Whales and Dolphins Have “Human-Like” Cultures and Societies

Dolphins and other cetaceans have very complex social culture, and they even have regional dialects.
Dolphins and other cetaceans exhibit sophisticated social behaviors such as alloparenting, the parenting of other parents’ young. Photo via Pixabay

Whales and dolphins are increasingly threatened by fishing activities, environmental noise, and other factors. If we don’t take a stand to conserve these creatures, we could end up wiping out two other species with high intelligence and culture.

A recent study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution shows that cetaceans (whales and dolphins) live in tight-knit social groups, talk to each other, have complex relationships, and even have regional dialects.

The study links the complexity of whales’ and dolphins’ culture with the size of their brains.

Researchers from the University of Manchester in England, the University of British Columbia, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Stanford University teamed up to create a large dataset of cetacean brain size and social behaviors.

They compiled information on 90 different species of whales, porpoises, and dolphins. What they found was a massive pile of evidence that cetaceans have social and cooperative behavior traits similar to those found in human societies. The study also showed that these characteristics are linked with encephalization—brain size and brain expansion.

Some of the behavioral similarities they found between cetaceans and humans and other primates include:

  • They form complex alliance relationships. That is, they work together for mutual benefit.
  • They teach one another how to hunt and use tools, also known as social transfer of hunting techniques.
  • They hunt cooperatively.
  • They “talk” to one another using a series of complex vocalizations, and even have regional group dialects to their language.
  • They use “name” recognition. That is, they have “signature whistles” unique to individual members of the pod.
  • They work cooperatively with humans and other species.
  • They look after young members of their pods that aren’t their own—a phenomenon known in science as alloparenting.
  • And, of course, they’re well known to enjoy social play.

Manchester University evolutionary biologist Dr. Susanne Shultz said, “We know whales and dolphins…have exceptionally large and anatomically sophisticated brains, and therefore have created a marine-based culture [similar to that of human society]. That means the apparent co-evolution of brains, social structure, and behavioral richness of marine mammals provides a unique and striking parallel to the large brains and hyper-sociality of humans and other primates on land.”

However, Dr. Shultz added, “they won’t ever mimic our great metropolises and technologies because they didn’t evolve opposable thumbs.”

Dr. Kieran Fox, a neuroscientist at Stanford, said, “Cetaceans have many complex social behaviors that are similar to humans and other primates. They, however, have different brain structures from us, leading some researchers to argue that whales and dolphins could not achieve higher cognitive and social skills. I think our research shows that this is clearly not the case. Instead, a new question emerges: how can very diverse patterns of brain structure in very different species nonetheless give rise to highly similar cognitive and social behaviors?”


As Many as Half of All Species Could Face Extinction by 2100

The Vatican
The Vatican was the site of a recent conference on global extinction and creating a sustainable world. Photo: Shutterstock

As it stands, one in five species on the planet (20 percent) face extinction, but by the year 2100, that number is expected to rise to as much as 50 percent. And, of course, this is almost entirely due to human action.

“Rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate,” said biologist Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University. “We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cellphones. We grab all the fish from the sea, wreck the coral reefs, and put carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We have triggered a major extinction event. The question is: how do we stop it?”

This is why the Vatican, of all places, held a conference on biological extinction. While the Catholic Church has long been seen as an enemy to science, on ecological issues at least, those days are gone.

The conference brought together ecologists, economists, and biologists, natural and social scientists, as well as academics from the humanities. The idea behind the conference was to find ways to prevent the increase in endangered species, and find ways to roll back the pains of climate change, among other things.

Another problem the conference addressed was sustainably supporting the world’s growing population, and finding ways to slow that growth down. The UN expects that, by 2100, the Earth’s population will have grown form its current 7.2 billion to 11.2 billion. Even today, based on our current resource use, we would need another half an Earth to sustainably support those 7.2 billion people. If everyone lived the wasteful way we do in the United States, we’d need five more full Earths’ worth of resources.

“We are wrecking our planet’s life support systems. We have the capacity to stop that,” said Ehrlich. “The trouble is that the danger does not seem obvious to most people, and that is something we must put right.”

The thing is, these problems are our fault, and it is within our power to solve them. But we need to actually work toward that goal. We need to address difficult questions, and find ways to make those problems resonate with everyone, and not just the people studying them. Getting people to care and to support steps toward healing the world is the first step.

carbon emissions, Uncategorized

Black Carbon In the Siberian Arctic Comes From Unexpected Sources

Black carbon in the Russian Arctic comes from different sources than it does in the European Arctic.
The Russian Arctic. Photo: Shutterstock

Black carbon, better known as soot, can cause serious problems in the Arctic. It settles on top of snow and speeds up the melting process because it soaks up the sun’s heat instead of reflecting it. Increased snow and ice melt are serious problems in the Arctic, and it has a number of knock-on effects that make climate change worse. Finding a way to reduce black carbon in the Arctic could actually help to mitigate some aspects of climate change, but fist we have to figure out where it comes from.

In the Russian Arctic, 35 percent of black carbon comes from residential heating, and 38 percent from transportation. Open fires, power plants, and gas flaring account for the rest. This is according to a new study that set out to get a better understanding of where the soot comes from.

There are a number of factors, but first and foremost is proximity. “High-latitude sources are especially important. Even though China, for example, releases much more black carbon than Arctic regions, reductions there have less impact per kilogram than reductions in the Arctic,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers drew on previous research that was part of an EU-funded project to study carbon emissions and how they affected the European Arctic. But while they found good agreements between model estimates of black carbon concentrations and measurements for the European Arctic site, there was a mismatch between their projections and what they found in the Russian Arctic site of Tiksi, a research station in the far eastern region of Siberia.

The more complete results they got from adding the Tiksi results showed them the importance of heating and transport in the buildup of black carbon in that region of the Arctic.

Learning more about where black carbon is coming from is a big step toward figuring out how to reduce it, because now researchers can start looking at ways to address those problems in particular. This will involve research on how to reduce black carbon production in housing and transportation in Artic Russia. These findings could probably be extrapolated to other parts of the Arctic as well.

Climate Change, Nature, Sustainability, Uncategorized

Danish Seagrass Sequesters Carbon at Record Rates

Danish seagrass sequesters carbon at record rates.
Tropical seagrass. Photo: Shutterstock

Seagrass, a type of underwater plant which flowers and grows quite like terrestrial grasses, is apparently a huge contributor to the world’s ability sequester carbon. Seagrass grows in “meadows,” large patches dominated by one or two species, which are home to many shallow-water and coastal creatures. It forms an integral part of their local ecosystems.

But seagrass also sequesters carbon dioxide at a very high rate, and in one Danish bay, it’s much better at it than anywhere else. Outside of Thurøbund, no meadow seems to hold more than 11,000 grams of carbon per square meter, but the Danish bay sequesters upwards of 27,000 grams per square meter.

Biologists think this might have something to do with the protected nature of the bay. Not protected in a legal sense, but by having less direct contact with the larger ocean. There, when the plants die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean and get buried in sediment, so the carbon they had been storing stays there. In other meadows, these plants are washed out to sea, after which nobody is sure what happens to them.

Seagrass is threatened, as are so many species on the planet. Since 1879, the Earth has lost about 29 percent of its seagrass meadows. Denmark itself has lost between 80 and 90 percent since the 1930s. But because these plants are so good at storing carbon, it’s certainly worth our time to not only find ways to preserve those meadows which still exist, but to find ways to shore them up. If we can get more seagrass to grow, returning to levels before 1879, that could be a huge help in reducing global warming.

While the Earth’s processes of naturally sequestering carbon aren’t likely to save the day, they do put in a lot of work, and finding ways to increase the effectiveness with which they do so could make quite a difference.

Climate Change, Eco-friendly, Green, Science, Uncategorized

Plants Show Us How To Reduce Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere

A greenhouse full of plants. Scientists have found a way to turn carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide.
Photo: Shutterstock

Carbon dioxide is one of the major contributors to global climate change. The good news is that plants use it for energy, converting it into oxygen, which animals need to breathe. The bad news is that using fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas creates more carbon dioxide than plants can keep up with.

However, plants can also teach us how to deal with the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A team at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Chicago have found a way to convert carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide.

You may be alarmed by the production of carbon monoxide, as it is a known poison that can lead to suffocation and death. However, it’s much more reactive than carbon dioxide, which means it can be more easily converted into usable fuel sources.

“Making fuel from carbon monoxide means traveling ‘downhill’ energetically, while trying to create it directly from carbon dioxide means needing to go ‘uphill,’” said Argonne physicist Peter Zapol, one of the authors of the study.

The system by which the scientists did this took inspiration from plants, using many of the same ingredients, like light and water, that plants use to convert carbon dioxide into sugars. They even created an artificial leaf through which they processed the carbon dioxide. The process is very efficient, which is important because the more efficient a process, the cheaper it is and the more likely it is to catch on.

Carbon dioxide pollution is an important issue that scientists have been trying to address for decades now. While many plans going forward call for a reduction in carbon dioxide production, and that will certainly help, it won’t be enough to undo the damage caused by what is already in the atmosphere.

Other plans involve sequestering carbon dioxide by storing it underground, but that can be difficult and expensive, and it doesn’t get rid of the carbon dioxide.

Turning carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and subsequently into methanol could be a huge boon, as it would reduce greenhouse gases and provide renewable fuel sources.

Environmental Hazards, Science, Uncategorized

Radioactive Pollution From Fukishima Is Nearing The United States

 NASA satellite photo of Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture after being struck by a tsunami, since the incident in 2011 seawater contaminated with Cesium-134 has been moving closer to the United States.
NASA satellite photo of Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture after being struck by a tsunami, since the incident in 2011 seawater contaminated with Cesium-134 has been moving closer to the United States. Photo: NASA | FlickrCC.

In 2011 a tsunami caused by an earthquake hit the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, resulting in three reactor meltdowns. Since then, scientists have been testing water in the Pacific Ocean at various distances from the site to determine what kind of contaminants have escaped from the site. The bad news is that contaminants keep entering the ocean from Fukushima, but the good news is that those levels are far lower than they were just after the event.

Cesium-134 is an isotope that acts as a sort of “fingerprint” for Fukushima, and finding it in water means provides the geographical sources for those particular isotopes. Cesium-134 has a half life of two years, meaning that every two years half of it decays, so based on the amount in a given body, scientists can tell how long it’s been there.

Lately, measurements have indicated that levels of Cesium-134 are elevated in water as close to the United States as 1,600 miles west of San Francisco. These samples have 50% more Cesium than previous samples, but those levels are still 500 times lower than safety limits for drinking water, and well below the levels where direct exposure is dangerous.

This information, coupled with samples taken from a kilometer from the site, indicates that Cesium-134 is still leaking out and getting into the water, but it can also allow scientists to figure out how much material actually made it into the ocean in the first place.

An interesting side effect too is that, since these isotopes can only have come from Fukushima, researchers can use them as markers to track how water moves though the Pacific Ocean. That could prove pretty useful for oceanographers, and it’s nice to know that there is at least some small benefit from that disaster.

Conservation, Eco-friendly, Green, Uncategorized

All The Dirt You Need To Know About The International Year Of Soils

USDA Soil Science Deputy Dave Smith listens to Under Secretary Robert Bonnie speaks at the International Year of Soils 1st World Soil Day celebration held at the United Nations.
USDA Soil Science Deputy Dave Smith listens to Under Secretary Robert Bonnie speaks at the International Year of Soils 1st World Soil Day celebration held at the United Nations. Photo: USDA | FlickrCC.

In case you missed it, the United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. That ended on December 5th, but the importance of soil and soil conservation didn’t.

Soil isn’t something that a lot of people give much thought, but soil health is important to human health, and understanding the best ways to conserve it is a necessary part of modern science.

Obviously, plants grow in soil, like the crops we eat or feed to livestock, or the trees that help produce oxygen and store carbon dioxide. As it turns out, soil also helps store carbon, and of course properly maintained soil is more resistant to being washed away or otherwise eroded as climate change impacts the world.

There are a lot of concerns scientists have about the state of the world’s soil, things like desertification, biodiversity loss, erosion, contamination, and a host of other issues, which can impact the world in a variety of ways. Luckily, there are researchers around the world who are investigating these issues, such as RECARE, a European Union funded project that is continuing its work well past the International Year of Soils.

RECARE, headed in part by Professor Coen Ritsema of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and including a team of Norwegian scientists, is working on projects around Europe to develop soil solutions and figure out how to put them into practice. They are currently running 17 case studies in which they are working with locals to develop simple yet scientifically informed practices to address soil issues.

The goal is to find efficient, simple, and relatively cheap ways to address problems that farmers and other people face around the world. Things like mulching or terracing to prevent erosion, or using plants, which can pull contaminants out of the soil around them.