Category Archives: Nature

What do birds do in an eclipse?

The August solar eclipse had a noticeable impact on solar power generation and other human activities (such as tourism).

Birds are quite aware of the sun and weather conditions. Many birds are active at particular times of day, hunting in sunlight or in darkness. So what do birds make of a sudden, unexpected nightfall and then another dawn

Benjamin Van Doren, Andrew Farnsworth, and Ian Davies write in BirdCast about “What Do Birds Do During a Total Eclipse?” The article is a collection of field observations during the solar eclipse.

Overall, birds seem to have responded to the darkness the same way that they behave at night. Daytime species seem to have gone to roost, and nighttime species came out to hunt. The eclipse doesn’t last very long, though, so nobody had time to completely go to sleep or wake up.

One interesting image shows radar data that detects birds in the air. As the total eclipse passed the area, the air cleared in the shadow. Daytime birds dropped down toward their roosts, and nighttime birds did not take off yet. The result is a circular trace of “empty sky”. Cool!

The reports also note that insects woke up, and flowers started to close.  Many of the reports indicate that the birds seemed confused, which is certainly reasonable under the circumstances.

BirdCast also reminds us that It will take a long time for the Southern coast of the US to recover from the Hurricanes of September 2017. We will no doubt learn that wildlife was affected by the huge storms. For instance, it is likely that birds (and other animals) were pushed North by the powerful winds. As they find there way back to the usual homes, like the people the birds will find trees (their homes) destroyed, and flood waters everywhere. As everyone returns and rebuilds, birders will no doubt report how birds cope with the storms.

  1. Benjamin Van Doren, Andrew Farnsworth, and Ian Davies, What Do Birds Do During a Total Eclipse? Observations from eBird and Radar on August 21, , in BirdCast. 2017.


Armadillos On The March!

It’s a good thing the climate isn’t changing, because if things were getting warmer, then all those crazy animals from Florida and Texas would be moving North.

Such as Armadillos.

In recent years, these weird Paleolithic beasts have been sighted more and more frequently farther North than in past centuries. They have been found in Illinois, and this month one was sighted within blocks of my house.


Overall, the data indicates that Armadillos are definitely spreading North.

Pictured here is the range of armadillos.


Naturalists say that these guys really can’t stand really cold winter days, so they used to not live here. But the last decades have seen warmer winters, and we are now habitable territory for armadillos.

I guess this could be yet another clever hoax by those sneaky scientists. Everyone knows that Big Armadillo hates America and is waging war on coal and oil. “They” will stop at nothing, including fake Armadillo sightings. Could this be opossums dressed up in foam armor?


  1. Prairie Rivers Network, Armadillos, Illinois’ Armored Invader, in Prairie Rivers Network Home. 2017.
  2. Mark Schultz, First Armadillo Confirmed In Champaign County, in WILL Radio News. 2017: Urbana.



Science makes you think, man. It makes you think big. And it makes you see yourself as tiny.

The Universe seems to be 98% Dark Matter and Energy—which we know nothing about.  Earth is teeming with life, 99% of it microscopic, and much of it unknown to humans [2]. The Earth is certainly several billion years old, and humans have been around only the last tick of that clock. Life has almost died out at least five times in those billions of years.

This month, Jochen Brocks and colleagues have published a rather fiddly study of biochemical traces in very old rocks [1]. The chemicals are left by squishy aquatic microlife that leaves little other fossil record.

Detecting these compounds is difficult because rocks are usually contaminated with younger chemicals (prominently including “anthropogenic petroleum products”) which swamp the faint older deposits. The researchers carefully screened out known contaminants, in order to measure the proportions of steranes and hopanes in the rocks. These are markers for eukaryotic cells, so the data indirectly indicate the predominance of bacteria in the environment.

They link these studies to current understanding of paleoclimate. They find evidence for a remarkable story. Roughly 700 million years ago was “Sturtian snowball glaciation”, an extreme ice age that froze the oceans all the way to the bottom. Before this period, eukarytes predominated, and they died back dramatically during the 100 million year ice age.

At the end of the Sturian, the abundance of bacteria increased, reaching modern abundance within a few tens of million years. Then something happened that enabled Algae to overcome the cyanobacteria, and eventually flood the world with oxygen and animals like us.

The researchers suggest that the glaciation and subsequent melting flooded the oceans with nutrients ground up by the ice cover, which eventually tipped the balance in favor of algae. They offer a possible scenario for this transition. At some point, algae evolved as a hybrid eukaryte engulfing a cyanobacteria, and thrived. This led to rapid evolution of animals that feed on algae.

If this scenario is correct then algae emerged and survived, but only came to dominate the oceans after a billion years. If so, then an episode of extreme global climate change probably led the rise of the biochemistry and ecology that we need to exist.

This study is very interesting, but far from conclusive. Even assuming the data is correct, it still isn’t clear whether the emergence of algae really triggered the evolution of animals, or how other factors were involved.[2].

Still, this is a reminder that the world we see is scarcely the only possible way things could work. It is also makes us realize just how much deep history is floating around in our own cells—we are descended from life that thrived on a radically alien Earth.

  1. Jochen J. Brocks, Amber J. M. Jarrett, Eva Sirantoine, Christian Hallmann, Yosuke Hoshino, and Tharika Liyanage, The rise of algae in Cryogenian oceans and the emergence of animals. Nature, advance online publication 08/16/online 2017.
  2. Friend, Tim, The Third Domain: The Untold Story of Archaea and the Future of Biotechnology, Washington, DC, Joseph Henry Press, 2007.
  3. Roland Pease, The algae that terraformed Earth, in BBC News – Science & Environment. 2017.


Penguin Feathers Tell All

One of the important questions for filed biology is to document and understand the movements of animals, which reveals many aspects of behavior, including nesting, mating, what they eat, and what eats them. But it isn’t at all easy to track animals in the wild.

For centuries, this difficult problem was tackled through personal observations and with tags. The former is possible only in some fortunate circumstances, and the latter requires capture, release, and recapture, which is difficult, expensive, and lossy. But 21st century technology is now available (and cheap enough) for filed biologiists to use.

In recent years, electronic location tags have become small and cheap, opening a new age of animal tracking. With a small radio tag attached, almost any animal can be tracked, on land, sea, or air. This still requires capture and release or at least touching the animal to tag it. And tags are cheap but not free.

Another cool advance is the use of chemical analysis of tissue to infer the travels and history of an animal. These techniques have advanced to the point that one discarded feather can speak volumes—without harming the animal.

This month Michael J. Polito and colleagues report on some successful experiments tracking Penguins through this method [2]. The study tagged Penguins with location tracking tags and when recaptured, took one tail feather.

The chemical analysis of the feathers detected the isotopes of Carbon in the feathers, which are different in different regions of the ocean, which have different plankton and fish to eat. The study showed that this method was as accurate as the location tag in identifying which waters were visited by each bird that winter.


This means that catching a sample of Penguins once (rather than twice) and plucking one feather (rather than attaching a tracker) can reveal where they fed during the dark winter.

  1. Sarah Gabbott, Penguin feathers record migration route, in BBC News -Science & Environment. 2017.
  2. Michael J. Polito,, Jefferson T. Hinke, Tom Hart, Mercedes Santos, Leah A. Houghton, and Simon R. Thorrold, Stable isotope analyses of feather amino acids identify penguin migration strategies at ocean basin scales. Biology Letters, 13 (8) 2017.

Convergent Evidence Splits Birds-of-Paradise

The Birds-of-Paradise is one of the most spectacular animals on the planet, with mind bending coloration that is displayed in the male’s courtship dance.

Superb Bird-of-Paradise Lophorina superba © Tim Laman ML 62128001

The rugged and complicated terrain of New Guinea and nearby has produced amazing variety of life, with many species living in a small geographical range. In the case of the Bird-of-Paradise, there are a chain of populations along the island. Are these all the same species?

This summer has seen simultaneous reports of behavioral and genetic evidence that show there are two distinct species (in the Western and Eastern areas).

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a Birds-of-Paradise Project (!) that has been observing the animals in the wild. This isn’t easy to do in the dense and remote forests, buy in 2016 they were able to observe the mating dance of the western population in the Arfak Mountain. They discovered that the similar looking birds have a noticeably different display, and a different dance from the more common species in the East [1].

At the same time, Martin Irestedt and colleagues have published DNA analysis taken from museum specimens [2]. Their study finds a similar genetic distinction between the two populations.

The timing of this DNA-based study is perfect,” said Ed Scholes, “because it is great to have our field observations supported by solid genetic evidence. We really appreciate this in-depth study of the evolutionary relationships among the different forms of Superb Bird-of-Paradise.

This is a nice bit of science, with two lines of evidence converging to support the conclusion.

  1. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dance Moves Support Evidence for New Bird-of-Paradise Species. 2017,
  2. Martin Irestedt, Henrique Batalha-Filho, Per G. P. Ericson FLS, Les Christidis, and Richard Schodde, Phylogeny, biogeography and taxonomic consequences in a bird-of-paradise species complex, Lophorina–Ptiloris (Aves: Paradisaeidae). . Zoologial Journal of the Linnean Society, 2017.


Where are the bees?

In the past decade, scientists have raised alarms about the decline in pollinators, including the semi-domestic honey bee.

There seems little doubt that honey bees are dying off at alarming rates. It would be surprising if similar trends were not occurring across many species of bee, wasp, beetle, and butterfly.

Data point: in my pollinator friendly yard, we get lots of insects. Up to two years ago, we had honey bees and at least three other species of bees, as well as butterflies, and numerous identified insects. Every day, all summer.

Last year, there were no honey bees. None this year, either. From hundreds to zero in one year. I assure you that the flowers are the same, so where are the bees?

Suspicions fall on agricultural chemicals, insecticides intended to protect crops from being eaten by insects. But with a bazillion dollar industry and possibly huge crop losses at stake, trivial ideas like, “just stop using pesticides” are neither reasonable nor feasible. We need to know exactly what is happening to bees, and we need to know as soon as possible.

For one thing, there are a number of stressors for bees, including the familiar refrains of habitat loss and climate shift. For that matter, there are a lot of human introduced chemicals that might be involved. And, in the end, the bees must contend with the combination of all these.

But out of all the troubles plaguing our bees, fingers have pointed to neonicotinoid chemicals which are applied as a coating on crop seeds. Bees don’t have much to do with seeds, but the worry is that these chemicals persist for months, and small quantities are on the flowers that bees and other insects visit. Visiting hundreds of flowers, a bee may be exposed to tiny amounts of chemical many times. Furthermore, insects may carry the chemicals to other flowers and back to nests, spreading small amounts of the toxins.

An assessment of the problem requires examining how tiny amounts of chemicals persist and spread, as well as how much pollinators pick up from these sources. Investigating this in real settings is a non-trivial challenge, because the amounts of chemicals are small and must be measured over long periods of time. There are many possible variables, including how the chemicals are used, weather and soil conditions, and who know what else.

This month a European team reports a large scale study of these effects, comparing the effects over two years of neonicotinoid with control [3]. The careful study found a rather complicated set of results, different for different countries in the study. In some cases, there was clear losses of the bees, in others there were no differences between conditions. In the case of the UK, so many bees died in all conditions that there could be no statistical comparison of the effects. The study also found traces of the chemicals in the nests of wild bees, which appears to be related to reduced populations.

Overall, their results seem to show that there definitely are losses of bees, and these chemicals may contribute to the losses, at least in some cases. Most likely, neonicotinoids weaken some of the bees, making them more vulnerable to other challenges.

This study also confirms that the chemicals persist for months, and seem to accumulate in the nests of wild bees, far from the location of the deployment, and far from the intended target. This is consistent with other studies [2].

There is certainly cause for concern here. The EU and Canada are moving to stop using these chemicals, with a calculus that even with uncertainty, the benefits don’t outweigh the risks [1].

With the current administration, the US EPA will almost certainly not act to restrict these chemicals, study or no study. Sigh.

If you still have bees, be sure to say goodbye to them this summer. There won’t be very many left in a few years.

  1. Rebecca Morelle, Large-scale study ‘shows neonic pesticides harm bees’, in BBC News – Science & Environment. 2017.
  2. Erik Stokstad, Controversial pesticides can decimate honey bees, large study finds, in Science – News. 2017.
  3. B. A. Woodcock J. M. Bullock, R. F. Shore, M. S. Heard, M. G. Pereira, J. Redhead, L. Ridding, H. Dean, D. Sleep, P. Henrys, J. Peyton, S. Hulmes, L. Hulmes, M. Sárospataki, C. Saure, M. Edwards, E. Genersch, S. Knäbe, and R. F. Pywell, Country-specific effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on honey bees and wild bees. Science, 356 (6345):1393, 2017.


Celibrate World Giraffe Day: June 21

June 21 is World Giraffe Day!

Visit a Zoo or explore information on the web.

I think the closest giraffes to me are in Peoria:

This celebration is organized by The Giraffe Conservation Foundation, which seeks funding to help preserve this iconic and beloved species. Their website has lots of images of giraffes, and invites people to “stick their necks out” to save the giraffes.

I have to say that I would not want to live on an Earth without giraffes.