Conservation, Nature

Parrot Population Threatened By Human Activity

Almost 40 percent of the wild parrot population in the Neotropics is being endangered by hunting and habitat encroachment.
A pair of scarlet macaws in flight. Photo: Shutterstock

A new paper published in the journal Biological Conservation shows that more than 38 percent of the Neotropical parrot population of the American continent (Neotropic) is endangered by human activity.

The main dangers: hunting for the local and international trade, and loss of natural habitat.

Despite the fact that the Wild Bird Conservation Act (1992) and the permanent ban on wild bird trade set by the European Union in 2007, capture for the pet trade has been one of the main threats to wild parrots in the Neotropic region. In Africa, the trade of the gray parrot played the main part in its local extinction in Ghana and other areas of Africa. In Brazil, some of the most threatened species are the Spix’s Macaw and the Red-tailed Amazon. The sun parakeet and brown-backed parrotlet are also vulnerable because of their already-small population sizes.

Although the laws are designed to protect these and other birds, the legal and illegal trade of birds is still a problem in South America, Southeastern Asia, and the Middle East. Mexico and Nicaragua have reinforced their laws to protect wild parrots, but other South and Central American countries still have high levels of bird trade.

Regarding natural habitat, agricultural activity, large-scale logging, and other human activities are contributing to the parrots’ decline. Although the study estimates about 38 percent of the local species are threatened, the experts think the real numbers could be worse.

“It would be necessary to promote actions aimed at the effective preservation of habitats and preserved natural areas,” said researcher Juan Carlos Guix. “Moreover, it should be necessary to create social and educational programs with the people who live around the natural preserved areas, and provide security and the illegal trade audit with more resources.”

The study was conducted by an international team of 101 experts from 76 institutions and non-governmental organizations.

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Nature, Science

The Dog Domestication Date Debate Has Been (Sort Of) Resolved

The dog domestication date debate may have been resolved, thanks to scientists from Cornell.
Photo: Shutterstock

You might not know this, but there are two distinct arguments about when dogs were domesticated. One group believes dogs were domesticated in the Paleolithic age (more than 17,000 years ago), and another believes dogs were domesticated much later, in the Neolithic age (17,000 to 7,000 years ago).

So, when exactly were dogs domesticated?

A team of researchers from Cornell University set out to find out which camp is right. They used 3-D scans of fossils to help determine the difference between wolves and dogs by studying ancient fossil canid mandibles (jaw bones) to determine if they were dogs or wolves.

How does mandible evolution distinguish a dog from a wolf? Wolves have fairly straight mandibles, while those of dogs are curved. These features become evident in 3-D scans.

The researchers, led by Abby Grace Drake, a senior lecturer in Cornell’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, found that in the early stages of domestication, canids’ skulls changed shape, but the evolution of the mandible lagged behind.

“A lot of the fossil evidence for the date of dog domestication is based on morpohological [structural] analysis of mandibles,” said Drake, the paper’s first author. “Our study shows that when you measure modern dog mandibles and wolf mandibles using 3-D measurements you can distinguish them, and yet when we looked at these fossil mandibles, they don’t look like dogs or wolves.”

Although the team could distinguish 99.5 percent of modern dogs’ mandibles from those of wolves, a lot of the fossil mandibles couldn’t be classified as either dog or wolf. However, other data proved that the fossils were dog remains.

Other evidence from two Russian sites showed that the canid remains were found with human dwellings, and there were marks that revealed butchery—meaning that the dogs were eaten. In addition, isotope analysis of canid and human remains at both sites indicates that canids and humans both ate fish, and that humans were feeding the canids.

Drake said that since mandibles don’t appear to evolve as rapidly as the skull, they are not reliable for identifying early dog fossils.

However, 3-D analysis of canid skulls uses landmarks across the skull—differences in the angle of the muzzle, snout, and eye orbits—provides more evidence of dogs’ domestication time.

“The earliest dogs I’ve seen in my analysis were from 7,000 to 9,000 years ago,” Drake said.

Green, Sustainability

Texas A&M Student Designs Educational Tool to Teach Kids About Agriculture

A Texas A&M student has designed a product that uses hydroponics and engineering to teach kids about agriculture.
Hydroponic greenhouse. Photo via Pixabay

Alfredo Costilla had a vision: He wanted to provide an educational tool for teachers and parents to educate kids about the world of agriculture.

The Texas A&M Ph.D. candidate developed BitGrange, a process that uses hydroponics and technology to connect elementary school students with the science of agriculture.

Hydroponics involves growing plants without soil, generally by adding nutrients to the water they grow in, according to the BitGrange team.

Costilla grew up in a family of farmers and volunteered with elementary school students, which is how he came up with the idea for BitGrange.

These kids represent a new generation of farmers and entrepreneurs, Costilla said. “We are a new generation of food consumers that can also be food producers,” he added.

Costilla’s BitGrange team is composed of students in a variety of majors, ranging from computer science and engineering, to electrical engineering. He says he thinks that the best ideas come from assembling a diverse team to work on a project.

“Most of your group projects, they’re mainly in your class,” said team member Brandon Neff, a computer engineering major. “Those people are in the same major as you. So this is like the first big project I’ve worked on with a lot more diversity and background.”

Electrical engineering major Marco Farias says he hopes BitGrange will go beyond its interaction with elementary school students. “It’s seeing beyond that and thinking that we’re also able to help future problems like lack of food and scarce resources to feed humankind,” he said.

Costilla said his long-term goal is “to see the largest farm that doesn’t own a single square inch of land.” He wants a user-generated way to produce plants, a concept he says is similar to that of Facebook or Uber.

“It could work. It could not. But definitely I believe that great achievements happen at the edge of uncertainty,” Farias said. “So this is a bet. I’m in with Alfredo and this team to make it work.”

Climate Change, Conservation, Nature

Old Nautical Charts Reveal Coral Loss

British navigation charts from the 1800s show us how much coral has disappeared.
British navigation charts from the 1800s show us how much coral has disappeared. Photo: Shutterstock

Nautical charts mapped in the 18th century are showing modern researchers just how much coral has been lost around the world.

A new U.S. and Australian study has compared early British navigation charts to modern coral habitat maps to determine what changes have taken place over the past three centuries.

The study was led by Professor Loren McClenachan of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, with assistance from the University of Queensland (UQ) in Australia and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies.

Professor John Pandolfi of UQ said that the study used information from “surprisingly accurate” 18th century nautical charts and satellite data to understand coral loss in the Florida Keys.

Professor McClenachan said that more than half of the coral reef habitat mapped in the 1770s was no longer there. In some areas, coral loss was close to 90 percent.

“We found near the shore, entire sections of reef are gone, but in contrast, most coral mapped further from land is still coral reef habitat today,” McClenachan said.

This is one of the first studies where marine scientists have measured the loss of coral reef habitats over a large geographic area. Most studies look more closely at the loss of living coral from smaller sections of reefs.

“We found that reef used to exist in areas that today are not even classified as reef habitat anymore,” Pandolfi said. “When you add to this the 75 percent loss of living coral in the Keys at that finer scale, the magnitude of change is much greater than anyone thought.”

Dr. Benjamin Neal of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine, said that the early maps were remarkably precise.

“They had the best technology and they used it to create new information that conferred a lot of power,” Neal said. “The maps were essential to expansion of the British Empire, and luckily for us, they also included a lot of useful ecological information.”

This research has important conservation implications. As the authors said, when large-scale changes like this were overlooked, scientists could miss out on information about past abundance.

“We tend to focus on known areas where we can measure change. That makes sense. Why would you look for coral where you never knew it was?” McClenachan said.

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards, Nature, Science

Was Hurricane Harvey Caused by Global Warming? Not Entirely

Was Hurricane Harvey caused by global warming? Not entirely.
Cars submerged by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Photo: michelmond / Shutterstock.com

Climate change is responsible for a lot of things, but it may not be directly responsible for Hurricane Harvey.

Harvey is not the first hurricane to hit the Texas coast.  A deadly hurricane struck Galveston in 1900, and that storm caused thousands to lose their lives, primarily due to the lack of warning. Meteorology was not an advanced science at that time, and there were no satellites to track the storms as they moved across the Atlantic Ocean.

However, climate change is almost certainly responsible for the epic rainfall and catastrophic flooding endured by the cities struck by Hurricane Harvey.

“This is they type of event, in terms of extreme rainfall, that we would expect to see more of in a warming climate,” Dr. Friederike Otto from the University of Oxford told the BBC.

In fact, the rainfall was so extreme that the National Weather Service had to add new colors to its rainfall maps to account for the intensity of Harvey’s rains.

There’s a physical law called the Clausius-Claperyon equation, which says that a hotter atmosphere holds more moisture. For every degree Celsius in warming, the atmosphere can hold 7 percent more water, which makes rainfall events more extreme.

The temperature of the seas also contributes to the strength of hurricanes.

“The waters of the Gulf of Mexico are about 1.5 degrees warmer than they were from 1980 to 2010,” Sir Brian Hoskins of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change told the BBC. “This is very significant because it means the potential for a stronger storm is there, and the contribution of global warming to the warmer waters in the Gulf, it’s almost inevitable that there was a contribution to that.”

Although there have been slow-moving storms over Texas in the past, some scientists still attribute the intensity of Harvey to climate change.

Professor Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says that a general slowdown in atmospheric circulation in the earth’s middle latitudes could be a result of changing climate in other parts of the world.

“This is a consequence of the disproportionately strong warming in the Arctic,” Rahmstorf said. “It can make weather systems move less and stay longer in a given location—which can significantly enhance the impacts of rainfall extremes.”

Other scientists think it’s a stretch to believe that the slowly moving nature of the storm is caused by climate change. “I don’t think we should speculate on these more difficult and complex links like melting in the Arctic without looking into these effects in a dedicated study,” said Dr. Otto.

In addition to the damage caused by the flooding, pollution is causing the floodwaters to become a toxic stew of sewage, garbage, chemicals from more than 20 Superfund sites in the Houston area, oil and petrochemicals from damaged refineries, and much more, are causing concern.

“There’s no need to test [the water],” Houston Health Department spokesman Porfirio Villareal told the New York Times. “It’s contaminated. There’s millions of contaminants.”

Climate Change, Nature, Science

Galápagos Seabird Population May Shrink Due to Global Warming

Nazca boobies and other animals are in jeopardy as water warms around the Galápagos Islands.
A Nazca booby guards her egg. Photo via Pixabay

The Galápagos Islands are the home of thousands of unique species. In fact, those islands were where Charles Darwin began writing about his findings on evolution. But at least one of these species is in jeopardy because of warming ocean temperatures.

Within the next century, rising ocean temperatures around the Galápagos Islands are expected to make the water too warm for sardines to tolerate.

Why is that important? Sardines are a key prey species for many seabirds including the Nazca booby.

Wake Forest University biologists published a study in the August 23 issue of the journal PLOS ONE about this phenomenon. They used decades of data on the diet and breeding of the Nazca booby to understand how the absence of sardines could affect the booby population.

They studied the diet, breeding, and survival of Nazca boobies as part of their study at Isla Españnola in the Galápagos Islands for more than 30 years. In 1997, halfway through their study, sardines disappeared from Nazca booby diet samples, replaced by flying fish.

Flying fish are less nutritious than sardines, and as researcher Emily Tompkins, lead author of the study, said, as flying fish replaced sardines in the birds’ diet, “reproductive success was halved.”

“If the current links between diet and reproduction persist in the future, and rising ocean temperatures exclude sardines from the Galápagos, we forecast the Nazca booby population will decline,” Tompkins said.

David Anderson, a professor of biology and co-author of the study, said, “Few connections have been made between ocean warming and population effects in the tropics, making this study significant.”

But the Nazca booby isn’t the only creature that could be harmed by rising ocean temperatures. The study suggests that other Galápagos predators that do well when sardines are available will have to adjust to a new menu within the next 100 years.

So many species have gone extinct or become highly endangered due to global climate change—probably including species we never even discovered—that it behooves us to act to stop, or at least slow, climate change. Given the United States’ exit from the Paris Climate Agreement, it’s up to other nations, and states and cities within the U.S., to step up and do something about this increasing danger to the survival of all animals, including humans.

Green, Science

Solar Panels Are Going Green

A team of researchers has developed a way to add color to solar panels without decreasing efficiency.
A team of researchers has developed a way to add color to solar panels without decreasing efficiency. Photo via Pixabay

Solar is one of the most common forms of green energy, with the U.S. getting 43 times more electricity from solar in 2016 than it did in 2007. But what if solar panels were even greener?

I mean, they’re literally going green.

Researchers in the Netherlands have developed a process for making conventional bluish-black solar panels bright green. It involves imprinting existing solar panels with silicon nanopatterns that give solar panels a green appearance from most angles.

Why is this important? Some people have apparently not installed solar panels because of aesthetic concerns. After all, those traditional blue-black solar panels can be a bit of an eyesore for people who want their roofs to be all one color, for example. This process might make it possible to create panels in other colors—and even white.

“The black appearance of the [conventional] solar panels is not attractive for many people and a reason to not put solar panels on their rooftop,” Verena Neder, lead author of the research paper describing the new technology, told NBC News. “Making solar cells colored makes it possible to integrate them in an architectural design of houses and full cities, but also to merge them in the landscape.”

What about efficiency? It seems that the green solar panels only show about a 10 percent power reduction and a 2 percent efficiency decrease due to the loss of absorbed green light.

“Some people say, ‘why would you make solar cells less efficient?’ But we can make solar cells beautiful without losing too much efficiency, Neder said. “The new method to change the color of the panels is not only east to apply but also attractive as an architectural design element and has the potential to widen their use.”

Previous attempts to create color solar panels have resulted in an efficiency loss of about 45 percent compared to conventional panels because they reflect much of the sunlight that falls on them due to the dye and reflective coatings that give them their color.

The prototype for this colored solar cell is about the size of a postage stamp, but “in principle, this technique is easily scalable for fabrication technology,” said Albert Polman, senior author of the paper. “ You can use a rubber stamp the size of a solar panel that in one step can print the whole panel full of these little, exactly defined nanoparticles.”

The researchers are currently designing imprints to create red and blue solar cells, too. Once they master these three colors—the primary colors of light—they can create any color by combining different nanoparticles. “If they get very close to each other, they can interact and that will affect the color,” Polman said.