A mast year for acorns in New England

❝ If you have oak trees in your neighborhood, perhaps you’ve noticed that some years the ground is carpeted with their acorns, and some years there are hardly any. Biologists call this pattern, in which all the oak trees for miles around make either lots of acorns or almost none, “masting.”

In New England, naturalists have declared this fall a mast year for oaks: All the trees are making tons of acorns all at the same time…

❝ For trees like oaks that depend on having their seeds carried away from the parent tree and buried by animals like squirrels, a mast year has an extra benefit. When there are lots of nuts, squirrels bury more of them instead of eating them immediately, spreading oaks across the landscape.

❝ Whatever the causes, masting has consequences that flow up and down the food chain.

For instance, rodent populations often boom in response to high seed production. This in turn results in more food for rodent-eating predators like hawks and foxes; lower nesting success for songbirds, if rodents eat their eggs; and potentially higher risk of transmission of diseases like hantavirus to people.

If the low seed year that follows causes the rodent population to collapse, the effects are reversed.

Please, RTFA for discussion of other cause-and-effect relationships, possibilities…even maybe’s

These guineafowl have tiny brains and elaborate social networks — Sound familiar?

James Klarevas

❝ A new study published this week in the journal Current Biology about an East African bird species with a pretty small brain reveals that animals may not necessarily necessarily need to be smart to be social…

❝ Farine and his colleagues decided to study the gorgeous blue-feathered, turkey-like species in depth…They found that the local population was divided into 18 distinct social groups numbering between 18 and 65 birds each…

The groups were remarkably stable, anchored by several breeding pairs. They also found that certain groups liked hanging out with one another, meeting up at certain times of the day and around certain features in the landscape. Some groups would also spend most of the day off on their own, then meet up with another pack of bird friends to roost at night. In other words, they exhibit the same type of multilevel society as big-brained mammals…

❝ Farine (says)…these particular birds aren’t particularly intelligent.

“They don’t only have small brains relative to mammals,” he says. “They also have quite small brains relative to other birds.”

Social networking may be more of an elemental survival skill than something requiring smarts. RTFA. Reflect on critters who dash around trying to be recognized as members of the “correct” group.

11,000 scientists warn: climate change isn’t just about temperature

❝ Exactly 40 years ago, a small group of scientists met at the world’s first climate conference in Geneva. They raised the alarm about unnerving climate trends.

Today, more than 11,000 scientists have co-signed a letter in the journal BioScience, calling for urgently necessary action on climate.

❝ This is the largest number of scientists to explicitly support a publication calling for climate action. They come from many different fields, reflecting the harm our changing climate is doing to every part of the natural world.

You don’t need me to quote chapter and verse to illustrate the danger to life and culture. Please, just RTFA and get on board with activism. Support the fight for a healthier lifetime in coming generations – and maybe this one, too.

Animation sheds light on black holes

Click on image for the animation

Black holes are dubbed “black” because their inescapable tug of gravity on light renders them invisible to the naked eye. Scientists can, however, look at the distorted spacetime around a black hole to determine its size and rotation. In many cases, black holes, also surround themselves in superheated clouds of spinning material that warps like a “carnival mirror” when viewed. In this new NASA animation, the US space agency demonstrated how the gravitational warping distorts our views of black holes.

Go full screen. It rocks!

The real BLOB is on display in Paris

Had to repost this after Ursa found this lovely photo of the actual display at the Paris Zoo

❝ It is bright yellow, can creep along at a speed of up to 4 centimeters (1.6 inches) per hour, can solve problems even though it doesn’t have a brain and can heal itself if it is cut in two.

Meet the “blob,” an unusual organism which will go on display Saturday at the Paris Zoological Park, as part of a first-of-its-kind exhibition intended to showcase its rare abilities.

❝ The slime mold, which is known officially as physarum polycephalum (or “the many headed slime”) is neither a plant, an animal or a fungus. It doesn’t have two sexes — male and female — it has 720. And it can also split into different organisms and then fuse back together, according to a press release from the Zoological Park.

The unicellular being is believed to be around a billion years old, but it first came to the public’s attention in May 1973, after a Texas woman discovered a rapidly-expanding yellow blob growing in her backyard.

Where’s the spirit of Steve McQueen when you need him?

Why are Nobel-winning scientists old, male, white and Western?

Vera Rubin, astrophysicist who confirmed the existence of Dark Matter

Somehow, Nobel Week always sneaks up like a Swedish cat burglar, stealing me from my bed very early in the morning to hear breaking news about the latest laureates. On one level, the annual ritual is a celebration of scientific discovery, and it’s wonderful to learn about the winners’ accomplishments. But the Nobels are burdened by arcane rules and biases that, for me, have removed some of the luster. As our Michael Greshko notes, when you look at the science laureates between 1901 and 2016, they are overwhelmingly older, white, male, and Western.

Last week’s batch of science winners did little to move that needle, perpetuating stereotypes about who can be a brilliant scientist. Some pundits even noted that the Physics Nobel was awarded in part for theoretical work on the mysterious cosmic substance known as dark matter—just a few years after the death of dark matter pioneer Vera Rubin. Since the awards can’t be given posthumously, Rubin is forever snubbed.

The awards have also permanently overlooked some very worthy science, and they continue to ignore the contributions of large collaborations. If anything, Nobel Week for me has become a reminder that science is a complex and messy human endeavor, and we should not shy away from looking at it critically even as we celebrate it.

By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor

I’ll second that emotion!