Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

flight-behaviourClimate change affects the entire globe, but its effects are felt locally. It nudges animals from one area to another, it changes local weather patterns, and it takes a toll on the men and women who till and cultivate the soil so that the rest of us may eat.

Barbara Kingsolver understands all of this. Flight Behavior, published last year, is a touching tale of an unusually warm and wet Appalachian winter and its effects on a hardscrabble farm. The unseasonable season is made all the more extraordinary by the arrival of a wayward rabble of migratory butterflies.

An ambitious protagonist trapped with young kids and a dull husband in a small town is thrust suddenly into a harsh spotlight shone by the insects that she discovered. And while struggling with newfound fame, the young mother comes to grips with the changes ravaging the tiny world around her.

Kingsolver is one of modern literature’s greatest practitioners. It’s a delight to see her take on climate change with this thought-provoking yarn. The story is imbued with a scientifically-refined grasp of global warming and loaded with well-placed cynicism of the media’s coverage of this most pressing issue.

John Upton

These chicks puke at predators

By John Upton

When Eurasian rollers forage for insect prey for their young, they’re not just on a quest for nourishing fat and protein. They’re fossicking through an ecological armory for chemical weapons.

Some plants produce toxins to deter herbivores. Some insects that eat those plants use those plant toxins for their own defense. Eurasian roller chicks use the plant toxins from those insects to produce a pungent orange liquid — an unsavory concoction that scientists have concluded is used as a defense against predators.

A team of Spanish researchers found that Eurasian roller nestlings vomited when they picked them up, but not when they approached the young birds, talked to them or gently prodded them. “This fact suggests that the vomit might be produced in response to some kind of predators that actively grasp and move prey during the predation event such as snakes, rats and mustelids, which are common predators of hole-nesting species as rollers,” the scientists wrote in a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Illustrated by Perry Shirley.
Illustrated by Perry Shirley.

The researchers collected the puke and smeared some of it on pieces of chicken, which they offered (with the smeared side hidden) to 25 dogs alongside a similar chunk of poultry smeared only with water. Some of the mutts strangely showed no appetite for chicken whatsoever. But 18 of the 20 dogs with a hankering for hen opted first for the untreated meat, indicating that the smell is off-putting for a predator. Most of those 18 dogs subsequently wolfed down the vomit-smeared chicken, but six of them left it entirely alone.

“One could wonder about the nestling advantage of this defence,” the scientists wrote. “Kin selection is a possible answer to that question because a predator that finds the first nestling of a brood of five to be distasteful may leave alive the others.”

From where do the chicks get the hydroxybenzoic and hydroxycinnamic acids, phenolic acids and psoralen needed to produce their unpalatable puke?

The scientists matched these compounds to toxins produced by plants to deter animals from feeding on them. Many insects have developed an immunity to such toxins, and some use the plants’ toxins to defend themselves. That’s the case for many of the grasshoppers upon which the rollers prey, and the scientists believe that the chicks are, in turn, purloining the poisons from the grasshoppers to defend themselves.

But that’s not all — the scientists think that the parent birds might also be hunting for more-poisonous insects, such as centipedes, that most other birds would never touch.

“Grasshoppers are the main prey that rollers hunt to feed their nestlings,” they wrote. “Furthermore, rollers feed their offspring with a large share of poisonous arthropods that are avoided by most of the other sympatric insectivorous birds. This suggests that rollers are resistant to these toxic substances and could have the ability to sequester chemicals from their protected prey to defend themselves.”

An adult Eurasian roller.
An adult Eurasian roller in Kazakhstan. Photo by Ken and Nyetta.

Research: Bat-killing fungus arrived from afar

By John Upton

A ripple of bat deaths has grown since 2006 to become millions of Chiroptera deep, stretching out from its New York epicenter into five Canadian provinces and west at least as far as Missouri. The latest state to be affected was Minnesota, where infected bats were discovered in two parks.

The dead bats were all members of species that hibernate — and they succumbed to white nose syndrome. The disease is caused by a fungus that eats away at their wings and faces.

Little brown bats are among the worst affected. These adorably tiny bats were common throughout Eastern America as little as a decade ago, sucking down mosquitoes and other pests during their nocturnal maunders. Now the species appears to be on the verge of being listed as federally endangered.

Illustrated by Perry Shirley.
Illustrated by Perry Shirley.

Mammals appear to have developed high body temperatures to help stave off infections of fungi. But hibernating bats have a chink in that armor: When they hibernate, their body temperatures plummet. And when most bats hibernate, they huddle together, which helps the fungal infection spread through the slumbering colony.

What caused this fast-moving fungus to suddenly begin attacking bats? Did it go rogue, evolving from a soil eater into a devourer of bat flesh? Or is it an invasive species that arrived from some far-flung place?

A pair of Wisconsin-based U.S. Forest Service scientists studied the DNA of the disease along with that of more than a dozen species of other fungi found growing in bat caves in the eastern U.S. What they found, first and foremost, was that the pathogen was not quite what everybody thought it was.

Scientists have called the disease Geomycetes destructans since it was identified in 2009. But the recent research, described in the journal Fungal Biology, indicates that the fungus is actually a member of the genus Pseudogymnoascus. Hence, it has been reclassified P. destructans.

Of the other species of Pseudogymnoascus fungi sampled in the studied hibernacula, the scientists reported that none were closely related to P. destructans. That’s significant, because it suggests that white-nose syndrome arrived in New York from some other part of the world, perhaps on the shoes of a traveler or shipped in as a few spores with freight.

Researcher Andrew Minnis said the study is part of a wider effort to find a way to protect bats from the fungus. “Once key elements of this [fungus] species’ biology, including mechanisms of pathogenicity, are identified, it will be possible to target them,” he said.

Once it was realized that many related fungi were present in bat caves, but weren’t killing bats, “thoughts arose that these species could be used for comparative purposes — to understand why P. destructans is different,” he said. Following the findings from this study, “further and more informed comparative work can now be performed.”

Confirmed and suspected white-nose syndrome cases. Map updated August, 2013 by the U.S. government.
Confirmed and suspected white-nose syndrome cases. Map updated August, 2013 by the U.S. government.

Recommended novel: Lexicon, by Max Barry

Click to buy from AmazonA cultish group of self-described poets has mastered the art of persuasion – by figuring out which words and sounds can be used to hack the brains of different personality types. When the poets’ lab develops a word so powerful that almost nobody can resist being coerced by it, at least one among them uses it to destroy an Australian mining town.

This is a high-octane action novel with a hefty mix of science fiction and a touch of old-fashioned romance.

Being a dual Australian-American citizen, I enjoyed this novel in part because its literary set spanned Washington, D.C. and the Australian outback. And I absolutely loved Max Barry’s dry Australian sense of humor, which left me laughing out loud at the most surprising moments.

— John Upton

Recommended novel: Fallen Land, by Patrick Flanery

Click to buy.This deftly subdued thriller charts the dovetailing lives of five members of three tormented families living in a corner of a subdivided farm.

An old widow squats in the farmhouse where she was born, grieving as her ancestral land is carved up, torn up and developed around her. The new neighborhood is left partly built when the developer goes bust, losing his wife, kids, home and sanity along the way.

When a family moves in next door to the widow — into the model home where the developer intended to house his own family, replete with a secret bunker and passageways — only the youngest among the new tenants knows a terrifying secret: In this house, they are not alone.

This is a remarkable story — not just for its riveting plot and creative storytelling, but for the deep connections that Patrick Flanery explores between Americans and the places they call home.

This might never be marketed as an environmental novel, but the story drips with a cynical exposé of the desecration of urban planning by failures of modern democracy.

— John Upton

Recommended novel: The Appeal, by John Grisham

Click to buy.John Grisham paints a bleak picture of how justice can be bought and sold in America.

After a chemical factory sickens the residents of a small town, a team of local attorneys secures a colossal — and precedent-setting — payout for one of its many victims. But before an appeal can reach the Mississippi Supreme Court, the factory’s owner sets about replacing a centrist judge on the state bench with one that is controlled by industry.

This gloomy tale of environmental injustice reveals the shortcomings of the very concept of judicial elections.

— John Upton

Recommended novel: Breath of Death, by Saad Shafqat

Click to buy from Amazon.On one level, this is a well-composed thriller that thrusts medical researchers into a race against a bio-terrorist. On another, it’s an exploration of the challenges that scientists face in Pakistan – and the discrimination they can face when they attempt to collaborate with their peers in America.

An exciting story by a talented Pakistani author who grasps the cultural and financial divides that hold science in the East asunder from that in the West.

John Upton

Recommended novel: State of Fear, by Michael Crichton

Click to buy from AmazonThis adventure romp around the world could leave you living in fear of environmentalists.

In one of his final novels, Michael Crichton throws climate skepticism into full throttle, casting a crew of enviros and academics as bad guys out to wreck the weather for their own financial gain. But look out, you homicidal crew of greedy activists, a gang of independently-minded lawyer types is hot on your trail.

The premise of this fast-paced novel may have sounded to some like it could have held water when it was published in 2004. But in an era of wild weather and growing climate literacy it’s laid bare as a fantastical conspiracy theory by one of science fiction’s greats. A wonderful read for any cynic.

John Upton

Recommended novel: The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells

island-dr-moreauThis 1896 classic opens a portal into dusty notions of genetic modification predating the discovery of DNA.

Written by one of the world’s great science fiction writers and adapted by numerous filmmakers since, The Island of Dr. Moreau takes readers on a bizarre journey to a tiny Pacific island to meet its oddball inhabitants.

A castaway discovers that the curious people who share his new land aren’t people at all. They are the vivisected creations of the resident mad scientist, sculpted with a scalpel from live animals.

John Upton

Dutch gulls eat their young on Sundays

By John Upton

The durations of days and years are calibrated by celestial turntables: The spinning of the Earth and its arcing around the sun. Humans and wildlife alike live out rituals according to daily and annual schedules.

But the seven-day week is a human construct. It’s an arbitrary chunk of time that cocoons timetables of work and rest, of television programming and soccer practice. Whenever you see wildlife falling into a weekly routine, you can be confident it’s the result of a human influence.

A weekly schedule plays out among European herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls nesting in the dunes of the Dutch island of Texel. And it’s a macabre one.

Illustrated by Perry Shirley.
Illustrated by Perry Shirley.

A chick being reared in these dunes may dread Sunday more than a young atheist dreads their mandatory church outings. It’s on Sundays that adult gulls are most likely to cannibalize the young. Saturdays are also popular chick-eating days among the Texel gulls, though not to the same extent as is the case on Sundays.

Sometimes the gulls eat their own chicks — or their own eggs. But more often they steal the unattended young of other birds, in some instances to be shared with their own hungry broods.

That’s not the only weekly pattern that marine ornithologist Kees Camphuysen has discovered during his studies on the island. Chicks tend to grow in spurts during the week, then their growth slows down over the weekends.

The Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research scientist thinks he knows what’s going on. He contends that it’s the weekly patterns of the region’s beamtrawlers and shrimpers that are driving the hebdomadal trends.

“[A] very strong weekly pattern in fleet size occurred, with high numbers of boats at sea Monday through Thursday, a much reduced number (mostly homeward bound) on Friday, and near to nothing on Saturdays and Sundays,” he wrote in his Ph.D. thesis.

The Texel Dunes gulls feast on the by-caught scraps of the fishing fleet, trailing the boats to scavenge protein for themselves and for their growing chicks. But when this supply of human surplus dries up over the weekends, the chicks’ growth rates slow, and hunger can drive the birds to cannibalism.

“Only commercial fisheries have a periodicity that can explain the strong, cyclic synchronisation in chick growth,” Camphuysen wrote. “Chick cannibalism rates were a mirror image of the rhythmic cycle in growth increments.”

The following series of photographs was published in Camphuysen’s Ph.D. thesis, showing an attack on an unattended chick by a bird from a nearby nest. The attacking gull can be seen sharing the kill with its own chick. If you would prefer to not see an adorable lesser black-backed gull chick being pecked to death and gutted by its own kind, then stop scrolling now.


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