It’s raining food for alligators in the Everglades – those that act as bodyguards for nesting birds get paid in chicks.
It’s not uncommon for one animal to gain protection from a neighbour. In Florida’s Everglades, wading birds like storks and egrets preferentially build their nests where alligators live, because the presence of the big reptiles protects them from nest-raiding racoons and opossums.
Lucas Nell of the University of Florida in Gainesville has now cruised the Everglades at night to see what the alligator bodyguards get out of the deal. Read more in New Scientist.
White sharks are voracious predators, and it seems they even set their sights on the biggest fish in the sea. Two vertebrae recovered from the stomach of a 4.5-metre-long white shark caught 50 years ago show that it had been feeding on a whale shark, and a big one at that. It was around 8.5 metres long, the size of the vertebrae suggests. Read more in New Scientist.
With Canada’s change in federal government this past October, meeting the UN’s marine protection target has leapt to the top of the priority list for Hunter Tootoo, Canada’s new minister of fisheries and oceans. In his mandate letter for the new minister, Prime Minister Trudeau listed—as his very first line item—the goal of protecting five percent of Canada’s coastal waters by 2017, and the full ten percent by 2020.
That’s good news, says Rodolphe Devillers, a marine geographer at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. But he says that, in their enthusiasm, the government seems to be looking to cut corners. Read more in Hakai.
Scientists have very little idea what the environmental effects of an oil sands “dilbit” spill would be.
The oil that flows in pipes away from Canada’s oil sands is not the same as conventional crude oil. Known as diluted bitumen, or “dilbit,” this proprietary blend of oil and chemicals behaves differently in the event of a spill. Or, scientists suspect it does. So little research has been done on the environmental and ecological effects of dilbit that it’s hard to say for sure. As a first step toward understanding the risks posed by dilbit, scientists working with Alberta oil sands dilbit found that the tacky mixture can cause a range of serious toxic effects in fish. Read more in Hakai.
Drugs taken by humans and animals find their way into rivers, lakes and even drinking water, and can have devastating effects on the environment.
When Rebecca Klaper searched for signs of pharmaceuticals in Lake Michigan, she got a surprise. The most common drug she found was one she hadn’t even considered looking for — metformin, a diabetes drug.
“It wasn’t even on our radar,” says Klaper, a freshwater scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the United States. “We only found it because the Environmental Protection Agency just happened to add it to the detection assay we used.”
Perhaps even more surprising was how far the drug had spread from the point it entered the lake via treated sewage. “Lake Michigan is huge, so we expected a big dilution effect, but we were still finding drugs, including metformin, three miles from the sewage treatment plants,” she says. Read more in The Pharmaceutical Journal.
Environmentally friendly additives to road salt may still have tradeoffs.
Every year, as winter closes in, transportation authorities prepare to deploy their vast stockpiles of salt and sand to keep the roads and highways safe and ice-free for drivers.
In the United States, roughly 18 million metric tons of road salt are spread on the roads each year, with another 5 million used in Canada. In Minnesota, nine tons of salt are applied per lane mile each winter – meaning a single mile of a four-lane highway gets 36 tons of salt dumped on it each year.
But all that salt does not just disappear along with the ice in the spring; it sticks around, and can have major effects on the surrounding ecosystems and even drinking water. Read more at Inside Science.
Fans of environmental science can now play a direct role in helping Canada’s unique Experimental Lakes Area continue to do the research it has done for decades.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development, based in Winnipeg, took over running the ELA on 1 April, after the federal government eliminated funding for the decades-old environmental research facility (see ‘Test lakes face closure’ and ‘Last minute reprieve for Canada’s research lakes’). The Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba have stepped in to provide money to run the facility and conduct research for the next several years, but more cash is needed to restore research at the ELA to its former levels.
Neonicotinoids change behaviour in ways that could affect spread of invasive species.
Neonicotinoid insecticides have developed a bad reputation for their unintended and potentially harmful effects on pollinating insects such as bees. A study in New Zealand now shows that the chemical can also change how native and invasive ants interact.
New Zealand is facing an invasion of Argentine ants (Linepithema humile), which compete with native southern ants (Monomorium antarcticum). The insects often meet in urban or agricultural areas, where neonicotinoids are in use. So ecologist Rafael Barbieri, a graduate student in the lab of Philip Lester at Victoria University of Wellington, wondered whether the behavioural changes that have been associated with sublethal neonicotinoid exposure in other insects affect how the two species interact. Read more in Nature.
Mercury pollution in marine animals may be behind a population crash.
An isolated population of Arctic foxes that dines only on marine animals seems to be slowly succumbing to mercury poisoning.
The foxes on Mednyi Island — one of Russia’s Commander Islands in the Bering Sea — are a subspecies of Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) that may have remained isolated for thousands of years. They were once numerous enough to support a small yet thriving group of fur hunters. After humans abandoned the settlement in the 1970s, the fox population began to crash, falling from more than 1,000 animals to fewer than 100 individuals today. Read more in Nature.
The world’s longest-running experiments remind us that science is a marathon, not a sprint.
Although science is a long-term pursuit, research is often practised over short timescales: a discrete experiment or a self-contained project constrained by the length of a funding cycle. But some investigations cannot be rushed. To study human lifespans or the roiling of Earth’s crust and the Sun’s surface, for instance, requires decades and even centuries.
Here, Nature takes a look at five of science’s longest-running projects, some of which have been amassing data continuously for centuries. Read more in Nature.