Oswald Schmitz on “new ecology”: How does humankind fit in with nature?

Schmitz Ecology has traditionally been viewed as a science devoted to studying nature apart from humans. But humankind is singlehandedly transforming the entire planet to suit its own needs, causing ecologists to think differently about the relationship between humans and nature. The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocence by Oswald Schmitz provides a concise and accessible introduction to what this “new ecology” is all about. The book offers scientific understanding of the crucial role humans are playing in this global transition, explaining how we can ensure that nature has the enduring capacity to provide the functions and services on which our existence and economic well-being critically depend. Recently, Schmitz took some time to answer a few questions about his new book.


The term Anthropocene is cropping up a lot nowadays in discussions about the environment. What does this term refer to?

OS: The Anthropocene essentially means the Age of Humans. Science has characterized the history of the Earth in terms of major events that have either shaped its geological formations or have given rise to certain dominant life forms that have shaped the world. For example, the Mesozoic is known as the Age of the Dinosaurs, the Cenozoic includes the Age of Flowering Plants, Age of Insects, Age of Mammals and Birds. The Anthropocene characterizes our modern times because humans have become the dominant life form shaping the world.

You’ve written several books about ecology. What’s different about this one?

OS: My goal is to communicate the exciting scientific developments and insights of ecology to a broad readership. I hope to inspire readers to think more deeply about humankind’s role as part of nature, not separate from it, and consider the bigger picture implications of humankind’s values and choices for the sustainability of Earth. As such, the intended audience is altogether different than my previous books. My previous books were technical science books written specifically for ecologists or aspiring ecologists.

What inspired you to write this particular book?

OS: The ecological scientific community has done a great job of conducting its science and reporting on it in the scientific literature. That literature is growing by leaps and bounds, describing all manner of fascinating discoveries. The problem is, all that knowledge is not being widely conveyed to the broader public, whose tax dollars are supporting much of that research and who should be the ultimate beneficiaries of the research. Writing this book is my way of explaining to the broader public the incredible value of its investment in ecological research. I wrote it to explain how the scientific findings can help make a difference to people’s livelihoods, and health and well-being.

What is the main take-home message?

OS: I’d like readers to come away appreciating that ecological science offers considerable means and know-how to help solve many of the major environmental problems facing humankind now and into the future. It aims to dispel the notion, often held in society, that ecology is simply a science in support of environmental activism against human progress, one that simply decries human impacts on the Earth. This book instead offers a positive, hopeful outlook, that with humility and thoughtful stewardship of Earth, humans can productively engage with nature in sustainable ways for the mutual benefit of all species—humans included—on Earth.

Oswald Schmitz is the Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. His other works include Resolving Ecosystem Complexity (Princeton). His most recent book is The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocence.

A journey of disease and discovery, a look at scurvy with Jonathan Lamb

lambInternal bleeding, black gums, morbidly sensitive skin, even “scorbutic nostalgia,” in which victims imagined mirages of food, water, or home—these are just some of the symptoms of the disease associated with maritime travel: scurvy. Jonathan Lamb traces the cultural impact of scurvy and details the medical knowledge surrounding the disease, which stems from a vitamin deficiency and is still found today. Drawing on historical accounts from scientists and voyagers as well as major literary works, the book charts a unique eighteenth-century journey of discovery. Jonathan Lamb recently took the time to answer some questions about the book.

 


Why did you write a book about a disease that doesn’t trouble us anymore?

JL: Actually it does. On a trip to Easter Island I met a woman who got scurvy from dieting. A survey of North American college students discovered that 40% had levels of vitamin C below the minimum level required for good health. War veterans, recent widowers, children addicted to food lacking vitamins A, B, C and D, people caught in sieges like the citizens of Aleppo in Syria or Mount Sinjar in Iraq, they are all vulnerable. Like goiter, rickets, pellagra and beriberi, scurvy is a nutritional disease. That is to say, you don’t catch it, like ebola or bubonic plague, it lies in wait for an interruption in the ingestion of fresh food, and then inevitably (if the interruption is long enough) it makes its fatal appearance. True there are no great outbreaks such as those that killed two-thirds of the complement of George Anson’s naval squadron in the 1740s, but it does to remember that it was rife, for instance, in the penal settlements of early Australia, and on Scott’s Discovery expedition to Antarctic, and among the South Asian regiments of the British Army in Iraq during the First World War. Eric Newby got it sailing on a windjammer to South Australia in 1939. The symptoms of scurvy’s cousin pellagra, a staggering walk and a distracted mind, are evident in Primo Levi’s account of the so-called Muselmaenner of Auschwitz in his memoir If this is a Man.

What are the symptoms of scurvy?

JL: They are divided between purely physical effects and alterations in the nervous structure of the brain. Generally scurvy begins with sensitive gums, aching joints, blood-spots and bruising of the skin that eventually ulcerate. When this happens in the mouth, the gums turn black and swell. Sailors used to call it `bullocks’ liver.’ Teeth fall out, old fractures open up, cartilage disappears from the bones, artery walls weaken, the tendons shrink, and internal bleeding begins. Soon after this breathing becomes stertorous, the heart is under pressure, brain haemorrhages will occur, and death is not far away. While this is happening the mind is affected either with stupor or with powerful hallucinations and dreams. It was generally agreed by close observers of the disease that the imagination of scorbutic patients was desperately signaling to the body to get hold of the right kind of food: chiefly green vegetables, fish and meat. Of course dreams so vivid raised powerful expectations, and when the poor sailors awoke to find none of what they needed, they were prone to weep uncontrollably. The physical symptoms were owing to loss of collagen which the body cannot restore without an adequate supply of vitamin C: basically the scaffold and hydraulic system of the body collapse. The psychological symptoms were the result of free radicals, normally scavenged by the vitamin, clogging the synapses, resulting either in extreme lethargy or a morbid sensitivity to light, texture, smells and sounds.

Since we all know now that scurvy is cured by oranges and lemons, what was going to be new about your book?

JL: The thing is everybody always knew the cure of scurvy. If you could get hold of fresh fruit, kale, onions or potatoes you would soon recover. The problem was that at sea no fresh food was available, only salt meat, flour, dried peas, raisins, oil or butter and oatmeal. You needed a medicine capable of preventing or alleviating the symptoms of eating nothing but preserved food. But of course the medicine itself had to be preserved too. Ever since the days of Hawkins and Drake it was known that the juice of lemons, limes and oranges was a powerful antiscorbutic, the trouble was how to preserve it. Boiling got rid of the vitamin; sometimes the fruit (West Indian limes for instance) was naturally low in ascorbic acid; sometimes extremes of heat and cold ruined what virtue the juice had; and sometimes wicked contractors used imperfect fruit, or blended and diluted the juice to the point where it was useless. Besides these obstacles there was no agreement among surgeons and physicians as to whether a cure for scurvy was the same as a preventive. James Lind, famous for a clinical trial proving beyond doubt that citrus juice cured scurvy, had no faith in its value as a preventive, for like many other naval physicians he believed that scurvy was caused by defective food, not by food deficient in some vital principle. That is to say he thought the disease was caught from the environment, not from a genetic mutation in humans that prevents them from synthesizing a chemical crucial to life.

Well, even if Lind got it wrong, Cook got it right and there was no more serious scurvy after they got rid of it in his voyages of discovery, was there?

JL: That is the story that is generally told, but it is not quite true. On his three voyages to the Pacific scurvy occurred, but never fatally. Cook ran his ships with exemplary care for hygiene, warmth, dry clothes, clean air and regular stops for refreshment, and on top of that he was carrying a host of preserved dietary supplements that he hoped would keep scurvy at bay, including lime juice. He had a low opinion of the juice, privately favouring sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) and spruce beer (fermented malt sharpened with pine needles and bark). But nutritional politics played a large part in his official endorsement of malt wort, the brainchild of a physician called David MacBride who was patronized by powerful people. Malt was easily concentrated, and it was a lot cheaper than citrus juice, and so it received official backing and was used well into the 19th century, even though it had no antiscorbutic value whatsoever. Many historians think Cook contributed to postponing the reforms of Nelson’s navy by forty years. From 1795 onwards Gilbert Blane saw to it that every sailor in the British Fleet drank an ounce of concentrated lime-juice per day, to which was owing the health of British seamen during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Hence `limeys,’ the derogatory name applied by American sailors to their British cousins.

So that was that, end of story?

JL: Not really. You see these were all either theoretical or empirical solutions to the problem of scurvy. MacBride for instance considered that scurvy was a shortage of air in the body, and he believed that malt released carbon dioxide into the organs, ventilating them. Thomas Beddoes had a similar theory about oxygen. Thomas Trotter on the other hand, physician to the Channel Fleet in the early 1790s, said the only treatment of scurvy worthy the name was based on observation and experience, and strongly advocated lime-juice as both a preventive and a cure, although he thought its acidic qualities might corrode the mucus tissue and the stomach lining. But none of these men knew for sure what it was in air or lime-juice that caused them to prevent or cure scurvy. However they were agreed that the body needed more from food than carbohydrates and protein.

They were getting closer to the truth, weren’t they?

JL: Yes, in a way, although the best investigators of scurvy in the 17th century had reached the same conclusion. Those who had a theory of deficient food were on the right track, while those who thought scurvy was caused poisoned by spoilt supplies were wrong. However, it was the latter school that was destined to triumph in the latter part of the 19th century. A series of disastrous expeditions to the Arctic were to blame, beginning with Franklin’s where the evidence pointed to tainted cans of meat as responsible for the first stage of the tragedy. A few years later Nares’s expedition was afflicted with scurvy even though a copious amount of preserved lime juice was distributed among the crew. It was even observed that the symptoms of scurvy worsened as more of the juice was consumed. It was not long before an influential physician, Sir Almoth Wright, instituted a germ theory of scurvy that dominated medical thinking until the discovery of vitamin C in 1933. Captain Scott referred to sealmeat as an `antidote’ to the ptomaine poisoning he believed damaged cans of meat were causing among his men.

And that is the story, right?

JL: I wasn’t sure it was. Scurvy was regarded as a shameful disease, associated with dirt and malingering and horrid to watch and smell. The French historian of smell, Alain Corbin, says that in the catalogue of noisome diseases, scurvy was far and away the worst. The most frequent testimony coming out of the experience of scurvy is that it was hard to say what it was like to have it, and that it was impossible to describe the condition of those suffering from it. So you will often find commanders and doctors trying to cover up its presence, usually by calling it something else, such as rheumatism, dysentery, typhus or erysipelas. It is common to find surgeons reporting that their scorbutic patients recovered nicely after they had been dosed with malt—either a mistake or a lie. In 1834 at the penal settlement of Port Arthur half the convicts were showing signs of the disease, 19 were in the last stages of scorbutic decline in the hospital, yet only a single death from scurvy was reported for the whole year. It is hard to find pictures of scorbutic bodies and with the exception of Thomas Trotter’s books on naval medicine, there are very few closely observed accounts of its progress. Since Jean-Jacques Rousseau had said scurvy was a matter for `shocking calculation’ why were accounts of it so coy or misleading? Here there was truly a `secret history’ to uncover.

You are a professor literature. Has scurvy anything to do with your specialism?

JL: Yes it does. There is a genre of utopian fiction that weaves stories around outbreaks of scurvy. Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis begins with scorbutic English sailors being cured with blood oranges; Diderot’s Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville uses Bougainville’s experience of the same thing at Tahiti as the basis of fantasy about an island of free love, very similar in its outline to Henry Neville’s Isle of Pines. Gabriel Francois Coyer wrote a supplement to Anson’s voyage, turning a tale of a stricken crew landing at a verdant island into the discovery of a civilization devoted to idle forms of artifice, breeding horses too delicate to ride, growing fruits that are beautifully coloured but inedible, and amusing themselves with operas and romances. Bernardin de St Pierre’s famous novel, Paul et Virginie, is an exquisite pastoral tale set on Mauritius which the author first reached when his nerves were so disordered by scurvy he found every shrub, tree, animal and bird on the island repellent. A fascinating story to come out of Cook’s second voyage is called The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman, and tells the story of the alleged eleventh man in the Adventure’s cutter whose crew were cut off by Maori while in search of antiscorbutic herbs, then killed and eaten. Bowman’s travels take him to nations that each cultivate a sense well beyond the degree of gross normality: one whose citizens can see in the dark, another where they enjoy extraordinarily sensitive hearing, and lastly one where responsiveness to touch is so exquisite it has carried sexual pleasure to a new height. There is a unique pattern in this fiction, for each story is fashioned out of two versions of the same story, modeled on the succumbing to scurvy and the recovery from it, where inexpressible pains are transformed into wonderful delights. So there you are, scorbutic fiction—a newly discovered genre.

Jonathan Lamb is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. His many books include The Things Things Say (Princeton) and The Evolution of Sympathy in the Long Eighteenth Century. His most recent book is Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery.

The making of a field guide in Ecuador: an interview with Nick Athanas and Paul Greenfield

birds of western ecuador athanas jacketIn Birds of Western Ecuador: A Photographic Guide, Nick Athanas and Paul Greenfield provide a practical field guide for birders wanting to explore the region. Filled with bright and beautiful photographs, their extensively researched and photographed volume is a striking guide for the area’s birds, with nearly every species in Western Ecuador included. Recently, both authors agreed to answer some questions about their personal passions for the project.

Why did you want to write Birds of Western Ecuador?

NA: I had been photographing birds in South America for about ten years, and had built up a sizable collection of nice images. I wanted to do something useful with them. Since I am also a birder and a birding tour guide based in Ecuador, a field guide to the region was an obvious project to think about. Iain Campbell, longtime friend and business partner, was working on a photographic guide for Australia, and encouraged us to do it; he put us in contact with Robert Kirk at Princeton University Press.

PG: Ecuador is a huge country in terms of bird species diversity, and with the advent of digital photography, actually capturing nice images of much of its avifauna made doing such a project a viable possibility. When the project was first presented to me by Nick and Iain, I hesitated a bit, only because I had already spent over 20 years working on the painted illustrations of the Birds of Ecuador, but after looking over some of the proposed shots, the idea of presenting a photographic testimonial to the Ecuador’s rich birdlife instantly became very attractive.

What is your target audience?

NA & PG: Our book targets English-speaking birders visiting western Ecuador, either on their own or on an organized tour. We assumed no previous birding experience in the Neotropics. However, the guide will be useful and inspiring for anyone with an interest in the birds of the region, even those with a lot of experience birding the Neotropicals. We excluded photos of some species that are very rare visitors to the region in order make the book smaller and more user-friendly, but it will have everything most visiting birders will see on a typical trip to western Ecuador. The excluded species are also usually mentioned in the text so that readers are aware of them. While not specifically designed for it, the guide also covers the vast majority of birds occurring in southwestern Colombia and northwestern Peru.

So this is a real field guide, and not just a collection of pretty bird photos?

NA & PG: Absolutely, this is a field guide. It was designed to help identify birds. The photos were chosen to show the relevant field marks, the text is extensive and helps to distinguish between similar species, and the range maps are completely new and based on up to date sighting information. Text, species accounts, and maps are all laid out side-by-side and everything is indexed.

Do you believe photographs can be as effective as paintings in a field guide?

NA: With good photos and clear text, I really do believe that. It would have been impossible even just five years ago. With the amazing recent technological advances in digital cameras, it is now possible to get great shots of shy rainforest species in natural light that were impossible before. The better gear also has led to an explosion in interest in wildlife photography, so there are a lot more people out there shooting bird photos. There are now good images available of the vast majority of the world’s bird species. A clear, sharp photo can show a bird’s important field marks at least as well as a good painting, and can even reveal features that other field guides might overlook.

PG: Having experience with both bird photography and painting, I believe that each presents effective, but slightly different strengths for illustrating field guides. Bird painting, with its respective pros and cons, can be quite effective—through hardly noticeable distortions—in presenting field marks from above and below a bird at the same time, as well as creating a sense of wondrous anticipation in the viewer. Bird photography presents the ‘real’ image of the actual species—it brings in the element of reality with ‘real-time’ accuracy when it comes to field-marks, ‘attitude’ and expression.

Were you able to get all the photos you needed?

NA & PG: All but a few. There were two species that we could not find any photos which were of high enough quality to publish: Berlepsh’s Tinamou and Colombian Crake. There were a few species where we could not find photos of one of the sexes. There are also a few of marginal quality, but in general we are extremely happy with the selection of photos. About half the photos are Nick’s, but we also invested a huge amount of time looking for other photos and contacting dozens of talented photographers. In the end, over 70 photographers contributed shots to Birds of Western Ecuador. It includes images of nearly 950 species. To put that in perspective, that’s more bird species than are found in all of the continental US.

This guide only covers half of Ecuador. Why?

NA & PG: We did not think we had the photos to do the entire country, nor did I we think we would be able to get them in the few years we had to write this book. Eastern Ecuador has significantly more species, and many of them are rainforest birds that are extremely hard to find and see, never mind photograph. Western Ecuador was a manageable starting place, and even still it was a far larger project than we anticipated.

Will you write a companion volume?

NA & PG: If this book is well-received, and if PUP is interested, we’d like to write another volume. It could be for eastern Ecuador, or possibly for the whole country. Most of Ecuador’s birds are in the East, so including everything won’t make the book proportionally that much larger. I think that in the years that have passed since we started Birds of Western Ecuador, many more species have been photographed, so that we should be able to obtain nice shots of almost all of Ecuador’s birds by the time a companion volume is finished.

Some people may see all these photos of amazingly colorful birds and be inspired to visit. When is the best time of year?

NA & PG: Come any time! We go out birding any month of the year and always find great birds. June-September are usually the driest months, and January to May are usually the wettest months. A lot of people like to visit the Northwest in the intermediate months of October-November since some rain is good for activity but it usually isn’t too much. January in the Southwest is usually great because the rains are just starting, the birds are singing, but the trees still haven’t leafed out much so the birds are easier to spot and enjoy. But really, if you can only come at a certain time, by all means do so.

Do you have a favorite bird?

NA: I have many! Hard to pick favorites when there are so many amazing choices. One of them, however, is definitely the Velvet-purple Coronet that went on the cover. It’s such a uniquely-colored hummer and its shimmering hues change depending on the angle and the lighting conditions.

PG: I have always said that my favorite bird is the one I am looking at ‘right now’, and I believe that’s really true. I especially get a kick out of remembering the circumstances when I first saw a species, each time I see it again; but how can you not go nuts with tanagers, hummingbirds, trogons, cotingas, antbirds, toucans… well all of them!

Nick Athanas is cofounder of the tour company Tropical Birding. He leads bird tours throughout the Neotropics and has photographed more than 2,500 bird species. Paul J. Greenfield is a longtime resident of Ecuador, where he leads bird tours and is active in bird conservation. He is the coauthor and illustrator of The Birds of Ecuador. Together they have written Birds of Western Ecuador: A Photographic Guide.

PUP Op ed Original: Noah Wilson-Rich on why urban dwellers should be raising bees on their rooftops

Belted beeNoah Wilson-Rich studies bees and the diseases that are depleting their colonies. He founded the Best Bees Company, a Boston based beekeeping service and research organization, has given a TED talk, and is now the author of The Bee: A Natural History, recently published by Princeton University Press. Today he shares with us the vital importance of urban beekeeping.

CITIES ARE KEY TO SAVING BEES
By Noah Wilson-Rich

Nearly a decade after the start of Colony Collapse Disorder (C.C.D.), a bizarre phenomenon whereby honey bees simply vanished from their hives across the United States during 2006-2011, bees are still dying at unsustainable rates today. Across the country, about one in every three hives does not survive the winter. Germany shares this alarming statistic across their apiaries. Bee deaths seem higher in areas with harsh winters and in areas with monoculture agriculture use – but lower death rates in cities. In Boston, urban bees not only survive the winter at higher rates, but they also produce more honey than beehives in surrounding suburban and rural environments.

The Bee jacketBees are vitally important creatures. We tend to give honey bees (Apis mellifera) all the credit for pollination because most people are familiar with the old man beekeeper working his white painted beehives image. Yet, honey bees are only one species of bee from about 20,000 total species worldwide. Their contributions span far past pollinating around 100 fruit and vegetable crops that we rely upon, and an estimated $100 billion to the global economy each year. Of the $15 billion that bees contribute to the United States economy annually, the alfalfa bee alone contributes an estimated $7 billion. The alfalfa bee! (Cattle rely on alfalfa for feed.) If the future of humanity is to involve nutritious food, then we must consider bees.

Regardless of what caused or ended C.C.D., or why bees are thriving in cities, the discovery of urban beekeeping as a safe haven for bees gives us hope. The post-C.C.D. world still has myriad dangers for bees; they are still dying. The three leading hypotheses for what’s killing bees: 1) Diseases, 2) Chemicals (e.g., fungicides, pesticides, etc.), and 3) Habitat loss. The Typhoid Mary event for bees that opened the flood gates to a series of additive plagues was in 1987, when Varroa mites first came to the United States. In 1998, small hive beetles were added. In 2004, imported Australian honey bees brought with them Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus. In 2006, C.C.D. began. In 2013, the fungus Nosema ceranae became omnipresent in all 200 hives that my laboratory sampled. And we haven’t even started on the pesticides, fungicides, and habitat loss yet.navigating bee

Spring brings to light the brighter side of things. My beekeeping team was back out this year, tirelessly checking hives, maneuvering rooftop equipment on skyscrapers, trekking through waist-high snow drifts, looking for signs of life. One team returned to our Urban Beekeeping Laboratory and Bee Sanctuary in Boston’s South End, reporting that 100% of the day’s hives visited were alive. I assume they stayed around Boston or Cambridge that day, and my suspicion was right. The next day, another team of beekeepers returned from the field, their faces long trodden and forlorn, with only 1 out of 15 hives visited that day having survived the winter. I assumed they visited countryside beehives; I was right.

Policy makers are increasing their legislative actions to be more permissive for urban beehives, with beekeeping allowed in Seattle in 2008, New York City in 2010, Boston in 2014. San Francisco totally allows beekeeping unrestricted, while Denver limits to 2 hives in the rear 1/3 of a zone lot. Los Angeles is slated to be the next major metro area to allow beekeeping in residential areas. Even Washington, DC now has its first beehives at the White House grounds, in step with President Obama’s 2014 memorandum, “Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.”

Urban beekeeping took flight in New York City in March of 2010. It was made illegal by the Giuliani administration in the 1990’s, along with a list of dozens of prohibited animals. In the years since its legalization, the island of Manhattan became a pollinator haven. After my recent talk at the March 30, 2015 meeting of the New York City Beekeepers Association, local beekeepers asked if there were too many beehives in the city. Beekeepers in London talk about this, as well. Is there a saturation point, with too many beehives in the City? That’s how common beekeeping is in New York and London. (One way to measure this is based on the Great Sunflower Project, whereby everyday citizens record the number of bees visiting a flower for 10 minutes each day, as a means of gathering data to measure pollinator abundance; this hasn’t yet been done for cities.)

Los Angeles is the only major city in the United States with illegal beekeeping. The pesticide policy came into effect long ago, way before “killer bees” gave the non-aggressive bees a bad rap. Rather, policy makers received bad info, that bees attack fruit – and decided that the best way to preserve our crops was to ban the bees. We now understand pollination. We know that more bees actually lead to more fruits and vegetables. Yet the law of the land remains, and Angelinos must kill beehives upon site. The future for beekeepers in Los Angeles may be bright, however, with City Councilor Katie Peterson and other policy makers working to legalize beekeeping as soon as within the next few months.

Access to urban beekeeping is a social justice issue. It gives everyone access to local, healthy food. What’s more is that is allows for a new avenue of corporate sustainability, with businesses opting to put beehives on their rooftops as a display of their commitment to the environment. For example, simply reusing a towel or having an herb garden on the rooftop is not necessarily enough these days for a hotel to rise to the top of the sustainability ranks. Beekeeping and pollinator protection are the next step for sustainability branding.

Urban beekeeping is happening across the globe, and it’s a good thing. We should change laws to allow more of it to happen and also educate the public so they can also raise bees on their rooftops to allow for a more sustainable future for both humans and bees, alike.

Noah Wilson-Rich, Ph.D. is founder and chief scientific officer of The Best Bees Company, a Boston-based company. His latest book is THE BEE: A Natural History.

Read the introduction here, and take a peek inside here:

Does De-extinction Bring us Closer to a Real Jurassic World? Beth Shapiro Sounds Off

How to Clone a Mammoth, by Beth ShapiroAs we all await the release of Jurassic World this week, (catch the trailer here), the owner of Russia’s vast nature reserve, Pleistocene Park, is awaiting the arrival of an actual woolly mammoth. Pleistocene Park is a major initiative in northern Siberia that includes an attempt to restore the mammoth steppe ecosystem of the late Pleistocene period. The park has been in existence since the 1970s, but given the progress scientists have made this year in sequencing the mammoth genome, one can’t help but wonder if a real life Jurassic World in Siberia is now close at hand. Alex Hannaford reports for The Telegraph, and the takeaway is we shouldn’t get too excited about going on a T-Rex safari anytime soon:

For the last 20 years at least, most scientists have poured scorn on the idea that dinosaurs could be cloned using the method popularised in the first Jurassic Park film — extracting DNA from an insect entombed in resin. A few years ago scientists studying fossils in New Zealand revealed that the bonds that form the backbone of DNA would be entirely degraded — useless — after 6.8 million years. And seeing as dinosaurs last roamed the Earth 65 million years ago, that ruled out any realistic chance of sequencing their genome.

But the wooly mammoth died out far more recently, which makes it quite another story, according to Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth. She talks to The Telegraph about the more plausible uses of de-extinction technology:

De-extinction, this process of swapping out genomes in existing animals for traits that their ancestors had, but which they could benefit from today, could have other uses, Shapiro says. “Let’s say all of the natural habitat for elephants disappeared. If we could swap those cold-surviving genes [of the mammoth] into elephants, so that we could stick elephants into wild places in Europe or Siberia where elephants used to live, we could use this technology — not to bring mammoths back but to save elephants.”

Shapiro tusk photo

Regardless, de-extinction remains highly controversial, and Shapiro has become a go-to expert on the matter. Carl Zimmer writes in Wall Street Journal, “For anyone who wants a thorough understanding of the technical issues involved in de-extinction, How to Clone a Mammoth should satisfy your curiosity.” During Shapiro’s European tour, she was interviewed about her book for BBC World Service, The Forum and the interview is now available online. Beth was also interviewed for BBC Radio Wales Science Café, as part of a program featuring scientists speaking at Hay Festival. Voice of America aired their interview with Beth recently as well, as did CBC Radio’s national science program Quirks & Quarks.

Shapiro and Kendall

Beth Shapiro and The Forum’s presenter, Bridget Kendall

If you’re looking for eerie similarities between life and art in this case, rest assured they do exist. According to Shapiro, as in real life, “Jurassic Park scientists were only able to recover parts of the dinosaur genome—in the case of the movie, from the mosquito blood that was preserved in amber.” Prospect Magazine’s website has just run an abridged extract from How to Clone a Mammoth where Shapiro elaborates on the real (and not so real) science of Jurassic World. You can also check out the series of original videos by Shapiro on the real life science of de-extinction here.

 

Beth Shapiro at Kepler’s

Shapiro at Kelper's

Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth, has begun her book tour across the US and the UK. Last Thursday, April 16, Beth had a wonderful event at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, CA, where she gave an overview of her intriguing book and fielded questions from the audience. We are featuring content related to How to Clone a Mammoth every Monday on our blog as part of our #MammothMonday series. Be sure to read the first chapter and pick up a copy of the book.

Kelper's blog 3

Presenting the New Trailer for Beth Shapiro’s “How to Clone a Mammoth”

Should we clone extinct animals? Evolutionary biologist and “ancient DNA” researcher Beth Shapiro’s highly anticipated How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction takes apart an idea that not so long ago seemed more fiction than science. Now, several teams of researchers are working to reconstruct the mammoth genome. How to Clone a Mammoth is making its debut with an array of coverage, including a feature in yesterday’s Sunday Times. From the article:

What excites some scientists, and disturbs others, is that the genome could one day become a template to recreate real mammoths — or something like them.
In her new book, How To Clone a Mammoth, Beth Shapiro of the University of California, an expert on ancient DNA, said: “If we really want to bring mammoths back to life, then we’re in luck, as far as DNA preservation goes. Some mammoths lived in places where their bones and carcasses were buried in permafrost, like being stuck in a freezer for 30,000-plus years.
“It’s in pretty shoddy condition, so hard to piece together, but if we sort through these tiny pieces, finding where they fit along the elephant genome, then we can slowly build a lot of the mammoth genome.”

We are delighted to share the book’s wonderful new trailer:

 

A look within — MRI technology in action

It’s 2014, and although we don’t have flying cars or teleportation, we do have some truly amazing technologies. The video of a live birth posted below has been making the social media rounds in recent weeks, and it is a wonderful glimpse of the imaging possible through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology.

To fully understand the history and future challenges of imaging technology, we recommend Denis Le Bihan’s book Looking Inside the Brain: The Power of Neuroimaging. Le Bihan is one of the leading scientists and developers of MRI technology, so who better to guide readers through the history of imaging technology from the x-ray and CT scan to the PET scan and MRI. He also explains how neuroimaging uncovers afflictions like stroke or cancer and the workings of higher-order brain activities, such as language skills and also takes readers on a behind-the-scenes journey through NeuroSpin, his state-of-the-art neuroimaging laboratory.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxwNqYwvaAI]
 

bookjacket

Looking Inside the Brain
The Power of Neuroimaging
Denis Le Bihan
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan

10 facts about penguins that will make you wish you were one of them

JacketIn case you haven’t noticed, penguins have become a cultural phenomenon in recent years. From “March of the Penguins” with Morgan Freeman’s narration, to Happy Feet, Surfs Up, and their respective sequels, penguins are as captivating as ever. (I myself adopted a penguin for a year from the Philadelphia Zoo) And let’s face it, being a human can be overrated and sometimes it’s fun to just imagine what life would be like as another specie. Here are 10 facts about penguins from Tui De Roy’s, Mark Jones’s, and Julie Cornthwaite’s new book Penguins: The Ultimate Guide that will make you wish you were one of them.

Pg. 173

Penguins: The Ultimate Guide, Pg. 173

 

1.    Penguins are exceptionally fast swimmers, clocking in at 22mph. Michael Phelps, in comparison, swims at just under 4.5 mph.

2.    Have you ever opened your eyes underwater and felt the sting of the salt or chlorine? Penguins haven’t! Clear nicitating membranes serve as see-through underwater goggles.

3.    Trust issues? Some species of penguins remain monogamous to their mates for more than one season. *Queue “aww”*

4.    Smaller penguin species like the Rockhoppers leave their half-grown chicks huddling together for safety while the grown-ups “grab some grub.” These are called “crèches” and the chicks are supervised by non-breeding penguin neighbors aka baby, or should we say “penguin,” sitters you can trust.

5.    Tired of hearing terrible pick-up lines or getting “poked” on Facebook? Penguins carry out exuberant courtship displays like sky-pointing and “ecstatic greetings.”

6.    They say if you’re ever stranded at sea, don’t drink the water, it’ll only dehydrate you faster, but penguins can process seawater by means of large salt-extracting glands in their foreheads.

 

Pg. 28

Pg. 28

7.    Never play hide and seek with penguins. Their binocular vision is as good as that of owls.

8.    Despite their awkward wobble, Penguins are impressively built. Dual purpose feet allow them to easily walk across wet and slippery surfaces while their surprisingly long (but mostly hidden) legs let them commute several kilometers to their nests.

9.    Wouldn’t you like to live in a world with gender-equality? Penguins do! Males and females rarely show gender differences. In fact, it is the male Emperor Penguin who incubates the egg while the female forages for food.

10.    When it comes to fashion, penguins never have to sacrifice form for function (or the other way around). Their sleek—and chic!—coats consists of around 15 feathers per square centimeter, the densest plumage of any bird.

Do not disturb

Is it really Friday again? Of course, I’m not complaining, but it feels like just yesterday we were reading about one way in which beetles protect themselves from predators. Luckily for us, Arthur V. Evans’ book Beetles of Eastern North America has enough material for Fun Facts Friday to last us a long time.

Beetles have been around for millions of years, so they must be doing something right, right? Actually, they do a lot of things right, and one of those things is mating. As Evans notes, “With relatively short lives that last only weeks or months, most beetles have little time to waste in finding mates.” How do they find mates you ask? Mating behavior varies from specie to specie, but here are two of the most interesting ones.

Biouminescence is described by Evans as “the best-known example of visual communication in beetles…” A whitish, greenish-yellow, or reddish light emanates from many eastern fireflies (Lampyridae) and adult female glowworms (Phengodidae). But what’s arguably stranger than a beetle’s glowing abdomen? How about a male death-watch beetle (Ptinidae) banging its head against the walls of its wooden galleries to “lure females into their tunnels…” (Evans 20) Hey, whatever works.

These are just two examples of beetles’ mating behaviors, but you can discover more about beetle mating, defense mechanisms, and collecting beetles in Evans’ book Beetles of Eastern North America. Hope you enjoyed this week’s Fun Fact Friday and have a great weekend!


 

Arthur V. Evans is the author of:

Evans_Beetles Beetles of Eastern North America by Arthur V. Evans
Paperback | 2014 | $35.00 / £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691133041 | 560 pp. | 8 x 10 | 1,500+ color illus. 31 line illus. | eBook | ISBN: 9781400851829 | Reviews  Table of Contents  Preface[PDF]  Sample Entry[PDF]