Found 12,819 Resources containing: Fitness of the environment
See also: 2012.3098.030 and 2012.3098.032
In staid New England, if a younger man drives onto the property of an elderly woman and threatens to knock something down, you expect pushback: an argument, a call to the authorities and the subsequent removal of the man from the premises. But on a cool November morning in Colchester, Connecticut, quite the opposite is occurring.
Here, on the banks of a midsized watercourse called the Jeremy River, Steve Gephard, a fisheries biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environment Protection, has arrived with Sally Harold of the Nature Conservancy and a backhoe-mounted jackhammer. They direct workmen to rip down a dam on the property of 84-year-old Yankee matriarch Nan Wasniewski.
As the jackhammer bashes through the concrete, and water begins flowing unimpeded downstream for the first time in almost three centuries, Wasniewski, dressed in a crisp blue windbreaker, can only shake her head at the spectacle. She sold the dam to the town for a dollar. In return, she earned the chance to bring a river back to life.
The oddball demolition team of Gephard, Harold, and Wasniewski came about as part of a nascent environmental movement to free America’s rivers from the scourge of dams. In New England, this effort is subtle and often invisible to the larger community. Indeed, most of the dam fights that garner public attention focus on giant Pacific waterways—the mighty Columbia River and its Grand Coulee Dam, for instance—that were impounded and robbed of their salmon during the Great Depression era of public works.
But the rivers and fish that may have suffered the greatest damage from dams are modest in size and distributed up and down North America’s Atlantic coast. In Connecticut alone, where I watch the dam busting on the Jeremy River, there are over 4,000 dams. Across greater New England and on into Canada there are upward of 50,000—no one really knows the exact number.
This chockablock arrangement of impediments has decimated not just iconic species such as Atlantic salmon and sturgeons but the equally important little fishes, including river herring, shad and American eel. These small fishes—which are keystone species, critical to aquatic food chains—once spawned in coast rivers in the billions. Now, they are largely erased from modern memory in the region.
And the worst part of it all is that most of these dams serve no purpose today. Like abandoned fishing nets—“ghost nets”—set loose from a sunken fleet, they kill and cripple on behalf of masters that disappeared long ago.Connecticut has over 4,000 dams, most of which have no use yet continue to degrade valuable fish habitat. Data from the US Army Corps of Engineers’ National Inventory of Dams. (Illustration by Mark Garrison)
The life and death and rebirth of the Jeremy River offers a kind of micro history of all the ways early settlers mistreated waterways that sustained the original inhabitants for thousands of years. In its natural state, the Jeremy babbled unimpeded south and southwest before joining up with the Blackledge River to form the Salmon River, which in turn spilled into the Connecticut River and the ocean beyond. True to its name, the Salmon River had a run of Atlantic salmon that returned from Greenland every year to spawn.
All that started to change after Wasniewski’s distant ancestor, Martha Carrier, was executed for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. Her bereaved husband, Thomas, moved to Connecticut with their children and set up shop on the Jeremy. His descendants cleared the land and dammed the river to provide power, possibly for a gristmill to grind grain into flour or for a sawmill to work all that timber into board feet.
“We actually found the remnants of the [original] old wooden crib dam around the corner,” Gephard says, shouting over the noise of the piledriver as he points upstream.The US Army Corps of Engineers provides maps and data on dams in each state. Connecticut dams, like most New England dams, date to the first wave of industrialization in North America. (Illustration by Mark Garrison)
This first phase of dam-building occurred all over the North America’s East Coast, often subsidized by local governments eager to tame the surrounding wilderness. The town of Dedham, Massachusetts, for example, granted one Abraham Shawe 24.3 hectares of land in 1637 in exchange for building a corn mill.
In 1680, the town of Andover, Massachusetts, offered free timber and real estate to any citizen who would put up a sawmill, gristmill or fulling mill (for preparing cloth) on the Shawsheen River. And to put a particularly ironic point on it, many of these early dams were thrown across rivers to create ice ponds to service the burgeoning seafood industry—and in the process killed off the very seafood for which all that ice was needed.
Timber-cutting and grist-milling eventually disappeared from Atlantic streams and rivers, but the damming continued as 19th-century industrialists built new structures atop old ones. At the Jeremy River, a bit of history from that era is unearthed when the backhoe shifts the jackhammer to beat away another section of the dam. Old rocks and timber become visible beneath the concrete; it’s part of the dam from the 1830s.
“It was used to supply mechanical hydropower. And all that came in with Slater,” Gephard says.
Samuel Slater, known in Great Britain as “Slater the Traitor,” famously stole British spinning technology and brought it to Rhode Island in the late 18th century. There he became the first to marry the power of an American river with a textile roller spinner and produce mechanically spun cotton.
Because New England rivers run along steep pitches and have numerous falls, they were ideally suited for industries requiring mills. Within a few years of the construction of Slater’s original mill, dozens of others sprouted up from southern Maine to Connecticut. This infrastructure was soon used to accommodate other industries.
The advent of a paper combine that beat old rags into pulp spurred development of paper mills, and Wasniewski’s ancestors probably seized on some of this new pulp-milling technology. They raised the height of the original dam to create Norton Mill and began producing heavy paperboard for buttons, bookbinding, and shoe platforms. And when electricity was finally mastered in the late 19th century, the mill was further modernized: The stone dam was encased in concrete, equipped with turbines and raised two meters.Across greater New England and eastern Canada, there are upward of 50,000 dams. Canada has no central database, but Dalhousie University researchers report that Nova Scotia, for example, is riddled with old, decaying dams. (Illustration by Mark Garrison)
But ultimately, those textile and paper mills faded away too. Paper production moved to the Pacific Northwest and textile looming moved overseas. Norton Mill suffered. At one point, the family sold the mill and dam only to buy it back under a right of first refusal. But the economics of milling never improved, and the family leased out the property and mill buildings to various small businesses.
Meanwhile, the dam grew obsolete. Then a fire started by a fireworks display finished off the mill in 2003. The damages wrought by Hurricanes Irene and Sandy only made holding onto the property more difficult. “People like to think that these old dams somehow provide flood control,” Gephard says. “But it’s exactly the opposite.” Dams raise the water level and, when it pours, surrounding properties flood.
After the fires, a few subsequent acts of vandalism, the hurricanes, and the floods, the owners of the dam on the Jeremy River knew something had to be done. “A dam owner has to maintain it,” Wasniewski says. “I did not want to leave that as a legacy to my heirs.”
Which is why, when approached by the Nature Conservancy, Wasniewski agreed to meet Gephard and Harold.The Norton Mill was owned by Nan Wasniewski, whose ancestors fled the aftermath of the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts for a new start in Connecticut. They built their first mill in the 18th century. (Photo by Lia McLaughlin/USFWS)
The process to free the Jeremy River began in the fall of 2011. Harold negotiated the complicated government funding mechanisms—programs to restore the health of waterways or mitigate storm damages—to raise the nearly half a million dollars required to take down the Norton Mill dam.
For the past 15 years, Harold and Gephard have worked together on numerous projects and have removed five dams from Connecticut waterways. Harold says they have a wish list of dozens more dams in the state that they’d like to see come down. But apart from raising necessary funds, which can range from tens of thousands to millions of dollars for the removal of a single dam, Harold and Gephard spend most of their time meeting with owners whose ties to their dams can go back centuries.
“It’s about trying to get dam owners to do something that they can’t quite decide,” Harold says. “You have to basically say, ‘trust me.’”
In the case of Wasniewski, Gephard and Harold had three photo renderings of her site on the Jeremy River drawn up: one with the repaired dam and a fish ladder to allow fish passage; one with the dam lowered by half and a smaller fish ladder; and one with the dam removed entirely. As Gephard showed the photo renderings to Wasniewski, he explained that the Jeremy was a jewel of a river and that removing the dam would open up about 27 kilometers of pristine salmon habitat and spawning gravel, giving Connecticut’s Atlantic salmon easy access to the ocean for the first time in almost 300 years.
Wasniewski looked at the last rendering, the one without a dam, and was sold. “And I imagined in the place of the old mill a beautiful park. And I said, ‘Let’s go with this one,’” she says.
The Wasniewski family owns an old cannon that was forged in the Jeremy River valley back around the time when their family first fled the Salem witch trials. Nowadays, they fire it on the Fourth of July, and at funerals and weddings, events that mark a shift in the Wasniewski family dynamic. Now, as Wasniewski looks forward to the opening of the park that may one day have salmon swimming in the river below, she anticipates carrying the old cannon down to the riverbank. She’ll fire it in honor of the new park and the reinvigorated river—and hopefully a new generation of fish.
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Just as in Casablanca, in which everybody went to Rick’s, so in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where everybody aspired to go to Jennie’s.
In its storied 72-year existence, Jennie Grossinger’s family boarding house had many names, including Longbrook House, Grossinger's Terrace Hill House, Grossinger's Catskill Resort Hotel (which built upon the original framework of the Terrace Hill House), and then finally, at the peak of its grandeur, just plain Grossinger’s (or, even better, simply the G). The press referred to the place as the “Waldorf of the Catskills.”
Grossinger’s eventual 1,200-acre, 35-building "Kingdom of Outdoor Happiness,” boasted indoor and outdoor Olympic-sized pools, its own ski slope, a summer ice rink, a dining room that seated 3,000, and a 24/7 staff that catered to every guest need, including matchmaking. It was the New York City escape to which all other Catskills operations—indeed, lodgings throughout America—aspired.
In the establishment’s post-World War II heyday, when it welcomed some 150,000 guests a year, it evolved into the prototype of a particularly successful version of American leisure—the everything-under-one-roof facilities that to this day take the form of Las Vegas hotels, Disney amusement parks and the international cruise line industry. And even if you don’t know Grossinger’s by name, you may be familiar with the cinematic sensation it inspired—1987’s Dirty Dancing.
In an era when America’s finer hotels and resorts freely discriminated against admitting Jews, and, in a gentlemen’s agreement with one another, even shared information about prospective guests with potentially Jewish-sounding names, the Catskills’ Borscht Belt—so named because of a favorite menu item—grew to rival anything a WASP enclave could offer. It had golf, tennis, even better food than could be found elsewhere (and more of it). It was a training ground for the fertile minds of show business, who filled resort showrooms with everything from lavish musicals to hilarious stand-up routines from comics who had yet to make a name for themselves, from Jerry Lewis to Jerry Seinfeld.
Image by Bettmann/Corbis. Nighttime entertainment was a breeding ground for up-and-coming musicians and comedians (original image)
Image by Bettmann/Corbis. The resort featured an indoor and an outdoor pool. (original image)
Image by Bettmann/Corbis. Heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano is shown being surrounded by a group of hero worshipping kids at Grossinger's, while training for an upcoming fight. (original image)
Image by Bettmann/Corbis. A view of the grounds from above (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Stephen M. Silverman and Alfred A. Knopf. Grossinger's, as seen from above (original image)
Image by Corbis. What the Catskills resorts that made up the Borscht Belt look like today (original image)
The Grossinger story in America started with Jennie’s father, Selig Grossinger, who had been a land overseer in Galatia, a part of the Austro-Hungarian, when he emigrated for America in 1897. After pressing pants on the Lower East Side of New York for three years, he sent steerage-class tickets for his wife, Malke, and their two young daughters, Jennie and Lottie. The family butcher shop, followed by a restaurant, failed. The restaurant had at least provided Malke a venue to show off her cooking, although the enterprise allegedly went belly up because she was too generous with her delicious portions. (Or so claimed Jennie Grossinger’s authorized biographer.) Better yet, the teenaged Jennie was able to hone her blossoming skills as a hostess and waitress on guests whose names she impressively always seemed to remember.
Selig’s health was failing as well; years of pants pressing over hot coals having taken their toll. A neighbor suggested buying land in the Catskills because, besides resembling Galatia, land was fairly cheap. In 1896, a sanitarium for treating tuberculosis (a constant threat on the Lower East Side, as well as the better neighborhoods of the city) had opened in the town of Liberty, New York. Its presence sent the wealthy WASPs who had long vacationed in the region fleeing and real estate prices plummeting.
Selig found a farm with a house on the outskirts of Liberty, in the Sullivan County town of Ferndale. The farm, like most in the Catskills, sat on soil that was too rocky to produce crops, and the house was ramshackle, despite the best efforts to patch up its holes by Malke and Jennie—who, since 1912, had been married to her cousin, Harry Grossinger, a salesman in the garment district.
The Grossinger house took in its first guest in 1914: Mrs. Carolyn Brown, originally from Romania but now from the Bronx, who observed from the traditional Orthodox Jewish wig worn by Malke that the family had to be religiously observant. Unhappy with her current accommodations in the Catskills, Mrs. Brown asked if she and her husband might board instead with the Grossingers. The Grossingers said yes, welcoming the first of the hundreds of thousands of those who would walk through their doors.
Throughout the resort’s long existence stood Jennie, a female, Jewish Horatio Alger. While her impoverished early years came back to haunt her—she was long treated for severe depression, a fact she kept well out of public view—she also strove to keep improving, both herself (she hired “an English professor, a Spanish teacher, a piano teacher, an elocution teacher, a literature teacher, a painting teacher—she learned how to guide a motorboat in the canals in Miami Beach,” said her daughter) and the business that bore her name. She inspected all the first-class hotels along the Eastern seaboard and then instituted their rules at her resort, such as jackets on gentlemen at dinner time—Grossinger’s, she insisted, was to be second to none.
Hers wasn’t an impersonal corporate institution, but a thriving component of American family life. “A resort isn’t the buildings and kitchens and lakes or nightclubs,” she said. “The real hotel is the people who work here.”
And that magic started at the top. The hotelier’s daughter, Elaine Etess, was struck by the fact that even though her mother left school in the fourth grade to support her family, she grew up "to hold her own with the first ladies of the United States. Eleanor Roosevelt was a dear friend of hers." As was Nelson Rockefeller, Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman, and Eddie Fisher, who was not only discovered at Grossinger’s, but also honeymooned there with his first wife, Debbie Reynolds, before later bringing his second, Elizabeth Taylor. Jennie (whom everyone addressed by first name—just as Disney was called Walt) possessed, according to her daughter, an unpretentious “ease with people . . . She was as comfortable sitting at a head table as she was sitting in a chair in her living room.”
The ability to create a comfortable environment for every guest helped Grossinger’s become the Rolls-Royce of the predominantly Jewish Borscht Belt, but Jennie also took special pride in catering to a highly diversified clientele of races, religions, and classes. “Quietly and without fanfare, Grossinger’s has become a social laboratory,” said Grossinger upon receiving an Interfaith Movement award. Racial integration was a part of life at Grossinger’s, decades before federal laws mandated it, and few guests thought anything of it.
What distinguished Jennie Grossinger was how she skillfully combined the old-world notion of a man’s home being his castle with a modern American commercial marketing sense. She hired an experienced publicist to get the Grossinger’s name before the public and knew to put herself forward as the face of her resort, and by doing so branded herself and her establishment. This made her a pioneer in the field. “There weren’t many businesses open to women in those days,” said historian Jonathan D. Sarna, “and the values and virtues that made you a good hostess and someone whom people wanted to entrust their summers to made you a very successful matron of the hotel.” Grossinger was a millionaire woman entrepreneur in an era when those three words were rarely if ever joined. Martha Stewart and Sheryl Sandberg, meet your spiritual godmother. And have a little something to eat.
Stephen M. Silverman is the author of The Catskills, to be published this month by Alfred A. Knopf, and 10 other books, including David Lean and Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and his Movies. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square.
Even if you don’t know it, you have probably been surrounded by house sparrows your entire life. Passer domesticus is one of the most common animals in the world. It is found throughout Northern Africa, Europe, the Americas and much of Asia and is almost certainly more abundant than humans. The birds follow us wherever we go. House sparrows have been seen feeding on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building. They have been spotted breeding nearly 2,000 feet underground in a mine in Yorkshire, England. If asked to describe a house sparrow, many bird biologists would describe it as a small, ubiquitous brown bird, originally native to Europe and then introduced to the Americas and elsewhere around the world, where it became a pest of humans, a kind of brown-winged rat. None of this is precisely wrong, but none of it is precisely right, either.
Part of the difficulty of telling the story of house sparrows is their commonness. We tend to regard common species poorly, if at all. Gold is precious, fool’s gold a curse. Being common is, if not quite a sin, a kind of vulgarity from which we would rather look away. Common species are, almost by definition, a bother, damaging and in their sheer numbers, ugly. Even scientists tend to ignore common species, choosing instead to study the far away and rare. More biologists study the species of the remote Galapagos Islands than the common species of, say, Manhattan. The other problem with sparrows is that the story of their marriage with humanity is ancient and so, like our own story, only partially known.
Many field guides call the house sparrow the European house sparrow or the English sparrow and describe it as being native to Europe, but it is not native to Europe, not really. For one thing, the house sparrow depends on humans to such an extent it might be more reasonable to say it is native to humanity rather than to some particular region. Our geography defines its fate more than any specific requirements of climate or habitat. For another, the first evidence of the house sparrow does not come from Europe.
The clan of the house sparrow, Passer, appears to have arisen in Africa. The first hint of the house sparrow itself is based on two jawbones found in a layer of sediment more than 100,000 years old in a cave in Israel. The bird to which the bones belonged was Passer predomesticus, or the predomestic sparrow, although it has been speculated that even this bird might have associated with early humans, whose remains have been found in the same cave. The fossil record is then quiet until 10,000 or 20,000 years ago, when birds very similar to the modern house sparrow begin to appear in the fossil record in Israel. These sparrows differed from the predomestic sparrow in subtle features of their mandible, having a crest of bone where there was just a groove before.
Once house sparrows began to live among humans, they spread to Europe with the spread of agriculture and, as they did, evolved differences in size, shape, color and behavior in different regions. As a result, all of the house sparrows around the world appear to have descended from a single, human-dependent lineage, one story that began thousands of years ago. From that single lineage, house sparrows have evolved as we have taken them to new, colder, hotter and otherwise challenging environments, so much so that scientists have begun to consider these birds different subspecies and, in one case, species. In parts of Italy, as house sparrows spread, they met the Spanish sparrow (P. hispaniolensis). They hybridized, resulting in a new species called the Italian sparrow (P. italiiae).
As for how the relationship between house sparrows and humans began, one can imagine many first meetings, many first moments of temptation to which some sparrows gave in. Perhaps the small sparrows ran—though “sparrowed” should be the verb for their delicate prance—quickly into our early dwellings to steal untended food. Perhaps they flew, like sea gulls, after children with baskets of grain. What is clear is that eventually sparrows became associated with human settlements and agriculture. Eventually, the house sparrow began to depend on our gardened food so much so that it no longer needed to migrate. The house sparrow, like humans, settled. They began to nest in our habitat, in buildings we built, and to eat what we produce (whether our food or our pests).
Meanwhile, although I said all house sparrows come from one human-loving lineage, there is one exception. A new study from the University of Oslo has revealed a lineage of house sparrows that is different than all the others. These birds migrate. They live in the wildest remaining grasslands of the Middle East, and do not depend on humans. They are genetically distinct from all the other house sparrows that do depend on humans. These are wild ones, hunter-gatherers that find everything they need in natural places. But theirs has proven to be a far less successful lifestyle than settling down.
Maybe we would be better without the sparrow, an animal that thrives by robbing from our antlike industriousness. If that is what you are feeling, you are not the first. In Europe, in the 1700s, local governments called for the extermination of house sparrows and other animals associated with agriculture, including, of all things, hamsters. In parts of Russia, your taxes would be lowered in proportion to the number of sparrow heads you turned in. Two hundred years later came Chairman Mao Zedong.
Image by Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images. The house sparrow, like humans, settled. They began to nest in our habitat, in buildings we built, and to eat what we produce. (original image)
Image by David Courtenay / Getty Images. Passer domesticus is one of the most common animals in the world. It is found throughout Northern Africa, Europe, the Americas and much of Asia and is almost certainly more abundant than humans. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of The Fat Finch. Chairman Mao Zedong commanded people all over China to come out of their houses to bang pots and make the sparrows fly, which, in March of 1958, they did, pictured. The sparrows flew until exhausted, then they died, mid-air, and fell to the ground. (original image)
Mao was a man in control of his world, but not, at least in the beginning, of the sparrows. He viewed sparrows as one of the four “great” pests of his regime (along with rats, mosquitoes and flies). The sparrows in China are tree sparrows, which, like house sparrows, began to associate with humans around the time that agriculture was invented. Although they are descendants of distinct lineages of sparrows, tree sparrows and house sparrows share a common story. At the moment at which Mao decided to kill the sparrows, there were hundreds of millions of them in China (some estimates run as high as several billion), but there were also hundreds of millions of people. Mao commanded people all over the country to come out of their houses to bang pots and make the sparrows fly, which, in March of 1958, they did. The sparrows flew until exhausted, then they died, mid-air, and fell to the ground, their bodies still warm with exertion. Sparrows were also caught in nets, poisoned and killed, adults and eggs alike, anyway they could be. By some estimates, a billion birds were killed. These were the dead birds of the great leap forward, the dead birds out of which prosperity would rise.
Of course moral stories are complex, and ecological stories are too. When the sparrows were killed, crop production increased, at least according to some reports, at least initially. But with time, something else happened. Pests of rice and other staple foods erupted in densities never seen before. The crops were mowed down and, partly as a consequence of starvation due to crop failure, 35 million Chinese people died. The great leap forward leapt backward, which is when a few scientists in China began to notice a paper published by a Chinese ornithologist before the sparrows were killed. The ornithologist had found that while adult tree sparrows mostly eat grains, their babies, like those of house sparrows, tend to be fed insects. In killing the sparrows, Mao and the Chinese had saved the crops from the sparrows, but appear to have left them to the insects. And so Mao, in 1960, ordered sparrows to be conserved (replacing them on the list of four pests with bedbugs). It is sometimes only when a species is removed that we see clearly its value. When sparrows are rare, we often see their benefits; when they are common, we see their curse.
When Europeans first arrived in the Americas, there were Native American cities, but none of the species Europeans had come to expect in cities: no pigeons, no sparrows, not even any Norway rats. Even once European-style cities began to emerge, they seemed empty of birds and other large animals. In the late 1800s, a variety of young visionaries, chief among them Nicholas Pike, imagined that what was missing were the birds that live with humans and, he thought, eat our pests. Pike, about whom little is known, introduced about 16 birds into Brooklyn. They rose from his hands and took off and prospered. Every single house sparrow in North America may be descended from those birds. The house sparrows were looked upon favorably for a while until they became abundant and began to spread from California to the New York Islands, or vice versa anyway. In 1889, just 49 years after the introduction of the birds, a survey was sent to roughly 5,000 Americans to ask them what they thought of the house sparrows. Three thousand people responded and the sentiment was nearly universal: The birds were pests. This land became their land too, and that is when we began to hate them.
Because they are an introduced species, now regarded as invasive pests, house sparrows are among the few bird species in the United States that can be killed essentially anywhere, any time, for any reason. House sparrows are often blamed for declines in the abundance of native birds, such as bluebirds, though the data linking sparrow abundance to bluebird decline are sparse. The bigger issue is that we have replaced bluebird habitats with the urban habitats house sparrows favor. So go ahead and bang your pots, but remember, you were the one who, in building your house, constructed a house sparrow habitat, as we have been doing for tens of thousands of years.
As for what might happen if house sparrows became more rare, one scenario has emerged in Europe. House sparrows have become more rare there for the first time in thousands of years. In the United Kingdom, for example, numbers of house sparrows have declined by 60 percent in cities. As the birds became rare, people began to miss them again. In some countries the house sparrow is now considered a species of conservation concern. Newspapers ran series on the birds’ benefits. One newspaper offered a reward for anyone who could find out “what was killing our sparrows.” Was it pesticides, some asked? Global warming? Cellphones? Then just this year a plausible (though probably incomplete) answer seems to have emerged. The Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus), a hawk that feeds almost exclusively on sparrows, has become common in cities across Europe and is eating the sparrows. Some people have begun to hate the hawk.
In the end, I can’t tell you whether sparrows are good or bad. I can tell you that when sparrows are rare, we tend to like them, and when they are common, we tend to hate them. Our fondness is fickle and predictable and says far more about us than them. They are just sparrows. They are neither lovely nor terrible, but instead just birds searching for sustenance and finding it again and again where we live. Now, as I watch a sparrow at the feeder behind my own house, I try to forget for a moment whether I am supposed to like it or not. I just watch as it grabs onto a plastic perch with its thin feet. It hangs there and flutters a little to keep its balance as the feeder spins. Once full, it fumbles for a second and then flaps its small wings and flies. It could go anywhere from here, or at least anywhere it finds what it needs, which appears to be us.
Rob Dunn is a biologist at North Carolina State University and the author of The Wild Life of Our Bodies. He has written for Smithsonian about our ancestors’ predators, singing mice and the discovery of the hamster.
Over the past few years, electronics have evolved way past the silicon wafer. Researchers have developed functional circuits that can meld with human tissue and dissolve when sprayed with water, and stretchable batteries that could soon power wearable gadgets.
Now, a group of Swiss scientists has revealed the latest in innovative electronics: a flexible, transparent circuit that is tiny and thin enough to fit on the surface of a contact lens.
The researchers put their new device on a contact lens as a proof-of-concept in a paper published today in Nature Communications—an electronically-enabled lens, they suggest, could be useful in monitoring the intraocular pressure of people with glaucoma, for instance—but they envision the circuitry someday being implanted in all sorts of biological contexts.
"I believe this technology can have important impacts in medicine and health monitoring," says lead author Giovanni Salvatore, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. "It could be used for very wearable and minimally invasive devices, for ultralight solar cells, and most importantly, for very conformable and implantable devices which can serve to monitor biometric parameters in the human body."The circuit's extreme flexibility allows it to be wrapped around human hairs and still function properly. (Image via Salvatore et. al.)
Creating the circuits—which are printed on a one-micrometer thick layer of a substance called parylene—is a multi-step process. To begin, the scientists deposit the parylene on vinyl polymer that provides support, then print the circuitry on top of the parylene. Afterward, the entire chip is placed in water, which dissolves the underlying polymer, leaving the ultra thin circuitry intact. The result is something that's about one-sixtieth as thick as a human hair.
This process, they say, confers a number of unique advantages. The circuit is extremely flexible, bending and crinkling to fit around, for instance, a hair, plant leaf or finger while still functioning properly. Because it's extremely lightweight, it could be feasibly used in a range of long-term medical applications.
After heart surgery, for instance, your doctor could someday prescribe you an implanted device similar to this one that monitors your the blood pressure in your aorta. Nearly-invisible environmental sensors could be deployed in an ecosystem to track levels of soil nutrients and pollutants, sending the data wirelessly to scientists' computers.A larger print of the circuit prototype, shown wrapped around a finger. (Image via Salvatore et. al.)
All the same, it'll still be a few years before you see this sort of circuit popping up in commercial medical or environmental devices, as there are a number of hurdles before they can be practically implemented. Salvatore notes that his team isn't as far along in creating equally durable, flexible and lightweight versions of the other components crucial for a biomedical device (sensors and long-lasting batteries, to start).
Other research teams, however—most notably John Rogers' lab at the University of Illinois—are at work developing ultra thin LEDs, wireless antennas and solar cells that can be put to use. After that, they say, the next step is creating a system that transforms the varied individual devices into a cohesive network, transmitting data wirelessly and working in concert.
Melissa Groo, the photographer behind the stunning giraffe photograph that graces Smithsonian Magazine’s March cover, knows better than most how to draw people's attention to the wild and the majestic.
To expand her reach, Groo often posts her far-flung photos to her popular Instagram. Her images from the field bring people up close and personal with creatures they might never otherwise see, from the albino-like spirit bears of the temperature rainforest that spills over the coast of British Columbia, to the brilliant flamingos that color the southernmost island of the Bahamas.
Like many Instagram users, Groo uses geotags—location-based tags on a photo that reveal where it's shot—to get people even more excited about conservation hotspots. But sometimes, she and other wildlife and conservation photographers worry that geotagging can have unintended effects. Drawing more amateur photographers to certain sites can disturb species and, in the worst of cases, even bring poachers—particularly with species like elephants and rhinos in Africa.
“That’s something there should always be cautious about,” she says. “The information age in some ways has presented real challenges to the safety of our subjects.”
Now, conservationists are imagining a better use for location-based tagging: pinpointing the sites that draw engaged visitors and seeing how they match up with conservation priorities. "Visualizing accumulated human choices," says Nobuhiko Yoshimura, a graduate student at Hokkaido University and lead author of a study recently published in the journal Ecosystem Services, "could contribute to evaluating the invisible values of nature.” Down the road, we might even can use that information to decide where to allocate funds into nature, conservation and tourism infrastructure.
As iconic and crucial ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef and the Amazon rainforest decline around the world, conservationists have turned to innovative new techniques to increase awareness—from putting a price tag on nature (or the entire ocean) to using social media to clean up the reputation of sharks. But capitalizing on location tags that already exist on social media images may be an underused way to figure out what landscapes people value—and how they may react to changes to these environments.
For the study, the authors decided to look at ecosystems in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, a rugged region replete with mountains, volcanoes, natural hot springs and plenty of natural beauty. They used the concept of supply and demand, where "supply" represented the diversity in a given ecosystem and the "demand" represented the amount of photos posted of a particular area on the photo-sharing site Flickr.
Overall, natural areas in national parks, particularly areas with rivers or lakes and high levels of biodiversity, were very appealing to Flickr users, found Yoshimura and his coauthor Tsutom Hiura, a researcher at Tomakomai Research Station at Hokkaido University.
Spencer Wood, an environmental scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, has been involved with a number of studies on how the public values natural spaces. He has measured visitation to national parks in the U.S. using crowd-sourced photographs on Flickr, as well as looked into how changes to some ecosystems can affect visitor levels. He's also reported a high recreational demand for clean water, based on the fact that the most popular postings on social media often match up well with clean water sources.
“We’re using people’s posts on social media as a source of information on their behavior," Wood says. "Where they recreate, and what types of environments they prefer to recreate in."
In another study, Wood found similar results to Yoshimura in terms of how tourist popularity equates with ecosystem services. Wood and his coauthors examined thousands of photos of Belize posted on Flickr, paying close attention to the frequency that beaches, reefs or concrete-lined water appeared in photos. They discovered that the most popular areas tended to align closely with local fishing interests.
Tourists often took pictures of healthy reefs and seabed grass, features that are also important for lobster fishermen who sell their wares both locally and for international export. Wood says that this kind of research can be used to inform development decisions in the area, since development that negatively affected fishing in some areas would also have an impact on tourism revenue.
Katie Chang, the educational services manager for the national conservation organization Land Trust Alliance, says that Yoshimura’s work represents an interesting approach, particularly in the way it seeks to interpret data that is already out there. Chang, who manages a census of national land trusts for the alliance, says the use of social media could help solve the problem of relying too much on self-reported data, which has pitfalls in terms of objectivity and whether it fairly represents a larger population.
She had some concerns with relying too much social media data, however, particularly if broader regions are being compared. The western U.S., for example, has a lot more land and open spaces but much less people than the country’s Northeast. This means that the the latter region is likely far more photographed than the former, and the importance given to these regions could be affected as a result.
Moreover, despite Wood and Yoshimura's conclusions, what people value simply doesn't always align with the most important features or aspects of a particular area in terms of ecosystem services. The jagged top of a mountain may be the ideal spot for a scenic group selfie—but it's not necessarily as productive for wildlife as a less-attractive swamp. In other words, relying too much on social media could spawn a popularity contest, rather than real discussion on areas important for conservation.
For example, in Yoshimura’s study, the authors found that certain national parks like the Kushiro Shitsugen National Park were more popular on Flickr than other parks like Daisetsuzan and Shikotsu Toya national parks. But the discrepancy likely had more to do with accessibility than beauty, conservation value or anything else, he says.
“The parks with large supply gaps were considered to have poorly accessible areas in their forest, whereas Kushiro Shitsugen National Park is mainly marsh and it was visible from enough viewpoints,” the authors write.
Rob Aldrich, director of community conservation at Land Trust Alliance, also notes that there could be a difference between what visitors to an area photograph, versus what locals value. In Wood’s study on Belize, local fishermen’s desires for healthy lobster populations aligned with the tourist focus on healthy reefs, for example, but this might not always be the case. “[Nature] has different values for different people, even in the same community,” says Aldrich.
He adds that the usefulness of social media for conservation is good in that it can help land trusts or other conservation organizations decide which parcels of land are most important to save for a local community based on how much they may be photographed. However, “it’s only one piece of the criteria and there’s a lot more data that goes into the decision of what pieces [of land] to save,” he says. Other factors: ecosystem services, importance to local community or economy, or historical value.
In the end, hashtagging your local environment may not be enough to save it. But Wood says that using social media to figure out important areas is a vastly cheaper way to derive some information than traditional means like surveys. “This is just one additional source of information to help guide the decision making,” he says.
One of the most unusual fossils ever to be found are strange tall structures recovered across Nebraska, primarily in the state’s northwestern badlands and in neighboring parts of Wyoming. Known locally as Devil’s Corkscrews, each structure is the infilling of a left- or right-handed spiral or helix that can extend up to seven feet into the ground. At the deep end of the spiral, a tunnel extends sideways and up at an angle. These structures became exposed by weathering of the soft rock enclosing them on the sides of bluffs or ravines. They mainly occur in the fine-grained sandstones of the Harrison Formation, which dates from the Miocene epoch and are about 20 to 23 million years old.
It was paleontologist Erwin H. Barbour who first discovered them. “Their forms are magnificent; their symmetry perfect; their organization beyond my comprehension,” he wrote.
Barbour assembled a marvelous fossil collection at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln in the late 19th century. Ably assisted by his wife Margaret and with financial support from one of the university’s trustees, he built a foundational collection of fossil mammals from Nebraska, dating mostly from the Neogene, about 23 to 2.58 million years ago. Today, the University of Nebraska State Museum of Natural History is famous for its fossil treasures, which document the diversity of mammals large and small living when the grasslands of the mid-continent developed. Its most spectacular exhibition is a parade of the many extinct species of elephants that once roamed across what is today the midwestern United States.Writing of the fossils he'd discovered, Erwin H. Barbour described their forms as "magnificent" and their symmetry "perfect." ( Wikimedia Commons)
While exploring the western part of Nebraska, Barbour collected dozens of examples of the giant spiral structures, reporting on them in 1892 and naming them Daimonelix (Greek for “devil’s screw,” often spelled Daemonelix). Their origin was a mystery and there was nothing else like them in the fossil record. After first considering them as possible remains of giant freshwater sponges, Barbour surmised that the fossils of Daimonelix were the remains of plants, possibly root systems, because he had discovered plant tissues inside the helices.
A year later, the legendary American vertebrate paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope rejected Barbour’s interpretation of the fossils, noting that “the most probable explanation of these objects seems to be that they are the casts of the burrows of some large rodent.”
In the same year, the Austrian paleontologist Theodor Fuchs, an authority on trace fossils, independently arrived at the same conclusion. He noted “thus we are justified in viewing these strange fossils as really nothing more than the underground homes of Miocene rodents, probably related to Geomys [pocket gophers].”Known as Devil’s Corkscrews, each structure is the infilling of a left- or right-handed spiral or helix that can extend up to seven feet into the ground. At the deep end of the spiral, a tunnel extends sideways and up at an angle. ( Wikimedia Commons)
But Professor Barbour would have none of this and published a critique of Fuchs’s analysis in 1894. Assuming that the rocks of the Harrison Formation were lake deposits, Barbour commented that “Dr. Fuchs’ gopher is left to burrow and build its nest of dry hay in one or two hundred fathoms of Miocene water.” (Fuchs had doubted that the surrounding rocks were lake deposits and interpreted the plant remains found by Barbour as hay stored by the burrow-maker.)
Another American paleontologist, Olaf Peterson, collected specimens of the Devil’s Corkscrews for the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. He observed that they often contained skeletons of an ancient beaver, Palaeocastor, which was slightly larger than today’s black-tailed prairie dog. And so, Peterson supported Cope’s reinterpretation.
But Barbour vehemently defended his identification of the Devil’s Corkscrews as a kind of plant fossil. He responded to supporters of the rodent-burrow hypothesis, “If this is in truth the work of a gopher then it must stand as a lasting monument to the genius of that creature which laid the lines of his complex abode with such invariable precision and constancy.”The Daimonelix burrow with a skeleton of its maker, the extinct beaver Palaeocaster is on view in the fossil hall at the National Museum of Natural History. (Lucia RM Martino, NMNH)
Fuchs and others interpreted strange grooves on the infillings of the burrows as claw marks left by the digging animal. In time most researchers, including Barbour’s former student and successor at the State Museum, C. Bertrand Schultz, considered the structures fossil rodent burrows.
For many years, no further research was undertaken on the identity of Daimonelix and the issue remained in a stalemate.
Enter Larry Martin, an expert on fossil mammals at the University of Kansas. In the early 1970s, Martin and his student Deb Bennett studied many of the Devil’s Corkscrews in the field and in the lab. Their research on Daimonelix, published in 1977, painted a completely new picture of these strange spiral structures and their origin.
By the time the Kansas researchers started their work, geologists had long rejected the lake deposit theory of the Harrison Formation and established that its fine-grained sediments were instead accumulated by wind under seasonally dry conditions quite similar to the prevailing conditions in western Nebraska today. These deposits not only preserved the Devil’s Corkscrews, but also abundant fossil plant roots and burrows made by insects and small mammals.
Martin and Bennett found that the incisor teeth of the extinct beaver Palaeocastor were a perfect match for the grooves on the infillings of the Devil’s Corkscrews. These tooth marks affirmed that they were, in fact, burrows, spiraling tunnels that the beaver Palaeocastor built mainly by excavating the soil with left- and right-handed strokes of its large, flat incisors. The animal also left claw marks, but they tended to be confined to the sides and bottom of the burrows. The initial burrow extended down as a tightly coiled spiral. At the bottom, the beaver started digging upwards at an angle of up to 30 degrees to create a chamber for itself. This portion of the burrow sometimes extended up to 15 feet.
The Daimonelix-building Palaeocastor sported large, flat incisors. It lived and, based on finds of bones of young beavers, raised its litters at the end of this straight chamber. The tall, tightly coiled spiral entrance forming the top portion of the burrow is now thought to be an ingenious method for helping to retain moisture and control temperature in the animal’s burrow.Martin and Bennett found that the incisor teeth of the extinct beaver Palaeocastor were a perfect match for the grooves on the infillings of the Devil’s Corkscrews. (Olaf Peterson’s 1906 study)
Scattered clusters of the burrows of Palaeocastor are often found in great numbers. These clusters probably resembled the “towns” of present-day prairie dogs. Interestingly, other animals occasionally visited the burrows—including an extinct relative of martens and weasels, probably looking to make a meal of the burrow’s maker.
But what of the plant tissues that Barbour had discovered inside the burrows? To solve that mystery, Martin and Bennett noted that the rocks containing the Daimonelix burrows were laid down in a seasonally dry environment. Under such conditions, plants would have difficulty finding enough moisture to survive. But inside the Daimonelix tunnels there was much more humidity and moisture-seeking plants quickly grew their roots into the walls of the burrows. In fact, the growth was so abundant, the interior of the burrow walls would have to be cropped back by the beavers from time to time in order to maintain access. Since the rocks of the Harrison Formation contain a lot of ash from nearby volcanoes, rainwater flowing through the soil would become saturated with silica. Plant roots readily absorbed silica. Gradually, the root-lined walls became mineralized and eventually the entire burrow was filled in with silicified roots.
Mystery solved. What started out with the finding of curious fossils from the badlands of Nebraska led to a detailed reconstruction of an ancient ecosystem and the lives of some of its inhabitants. Every fossil carries this potential—to clue researchers into discoveries about the ancient environment and the plants and organisms that once thrived in it. As for Barbour, he apparently went to his grave denying that Daimonelix was a rodent burrow.
The Daimonelix burrow with a skeleton of its maker, the extinct beaver called Palaeocaster is on view in the new fossil hall "Deep Time" at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
A fluffy pink fungus with long, thread-like tendrils encrusted in gold particles could help prospectors mine the precious element, a team of Australian researchers report in the journal Nature Communications.
As Mindy Weisberger explains for Live Science, the fungus—a strain of the species Fusarium oxysporum—relies on chemical interactions with underground minerals to collect gold from its surroundings. The organism then oxidizes gold before using yet another chemical to transform the dissolved element into tiny, nanoscale particles of solid gold. Gold particles produced by this process cling to the fungus, enabling spores to grow faster and larger than their non-gold covered counterparts.
The team suspects that gold also serves as a catalyst, helping the fungus digest certain carbon foods, as the study's lead author Tsing Bohu, a geo-microbiologist at Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, explained in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Company’s Anna Salleh. Moving forward, Bohu says the researchers hope to use the fungus, which was found in the gold fields of western Australia, as a tracker of sorts. If spores are present in a certain area, for instance, miners may be able to narrow down the locations in which they undertake exploratory drilling.
"Fungi are well-known for playing an essential role in the degradation and recycling of organic material, such as leaves and bark, as well as for the cycling of other metals, including aluminium, iron, manganese and calcium,” Bohu explains in a CSIRO press release. "But gold is so chemically inactive that this interaction is both unusual and surprising—it had to be seen to be believed."
According to Rebecca Le May of the Australian Associated Press, F. oxysporum appears to grow larger and spread faster than fungi not known to interact with gold, which means there could be a biological advantage to being covered in gold. Still, many details surrounding the singular fungus remain unclear; as Le May writes, Bohu plans on conducting additional analysis to better understand the organism’s relationship with gold and determine whether the fungus’ presence is indicative of a large underground deposit.
Australia is the world’s second largest gold producer, but predictions suggest the industry will soon be in trouble if new gold deposits are not found. In a press release, study co-author and CSIRO chief research scientist Ravi Anand notes that miners are already using exploratory techniques, including sampling termite mounds and gum leaves, to support the industry. It’s possible, he says, that the newly described fungus can be used in conjunction with these tools to “target prospective areas in a way that’s less impactful and more cost-effective than drilling.”
Overall, ABC’s Salleh reports, the fungus could help Australia’s gold mining industry in a number of ways: In addition to using the organism to detect gold in underground deposits, miners may be able to use it to recover gold from waste products such as sewage and manmade electronics.
Expanding on the science behind the fungus-gold interaction, Joel Brugger, a geochemist at Monash University who was not involved in the new study, tells Salleh that F. oxysporum may act as a “lovely pathway,” transporting gold from the depths of the planet to more shallow, mineable soil. To accomplish this, the fungus oxidizes the element, making it lose electrons, grow more soluble, and, finally, move closer to the Earth’s surface.
Brugger concludes, “The fungus may be really critical in mobilising the gold.”