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There's a war on in America, pitting invasive ant against invasive ant in a fight to the finish. It's sort of like Alien vs. Predator, in a way, because whoever wins ... we lose. Argentine ants (the reigning champions) have wiped out native ant species in many of the environments they've invaded over the years, affecting the survival of other animals that used to feed on those ants. Worse, they have a fondness for certain agricultural pests, like aphids. In places with lots of Argentine ants, aphids do very well — and plants do worse.
But now the Argentines are facing a serious challenge in the form of Asian needle ants, another invasive species that — for reasons nobody really understands — have suddenly gone from minor player to major threat in the last decade. The big downside to Asian needle ants: They sting. They sting us. And, right now, it looks like they're winning.
John Roach tells the story at NBC News. But you can get a good idea of what this matchup looks like by checking out the work of insect photographer Alex Wild. That's his picture above, showing an Argentine ant on the left and an Asian needle ant on the right.
Tristan sez, "Open Source Ecology founder Marcin Jakubowski and the OSE team explain the philosophy behind their work and the open source movement as a whole. We're always looking for remote collaborators to pick up and run with our designs. If you're interested in building or improving on our work, please visit the OSE wiki."
This image, taken by artist David Liittschwager shows the plants and animals collected in a square meter of South African public park over the course of 24 hours.
This image, from National Public Radio, illustrates the plants and animals found over the course of two nights and three days in an Iowa cornfield.
Robert Krulwich has a fascinating piece about the ways food systems affect ecological systems. How efficient is too efficient?
Via On Earth
We talk a lot about chain stores and the way their proliferation takes away the individual character of American cities, replacing it with a homogenized urban landscape of Wal-Marts, malls, and Applebees*. But some scientists think businesses and buildings aren't the only thing making our cities look more alike.
The ecology of cities could be homogenizing, as well — everything from the plants that grow there, to the number and density of ponds and creeks, to the bacteria and fungi that live in the soils. My newest column for The New York Times Magazine explains why ecologists think cities are becoming more alike, and what it means if they're right. The really interesting bit: The effects aren't all uniformly bad.
“Americans just have some certain preferences for the way residential settlements ought to look,” Peter Groffman, a microbial ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., recently told me. Over the course of the last century, we’ve developed those preferences and started applying them to a wide variety of natural landscapes, shifting all places — whether desert, forest or prairie — closer to the norm. Since the 1950s, for example, Phoenix has been remade into a much wetter place that more closely resembles the pond-dotted ecosystem of the Northeast. Sharon Hall, an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, said, “The Phoenix metro area contains on the order of 1,000 lakes today, when previously there were none.” Meanwhile, naturally moist Minneapolis is becoming drier as developers fill in wetlands.
Why does any of this matter to anyone who’s not an urban ecologist? “If 20 percent of urban areas are covered with impervious surfaces,” says Groffman, “then that also means that 80 percent is natural surface.” Whatever is going on in that 80 percent of the country’s urban space — as Groffman puts it, “the natural processes happening in neighborhoods” — has a large, cumulative ecological effect.
*Or, possibly, Applebeeses.
In the United Arab Emirates, a freshwater lake has appeared in the middle of the desert. The oasis is beautiful and full of life, and it's risen 35 feet since 2011. It's also probably accidentally man-made.
Hydrologists believe the lake formed from recycled drinking water (and toilet water). The nearby city of Al Ain pumps in desalinated sea water, uses it for drinking and flushing the toilet, cleans it in a sewage treatment plant, and then re-uses it to water plants. All of that water ends up in the soil and, at the lake site, it comes back up.
The water is clean, writes Ari Daniel Shapiro at NPR. Don't worry about that. Instead, the major side-effect of the lake is change, as scientists watch the desert ecosystem that used to exist on the site decline, and a new one rise to take its place. It's a great story that shows how complicated discussions about ecology can be. On the one hand, you're losing something valuable. At least in this one spot. On the other hand, you're definitely gaining something valuable, too.
"With every species that we lose, it's like rolling the dice. The whole ecosystem could crash down," Howarth says.
But Clark, with the U.S. Geological Survey, says he's not so worried about the desert ecosystem. He says the lake is tiny compared to the vast amount of desert in this part of the world. "If I look through the binoculars, there's, like, seven different kinds of herons. There's greater cormorants. There's ferruginous ducks, which are another very rare worldwide species," Clark says. "There's about 15 of them out here."
This year, three types of birds bred at this lake. They've never been able to breed before in the United Arab Emirates. But this lake, and the others like it, have changed all that. There are fish appearing in these lakes as well. Fish eggs cling to the feet and legs of the herons. So as the birds shuttle between old and new lakes, the eggs fall off and hatch. That's how you get fish in a desert.
Over at my sister-in-law Heather Sparks's new Science Sparks Art tumblog, selections from Richard Misrach and Kate Orff's book Petrochemical America, a collection of Misrach's photos and Orff's "ecological atlas" documenting Louisiana's "Chemical Corridor," aka "Cancer Alley." Above, Taft, Louisana's Holy Rosary Cemetery purchased by Dow Chemical. Petrochemical America
By this point in your lives, most of you are by no doubt aware of the massive slaughter of buffalo that happened in the United States in the late 19th century. Across the plains, thousands of buffalo were killed every week during a brief period where the hides of these animals could fetch upwards of $10 a pop. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator only goes back to 1913, so it's hard for me to say what that's worth today. But we know from the context that even when the value of buffalo hides dropped to $1 each, the business of killing and skinning buffalo was still considered a damned fine living.)
You might think that the business ended there, with dead, skinned buffalo left to rot on the prairie. And you're sort of right. But, in a story at Bloomberg News, Tim Heffernan explains that, a few years later, those dead buffalo created another boom and bust industry—the bone collection business.
Animal bones were useful things in the 19th century. Dried and charred, they produced a substance called bone black. When coarsely crushed, it could filter impurities out of sugar-cane juice, leaving a clear liquid that evaporated to produce pure white sugar -- a lucrative industry. Bone black also made a useful pigment for paints, dyes and cosmetics, and acted as a dry lubricant for iron and steel forgings.
... And so the homesteaders gathered the buffalo bones. It was easy work: Children could do it. Carted to town, a ton of bones fetched a few dollars. Sent to rendering plants and furnaces in the big industrial cities, that same ton was worth between $18 and $27. Boiled, charred, crushed or powdered, it was worth as much as $60.
... By the 1880s, however, a few reporters were expressing nervous awe at the scale of the cleansing, and even despair for what had been lost. In 1891, not 25 years after the slaughter began, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a dispatch titled “Relics of the Buffalo.” The relics were the animals’ empty pathways and dust wallows, worn into the surface of the Manitoba plains over countless years. The bones, let alone the living creatures, were long gone.
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Last month, I spent several days in Harvard Forest, 3500 acres of woods dedicated to scientific research. The forest is home to dozens of research projects, some short-term, others stretching over decades. I told you a little about how I got to participate in some of these studies, learning how to collect and analyze data in the same ways that ecologists do. Along the way, I ran into something a little weird—trees that were very much alive, but weren't growing.
If those of us who are not tree experts know anything at all about tree life cycles it's probably centered on tree rings. We learned back in grade school that trees form a new ring every year. Chop down the tree, and you can see a record sometimes stretching back hundreds of years—burn marks indicating fire, fat rings during times of plenty, and thin rings showing resource scarcity. And we know that scientists use these rings to learn about the past, to find out what was happening in local environments before human beings started to painstakingly record that information.
When it makes a new ring, a tree becomes a little fatter. Over decades, you should see a change in its diameter. So I was surprised, during my time in Harvard Forest, to run across several red maple trees that hadn't grown an inch in 11 years. Scientists had measured the trees in 2001. We came back and measured them in 2012. In that time, the diameters hadn't changed at all.
Turns out, this was not mere mis-measurement on my part. Neil Pederson is an assistant research professor in Columbia University's Tree Ring Laboratory. He's also found red maples (and other trees) that are living, but not growing, in the Harvard Forest. Pederson calls them zombie maples. He says these trees are really representative of the fact that individual plants can vary from one another as much as individual people—something scientists have to account for in their work. It's also a great example of how complicated even seemingly simple science can become once you start to dig into the details.
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Scientists measure trees for a wide variety of reasons. When I visited the Harvard Forest last week, I measured them as part of studying carbon sequestration by plants. But you can't just go out into the woods with any old tape measure and expect to collect some significant data.
That's because where you measure the tree matters. If you want to compare the diameters of two trees, you have to make sure you're measuring them in the same place. If you measured one tree at the wide base and the other further up the trunk, where trees usually get narrower, the comparison wouldn't mean much.
That's where diameter breast height (DBH) comes in. It's a way of standardizing the measuring process.
As the name implies, DBH is meant to be a diameter measurement of a tree trunk taken at, roughly, breast height on an adult. Of course, where exactly "adult breast height" is varies greatly from person to person. So DBH has been set to a standard height—1.4 meters in the United States.
In a research forest, you'll often see some kind of marker on the trees showing where this official "breast hight" is, so people can quickly move through the woods, taking diameter measurements, without having to measure vertically on each tree. In some cases, DBH is marked with yellow spray paint. In others, metal bands. These metal bands actually help measure diameter, too. Set with springs, the bands expand as the tree does, so all researchers have to is measure the distance between two dots on the band and see how far apart the dots have moved since last time.
Seventy-one feet above the Harvard Forest, you can stand on a plywood platform attached to a slightly swaying tower of metal scaffolding, and look out over miles of hemlock groves. On the ground, the trees are massive—trunks reaching up and up and up. From the top of the tower, though, the view feels a bit like hanging out in a Christmas Tree farm. All you see are the friendly, conical tops.
The Hemlock Eddy Flux Tower is one of four research towers in the Harvard Forest. Since 2001, data collection systems on the top of this tower have measured carbon dioxide, water vapor, and wind currents. These measurements are made five times every second.
Thanks to this system, we now know that even a relatively old forest like this can still capture and store a decent amount of carbon dioxide. The hemlocks around the tower are pushing 230. That's not terribly old by tree standards, but it's old for this part of North America—most of which was once clear cut. It's also old enough to challenge some previously held conventional wisdom about what kinds of forests are best for carbon sequestration. Previously, scientists thought only young forests, where the trees were still growing rapidly, did that job very well. Sites like the Hemlock Tower have shown a different story.
Also: It's rather terrifying to climb. The tower lives, it is not stationary. A network of steel cables keep it from toppling over, but you can still feel it tilting one way and then the other underneath you. And, at every landing on the stairs, there's a precarious little gap you have to step over. I took my camera with me in one hand as I made the ascent. About partway up, the filming quality takes a notable turn for the worse as I found myself clinging a bit more tightly to the hand rails. How's that for an awesome tool of science?