Bats flying in the dusk sky

Photo: Shutterstock

Noise pollution is hard to define for many people. We tend to think of noise as ephemeral; it’s something that happens and goes away. Maybe it’s annoying at the time, but it isn’t pollution. We don’t rely on sound the way some species do, however, and human-created noise can interfere with mating calls, hunting, and other essential functions in animals’ lives.

Take the fringe-lipped bat, for example. They mostly eat frogs, which they find by sound, but noise created by people can interfere with that, and make it harder to pinpoint where the frogs are. However, these bats can switch from listening to using echolocation.

Echolocation is something the bats do anyway—they send out high-pitched sounds that bounce back and tell them where things are. By switching between listening to the low-pitched mating calls of their prey and targeting that prey with echolocation, the bats are able to hunt effectively even with distractions. It’s kind of like conversing at a party: In a quiet room, you can just listen to somebody talk, but with ambient noise you have to look at them in order to pick them out instead of the crowd.

The researchers who discovered the fringe-lipped bat’s unique capabilities have made an important contribution to our understanding of how animals adapt to competing sounds. Not every sound a bat might hear is created by humans, and the sounds of other animals might make it hard to find their prey as well. But the ability to switch senses like this also makes animals like the fringe-lipped bat better able to adapt to live around humans.

Among other things, human settlements often bring lots of noise, and as humans have by this point affected pretty much every ecosystem in the world, most plants and animals have to adapt to live alongside us instead of being destroyed by our actions.

Giant Panda. Photo: Shutterstock

Giant Panda. Photo: Shutterstock

The IUCN, an international organization that monitors endangered species, is constantly reviewing the standings of plant and animal species around the world. Their recent congress has some mixed news to report, as some species have shown an improvement, while others are ever closer to going extinct.

Four of the six species of great apes, the Eastern and Western Gorillas, as well as the Bornean and Sumatran Orangutan, are all listed as Critically Endangered, meaning that their numbers are so low that any more significant loss could drive them to extinction. In most cases, these species are most threated by hunting, which is illegal, but happens anyway as people still want parts of these animals for trophies, traditional medicine, and other purposes. Plains Zebras as well as have seen a population decrease, with only about 500,000 animals in the wild, they’ve been moved to Near Threatened.

Some species, like the Giant Panda, are rebounding, thanks to conservation efforts. And even among the endangered species listed above, some are doing much better than they could be thanks to conservation efforts. Conservation is one of the key tools in preserving species around the world, and those efforts are usually the best way to shore up numbers and keep populations healthy.

There are many threats to animals and plants throughout the world: Habitat loss, climate change, hunting, and invasive species are perhaps the most common. Animal populations in general cannot sustain human desires, which is the main reason most species have gone extinct in recent centuries. We use up their habitats or overhunt them for our own purposes, and usually crass purposes at that: People didn’t eat rhinos, for example; they simply killed them for their horns in order to make art objects.

As more and more species are threatened by an ever-growing number of dangers, it is especially important that we step up conservation efforts in order to preserve ecosystems around the world.

Greenland Shark. Photo by NOAA via Wikimedia Commons

Greenland Shark. Photo by NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists have recently discovered that the Greenland shark is the oldest living vertebrate species on the planet, living up to 400 years, if not longer.

The Greenland shark lives in extremely cold water, and generally very deep in the ocean. As a result, they grow very slowly, about 1cm a year, and also move very slowly, about one mile an hour. They’re mostly scavengers, but apparently sneak up on sleeping seals from time to time, and have been found with all kinds of things in their stomach, including a moose one time.

Born about three feet long, Greenland sharks can reach lengths of around 24 feet, making them among the biggest sharks in the ocean. Luckily they live in water so cold that they rarely share it with humans, because they could easily swallow somebody whole. But there is no record of a Greenland shark ever eating a person.

Unlike many marine species, Greenland sharks aren’t threatened by fishing, which is a good thing. Since they don’t generally breed until they’re about a century and a half old, it would be really easy to accidentally overfish them.

While their meat is considered a delicacy in Iceland, it takes so much effort to make it edible that nobody else really wants to eat it. Because of the depths and temperatures of water at which they live, they create a chemical compound that, if ingested, causes effects similar to being extremely drunk. Sled dogs that have eaten the meat weren’t able to stand up. But if you cook it right, for a long enough time, or ferment it, you can actually eat it.

Most people don’t have the patience to eat these sharks, so we don’t have to worry about them vanishing any time soon, and hopefully they can teach us a great deal.

A new beaked whale species has been discovered in the North Pacific.

Photo: Shutterstock

Beaked whales, which have pointed noses like their dolphin cousins, are not very well understood compared to other types of whales. They aren’t seen as often or studied as much, and scientists have discovered several species just in the past few decades. Now we’re about to add another to that list thanks to some recent discoveries using genetic research.

The Baird’s beaked whale has been known for a while, and is among the species caught by Japanese whaling crews. Every once in a while, though, they find smaller, black specimens, which until recently were just assumed to be Baird’s beaked whales. But their size, up to about 25 feet, and their distinct coloration led some scientists to posit that they might be a different species.

A recent study of genetic information from 178 whales once classified as Baird’s beaked whales, or as an unknown potential species, found that eight of those samples are in fact from a newly discovered species.

Though very similar to the Baird’s, this new species is actually more closely related to another species, the Arnoux’s beaked whale from the Southern Hemisphere. The new species also has a smaller range, from northern Japan to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, though we don’t know much more about them yet.

“The implication of a new species of beaked whale is that we need to reconsider management of both species to be sure they are sufficiently protected, considering how rare the new one appears to be,” said Erich Hoyt, a research fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation in the United Kingdom, and co-director of the Russian Cetacean Habitat Project.

Beaked whales dive deep to feed on bottom fish, squid, and other creatures that live thousands of feet below sea level. We can make some basic arguments about the whales based on what we know, do far, but with so few samples it’s hard to know much more.

While finding a new species of whale is very exciting, it highlights just how little we actually know about the ocean and its inhabitants. Hopefully further study can tell us more about this new species, which still has to be officially recognized and named.

The cucumber mosaic virus tricks bees into moving it from plant to plant.

A bee pollinates a cucumber flower. Photo: Shutterstock

Bees fly from plant to plant, taking pollen from one to another in the process. Of course, we’ve known this for a very long time, which is why we refer to them as pollinators. They also contribute greatly to about 75 percent of the crops we grow, which is why so many people are concerned about declining bee populations around the world.

It turns out that bees also move viruses from plant to plant, or at least the cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) which result in plants that have smaller, less tasty yields.

The bees are dupes in this process, though. The virus changes the chemical makeup of the volatiles, the particles that produce smells, so that the bees are more attracted to the infected plants. This works for the plants and the virus, as they both get to breed and spread. The bees don’t seem to be affected by the virus.

But, scientists think that if we can find a way to similarly trick bees by making them prefer modified crops, they might pollinate them more, which would result in larger crop yields. The trick is to not rely on the virus, but to find a way to either make the plants smell better, or get the bees to come to the plants in the first place.

Scientists have isolated the factor of the virus which reprograms the plant’s DNA, so with that information, we might be able to do the same without needing the virus. This could be a more ecologically friendly way to increase crop yields than relying on pesticides to keep out unwanted insects. In fact, plants use smell to both attract pollinators and to keep predators away, so maybe we could find a way to modify existing plants to attract more bees and fewer pests.

Larsen B ice shelf

The Larsen B ice shelf collapsed in 2002. It appears that Larsen C may be headed for the same fate. Photo: Shutterstock

The Larsen C ice shelf is the northernmost of the major shelves in Antarctica, a little smaller in area than Scotland—and part of it is in danger of breaking off. Currently, there is a 130km-long crack in it that has been growing rapidly in the last few years. It grew 22km since March of 2016 and could result in a chunk about the size of Prince Edward Island breaking away.

This in itself won’t directly contribute to the rise of sea levels, but it could be a signifier of a larger problem. Ice shelves rest on top of the ocean. They’re already floating, so if this piece breaks off, it won’t displace any more water. However, such an event could quickly lead to more ice from that shelf breaking away, as happened with other shelves in 1995 and 2002.

The problem then is that ice shelves hold back ice that is actually on the land of Antarctica, so when the shelves break away, that ice pushes forward and eventually it can reach the ocean. If that ice gets into the water, it will raise water levels.

Ice shelves break sometimes, but this would be the third significant breakage in 20 years, and this ice has probably been in that spot for almost 12,000 years. The previous breakages led to the loss of their respective shelves, and that seems likely in this case as well. It seems pretty obvious that the recent breakages have something to do with climate change.

For now, we simply have to watch the ice and see what happens, as predicting these types of events is a lot like predicting an earthquake. You can know that one is likely coming, but you can’t pin down when it will happen. It could be next month or several years away.

The growing crack in the Larsen C ice shelf is another sign that we need to reduce our carbon emissions and begin relying on green power generation technologies such as solar, so that we can do something to slow or stop global climate change.

Solar power generation facility

Photo: Shutterstock

Solar may be the hottest thing when it comes to green energy, but according to analysts at IHS Markit, in order for it to really develop in Europe, it needs policy support. Though there are plans afoot to build ground-mount solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity in several countries, they can’t go ahead without some government buy-in.

IHS Markit, the company studying the current state of solar energy support, is a global business information provider based in London. Its board of directors consists of Bill Ford of General Atlantic; Dinyar DeVitre of General Atlantic; Robert Kelly of Saint Mary’s University; Richard Roedel, CPA of Luna Innovations; Ruann Ernst, Ph.D, of IHS Markit; James Rosenthal, J.D., of Morgan Stanley; Deborah McWhinney of Fresenius Medical Care; Jean-Paul Montupet of WABCO Holdings; Balakrishnan Iyer of Philips Semiconductors; Board Chairman and CEO Jerre Stead; and President Lance Uggala.

According to IHS Markit, there are currently more than 8 gigawatts (GW) of solar PV projects under development, and all of these have received grid-connection permits. Unfortunately, the majority of them have not gone beyond that stage.

Spain, for example, recently announced plans for a power tender that could include up to 2 GW of solar power. Approximately 2 GW worth of grid-connection applications have been filed in Portugal, and Ireland has 3 GW of solar projects in the permitting process.

According to IHS Markit senior analyst Josefin Berg, although the demand for ground-mount solar PV capacity is expected to decline by 40 percent in 2016, it will recover after 2018 due to an increasing demand for solar energy in untapped markets.

However, in order for solar suppliers to be able to meet the anticipated demand, governments will need to support the manufacturers’ investments with tools such as fixed-rate power purchase agreements and incentive schemes.

Ireland is planning to put an incentive program in place to support ground-mount PV system capacity in that nation, but few details about the exact nature of the incentives have been released. If the incentive scheme is attractive to developers, IHS Markit anticipates that there will be a surge in construction activity.

Berg wrote, “As we have seen in other countries in the past, these planned projects could be installed very quickly, as soon as a regulatory framework can ensure sufficient revenues for investors.”

IHS Markit also recently released its PV Module Supplier Scorecard, addressing a need for a holistic review of the PV module supplier base, another crucial element in the ability to expand the solar power grid in Europe and beyond. Trina Solar scored highest in market presence due to its leading global market share, completeness of its product offering, strong position in all major regions, and brand perception.

Other firms that ranked high on the PV Module Supplier Scorecard were SunPower, First Solar, Hanwha Q-cells, and Jinko Solar. Each of these companies won above-average scores for market presence and market momentum.

The PV Module Supplier Scorecard results reward companies that are well established in a wide range of markets, with strong brands and strong financial results, and that are well positioned for growth in the future.

There is an increasingly strong field of companies that supply PV modules and other components necessary to produce solar energy, as evidenced by IHS Markit’s list of top suppliers. However, a deeper analysis of the market indicates that without the necessary policy support, the solar energy supply may not expand quickly enough to meet anticipated demand.