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Lightning rainbow

A rainbow during storms in Haikou, the capital of China's Hainan province. Photo: China Daily/Reuters

Overjoyed frog gives unicorn chaser a run for its money

Photographer Joel Sartore has been shooting nature for 20 years—long enough to amass a great collection of images you can check out at the New York Times.

“The whole point of this project is to really be able to look these creatures in the eye and get to know them,” he said. The animals are beautiful in their variation, their proximity yielding expressions most humans would interpret in emotional terms — anger, humor, pride.

For instance, I interpret this photo as a frog that has just won the Publisher's Clearinghouse.

Ironically, that's probably not actually an expression of happiness. In the Times article, Sartore says the species is known for its vicious reaction to potential predators.

See the full slideshow at the New York Times

Visit Joel Sartore's website

Thanks, Tim Heffernan!

Scientific research in a forest

I spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in the Harvard Forest—the most-studied forest in the world. It's an interesting place, with a complicated history. Originally forest, it was clear-cut in the decades following European settlement. By 1830, less than 90% of this part of Massachusetts had any forest left. But that trend had already begun to reverse itself by 1850, spurred by urbanization and cheaper, more-efficient farming in the "West" (i.e., Ohio).

What is now the Harvard Forest was farmland for many years. Then it was used for tree plantations. Then it became forest again, studied first by Harvard University's forestry program in the early 20th century, and then by ecologists and other environmental scientists beginning in the 1980s. Today, these 3,500 acres are home to dozens of individual studies and long-term, interdisciplinary projects led by scientists from more than 15 universities and institutions.

This particular study, led by Dr. Jerry Melillo of the Marine Biological Laboratory, is studying the nitrogen and carbon cycles of forests, and how those cycles are affected by rising soil temperatures. They're trying to understand how climate change will affect the growth of wild plants, and how it will affect those plants' ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide. I'll get more in-depth on this study later. Right now, I thought that this site offered a really great view of what a research forest looks like—it's a chance to see detail-oriented science and wild nature interacting and overlapping.

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877 dolphins wash up dead in Peru. Why?

Dolphin carcasses are displayed by conservationists and environmental police officers at San Jose beach, 40kms north of Chiclayo, Peru, on April 6, 2012. The cause of death of over 800 dolphins in the last four months on the shores of Piura and Lambayeque are still being researched, Gabriel Quijandria, Deputy Environment Minister said on April 20, 2012. More about the ongoing investigation into the possible cause of these mass die-offs: CBS News, MSNBC, AFP, DPA, CNN, (REUTERS/Heinze Plenge)

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Kids narrate the lives of wild animals for "Planet Earth" promo (cutest. video. ever.)

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Director Joe Sabia, who co-curates the Boing Boing in-flight television channel with me on Virgin America Airlines, has created this adorable spot for BBC America's natural history series Planet Earth (also available on DVD). In the promo, a series of 4-7 year old children take the place of series narrator David Attenborough—or, as he is known here, "Dabud Abunburble." You may well die of cute. Kids: Do not feel bad. I have been known to struggle over the pronunciation of Attenbooger's name, and the placing-on of headphones, too.

RIP Toola, world's most influential otter

I had never heard about Toola the Sea Otter before today, but I'm not going to pass up an opportunity for a headline like this. Also, her story turns out to be incredibly inspiring. Seriously, this otter was a bit of human-interpretable speech away from being a guest on Oprah.

That's because Toola was a foster mother. THE foster mother, really, at least as far as the otter world goes. She was the first otter, living in captivity, to serve as a foster for orphaned baby otters. Along the way, she helped change the way aquariums all over the world approach the rehabilitation of injured otters, and how those otters are reintroduced to the wild.

NPR is calling Toola an "otter pioneer". You can read the full obituary on that site.

Via Brian Switek

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Butterflies eating a piranha

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit" is a series of posts aimed at giving BoingBoing readers a chance to show off their favorite exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. I'll be featuring posts in this series all week. Want to see them all? Check out the archive post. I'll update the full list there every morning.

You've seen a lot of good taxidermy this week, but nothing quite like this. Renee Mertz sent me this photo of a diorama at Vienna's Naturhistorisches Museum, which depicts a group of butterflies greedily feeding off the carcass of a dead piranha.

This is not a spot of whimsy, people. This kind of thing really does happen. In fact, you can watch a real-life example (with a less-threatening fish substituted in for the piranha) in a video taken in Alabama's Bankhead National Forest.

The good news: The butterflies are not really carnivorous, per se. The bad news: What they're actually doing is still pretty damn creepy.

It's called "puddling" or "mud-puddling". The basic idea works like this: Butterflies get most of their diet in the form of nectar. They're pollinators. But nectar doesn't have all the nutrients and minerals butterflies need to survive, so they have to dip their probosces into some other food sources, as well. Depending on the species of butterfly, those other sources can include: Mineral-rich water in a shallow mud puddle, animal poop, and (yes) carrion.

When butterflies puddle over a dead fish, though, they aren't biting off chunks. Instead, they're essentially licking the dead fish—going after salt and minerals that seep out of the dead animal as it decomposes. Bonus: Some butterflies also like to lick the sweat off of humans. And a few species of moth have been documented sucking blood and tears for living animals, including humans.

Good news: Whale and dolphins are friends

Sometimes, you need to start off your week with a dose of happy news. For instance, this video from the American Museum of Natural History details two recent instances where scientists have observed a whale and several dolphins interacting in ways that are something we might classify as "play".

It's hard to talk about animal behavior without getting too anthropomorphizing, but think about it this way: In both instances, the whale and dolphins did not appear to be competing with other, they did not appear to be fighting, nor were they cooperating in a goal-oriented way. When scientists say "animals are playing" they don't necessarily mean "play" the way human children play, but they do mean behaviors that go beyond simple eat/sleep/defend/breed necessities. Play might be learning. Play might be about forming social bonds that help an individual later on. And however you interpret it, spotting examples of spontaneous, inter-species play in the wild is kind of a big deal.

And now, with those caveats out of the way, I'd like to highlight the top comment on YouTube, by one Bill Kiernan: "We both used to be land animals, isn't that crazy? clearly we need to hang out."

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Via Charles Q. Choi

Cross-section of a tree played like a record on a turntable

This music -- which sounds like a moody piano soundtrack for a existentialist movie about a rainy day -- is made by slicing a tree in cross-section, sticking it on a turntable, and dropping a tone-arm with a PlayStation Eye Camera in the head, and processing its output through Ableton Live. It's called Years, and it was created by Bartholomäus Traubeck.

Play the Rings of a Tree Trunk Like a Record

Twins: Nature, nurture, and epigenetics

National Geographic has a really interesting story on what we can learn about human biology and human culture from studying the lives of twins. (Last week, Mark blogged about some of the photos in the story.) The story explains the chance beginnings of the now-massive Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart; introduces you to twin girls from China who were adopted by two different Canadian families that now work to keep the girls in each other's lives; and delves into what we know and don't know about why some identical twins are different from each other in very conspicuous ways.

One example of this last bit is the story of Sam and John, identical twin brothers. Both are on the autism spectrum, but they appear to be on entirely different parts of that spectrum, with John experiencing much more severe symptoms that led the boy's parents to enroll him in a special school. Why would identical twins, raised in the same family, have such an obvious difference in the expression of characteristics that are probably mostly inherited? That's where epigenetics comes in.

A study of twins in California last year suggested that experiences in the womb and first year of life can have a major impact. John's parents wonder if that was the case with him. Born with a congenital heart defect, he underwent surgery at three and a half months, then was given powerful drugs to battle an infection. "For the first six months, John's environment was radically different than Sam's," his father says.

Shortly after Sam and John were diagnosed, their parents enrolled them in a study at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. Blood samples from the boys were shared with a team at nearby Johns Hopkins University looking into the connection between autism and epigenetic processes—chemical reactions tied to neither nature nor nurture but representing what researchers have called a "third component." These reactions influence how our genetic code is expressed: how each gene is strengthened or weakened, even turned on or off, to build our bones, brains, and all the other parts of our bodies.

If you think of our DNA as an immense piano keyboard and our genes as keys—each key symbolizing a segment of DNA responsible for a particular note, or trait, and all the keys combining to make us who we are—then epigenetic processes determine when and how each key can be struck, changing the tune being played.

Image: Twins, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from missbossy's photostream

30 hornets vs. 30,000 bees = "300" with flying insects (video)

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Spoiler: the hornets win. Above, snip of BBC documentary with narrator commentary. Below, the EPIC MUSIC REMIX VIDEO.

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Killer whale kills great white shark

Demitri Martin has observed that whale watching is often indistinguishable from watching people be disappointed. But not all the time. National Geographic has a short video about a 1997 whale watching excursion when the people got to watch a killer whale take down a great white shark. (Feel free to make heavy metal devil hands at your computer screen at any time while watching this video.)

The really cool thing? To pull off this kill, the whale had to learn a trick about shark anatomy and behavior. Treehugger's Jaymi Heimbuch explains:

According to National Geographic, "To prey upon the shark, the Orca has learned how to immobilize it by turning it on its back -- a state called 'tonic immobility.'" Sharks freeze when rolled onto their backs. And that's exactly the strategy the whale in this film seems to have taken, keeping the shark immobile until it suffocates, then and feeding on it.

If that's not worth a little air guitar in that whale's honor, I don't know what is.

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How the effects of climate change can create more climate change

One of the interesting things about the global carbon dioxide and climate systems is the concept of feedback loops. You already know that as atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide go up (and with them, the global average temperature) you get lots of different kinds of changes all over the place. For instance, mountain pine forests start experiencing warmer winters and smaller snowpacks. But, as those changes happen, they can actually trigger secondary effects that contribute to, and increase the rate of, climate change.

In this video, you'll learn about how warmer temperatures and lower snowpacks are contributing to the spread of massive pine beetle infestations across the western United States. This is more than just inconvenient. The pine beetles can quickly kill huge amounts of trees, raising the risk of property-destroying forest fires and razing whole ecosystems. And, as the trees die en masse, forests that were once carbon sinks (absorbing more carbon dioxide than they released) become emitters—adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Thanks to Barfman for Submitterating!

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Black widow spider

Reader Pete Johnson took this awesome photo of the red-splotched abdomen of a poisonous black widow spider. One of my favorite things about this shot: The fact that you can see hairs growing on the spider's abdomen.

Extra bonus: Until checking out this photo—and subsequently reading up a bit on black widows—I had no idea this spider came in brown. The specimen in this photo could be a male, or it could be one of several species that are simply brown widows, rather than black. Looking at the legs, there's a good chance it's Latrodectus geometricus.

Great work, Pete!

New science in the ruins of Biosphere 2

BoingBoing reader davidsongray visited Biosphere 2 recently, and took some photos of the site. Today, Biosphere 2 is owned by the University of Arizona. It's also being used for scientific research projects, including the Landscape Evolution Observatory, which will study the natural cycles of carbon, water, and energy, and how those cycles are affected by climate change and by natural systems like vegetation and microbes. The LEO experiments are being constructed in Biosphere 2 right now. That picture above shows the construction site set up in Biosphere 2's old agricultural area.

Some of the niftiest shots davidsongray took are from the living areas of Biosphere 2, which I don't remember having ever seen before.

Oh, and this isn't something where you need to know a guy to get in. Tours are $20 a ticket.

Via Submitterator

Happy Bear Wednesday!

Celebrate Bear Wednesday with a peek at the awesome strength of grizzly bears, courtesy National Geographic. First, for some reason, we have a guy wrestling a trained grizzly bear named Adam. It's just for play-play. The action really happens in the second half of the video where two bears are enticed into displaying feats of strength—such as lifting a 650 pound rock with one paw—by the promise of peanut butter and dry dog food coated in maple syrup. Nom.

Credit to Tony D'Aloia for the invention of Bear Wednesday.

Watch starfish flee an icy finger of death

This clip from the BBC's Frozen Planet is one of the most amazing things you will ever see.

"Brinicle" is a clever portmanteau for an icy finger of death that forms naturally in the very cold seawater one finds around Earth's poles. A crust of sea ice can form on top of this water, and that's the first step to making a brinicle. Here's how polar oceanographer Mark Brandon explained the process in an article on the BBC website:

In winter, the air temperature above the sea ice can be below -20C, whereas the sea water is only about -1.9C. Heat flows from the warmer sea up to the very cold air, forming new ice from the bottom. The salt in this newly formed ice is concentrated and pushed into the brine channels. And because it is very cold and salty, it is denser than the water beneath.

The result is the brine sinks in a descending plume. But as this extremely cold brine leaves the sea ice, it freezes the relatively fresh seawater it comes in contact with. This forms a fragile tube of ice around the descending plume, which grows into what has been called a brinicle.

Check out that BBC website link for more information on how the Frozen Planet videographers captured this footage. That's also where you should go to watch the video when this YouTube version is inevitably taken down.

Thank you, Brittany. Truly freaking amazing.

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Whales, kayakers get a little too close

This is why whale watchers are warned to stay 100 yards away from whale feeding areas. Or, as National Geographic's Sven Lindblad put it, "Note to self: Avoid kayaking among schooling herring or sardines."

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Lubbock, Texas dust storm similar to Dust Bowl-era events

Whenever you see a dust cloud, there's an almost instinctual reflex to start talking about The Grapes of Wrath. It's natural. But it's often misplaced. Your average cloud of dirt is less apocalyptic than the dust storms that ripped across the Central Plains of the United States during the 1930s. They can also have different underlying causes.

But the dust storm that hit Lubbock, Texas, earlier this week can legitimately be called Dust Bowl-esque, according to the National Weather Service. That's the Lubbock storm on the right in the image above ... and a 1930s dust storm on the left.

A storm system passing out of the Rockies into the southern plains sent a cold front racing south through the Texas Panhandle and across the South Plains and Rolling Plains late Monday afternoon and evening. Ahead of the front, temperatures were unusually warm, with highs mainly in the upper 80s to lower 90s, and even 96 degrees out at Aspermont. Temperatures dropped quickly behind the front. The high at Amarillo was only 72 degrees. As the front moved south, more and more dirt was lofted by the front until a well-defined "Haboob" (an Arabic term for intense dust storm) developed along the front.

The intense dust storm drew some comparisons to the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. The likeness may not be so farfetched as the region is mired in an exceptional drought, as was the case back in the Dirty Thirties. In fact, 2011 is on pace to shatter the record for the driest year in recorded history for both Lubbock and Childress. In addition, like many of the iconic pictures of rolling dust storms in the 30s, the haboob on the 17th was also caused by a strong cold front.

You are now free to correct anyone who accuses of hyperbole when describing the Lubbock dust storm.

Via Christine Gorman

Surfing the red tide

Phytoplankton are tiny, plant-like organisms that live in the ocean and are, basically, at the very bottom of the food chain. But, sometimes, they get their revenge. When lots and lots and lots of phytoplankton get together, they can form what we call a "red tide," a discoloration of the water at a particular point where the plankton have become densely concentrated.

Some red tides are natural. Others happen when nutrient runoff from farm fertilizers creates a massive buffet for plankton. Some red tides can kill, as the plankton can produce toxins and their deaths reduce the oxygen content of the water. And sometimes, red tides glow in the dark.

The phytoplankton in this red tide off a California beach are bioluminescent. Their cells produce a chemical reaction that creates a soft, blue-green glow. It's basically the same thing that makes lightning bugs light. In this video by Loghan Call and Man's Best Media, you can see plankton light up in the beach (and a few surfers).

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Via Jennifer Ouellette

Montage of awesome cephalopod camouflage clips

Roger Hanlon is a scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He studies cephalopods—octopus, squid, and cuttlefish. Specifically, he studies the way these animals change their skin color and texture to match with their surroundings.

I've talked about his research before on BoingBoing Video and showed you some truly astounding footage he shot of a bunch of kelp that suddenly turns out to be a disguised octopus.

In this video segment from NPR's Science Friday, you can see more of Hanlon's videos of camouflaged cephalopods. There's also some great up-close footage of chromatophores—the special cells that allow cephalopods to change their color and shape.

Thanks to Andrea James for sending this over!

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Spider in the grass

This amazing photo, by Cambridge biological sciences professor John H. Brackenbury, is a highly-commended runner up in the British Wildlife Photography Awards.

Via Alex Wild, who thinks Brackenbury was robbed of first place. Can't say I disagree.

The psychopathic neurobiologist

James Fallon studies the brain. Then he studied his own, and found out that he has the same brain malfunctions as psychopathic serial killers. What happened next is a fascinating story about the brain, the mind, and the dueling influences of nature and nurture.

Inside the sea caves of Devil's Island

Last year, when I posted here about the history of the lighthouse at Devil's Island, Wisconsin, several of you noticed the island's extensive network of sea caves, carved into the sandstone cliffs by splashing waves and moving water. This year, when some friends and I went on a little paddle through the caves, I took along a video camera. It doesn't quite capture the eerie awesomeness of floating into the dark with Lake Superior behind you, but it's still pretty neat.

Apologies in advance for the occasional sudden jerky movements and possible audible swearing. Devil's Island is also home to a large population of biting flies and my ankles are, apparently, quite tasty.

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Car decaying in the forest—Sand Island, Wisconsin

I went back to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore last weekend for a short vacation. One of my goals was to get out to Sand Island. This particular one of the 22 Apostles (Official story behind the name: Jesuit missionaries miscounted) is pretty far-flung, especially at the 3 or 4 miles per hour a sailboat moves. But it was worth the trip.

Last month, I interviewed Bob Mackreth, a writer, historian, and retired park ranger, for a story about the conflict between natural history and human history in national parks. During the interview, he told me that Sand Island was the place to go to see that conflict in action. The Island was once home to a relatively large and long-lived village. Where there is now forest, there was once a school, a cooperative grocery store, and roads. It lasted until the 1950s, when the sea lamprey put a major kink in the commercial fishing industry on Lake Superior.

Today, the park trail follows the former path of Sand Island's main road. Along it, Mackreth told me, you'll find a couple of old cars, abandoned to the forest. I did find them. And I thought you'd like to see them, too.

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Human disease kills coral

In news that would be completely fascinating, were it not so damn depressing: One of the causes behind Caribbean coral die-offs seems to be a bacteria, spread from humans to the coral through sewage. It's the first time that a human disease has ever been shown to kill an invertebrate.

Fun with the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake

Snakes are not my favorite members of the animal kingdom (I have a problem with the fact that they lack legs.) But I did like this video about rattlesnake behavior and biology from the folks at KQED Science. One cool thing I learned: Baby rattlesnakes aren't actually more dangerous than adults, something I'd heard many times from friends and family.

Katie Colbert, a naturalist at Sunol-Ohlone Regional Wilderness, has often heard people warn that a baby rattlesnake is a greater threat due to the fact that they're unable to control the amount of poison they inject into their victim when they bite. According to Colbert, this is just not true: all rattlesnakes, babies and adults, can control their venom. In addition, Colbert says, "Baby rattlesnakes can only produce and stash a very small fraction of [venom] an adult can." This does not change the fact, however, that a bite from any rattlesnake, regardless of age, is a dangerous bite and requires medical attention.

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Flowers. Candygram.

"Next thing I know I hear a splash, and see a white shark breach out of the water from [the] side of the boat hovering, literally, over the crew member who was chumming [throwing food bait] on the port side." — Dorien Schröder, team leader at Oceans Research. A great white shark jumped out of the water, flying-fish style, and landed on her research vessel. The crew kept the shark alive and eventually managed to return it safely to the water.

Giant squid found off Florida coast

Fishermen in Florida found a 23-foot-long giant squid floating dead in the Atlantic. Some of you will be impressed by this. Others will complain that, at only 23 feet, this squid wasn't even all that giant. After all, giant squid can be as long as 43 feet. Still more readers will simply sigh and silently wish that people would stop lumping all those different species under the moniker "giant squid." (Via Hannah Waters)

Can you guess the identity of this Mystery Volcano?


I'm loving Big Think blogger Erik Klemetti's regular contest, Mystery Volcano Photo, where he presents readers with a gorgeous photo of an unnamed volcano and leaves them to guess its name and location. Mainly, I'm just blown away by comments full of very clever, volcano-loving people who seem to be able to identify mountains the way most of us can identify our friends and family. This is the most recent post. Look familiar to any of you?