more

 

Presenting the trailer for “The Serengeti Rules”— a new documentary based on the book

We’re pleased to share the trailer for The Serengeti Rules, a new documentary premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend. The film is based on the book of the same name by Sean B. Carroll, and has been adapted by Emmy and BAFTA winning filmmaker Nicolas Brown. 

The Serengeti Rules – Full Trailer from Howard Hughes Medical Institute on Vimeo.

The film will premiere on Saturday, April 21st at the Cinepolis Chelsea, with additional screenings on April 22nd, 24th, and 27th. To purchase tickets or read more about the film, you can visit the Tribeca Film Festival’s official website

Insect of the Week: Question Marks

Adapted from page 46 of Butterfly Gardening:

Butterfly guides describe the Question Mark as a butterfly found in and at the edges of woodlands, and specifically moist woodlands. Even if your garden does not happen to be ideally situated next to a bucolic, damp, woody wonderland, Question Marks can still be drawn to parks and yards if their caterpillar foods—elms, hackberries, or nettles—are readily available. Since nettles are renowned for stinging, and elms (still susceptible to Dutch elm disease) are not commercially available, you will probably want to check native-plant nurseries for one of the many species of hackberry tree. As a bonus, if you live within their range, a hackberry may also reward you by attracting the less-common butterflies Hackberry and Tawny emperors, Empress Leilia, or American Snout.

A Question Mark (left) and a two Hackberry Emperors share a juicy watermelon slice. Photo credit: Mike Wetherford.

Question Marks rarely visit flowers for nectar; instead, they gain energy by drinking liquids from rotting fruit, tree sap, and even animal droppings. An interesting way to see Question Marks in a garden setting is to set up a butter y feeder, which can be as simple as a slice of watermelon set out on a plate where animals and people will not disturb it. Other gardeners create more elaborate arrangements for butterfly feeding.

Butterfly Gardening: The North American Butterfly Association Guide
By Jane Hurwitz

Butterfly gardening creates habitats that support butterflies, connecting us with some of the most beautiful creatures in the natural world and bringing new levels of excitement and joy to gardening. In this engaging and accessible guide, lavishly illustrated with more than two hundred color photographs and maps, accomplished butterfly gardener Jane Hurwitz presents essential information on how to choose and cultivate plants that will attract a range of butterflies to your garden and help sustain all the stages of their life cycles.

An indispensable resource for aspiring and experienced butterfly gardeners alike, Butterfly Gardening is the most gardener-friendly source on the subject, covering all the practical details needed to create a vibrant garden habitat that fosters butterflies. It tells you which plants support which butterflies, depending on where you live; it describes what different butterflies require in the garden over the course of their lives; and it shows you how to become a butterfly watcher as well as a butterfly gardener.

While predominantly recommending regionally native plants, the book includes information on non-native plants. It also features informative interviews with experienced butterfly gardeners from across the United States. These gardeners share a wealth of information on plants and practices to draw butterflies to all kinds of gardens–from small suburban gardens to community plots and larger expanses.

Whether you are a gardener who wants to see more butterflies in your garden, a butterfly enthusiast who wants to bring that passion to the garden, or someone who simply wants to make their garden or yard friendlier to Monarchs or other butterflies, this is a must-have guide.

  • An essential guide for aspiring and experienced butterfly gardeners
  • Encourages readers to rethink gardening choices to support butterflies and other pollinators in their gardens and communities
  • Introduces gardeners to butterfly watching
  • Includes regional lists of plant species that are time-proven to help sustain butterflies and their caterpillars
  • Features informative interviews with expert butterfly gardeners from across the United States

 

Sean Fleming: The Necessity of Water

Changes across the globe are placing unprecedented pressure on our water resources. Today, according to a United Nations report, more than one billion people do not have access to clean water, and 1.4 billion live in river basins where water use exceeds recharge rates. Another two billion or so water users will be added to the world’s population by midcentury. This population growth, together with expansion of agricultural and industrial production as poorer nations develop, is expected to increase global water demand by a stunning 55% by 2050.

Not only do these factors increase water demand, they also signify greater global exposure to water-related hazards, including pollution and flood risk, as more people settle on floodplains, for instance, and more municipal, industrial, and agricultural effluent is discharged into the environment. At the same time, there is a strong scientific consensus that the net increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations is large enough to detectably alter global climate. This can be attributed to activities like massive fossil fuel combustion, industrial livestock production, and widespread deforestation. Current projections suggest that the main hydrological effect for most basins will be to amplify the water cycle, which may increase runoff in many regions but reduce supplies in others. More importantly, it may widely increase the intensity of both the yearly rainy and dry seasons, further increasing flood and drought risks. And river channelization, damming, contamination, and upstream water withdrawals have so degraded aquatic habitat that many freshwater biological populations have collapsed, some species have been entirely extirpated from parts of their home ranges, and others are at risk of extinction altogether. We are facing a dark constellation of regional water resource disasters, growing and coalescing into what appears to be an emerging global catastrophe of human welfare and the environment.

To mitigate the impacts of these changes, we need to invest deeply in a coordinated, broad-based, and large-scale drive to create new science and technology that addresses the needs and aspirations of the current and future global populations in a healthy and sustainable way. Only time will tell which specific directions these innovations will take, but there are a few obvious paths. This includes:

  • Lower-energy, lower-cost, and cleaner desalinization technologies to sustainably extract fresh water from deep aquifers and the ocean
  • Further technology- and policy-driven improvements in the efficiency of water use and, in particular, water distribution systems
  • Public health steps to curb population growth in ways that are new and ambitious, yet fully respectful of individual rights and freedoms
  • And perhaps most importantly of all, improved environmental monitoring and prediction technologies, so we know what’s happening with our water resources today and what to plan for in the future.

There is justification for having faith that we can get real traction on water scarcity. The development of more water-efficient technologies for homes, farms, and factories is an obvious example. Indeed, water use in the United States has leveled off near 1970 rates in spite of both population and economic growth. Granted, unsustainable water practices during regional droughts, such as groundwater mining in California, revealed a chink in the armor. Furthermore, stabilization of water demand seems restricted, at best, to a handful of rich nations. Nevertheless, the overall statistic must be acknowledged as the stunning success, cause for optimism, and clear template for emulation that it is—a shining citadel on the hill, as it were.

Improvements in water quality are another example. Admittedly, over much of the world, rapid agricultural and industrial expansion are making water quality worse, not better. Shortages of potable water due to fecal contamination remains a huge issue globally; in fact, another UN report indicates that inadequate access to clean water kills more people through the associated disease alone than are killed by guns in war. And emerging contaminants, like pharmaceuticals and plastic breakdown products, are an increasingly worrisome threat. Yet improved awareness, legislation, and technology have yielded tremendous gains. The days of rivers ablaze— this happened to the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, which was so polluted with flammable contaminants that in 1969 it actually caught fire—seem to be over. Overall, water quality across the industrialized regions of the developed world is largely much better now than it was, say, forty or fifty years ago.

Another broad reason for optimism is the seeming paradox of water conflict. Ismail Serageldin, a former World Bank vice president, famously warned that the wars of the twenty-first century will be fought over water. It turns out, though, that water resource conflict and cooperation are surprisingly nuanced. While squabbles abound, actual shooting wars solely over water, even in regions that are both arid and troubled, are virtually nonexistent. And cooperation might be at least as common as conflict.

But with exploding global demand, this all might change.

As water resource pressures mount, our efforts to manage these changes must grow commensurately. And at the heart of these efforts must be good hydrologic science, because without that, everything else will merely be a shot in the dark. Advances are required in two directions. First and foremost is improved ability to monitor water, and associated variables like land use and climate. This will be accomplished by growing our networks of ground observation stations, and by expanding the scope, accessibility, and accuracy of airborne and satellite remote sensing data. The second is to further develop our mathematical modeling and prediction technologies for watershed systems. Data analytics, statistical and machine learning-based prediction, and physical process simulation techniques – rivers in silicon, as it were – are how we test our understanding of watersheds and transform observational data and theoretical knowledge into a scientifically defensible and socially responsible basis for informed predictions and sound advice.

Water isn’t optional. Water is necessary for our very existence, for our continued economic development, and for the health of the web of life that supports us. It’s also limited in its availability, and there are no substitutes for it. Whatever path humanity chooses to follow, it will be up to hydrologists to present society with the options available, and the corresponding pros and cons, for the management of our water resources. And to do that, water resource scientists and engineers need to understand watershed systems in detail, and to accurately, precisely, consistently, and quantitatively predict the impacts on those systems from both natural phenomena and human interventions. Viewed from this perspective, it is perhaps not too dramatic to assert that the future of the world will depend, in a small but real way, on a quantum leap forward in our understanding of the physics of rivers.

Sean W. Fleming has two decades of experience in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors in the United States, Canada, England, and Mexico, ranging from oil exploration to operational river forecasting to glacier science. He holds faculty positions in the geophysical sciences at the University of British Columbia and Oregon State University.

Oswald Schmitz: Earth Environmentalism & Jazz

Pop music icon Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi”, released during the headiness of the first Earth Day, ranks among the top anthems of the 1970’s environmental movement. With lyrics such as “They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum,” and, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” it rebuked what humans were doing to nature in the interest of what was popularly deemed to be progress. The refrain, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone,” adds a wistfulness for all that is lost in the name of such progress.

The song has a timeless ring given what humans are continuing to do to nature today. More than half of the global human population now lives in paved urban areas. And by all indicators, that number likely will grow to become two thirds of all humans, or even more, by mid century. It seems that there is no end in sight to humankind’s drive to pave-over nature. Indeed, the numbers of species that stand to be endangered in the name of such progress seems unconscionable. It is not surprising, therefore, that those who are committed to speak up for those species and champion their protection might become disillusioned. It seems that all we can do in the face of this unstoppable wave of global urbanization is to sing the blues, lamenting all those species that will surely go extinct, all the while losing hope that things will change.

Yet, this needn’t be a foregone outcome. Changing ways, however, require a shift in mindset about how we build urban environments. We need to stop simply being expedient by taking away all the trees, paving-over nature, and building from scratch. Instead we can and should capitalize on human ingenuity and creativity, to take care to design and build urban areas in ways that complement nature’s aesthetic and embrace its functional properties.

Take for instance a place that is near and dear to me: located a mere fifteen-minutes from where I live is part of an urban greenspace in which a river flows through a heavily treed landscape squarely in the middle of the city and several adjoining towns. I find it magical every time I step into the river at the crack of dawn, balancing against the surge of water pressure around my legs as I begin fly-fishing. I always take a moment and look up into the bordering forest to admire the kaleidoscope caused by the flecks of rising sunlight penetrating the small gaps within the dense forest canopy. The rising sun is nature’s alarm clock. There is not a person in sight, anywhere. The only sound comes from the singing birds, the flowing water, and me, breathing. Standing alone in this stretch of the river lets me forget my worries and reflect on what is good in life, including being lucky enough to have nature so close at hand.

One of the most important dividends of having healthy ecosystem functioning is the delivery of abundant, clean water. Forests on hillsides surrounding water bodies like my urban river play an important role in the delivery of clean water. By rooting to different depths in the soil, different tree species together prevent the soil from being compacted, which allows water to infiltrate and replenish soil moisture that eventually seeps down into the river. By rooting in the soil, trees prevent soil erosion during run-off events, which prevents the river from becoming murky with suspended soil particles. Such natural water treatment can help municipalities offset hundreds of millions of dollars in capital costs that would otherwise be needed to build water treatment facilities. Natural water treatment also offsets taxpayer funded water filtration costs that can run between hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars per year, depending on how much urban nature exists.

Encouraging nature as part of the urban built environment has benefits as well. Roadway trees creating urban forests filter out air pollutants such as ozone, nitrogen, and sulfur dioxides, and small particulates that cause respiratory ailments. They also provide natural air conditioning by cooling urban areas through shading. This in turn prolongs the life of infrastructure like paved roadways. It also reduces the need for energy generation that would normally be used to cool buildings and thereby reduces emissions of greenhouse gasses and air pollutants that accompany that energy generation. Urban trees help storm-water percolate into soils rather than run-off across impervious surfaces to flood urban drainage systems and watercourses, thereby reducing the concentrations of pollutants in the water supply. Estimates indicate that the value of these services to a given city could again amount to hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. The replacement value of the trees alone can reach hundreds of millions of dollars, even after accounting for maintenance costs including tree pruning and removal, leaf pick-up and disposal, and utility-line clearing.

Urban trees offer personal health benefits as well. People living in neighborhoods with high densities of roadway trees are characterized as having higher perceptions of personal physical and mental health, of feeling younger, and of having lower incidence of cardiac and metabolic ailments than people living in the same city but in neighborhoods with fewer trees. It also encourages people to eat healthier diets, especially less meat and more servings of vegetables, fruits and grains. These health indicators persist even after accounting for differences in socio-economic factors and age. Estimates show that these lifestyle effects are equivalent to having $10,000 more in personal annual income.

The rise in urban ecological science is heralding a new era to help urban planners think more creatively about nature-informed design. Some of that creativity may come from combining natural features—such as varieties of plants with different physical structures that complement each other in their functioning—into new kinds of construction processes. Green roofs, roofs of buildings that are covered by all variety of plant species in a growing medium, are one such example. Bioswales are another. These gently sloping landscaping elements create a drainage course—a modified ditch or local depression—that is filled with natural vegetation or compost. They are usually built alongside streets or in parking lots. They collect and hold water from surface runoff to filter out silt and pollutants, thereby cleaning the water before it eventually enters a city’s storm-water sewer system.

Humanity’s influence on the Earth is forcing us to stretch our collective imagination into many realms that we have never considered before. But we have considerable scientific knowhow to support human ingenuity and thus meet the challenge of devising creative new ways to protect all the jazz. Designed landscapes change microclimates, flows and concentrations of water and nutrients, and emissions and concentration of pollutants. Hence thoughtful design must ensure that these changes lead to positive functional outcomes. Planted landscaping can even build natural habitats for many species thereby creating opportunity to lower their endangerment, as nature gets paved-over. But it requires thinking hard about the exact kinds and ways of creating habitats and how they are spatially arranged. At a minimum, that knowledge tells us that we should keep the trees whenever we pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

Oswald J. Schmitz is the Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University.

Eelco Rohling: A view from the ocean for Earth Day

On April 22, we celebrate Earth Day. Mostly, we use this holiday to demonstrate support for environmental protection.

The oceans cover some 72% of Earth’s surface; this is why we sometimes call the Earth the “Blue Planet.” Yet, in a time when people are talking about “the best deals,” the oceans are getting an extremely shoddy one.

Humanity is stretching the global oceanic ecosystem to its limits. Major impacts come from global overfishing, and from the physical destruction of critical pristine environments such as coral reefs and mangrove coasts. Combined, these reduce species diversity and richness, as well as breeding potential and resilience to disease. Our impacts on coastal systems are also strongly reducing the natural protection against wave- and storm-damage. We’d be wise to be more appreciative of, and careful with, our key food supplies and protection from the elements. After all, with 7 billion of us to feed, and with almost half of these people living within 100 miles from the sea, we have it all to lose.

Yet our deal with the oceans is even worse than that. That’s because the oceans also get to be the end-station for everything transported by water, which includes plastics as well as toxic chemicals. To boot, we have for many decades unceremoniously dumped vast quantities of society’s unwanted waste products directly into the oceans. Although legal frameworks have been introduced to limit dumping directly into the sea, illegal practices are still rife. In addition, indirect dumping via rivers—whether wittingly or unwittingly—remains a major headache.

As a result of our wasteful demeanour, we are leaving a legacy of oceans (and wildlife) that are visibly filling up with long-lived non-biodegradable plastics, which leads to graphic news coverage. In consequence, plastic pollution is now being billed by some as our oceans’ biggest threat today. It’s certainly a very visible one, with up to 240,000 tons of plastic floating in the oceans. And that amount is equal to only 1% or less of the amount of plastic that is available for entering the ocean every year. This illustrates the massive potential for the plastic problem to explode out of control.

Much less visible, but just as devastating, is the pollution of our oceans with highly toxic and long-lived chemicals—especially human-made PCBs and other organic compounds, along with concentrated heavy metals. PCBs are among the very worst threats because they are so long-lived and so toxic.

Some 10% of all 1.3 million tons of PCBs produced have made it into the oceans already (that is, about 130,000 tons). While this is alarming enough by itself, there’s up to 9 times as much waiting to be released and make its way into the oceans. All we can do to stop that from happening, is prevent any stored PCBs from making it into the open environment. So far, this has been done to 17% of the stores, while 83% have yet to be eliminated.

PCBs have become widespread in marine organisms, from coastal and estuarine waters to the greatest depths of the largest ocean: the Pacific. They cause an endless list of severe health problems, deformities, hormonal unbalance, immune-system weakening, cancer, and a decrease in fertility. Like most long-lived pollutants, PCBs accumulate into higher concentrations through the food web. Their accumulated impacts in whales already drive important infant mortality, as females pass lethal amounts of PCBs to unborn or suckling calves.

Nutrient-pollution is another big issue. This may sound like a strange type of pollution. After all, wouldn’t more nutrients just lead to more happy life in the ocean? When nutrients come in reasonable amounts, then the answer is yes. But when the nutrient flux is excessive—we then talk about eutrophication—all manner of problems develop. And the flux of artificial and human and animal waste-derived nutrients is excessive in many estuaries and coastal regions. Together with ocean warming, this has caused a rapid global expansion of regions where decomposition of massive algal blooms strips all oxygen from the waters, resulting in vast “dead zones” with completely collapsed ecosystems.

Finally, there is the sinister, lurking threat of global warming and ocean acidification. The current rate of warming has been successfully documented through scientific study, and is 10 to 100 times faster than ever before in the past 65 million years. Meanwhile, ocean acidification is caused by the oceans absorbing roughly a third of our carbon emissions. By now, the oceans have become about 0.1 pH unit more acidic than they were before the industrial revolution; that is an acidity increase of 25%. Projections for a business-as-usual emissions trajectory show a 0.3 to 0.4 pH unit change by 2100. In humans, a 0.2 pH unit change results in seizures, coma, and death. Fish, and most other vertebrates, are equally sensitive.

If the changes are slow enough, organisms can evolve to adapt. But researchers are very concerned about the extreme rate of acidification. For coral reefs, the combination of warming and acidification is certainly implicated in massive bleaching and die-off events that are going on around the world already. And let’s not forget that coral reefs house one third of all oceanic biodiversity, while oceans cover more than two thirds of the Earth surface.

The Oceans, by Eelco RohlingSo here’s my plea

We really need an Earth Day, but we need an Ocean Day as well—to build awareness about  this critical part of our planet.

At a passing glance, the oceans’ problems remain hidden under a mesmerising veil of waves and reflections. We need to remind ourselves to keep looking beneath the surface, and to keep taking this critical system’s pulse, lest it dies without us knowing about it. Maybe then we will realise how urgently we need to stop using it as a dumping ground and infinite food larder. That we instead should look for sustainable ways forward, not just for life on land, but also for life in the oceans.

Our attitude going forward will make or break society. Chances are very high that a marine mass extinction will drag us, the ultimate overpopulated top consumer, along with it.

Eelco J. Rohling is professor of ocean and climate change in the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University and at the University of Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre Southampton.

PUP champions scientific research with March for Science 2018

Princeton University Press’s mission is to bring scholarly ideas to the world. We publish books that connect authors and readers across spheres of knowledge to advance and enrich the human conversation. We embrace the highest standards in our publishing as embodied in the work of our authors from Albert Einstein in our earliest years to the present. In keeping with our commitment to serve the nation and the world with top-notch science publishing, we’re excited to announce that we will be partnering with The March for Science on April 14 in Washington, DC.

From the March for Science mission statement:

The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good, and for political leaders and policymakers to enact evidence-based policies in the public interest.

  • We believe that the scientific method, and findings that result from its responsible use, are powerful tools for decision-making.
  • We integrate our commitment to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion into all programming, outreach, and advocacy efforts.
  • As nonpartisan political advocates, we act with the understanding that science does not belong to any political party, and that scientific evidence is an essential part of good policymaking at every level of government.
  • We do not merely react to the problems of today: we look forward, aspiring toward an inclusive, integrated vision for the future of science and science policy.
  • We are a reflective and self-critical organization that prizes ongoing internal evaluation and correction.

Read the full statement here.

In our politicized world, the application of science to policy is not a partisan issue. Like the March for Science, Princeton University Press is proud to support engagement with scientific research through education, communication, and ties of mutual respect between scientists and their communities.

Bird Fact Friday— “Tropical Chickens”

Adapted from pages 264-265 of The New Neotropical Companion:

The 56 species of chachalacas, guans, and curassows are similar in appearance to chickens and turkeys, and are in the same order, Galliformes, but are in their own family, Cracidae. They are found in dense jungle, mature forest, montane forest, and cloud forest. Though individuals and sometimes pairs or small flocks are often observed on the forest floor, small flocks are often seen perched in trees.

The 15 chachalaca species are all slender, brownish olive in color, and have long tails. Each species is about 51 cm (20 in) from beak to tail tip. A chachalaca has a chicken-like head, with a bare red throat, usually visible only at close range. Most species form flocks of up to 20 or more birds. Chachalacas are highly vocal. The Plain Chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) is among the noisiest of tropical birds. Dawn along a rain forest edge is often greeted by a host of chachalaca males, each enthusiastically calling its harsh and monotonous cha-cha- lac! The birds often remain in thick cover, even when vocalizing, but an individual may call from a bare limb, affording easy views.

A female Bare-faced Curassow (Crax fasciolata) perched in a tree. This is an example of a “Tropical Chicken.” Photo credit: John Kricher.

Twenty-five species of guans and 16 species of curassows occur in Neotropical lowland and montane forests. Larger than chachalacas—most are the size of a small, slender turkey—they have glossy, black plumage set off by varying amounts of white or rufous. Some, like the Horned Guan (Oreophasis derbianus) and the Helmeted Curassow (Pauxi pauxi), have bright red “horns” or wattles on the head and/or beak. The Blue-throated Piping-Guan (Pipile cumanensis) and the Red-throated Piping-Guan (P. cujubi) have much white about the head and wings and a patch of colorful skin on the throat. 

Guans and curassows, though quite large, can be difficult to observe well. Small flocks move within the canopy, defying you to get a satisfactory binocular view of them. Like chachalacas, guans and curassows are often vocal, especially in the early morning hours.

There are 23 species of New World quail (family Odontophoridae) in the Neotropics, but seeing them requires a lot of searching and good luck. They are generally a secretive, cryptic group, rarely giving observers a good close look, as they scurry quietly along the shaded forest interior. Most of these species have narrow ranges but a few are more widely ranging.

New Neotropical Companion CoverThe New Neotropical Companion
John Kricher
Chapter One

The New Neotropical Companion is the completely revised and expanded edition of a book that has helped thousands of people to understand the complex ecology and natural history of the most species-rich area on Earth, the American tropics. Featuring stunning color photos throughout, it is a sweeping and cutting-edge account of tropical ecology that includes not only tropical rain forests but also other ecosystems such as cloud forests, rivers, savannas, and mountains. This is the only guide to the American tropics that is all-inclusive, encompassing the entire region’s ecology and the amazing relationships among species rather than focusing just on species identification.

The New Neotropical Companion is a book unlike any other. Here, you will learn how to recognize distinctive ecological patterns of rain forests and other habitats and to interpret how these remarkable ecosystems function—everything is explained in clear and engaging prose free of jargon. You will also be introduced to the region’s astonishing plant and animal life.