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- Next Nature Researcher
This last Monday rang in the Chinese Year of the Dragon. Not restricted just to the benevolent, snake-like creature of Chinese mythology, or to the greedy, princess-stealing monster from Europe, dragon-like creatures occur throughout the world. Legendary reptiles occur as far apart as the feathered snake of Precolombian America and the rainbow serpent of Aboriginal Australia. It may be that, like flight in bats, pterosaurs and birds, the dragon “evolved” multiple times independently throughout human mythology.
If, indeed, the dragon can be considered a cultural universal – it may be that “large scaly monster” is too general a category to be meaningful – several theories purport to explain their origin. Giant reptiles like the crocodile or monitor lizard are obvious suspects. It’s easy to imagine how word-of-mouth could transform an already terrifying beast into something that flies or breathes fire. Dinosaur bones may have inspired other dragon myths, while the rotten carcasses of sharks and whales are even today routinely mistaken for sea monsters. By far the most interesting theory is that of anthropologist David E. Jones, who argues that dragons are a mash-up of the predators that ate our distant primate ancestors. Dragons prey on what we’re genetically primed to fear.
Plastic is a part of the earth’s ecosystem, but it’s a part that no one wants. At Harvard, scientists are looking to replace single-use plastic bottles, plates, and cups with packaging that not only biodegrades, but tastes great. These so-called Wikicells are made up of liquid or solid food contained within an organic membrane that’s held together by electrostatic forces – the same forces that cause cling wrap to cling. In the wonderful world of Wikicells, the wrap around a cut of in-vitro beef could contain the sauce, or an ice cream cone could be made from actual cream. If the scientists get it right, we may soon have an edible way to stop using plastic bags and bottles that take 500 to 1,000 years to degrade.
Photo via The Way We See the World.
While evidence indicates that humans domesticated themselves, we’re not the only primates capable of self-domestication. Bonobos and baboons have shown they are just as capable of turning a kinder, gentler, and more cuddly culture into hardwired changes in their genomes.
Bonobos, aka the “sexy ape”, look a lot like chimpanzees and share the same forest habitat. It stands to reason that they should be similar in most other regards, but the two species are wildly different. On a physical level, bonobos have smaller skulls and canine teeth, but their greatest differences lie in the social realm. Bonobos are the laid-back lovers compared to the chimpanzee’s neurotic warmongers.
Bonobos spend more time playing and grooming than chimps. They have sex for just about any reason: so say hello, to solve conflicts, to celebrate finding food. A “bonobo handshake” is not how humans would want to start a business meeting. In the bonobo’s reduced physical stature and playful spirit, researchers have recently recognized the same changes that occurred when wolves became dogs, or when aurochs became cattle. But while dogs needed humans for domestication, bonobos have done it all on their own.
They might not be as fast, but goats offer several advantages over diesel-powered lawnmowers. They’re quieter, they emit fewer greenhouse gases, and they fertilize soil as they go for no extra charge. They can easily climb slopes where mowers can’t reach, and can clear thick brush without the help of herbicides. City Grazing of San Francisco has capitalized on the benefits of goats, and leases out their 50-member herd for landscaping needs around the city.
These back-to-the basics of landscapers who replace mowers with goats, or farmers who replace tractors with horses, represent an unusual trajectory for the Hierarchy of Technology.* Technologies normally become accepted and widely-used before they are superseded by new technologies and sink out of sight. Except for meat production, livestock has largely lost out to machinery in industrialized settings. In a time where oil was cheap and global warming unknown, goats and horses were clearly obsolete. But in other contexts – greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, cuteness – it becomes clear that old-fashioned, four-legged technologies can become cutting-edge a second time.
*For more about the Maslow-style Hierarchy of Technology, get your hooves on a copy of the Next Nature book.
Cities have seen guerilla gardens, rooftop honey production, and fire escape chicken coops. Now, urban farmers may be adding aquaculture to the mix. Headed by ex-banker Christopher Toole, the Society for Aquaponic Values and Education in the Bronx, New York, raises tilapia in tanks and trashcans. Closed recirculating systems use the waste from the fish to fertilize herbs like mint and basil. Toole and his girlfriend and partner, Anya Pozdeeva, envision a future where neighborhood fish like “Bronx Best Blue Tilapia” become a thriving local industry.
Efforts from Toole and other New York tilapia pioneers like NYU professor Martin P. Schreibman may represent the future of fish. As cities grow, and wild fish stocks dwindle to near-depletion by 2050, the urban production of hardy, freshwater species like the tilapia could be a sustainable way for city-dwellers to have their fish and eat it too. Urban aquaculture faces some steep hurdles before becoming a profitable venture. Similar small-scale city fish farms have flopped over costs and lack of demand. However, there is one bright spot: In China, which has practiced fish farming since 2,000 BC, indoor recirculating aquaculture is doing a booming business.
Photo via Blue Ridge Aquaculture.
Famed for its jaguars, orchids, and horrifying parasites, the Amazon is just as famous for what it lacks: human presence. For many years, the prevailing wisdom has been that throughout history, the Amazon rainforest has only been sparsely occupied by nomadic tribes. However, new evidence of permanent and complex human settlement is emerging from the forest floor. The role of these geoglyphs, trenches carved into the ground 1,000 to 2,000 years ago, are largely mysterious, but they may share characteristics with the Nazca Lines.
Researchers first became aware of the geoglyphs in the 1970s. As deforestation accelerates, more and more of the gigantic geometric shapes are coming to light. These discoveries are helping to upend traditional notions of the Amazon as a primordial, pristine wilderness. Large portions of Amazonia may in fact be a second-growth forest that regenerated after European warfare and disease wiped out massive portions of the native population.
The first Spanish explorers to the region reported finding settled towns and cities with palisades, roads, and fortifications. Though their accounts have usually been dismissed as exaggerations, their descriptions may in fact provide an accurate portrait of a lost civilization. According to geographer William Woods, “If one wants to recreate pre-Columbian Amazonia, most of the forest needs to be removed, with many people and a managed, highly productive landscape replacing it.”
Image via Google Maps. For a history of the search for civilizations in the Amazon, read Finding the Lost City.
The earth operates on a 24 hour cycle, and so do humans. For most of history, we didn’t have much choice in the matter. However, in the absence of visual cues light sunlight, some research indicates that humans naturally stick to a 25 hour schedule. So why rely on the earth’s rotation to order our lives?
I-Weather is a website and app that cycles through blue and orange light for a period of 25 hours, 40 minutes and 7 seconds. The blue ‘day’ suppresses the hormone melatonin and promotes wakefulness. The orange ‘night’ has no impact on melatonin or other hormones, allowing users to work or to drift off as they please. I-Weather acts like an online sun,”creating the world’s first artificial climate to satisfy the metabolic and physiological requirements of a human being in an environment partially or completely removed from earthly influences.” It’s good for travelers, insomniacs, and anyone with a grudge against sunlight.
For a more practical way to regulate your circadian rhythms, check out F.lux.
Improving on photosynthesis has long been a dream for scientists. The so-called artificial leaf – which wouldn’t necessarily look like one – would run on only solar energy and CO2, just like a normal leaf. But unlike a real leaf, an artificial leaf could be made far more efficient at collecting solar energy, and would turn that energy into electricity.
With their new ‘bionanodevice’, researchers at the University of Michigan have moved one step closer to that goal. Splicing together proteins from cynobacteria, Synechococcus, and Clostridium with nano-scale wire, they have created a frankenstein device that is more efficient at photosynthesis than any of the bacteria on their own. Their research joins recent efforts at MIT, where scientists have developed a ‘leaf’ that produces hydrogen from water and sunlight.
Fake leaves producing real energy are still a way off, since producing nanodevices cheap and tough enough for mass production will prove difficult. Even though these devices are double the efficiency of natural leaves, they still only convert 4 to 5% of solar energy into useable electricity. Artificial photosynthesis may have to triple the efficiency of actual plants in order to compete with more conventional means of producing electricity.
Image of MIT artificial leaf via Geek.com
In cities across Germany, Big Brother looks like a smiley face. The Fühlometer, a piece by Julius von Bismarck, Benjamin Maus, and Richard Wilhelmer, uses security cameras and sophisticated software to ‘read’ the faces of pedestrians, and then categorize them according to their emotions. The giant robot mirrors the mood of the city’s inhabitants, and perhaps encourages them to put on a happy face… or else.
City rats, it seems, prefer the same foods that humans do: Greasy, fatty, sweet, and salty. Although rats are usually seen as the billy goats of city life, ready to chow down on anything remotely edible, they show a marked distain for healthy vegetables. According to author Robert Sullivan, “A rat might starve in an alley full of raw carrots”. Like a human that missed the low-carb fad, Rattus norvegicus instead loads up on white bread, fried chicken, and mac and cheese.
Rats don’t only exhibit a human-like tendency to indulge in junk food. Although they naturally opt for sweet over spicy, their cultural background plays in a role in what they eat. In Manhattan’s East Harlem, home to one of the city’s biggest Latino populations, rats have reportedly developed a preference for the same spicy food that other rodents would reject.
Rats mirror our urban lives, eating what we don’t, absorbing our culture, and taking up residence in even the more undesirable real estate. Maybe they make us uneasy because they’re too good at acting human.
Artist Jaroslav Kyša has invented a novel form of social protest. By scattering seed in front of targets in London, he can attract droves of pigeons that disrupt shoppers and slow down traffic. Kyša’s tactic might be a useful diversion for the Occupy protestors. After all, birds are immune to capsaican, the active ingredient in pepper spray.
Via Edible Geography.
Protei is a sailing robot that’s designed to clean up oil spills without human assistance. After sailing upwind, the bot drifts downwind, zigg-zagging across the surface to absorb oil in its long, tail-like boom. Since Protei is self-righting, it will be able to operate even under hurricane conditions, keeping human crews out of danger from both high winds and toxic chemicals. The robots can be operated by remote control, or can be programmed to work together as an autonomous swarm.
Though it’s currently only a prototype, the eco-friendly, open-source Protei may some day radically change how we clean up the ocean. Though it was originally designed to sop up future Deepwater Horizons, modified Protei could possibly be used to gather plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
More photos after the jump.
Some blackbirds have found city living so much fun (the theater scene! the restaurants!) that they have given up migrating south for the winter. Cities are usually warmer than the surrounding country, with lots of discarded food for the birds to scavenge. If the non-migratory birds start breeding sooner, the two populations may eventually split into different species. Even if we can’t predict what fully urban blackbirds will look like, we do know that they will likely be smarter than their country counterparts.
Photo via TarikB
Humans are the only species on earth that cooks its food. Not only do we cook our food, but we usually find the flavor of cooked foods preferable to the raw version. Compare the smell of raw and pan-fried bacon. Which version makes you drool?
It’s no coincidence that your dog may be drooling alongside you. Several animals that have never eaten cooked food show a marked preference for a nice roast or stir-fry. Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans all prefer cooked carrots, sweet potatoes, and even meat.
This natural predisposition has important implications for human evolution. Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham argues that cooking is not some simple, pleasant cultural development. Instead, it is the central driving force that transformed us from primitive hominids into Homo erectus and on through to Homo sapiens.
Clothing giant H&M no longer uses real humans in its online catalog. The company has admitted that it pastes real models’ heads on computer-generated bodies. At least there’s a “racially diverse” example thrown in with the caucasian cyborgs. CGI humanity: For when even Photoshop can’t invent a perfect body.
Thanks to Stefan. Story and image via Jezebel.
Corals are the master builders of the animal kingdom. Powered on plankton and their symbiotic algae, hard corals extract the carbon dissolved in seawater and turn it into their calcium carbonate skeletons. Now a company is trying to replicate this process, not to grow reefs, but to create cement.
Cement, though it may seem like a neutral material, is a massive source of carbon emissions. The cement industry is responsible for 5% of global carbon emissions, with each ton of cement producing a ton of CO2. Biomineralization expert Brent Constantz hopes to green the production of cement by capturing flue gases from factories, running them through a saline solution, and using electricity to convert the gases into solids. For 542 million years, corals have been sequestering carbon dissolved in water. Constantz’s company Calera may have figured out how to do the same on a much shorter time scale.
Black wolves should probably not exist. The same species as their gray relatives, these wolves have a genetic mutation that causes them to produces excess melanin, a pigment responsible for coat color. The origin of black wolves has long been a puzzle. Unlike domestic animals, wild species usually don’t exhibit such dramatic variations in coloration, especially within the same population. While all tigers are orange and striped, and all grizzly bears are brown, “gray” wolves range from pure white to brown to red to black.
Researchers at Stanford University have discovered that dogs may be the cause of the wolves’ unusual coloration. Dogs have a unique gene for melanism, which is also shared by European, Asian and American black wolves. Scientists estimate that the gene arose somewhere between 12,779 and 121,182 years ago, with a preferred time of around 50,000 years. Even if European wolves were the first to don a black coat, it was domestic dogs that brought the gene to the wolves (and coyotes) of North America.
Most new mutations tend to disappear within a few generations. With North American wolf, however, this accidental genetic loaner from dogs has become a stable part of their population’s DNA. Clearly, black wolves derive some benefit from their coloration. The reasons why are still a mystery: Black coat color doesn’t aid in camouflage, but since it occurs more frequently in southern, forest-dwelling wolves, it may have some advantage for life in warmer climates.
The melanism gene in wolves is one of the few instances, perhaps even the only instance, in which interbreeding with a domestic animal has conferred an adaptive edge on a wild animal. As climate change progresses, and forests march northward, it may be that the “gray” wolf population will soon switch to black, all thanks to some melanistic, prehistoric pooches.
Thanksgiving is fake-for-real. While it’s true that there was a minor harvest feast in 1621, held by English immigrants and Wampanoag Indians, the event was never celebrated regularly, and largely dropped off the national radar for the next 200 years. It took the Civil War for Abraham Lincoln to formalize the holiday, a political move he hoped would promote national unity.
Even if the holiday is invented, at least the food is real, right? When Americans sit down to groaning tables on Thursday, it’s tempting to think we’re participating in a culinary tradition not that far removed from the time of the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving food is, after all, as authentic and naturally American as apples (Kazakhstan), potatoes (Peru), and green bean casserole (Campbell Soup Company). Maybe we can find some culinary authenticity hiding between the gravy boat and the cranberry sauce. Hope you’re hungry…