Weekend Reads: Wolverines Dig the Snow, Pigeons Strut Their Stuff, Cowboys Digitize the Range
Five #greenreads to use as an excuse for not shoveling the driveway.
Carl Zimmer for the New York Times on the pigeon puzzle: People have been messing with pigeon genes for millennia, breeding the doves for food, fun, and ancient forms of text messaging. "Greeks were using pigeons to send the results of Olympic Games from town to town ... Akbar the Great, a 16th-century Mughal emperor, always traveled with his personal colony of 10,000 pigeons." Charles Darwin got in on the action, too, filling his estate with the fanciest varieties. He realized that breeding for certain traits, like feathered feet or wild crests, is just a fast-tracked version of natural selection. Today, evolutionary scientists usually study drab organisms like fruit flies or bacteria, but biologist Michael D. Shapiro is giving pigeons another chance in the science spotlight. He's mapping the pigeon genome and pinpointing mutations that have made for some very glamourous birds. Darwin would surely approve.
Heather Millar in Orion on worries, big and small: "A million nanoparticles could squeeze onto the period at the end of this sentence." So what happens when you mist a miniature forest with these tiny, human-made particles in the lab? What about an entire ecosystem in the real world? Scientists are on the case, but we don't know yet. We don't know what happens when we put nanoparticles in our bodies, either, but that hasn't stopped manufacturers from putting them in Pop-Tarts, sunsceens, clothing, and thousands of other everyday products." Strange things happen to matter at the nano level: nanoaluminum explodes if it touches air and nanocarbon transforms into a strong conductive material. Millar describes how nanoparticles are challenging what we know about chemistry and physics and how they are making their way into our lives before we’re even sure they’re safe. “If nanotechnology and its uses represent a frontier of sorts, it’s not simply the Wild West -- it’s the Chaotic, Undiscovered, Uncontrollable West.”
Christine MacDonald in the Washington Post on locating better health: When epidemiologist David Van Sickle first began attaching large GPS trackers to inhalers, his “colleagues joked that just carrying one around might be stressful enough to induce an asthma attack.” But now these devices are smaller and helping doctors understand what environmental factors might trigger problems like asthma, heart attacks, and allergies. “‘I would love it if I could bring up [a] map and see the grocery stores, parks’ that patients have recently visited ‘right there while you are checking their blood pressure,’” says one physician. Researchers are also interested in using geomedicine to examine how socio-economic factors play roles in people’s diets and to predict where climate change might affect human health. As the technology improves, health officials are realizing “place should be a vital sign.”
Kim Tingley at OnEarth on the ways and woes of wolverines: Wolverines can’t catch a break. Biologists in the 1700s gave them a scientific name that means gluttonous glutton, and their modern nickname -- skunk bear -- isn’t much better. We see these chunky weasels as vicious and voracious, but the animal's reputation largely stems from knowing so little about them -- and what we've learned recently evokes more sympathy than fear. Wolverines need deep snow that lasts through May in order to keep their young safe in snow-packed dens. But as climate change brings warmer temperatures and erratic snowfall out West, wolverines and their kits are running out of places to go. What wolvernines need now is some help from the federal government and a dose of their own single-minded determination. One wolverine “scaled the vertical face of Montana’s 5,000-foot-high Mount Cleveland in mid-January in 90 minutes, simply because the peak stood directly between it and a dead mountain goat.” Now, that's what we call persistence.
Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley in the Atlantic on wide open spaces: Could the West say goodbye to barbed wire and hello to virtual fences? USDA scientist Dean M. Anderson is experimenting with devices that would stimulate a cow’s ears with irritating noises or tiny shocks when they strayed too close to the end of the range (kind of like your dog’s electric fence). Like digital cowboys, the technology would allow ranchers to rotate herds to where grazing is best for both the cattle and the landscape. But as with every new technology, you have to be careful. “If you can be sitting in your office in Washington D.C. and you program cows to move on your ranch in Montana, and you don't have anybody out on the ground in Montana monitoring what is taking place,” says Anderson, “You could literally destroy rangeland.”
Tired of reading yet? Watch this.
Mike Gunton and Robert Zakin for the Discovery Channel and BBC on underground snuggle parties: Beneath the Saharan Desert lie bustling communities of naked mole rats. This footage, taken from the new documentary series "Africa," captures these "saber-toothed sausages" as they scramble and scrape their way through hundreds of yards of tunnels -- and then settle down for a nice, long family nap.
Tips: @OnEarthMag (tag it #greenreads)
Image: Nomadic Lass