Researchers come face to face with huge great white shark
By CALEB JONES
Saturday, January 19
HALEIWA, Hawaii (AP) — Two shark researchers who came face to face with what could be one of the largest great whites ever recorded are using their encounter as an opportunity to push for legislation that would protect sharks in Hawaii.
Ocean Ramsey, a shark researcher and conservationist, told The Associated Press that she encountered the 20-foot (6-meter) shark Tuesday near a dead sperm whale off Oahu.
The event was documented and shared on social media by her fiancé and business partner Juan Oliphant.
The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources said it was aware of photos of the great white and that tiger sharks also have been feeding on the whale.
Oliphant, who photographed the now-viral images, said it’s unclear if the shark is the famed Deep Blue, believed to be the largest great white ever recorded.
“She looks the part right now,” Oliphant said about the shark spotted Tuesday. “Maybe even more exciting that there is another massive, you know, super-size great white shark out there. Because their populations are so dwindling.”
Ramsey, who operates Oahu-based One Ocean Diving and Research with Oliphant, said she has been pushing for several years for a bill that would ban the killing of sharks and rays in Hawaii, and hopes this year the measure will become law.
She said the images of her swimming next to a huge great white shark prove the predators should be protected, not feared.
Still, the veteran shark diver doesn’t think the general public should recklessly get into the water with the giants, especially around a food source like a rotting whale carcass.
Ramsey said extensive training and time spent studying shark behavior has kept her team and customers safe. She teaches people about how to act and, more importantly, not act when they encounter a shark in the water.
Ramsey and her team observe behavior, identify and tag sharks and share that data with researchers as well as state and federal officials. She said she previously swam with the huge shark on research trips to Guadalupe Island, Mexico.
She also leads cage-free shark diving tours.
Unlike many marine mammals, sharks are not a federally protected species, though there are laws against the sale of their fins.
“There’s not a lot of sympathy for sharks because of the way they’re portrayed in media and they don’t have the cute cuddly appearance,” Ramsey said. “You can’t hate them for being predators. We need them for healthy marine ecosystems.”
Ramsey and Oliphant want to make sure that people realize that shark bites are uncommon.
“The idea that they see people as a food source, that is rubbish and that needs to go away because really that’s ultimately leading to the demise of these animals,” Oliphant said.
State Sen. Mike Gabbard sponsored the shark protection legislation last session and plans to reintroduce it this year. The bill died in the House when it wasn’t heard by the House Judiciary Committee.
The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources said the decomposing whale carcass had drifted to about eight miles (13 kilometers) south of Pearl Harbor after being towed 15 miles (24 kilometers) offshore days earlier.
Officials say there have been reports that people are climbing onto the carcass to take its teeth as souvenirs, which may be a violation of state and federal laws.
The agency’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement Chief Jason Redull said people should stay out of the water around the dead whale.
“Understandably, some people want to get into the water either out of fascination or to get photographs, but it is truly dangerous to be around this carcass with so much shark activity,” he said.
Ramsey said it’s impressive that the great white has survived a “gauntlet of human death traps.”
“I don’t know how old she is,” Ramsey said. “But for her to survive through so many longline fisheries and, you know, gill nets and team nets and fishermen who might just kill her because they think that she is a monster … it’s very special.”
Associated Press reporter Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu contributed to this report.
Asteroids are smacking Earth twice as often as before
By SETH BORENSTEIN
AP Science Writer
Thursday, January 17
WASHINGTON (AP) — Giant rocks from space are falling from the sky more than they used to, but don’t worry.
For the past 290 million years, large asteroids have been crashing into Earth more than twice as often as they did in the previous 700 million years, according to a new study in Thursday’s journal Science.
But no need to cast a wary glance up. Asteroids still only smack Earth on average every million or few million years, even with the increased crash rate. NASA’s list of potential big space rock crashes shows no pending major threats. The biggest known risk is a 4,200-foot (1.3-km) wide asteroid with a 99.988 percent chance that it will miss Earth when it whizzes very near here in 861 years.
Tell that to the dinosaurs. Most scientists think dinosaurs and a lot of other species went extinct after a huge space rock crashed into Central America about 65 million years ago.
“It’s just a game of probabilities,” said study lead author Sara Mazrouei, a University of Toronto planetary scientist. “These events are still rare and far between that I’m not too worried about it.”
Mazrouei and colleagues in the United Kingdom and United States compiled a list of impact craters on Earth and the moon that were larger than 12 miles (20 km) wide and came up with the dates of them. It takes a space rock that’s half a mile (800 meters) wide to create holes that big.
The team counted 29 craters that were no older than 290 million years and nine between 291 million years and 650 million years old.
But we can see relatively few big craters on Earth because the planet is more than 70 percent ocean and past glaciers smoothed out some holes, said University of Toronto planetary scientist Rebecca Ghent, a study co-author.
Extrapolating for what can’t be seen brings the total to about 260 space crashes on Earth in the last 290 million years. Adding in other factors, the science team determined that the current space crash rate is 2.6 times more than the previous 700 million years.
Craters older than 650 million years are mostly wiped off on Earth by glacial forces so the scientists used impact craters on the nearby moon as a stand-in for holes between 650 million and 1 billion years old. The moon is a good guide for estimating Earth crashes, because it is close enough to be in the same bombardment path and its craters last longer.
So what happened nearly 300 million years ago?
“Perhaps an asteroid family was broken up in the asteroid belt,” Mazrouei speculated. The space rocks then headed toward the Earth and moon, and the planet got slightly more because it is a bigger target and it has higher gravity, Ghent said.
Outside scientists are split about the research. Jay Melosh at Purdue said he found the number of craters too small to come to a reasonable conclusion, but Harvard’s Avi Loeb said the case was convincing.
Humans might not have emerged without mass extinctions from space rocks about 250 million and 65 million years ago, Loeb said in an email, adding, “but this enhanced impact rate poses a threat for the next mass extinction event, which we should watch for and attempt to avoid with the aid of technology.”
“This demonstrates how arbitrary and fragile human life is,” Loeb wrote.
Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter: borenbears. The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Is winter miserable for wildlife?
January 18, 2019
Author: Bridget B. Baker, Clinical Veterinarian and Deputy Director of the Warrior Aquatic, Translational, and Environmental Research (WATER) Lab, Wayne State University
Disclosure statement: Bridget B. Baker does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: Wayne State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
While the weather outside may indeed get frightful this winter, a parka, knit hat, wool socks, insulated boots and maybe a roaring fire make things bearable for people who live in cold climates. But what about all the wildlife out there? Won’t they be freezing?
Anyone who’s walked their dog when temperatures are frigid knows that canines will shiver and favor a cold paw – which partly explains the boom in the pet clothing industry. But chipmunks and cardinals don’t get fashionable coats or booties.
In fact, wildlife can succumb to frostbite and hypothermia, just like people and pets. In the northern United States, the unfurred tails of opossums are a common casualty of cold exposure. Every so often an unusual cold snap in Florida results in iguanas falling from trees and manatees dying from cold stress.
Avoiding the cold is important for preserving life or limb (or, in the opossum’s case, tail) and the opportunity to reproduce. These biological imperatives mean that wildlife must be able to feel cold, in order to try to avoid the damaging effects of its extremes. Animal species have their own equivalent to what human beings experience as that unpleasant biting mixed with pins-and-needles sensation that urges us to warm up soon or suffer the consequences. In fact, the nervous system mechanisms for sensing a range of temperatures are pretty much the same among all vertebrates.
One winter challenge for warm-blooded animals, or endotherms, as they’re scientifically known, is to maintain their internal body temperature in cold conditions. Interestingly though, temperature-sensing thresholds can vary depending on physiology. For instance, a cold-blooded – that is, ectothermic – frog will sense cold starting at a lower temperature compared to a mouse. Recent research shows that hibernating mammals, like the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, don’t sense the cold until lower temperatures than endotherms that don’t hibernate.
So animals know when it’s cold, just at varying temperatures. When the mercury plummets, are wildlife suffering or just going with the icy flow?
One solution: Slow down and check out
Many cold-climate endotherms exhibit torpor: a state of decreased activity. They look like they are sleeping. Because animals capable of torpor alternate between internally regulating their body temperature and allowing the environment to influence it, scientists consider them “heterotherms.” During harsh conditions, this flexibility offers the advantage of a lower body temperature – remarkably in some species, even below the 32 degrees Fahrenheit freezing point – that is not compatible with many physiologic functions. The result is a lower metabolic rate, and thus lower energy and food demand. Hibernation is a prolonged version of torpor.
Torpor has energy conservation benefits for smaller-bodied wildlife in particular – think bats, songbirds and rodents. They naturally lose heat faster because the surface area of their body is large compared to their overall size. To maintain their body temperature within normal range, they must expend more energy compared to a larger-bodied animal. This is especially true for birds who maintain higher average body temperatures compared to mammals.
Unfortunately, torpor is not a perfect solution to surviving frigid conditions since it comes with trade-offs, such as a higher risk of becoming another animal’s lunch.
Adaptations that help
Unsurprisingly, animals have evolved other adaptations for weathering the winter months.
Wildlife species at northern latitudes tend be larger-bodied with smaller appendages than their close relatives closer to the tropics. Many animals have evolved behaviors to help them beat the cold: herding, denning, burrowing and roosting in cavities are all good defenses. And some animals experience physiological changes as winter approaches, building fat reserves, growing thicker fur, and trapping an insulating layer of air against the skin beneath the fur or feathers.
Nature has devised other neat tricks to help various animals deal with conditions that people, for instance, would be unable to endure.
Have you ever wondered how geese can appear to stand comfortably on ice or squirrels in snow in their bare feet? The secret is the close proximity of the arteries and veins in their extremities that creates a gradient of warming and cooling. As blood from the heart travels to the toes, the warmth from the artery transfers to the vein carrying cold blood from the toes back to the heart. This countercurrent heat exchange allows the core of the body to remain warm while limiting heat loss when the extremities are cold, but not so cold that tissue damage occurs. This efficient system is used by many terrestrial and aquatic birds and mammals, and even explains how oxygen exchange occurs in the gills of fish.
Speaking of fish, how do they not freeze from the inside out in icy waters? Luckily, ice floats because water is most dense as a liquid, allowing fish to swim freely in not-quite-freezing temperatures below the solidified surface. Additionally, fish may lack the cold-sensing receptor shared by other vertebrates. They do, however, have unique enzymes that allow physiologic functions to continue at colder temperatures. In polar regions, fish even have special “antifreeze proteins” that bind to ice crystals in their blood to prevent widespread crystallization.
Another secret weapon in mammals and birds during long periods of cold exposure is brown adipose tissue or “brown fat,” which is rich in mitochondria. Even in people, these cellular structures can release energy as heat, generating warmth without the muscle contractions and energy inefficiency involved in shivering, another way the body tries to heat up. This non-shivering heat production probably explains why people in Anchorage can contentedly wear shorts and t-shirts on a 40 degrees Fahrenheit spring day.
Of course, migration can be an option – though it’s expensive in terms of energetic costs for wildlife, and financially for people who want to head closer to the equator.
As a species, human beings have the ability to acclimate to an extent – some of us more than others – but we’re not particularly cold-adapted. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to look out the window on a frigid day and not feel bad for a squirrel hunkered down as the winter wind whips through its fur. We may never know if animals dread winter – it’s difficult to gauge their subjective experience. But wildlife do have a variety of strategies that improve their ability to withstand the cold, making sure they live to see another spring.
Can genetic engineering save disappearing forests?
January 18, 2019
Author: Jason A. Delborne, Associate Professor of Science, Policy, and Society in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Carolina State University
Disclosure statement: Jason A. Delborne receives funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He is affiliated with the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University.
Partners: North Carolina State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Compared to gene-edited babies in China and ambitious projects to rescue woolly mammoths from extinction, biotech trees might sound pretty tame.
But releasing genetically engineered trees into forests to counter threats to forest health represents a new frontier in biotechnology. Even as the techniques of molecular biology have advanced, humans have not yet released a genetically engineered plant that is intended to spread and persist in an unmanaged environment. Biotech trees – genetically engineered or gene-edited – offer just that possibility.
One thing is clear: The threats facing our forests are many, and the health of these ecosystems is getting worse. A 2012 assessment by the U.S. Forest Service estimated that nearly 7 percent of forests nationwide are in danger of losing at least a quarter of their tree vegetation by 2027. This estimate may not sound too worrisome, but it is 40 percent higher than the previous estimate made just six years earlier.
In 2018, at the request of several U.S. federal agencies and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine formed a committee to “examine the potential use of biotechnology to mitigate threats to forest tree health.” Experts, including me, a social scientist focused on emerging biotechnologies, were asked to “identify the ecological, ethical, and social implications of deploying biotechnology in forests, and develop a research agenda to address knowledge gaps.”
Our committee members came from universities, federal agencies and NGOs and represented a range of disciplines: molecular biology, economics, forest ecology, law, tree breeding, ethics, population genetics and sociology. All of these perspectives were important for considering the many aspects and challenges of using biotechnology to improve forest health.
A crisis in US forests
Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg. Forests face higher temperatures and droughts and more pests. As goods and people move around the globe, even more insects and pathogens hitchhike into our forests.
We focused on four case studies to illustrate the breadth of forest threats. The emerald ash borer arrived from Asia and causes severe mortality in five species of ash trees. First detected on U.S. soil in 2002, it had spread to 31 states as of May 2018. Whitebark pine, a keystone and foundational species in high elevations of the U.S. and Canada, is under attack by the native mountain pine beetle and an introduced fungus. Over half of whitebark pine in the northern U.S. and Canada have died.
Poplar trees are important to riparian ecosystems as well as for the forest products industry. A native fungal pathogen, Septoria musiva, has begun moving west, attacking natural populations of black cottonwood in Pacific Northwest forests and intensively cultivated hybrid poplar in Ontario. And the infamous chestnut blight, a fungus accidentally introduced from Asia to North America in the late 1800s, wiped out billions of American chestnut trees.
Can biotech come to the rescue? Should it?
Although there are many potential applications of biotechnology in forests, such as genetically engineering insect pests to suppress their populations, we focused specifically on biotech trees that could resist pests and pathogens. Through genetic engineering, for example, researchers could insert genes, from a similar or unrelated species, that help a tree tolerate or fight an insect or fungus.
It’s tempting to assume that the buzz and enthusiasm for gene editing will guarantee quick, easy and cheap solutions to these problems. But making a biotech tree will not be easy. Trees are large and long-lived, which means that research to test the durability and stability of an introduced trait will be expensive and take decades or longer. We also don’t know nearly as much about the complex and enormous genomes of trees, compared to lab favorites such as fruit flies and the mustard plant, Arabidopsis.
In addition, because trees need to survive over time and adapt to changing environments, it is essential to preserve and incorporate their existing genetic diversity into any “new” tree. Through evolutionary processes, tree populations already have many important adaptations to varied threats, and losing those could be disastrous. So even the fanciest biotech tree will ultimately depend on a thoughtful and deliberate breeding program to ensure long-term survival. For these reasons, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee recommends increasing investment not just in biotechnology research, but also in tree breeding, forest ecology and population genetics.
The committee found that the U.S. Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, which distributes federal oversight of biotechnology products among agencies such as EPA, USDA and FDA, is not fully prepared to consider the introduction of a biotech tree to improve forest health.
Most obviously, regulators have always required containment of pollen and seeds during biotech field trials to avoid the escape of genetic material. For example, the biotech chestnut was not allowed to flower to ensure that transgenic pollen wouldn’t blow across the landscape during field trials. But if biotech trees are intended to spread their new traits, via seeds and pollen, to introduce pest resistance across landscapes, then studies of wild reproduction will be necessary. These are not currently allowed until a biotech tree is fully deregulated.
Another shortcoming of the current framework is that some biotech trees may not require any special review at all. The USDA, for example, was asked to consider a loblolly pine that was genetically engineered for greater wood density. But because USDA’s regulatory authority stems from its oversight of plant pest risks, it decided that it did not have any regulatory authority over that biotech tree. Similar questions remain regarding organisms whose genes are edited using new tools such as CRISPR.
The committee noted that U.S. regulations fail to promote a comprehensive consideration of forest health. Although the National Environmental Policy Act sometimes helps, some risks and many potential benefits are unlikely to be evaluated. This is the case for biotech trees as well as other tools to counter pests and pathogens, such as tree breeding, pesticides and site management practices.
How do you measure the value of a forest?
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report suggests an “ecosystem services” framework for considering the various ways that trees and forests provide value to humans. These range from extraction of forest products to the use of forests for recreation to the ecological services a forest provides – water purification, species protection and carbon storage.
The committee also acknowledged that some ways of valuing the forest do not fit into the ecosystem services framework. For example, if forests are seen by some to have “intrinsic value,” then they have value in and of themselves, apart from the way humans value them and perhaps implying a kind of moral obligation to protect and respect them. Issues of “wildness” and “naturalness” also surface.
Paradoxically, a biotech tree could increase and decrease wildness. If wildness depends upon a lack of human intervention, then a biotech tree will reduce the wildness of a forest. But perhaps so would a conventionally bred, hybrid tree that was deliberately introduced into an ecosystem.
Which would reduce wildness more – the introduction of a biotech tree or the eradication of an important tree species? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but they remind us of the complexity of decisions to use technology to enhance “nature.”
This complexity points to a key recommendation of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report: dialogue among experts, stakeholders and communities about how to value forests, assess the risks and potential benefits of biotech, and understand complex public responses to any potential interventions, including those involving biotechnology. These processes need to be respectful, deliberative, transparent and inclusive.
Such processes, such as a 2018 stakeholder workshop on the biotech chestnut, will not erase conflict or even guarantee consensus, but they have the potential to create insight and understanding that can feed into democratic decisions that are informed by expert knowledge and public values.