World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

It’s Not Easy Being a Spider

Two items I recently wrote for a children’s science and nature magazine:

Assassin bug vs. Spider!

When a leaf falls into a spider’s web, the spider can tell from the vibrations it hasn’t caught an insect. But when it feels fluttering insect wings, it knows dinner has arrived. It also knows to attack quickly, before its prey escapes. And when it feels vibrations from a weak insect, the spider moves in slowly. It knows its meal isn’t going anywhere.

Now, two scientists from Australia are studying how assassin bugs catch spiders using the spider’s own web. Anne Wignall and Phillip Taylor watched as an assassin bug used its legs to pluck the threads of a web. It didn’t vibrate the web like a leaf—then the spider wouldn’t come. And it didn’t vibrate it like an escaping insect—then the spider would attack too quickly. Instead, it shook the web as if it was a small, weak insect. The spider approached slowly, making it easy for the assassin bug to grab its prey.

Wolf spider vs. Sundew!

Different species of animals compete with each other—especially when they eat the same food. This usually happens with animals that are similar, like dolphins and tuna, or lizards and snakes. But now, a scientist from Florida has discovered an animal and a plant that compete for food. David Jennings studies wolf spiders and tiny plants called sundews. The sundew feeds itself by catching insects with its sticky spines. The wolf spider catches insects with its web.

Credit: Christopher V. Anderson, Univ. of South Florida

Jennings placed sundew plants in terrariums. Next, he put wolf spiders in with some of the sundews. Then he added insects. When a sundew had to share the food supply with spiders, the plant didn’t grow as well. And in the wild, he found that wolf spiders either built bigger webs when sundews were nearby—or they built their webs farther from their spiny competitors. It was as if they knew the sundew would “steal” some of their food!

Filed under: nature

How Does Understanding Evolution Make Us Better Citizens?

On his Discover blog today, Carl Zimmer asks “…how understanding evolution allows American citizens to formulate more informed decisions about societally important matters. How does a good understanding of evolution better prepare us to make decisions as citizens?” He invited readers to submit their views. Here’s the answer I posted in reply:

It is not so much our understanding of the fact of evolution that is so important to being an informed, responsible citizen. What’s critical is our understanding of how we know that evolution is a fact. Evolution instructs us how to understand. Evolution challenges us to ask: how do we know? Do we “know” God created the millions of species on Earth because that’s what religious doctrine declares? Or do we know that species evolved from common ancestors because of the century and a half of empirical evidence that proves the idea true, and because it makes sense of and explains all we see around us.

Do we know what we know through fear, irrationality, ideology, a lack of education, or fundamentalist beliefs? Or through rationality, reason and empiricism? In this way, evolution touches issues and ideas that are important to any informed citizen. How do we know anthropogenic global warming is real? How do we determine what causes AIDS, cancer or autism? How do we know flying saucers, time-traveling cellphone-users, homeopathic cures, and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction don’t exist? We know by looking at these questions in the same way Darwin looked at the world around him.

Filed under: evolution, science literacy

Extreme Weather Calls for Extreme Care in How We Write about Climate Change

As the death tolls rise in step with temperatures in Russia and flood waters in Pakistan, and with each passing “hottest-on-record” month, it’s tempting to think this summer’s extraordinary weather is incontrovertible proof of global warming.

Russia fighting fires

The sentiment is a common thread of daily conversation; it’s reflected in science blogs and mainstream media. For example, in an article in the Telegraph this week, Environment Correspondent Louise Gray writes that, “Experts…said the recent ‘extreme weather events’ prove global warming is already happening.” (My emphasis.)

But do experts actually say that? And do these events really prove global warming?

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Filed under: climate change, science literacy, ,

Lamarck is Alive and Well and Living in Language

On the 266th anniversary of the birth of Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck, Lamarckism is alive and well, and living in the language we use to describe the evolution of species.

Lamarck

Long before the English naturalist Darwin set sail for the Galapagos Islands, the French biologist Lamarck proposed his own theory of evolution. According to the Chevalier, species did indeed evolve—and as Richard Dawkins writes in The Blind Watchmaker, he deserves to be honoured for this accomplishment alone. Furthermore, Lamarck said, species were transformed by forces that guided each individual creature toward complexity and toward a greater degree of adaptation to their environment.

The mechanism behind this transformation was twofold: the use and dis-use of certain organs, which led to the strengthening or weakening of those organs over the course of a creature’s life; and the inheritance of those newly acquired or discarded characteristics by the animal’s immediate offspring.

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Filed under: darwin, evolution, ,

The Galapagos Islands: Tragedy of the Uncommon

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee this week announced it was removing the Galapagos Islands from its List of World Heritage in Danger. The Galapagos Conservation Trust and the International Union for Conservation of Nature were critical of the move, saying tourism, invasive species and overfishing continue to threaten the archipelago.

In 2007, I visited the Galapagos and met with Graham Watkins, then Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation. Founded in 1959, the CDF’s mission is “to preserve the remarkable flora and fauna of the islands.” I spoke to Watkins about the dangers facing the islands and his hope for sustainable preservation.

A Guyanese-born British citizen with a Welsh background, Watkins was quick to begin our conversation by crediting Alfred Russell Wallace, the Welshman who developed a theory of evolution independent of Darwin and whose picture hung on Watkins’ office wall.

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Filed under: Galapagos,

Climate Change: Take a chill pill?

According to columnist Neil Reynolds of the Globe and Mail, when it comes to global warming, we can all relax. As he advises in the title of his July 19th column, “Please Remain Calm: The Earth will heal itself.”

The title is the message Reynolds takes from an article by Nobel laureate and physicist Robert Laughlin in the summer issue of The American Scholar. In “What the Earth Knows”, Laughlin writes that we shouldn’t be overly concerned about climate change, nor our consumption of fossil fuels, because our planet has endured global devastations in the past and has always recovered. “The Earth,” he writes, “has suffered mass volcanic explosions, floods, meteor impacts, mountain formation, and all manner of other abuses greater than anything people could inflict, and it’s still here. It’s a survivor.”

To be clear, Laughlin doesn’t appear to be a global warming denier. In his article he clearly states: “Carbon dioxide from the human burning of fossil fuel is building up in the atmosphere at a frightening pace, enough to double the present concentration in a century. This build-up has the potential to raise average temperatures on the earth several degrees centigrade, enough to modify the weather and accelerate melting of the polar ice sheets.”

But the conclusion he comes to is the same as that of deniers: there is no need to act. There is no need to alter our profligate fossil fuel consumption. Carbon caps, carbon sequestration research, alternate energy technologies, turning off your air conditioner, refrigerator and television set, turning down your thermostat, driving a hybrid car—none of these measures are necessary. In his words, “the Earth doesn’t care.”

What’s more, “Climate ought not to concern us too much when we’re gazing into the energy future, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s beyond our power to control.” At best, any changes we make in our use of fossil fuels will merely change the amount of time it takes to turn them into carbon, after which the planet will subsequently and naturally reabsorb them.

The problem is that Laughlin confuses global upheavals like volcanism, meteor impacts and mountain formation with a phenomenon like human-caused global warming. Thousands of air travellers grounded in Europe this year became only too familiar with our inability to control volcanoes. But while we may not be able to control such forces of nature, we can control anthropogenic climate change. We created it—we can un-create it. After all, we faced a similar global threat when we burned a hole in the ozone layer but, thanks to the Montreal Protocol in limiting CFCs, we are well on our way to defusing that danger.

Laughlin also confuses the enduring planet with the life on it. Yes, the Earth is a “survivor.” It has recovered from global upheavals much greater in magnitude than global warming. But there’s a difference between the planet and the fragile life-forms on it. We could consume all our fossil fuel reserves as recklessly and rapidly as possible, and the Earth would heal itself. It could put up with a rise in global temperatures and ocean levels, and drastic extremes in weather. The planet would survive—but that doesn’t mean we would. And that’s a chilling prospect.

Filed under: climate change, media, ,

Climate Change and Journalism: Truth in the balance

Leonardo DiCaprio describes Climate Cover-up as “an imperative read”, Wade Davis calls it “an essential book”, and Frank D. Gilliam Jr. says it is “a must-read.” How is it then that the author of such an important book on global warming isn’t a climate scientist, but instead is a public relations professional?

Because, as the book’s author James Hoggan writes in the introduction, the scientific debate concerning global warming is over. “Every science academy in every major developed country in the world [has] stated clearly that the world’s climate is changing dangerously and humans are to blame.” As he and co-author Richard Littlemore portray in depth in Climate Cover-up, the greatest climate change challenge today isn’t the science; it is the organized campaign to manipulate public opinion and maintain the illusion that human-caused global warming is still unproven and the science controversial.

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Filed under: climate change, media, ,

Just how much science does our science minister understand?

To many in the research community, last week’s federal budget cut to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmosphere Sciences is a sign that the Harper government is “skeptical of climate-change science and hostile to those who provide evidence that aggressive action must be taken to avert catastrophic global warming.” As a result of the cut, scientists have begun to shut down the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, located on Ellsmere Island some 1,100 kilometres from the North Pole, which served as a base for the collection of data on climate change.

Skeptical of climate-change science? The report reminded me of the flap from a year ago, when Gary Goodyear, our science minister, refused to reveal if he believed in evolution. His initial refusal, followed by a confusing and disingenuous “yes, I believe in evolution”, bolstered the suspicions of many that our science minister was a creationist and wasn’t quite on the same page as Darwin when it came to the origin of species.

You have to wonder what other scientific concepts–along with climate change and evolution–Goodyear doesn’t quite have a handle on. Germ theory, plate tectonics, gravity, atomic theory? Should we worry about future cuts to Canada’s space program because he’s pretty sure the Earth is flat?

Filed under: climate change, evolution, politics, science literacy, , , ,

Giving up the ghost bird?

In February, 2004, a lone kayaker paddling through an Arkansas swamp spotted a magnificent black and white bird. According to the kayaker, it was an Ivory-billed woodpecker, referred to as the “Lord God Bird” because that’s what everyone says when they see it: “Lord God!” The woodpecker had been considered extinct in the U.S. and the sighting was the first in decades. It triggered a fascinating and controversial quest to verify the existence of the ghostly species.

Scott Crocker, in his brilliant 2009 documentary film Ghost Bird, tells the compelling story of the reaction to the sighting and the controversial attempts to verify that the Ivory-bill had indeed returned. (I reviewed the film shortly after its screening at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto in May 2009.)

According to a February 10, 2010 report in Nature News, the sighting remains unconfirmed. “We don’t believe a recoverable population of ivory-billed woodpeckers exists” says Ron Rohrbaugh, a conservation biologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Rohrbaugh headed the original search team. According to the report, “…after five years of fruitless searching, hopes of saving the species have faded.”

Filed under: nature,

The Cave Glow Worm

In dark rocky caverns, the cave glow worm catches insects the way an angler catches fish. The worm hangs dozens of silk threads from the cave ceiling like fishing lines from a boat. The threads can be up to 20 inches long, and are covered with droplets of the worm’s sticky mucous. When an insect flies too close, it’s caught by the line. The worm reels in its catch and enjoys its meal.

Like an angler, the cave worm attracts its prey with a lure. In an organ in its tail, a chemical reaction creates light that can easily be seen in the pitch darkness underground. Flies, mosquitoes and moths see the glow and fly toward it. In some caves, the light of thousands of worms makes the cave ceiling look like a starry night sky.

The cave glow worm (g. arachnocampa) is found mostly in New Zealand and Australia. The worm is actually the larva of a small, gnat-like fly. After nine months of catching prey and growing to over an inch in length, the larva becomes a pupa. Hanging by a strand of silk, the pupa wraps itself in a cocoon. Inside its silky hideaway, it magically transforms into an adult fly.

The female fly also glows, but she’s not trying to attract a meal. In fact, adult flies only live a day or two and don’t eat at all. The female adult uses light to attract a mate. Males wait patiently beside glowing cocoons until the female emerges. After the two flies mate, the female will lay her eggs–and the cycle begins again.

(From a recent project for young readers, about creatures that have evolved bioluminescence.)

Filed under: nature,

About me

CHRIS SASAKI
I am a Toronto-based writer, author and photographer who is inspired and fascinated by science. Science is our best way of understanding the natural world, but it is much more than that. Science is culture, and its pursuit ultimately leads to meaning, values and wonder.  My interests include evolution, Darwin, the Galapagos Islands, secular humanism, religion, skepticism, climate change, and science culture.  For many years, I wrote and produced astronomy programs for the McLaughlin Planetarium of the Royal Ontario Museum. I am author of many books for young readers (Sterling Publishing and Penguin Young Readers, N.Y.) and articles for children's magazines. I also write non-fiction related to the themes reflected in this blog. You can read some of my longer non-fiction and view my photographs at www.chrissasaki.com, and follow me at www.twitter.com/chrissasaki.

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