We Love That (Less) Dirty Water: The Charles cleans up its act

When the EPA took charge of efforts to cleanup the Charles in 1995, the situation was dire. They issued the river a D grade, declaring it safe to swim in a mere 19% of the time. Much has changed since then. Through the coordinated efforts of government agencies and non-profit organizations like the Charles River Watershed Association, the Charles has undergone an improbable transformation. In 2004, the river received a B+ rating and has stayed in that range ever since. Though its reputation remains—it’s tempting to blame the Standells, who immortalized the river in a not-so-positive light with their 1966 hit “Dirty Water”—the Charles is actually one of the cleanest urban rivers in the United States these days. Last summer the river had its first officially sanctioned public swim in over 50 years.

The Charles River Esplanade is one of several locations being considered for a potential public swimming area.


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Category: Ecology, Science Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Encounters of the smart kind: learning about smart fluids, two syringes at a time

Ahmed Helal uncaps a cardboard cylinder that reminds me of a cheap kaleidoscope and pulls out a pair of plastic syringes, connected tip-to-tip by what looks like a small black rubber tube.  Each syringe is about a third full with a dull silvery goo. He pushes the syringe plungers back and forth between his thumbs, and I watch the leaden-colored gel duly shift easily between the two syringes.  Then he hands me the syringes to try.

“It’s a little dried out, but it still works,” he assures me, in case his demonstration hasn’t been enough.  I imitate his motions and find the material between the syringes quite pliable.  Nothing magical so far about my first conscious contact with a smart fluid, the lay term for the type of material represented by the dark, glinting gray in the syringes.
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The Best of Times (Science Writing Good Reads)

Fair warning:  What follows is ~3000 words on what a good time it is to find science fascinating.  Avoid if you’re not interested.

Given my day job teaching young writers about covering science, and given that we’re a month shy of the first day of classes for our next cohort of science-writing graduate students, I’ve been doing an informal survey of what’s out there as venues in which those folks will perform over the next few years.  And, as I suggested in this post, I came away with the somewhat unexpected sense that we are living in a genuinely great age for writing and the public engagement with science.

Science writers are fond of weeping in their cups* about the dire state of the traditional science media.  And they/we should.  MSM science writing is often said to have peaked in the so called “golden age” of the 80s.  That was when a whole new crop of science-technology-gee-whiz glossies appeared.  I think I listed a fair number of the new rags last time — Time Inc.’s Discover (my first real employer), Science 8X, Penthouse publication’s Omni** (founded 1978, actually) and others I’m blanking on, joining old stalwarts enjoying new interest — Scientific American, Popular Science, Science News, and others.  The end of the decade saw the birth of one of my all-time favorites, the short-lived, much missed Mondo 2000, and in the early 90s, you got Wired.
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Your computer screen, from an angle

We can probably agree that this rectangle is pink.

 

Now, keep the rectangle on display, and stand up so that you’re looking down at your screen from a sharp angle. If you have a laptop, you can tilt your screen to achieve the same effect.

See that?

On many LCD screens the square becomes bright blue. (More recent models with higher pixel density, including the Macbook Pros with Retina Displays, have fixed this problem.)

Why?!
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The Search for the Loneliest Whale in the World (Pt. 3)

This is the final installment in a three-part series about the decades-long search for a mysterious whale whose calls have been haunting researchers for years. Part 1 can be read here and Part 2 is available here.

52 Hertz is a mystery, but so many of people’s common questions–Is he deformed? Is he really alone? Is he even really a whale?–could be answered with simple observation. Why hasn’t there been any? Why haven’t we studied 52 Hertz more closely?

For one thing, the Navy, which remains an important source of marine bioacoustics data, is not interested in finding a single benign whale. They have different things to worry about.

Then there’s the fact that even if private researchers want to use the Navy’s data for a civilian project, they would have to deal with the time lag between 52 Hertz passing the hydrophones and actually processing the data. Though the Woods Hole team had managed to construct maps of 52 Hertz’s journeys, this information had only become available miles and days after the whale had passed. The raw data has to be processed by trusted ex-Navy specialists before being handed over to NOAA or Woods Hole to be logged and analyzed further. The data also has to be declassified before researchers can release their findings to the public—even if revelations about a whale’s social status hardly seems like a threat to national security.

Using delayed data allowed oceanographers to map 52 Hertz’s travels whenever he was within the hydrophone system’s range. Photo: Jayne Doucette

Not much can be done about declassifying data in a timely manner. But nowadays, the actual data-gathering process about a whale’s location seems like it could be done in the private sector in a speedy manner. After all, we have GPS tags and near-instant satellite communication, right?


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The Search for the Loneliest Whale in the World (Pt. 2)

This is the second installment in a three-part series about the decades-long search for a mysterious whale whose calls have been haunting researchers for years. Part 1 can be read here.

The researchers who listened to 52 Hertz’s calls over the years never had to lay eyes on the whale, mainly because they lacked the funds and opportunity to perform such a needle-in-the-haystack search. Bill Watkins and his group had to be satisfied with tracking him from the East Coast while he swam along the West Coast through data provided to them by the Navy.

A hydrophone used to record underwater sounds. Photo credit: Hannes Grobe.

The U.S. Navy had originally installed these billion-dollar hydrophone systems in deep waters to detect Soviet submarines during the Cold War.  Laying down hundreds of miles of cable across the sea floor was an incredible investment of time and manpower for a project that was not really understood or well-tested. Fortunately, the gamble paid off. The North Pacific system was stable and sensitive enough to detect approaching subs lurking in the distances. But once the Cold War ended, the Navy was not quite sure what to do with the hydrophone systems.

They decided to open the recording systems up for civilian use. Visiting the hydrophones, let alone using them, still requires a security clearance, but having access to the data they gather is an immense boon for scientists who would not be able to afford installing such an expansive open ocean system on their own dime. With the Navy’s acoustic data, marine biologists and bioacoustics experts were able to map seasonal migratory patterns of blue and fin whales for the first time.


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The Search for the Loneliest Whale in the World (Pt. 1)

Somewhere off the west coast of British Columbia wanders a whale—at least, his voice can be heard there. He appears to be alone.

Simply by eavesdropping, scientists have deduced a few details about this whale. He swims the cold waters of the North Pacific, probably in pursuit of food and love. In all likelihood, he is a baleen whale: a long, grey tanker with a pointed head and generous lower jaw. For food, he would chase clouds of plankton and tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill, gulping gallons of water into his mouth and pushing it all out through two long furry-looking plates sprouting from the roof of his mouth where one would expect teeth. These plates, called baleen, filter krill and other crustaceans out of the expelled water. Miraculously, these tiny creatures are all the sustenance this giant mammal needs to survive.

The baleen whale suborder includes blue whales (above) and fin whales. 52 Hertz could be either. (Photo: Creative Commons)

For love, he calls out in long, low moans. Each intonation lasts anywhere from five to fifteen seconds, and he waits up to thirty seconds between each cry, taking ten minute breaks between each song. He will sing like this for hours. His voice carries for miles, and any females nearby would surely take note of his voice’s strength and range, the variety of his repertoire, the duration of his song. In the murky dark where a whale can barely see its own tail, the quality of these musical elements should prove that he is a worthy mate.

Despite his efforts, he receives no reply. Meet 52 Hertz: the loneliest whale in the world.


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Breaking the Cheetah Curse – Part III

This is final installment of a three-part series about the idiosyncrasies of the cheetah–and the myriad struggles zoos face when attempting to mate these majestic felines in captivity. Part 2 can be read here; Part 1 is here.

Compared to other big cats, cheetahs are high maintenance. Captive cheetahs are prone to stress. They need space to run around and prefer privacy. Males need opportunities to live with other males; females need space to live alone. Attentive animal keepers need to correctly identify when a female is heat and then walk through male introductions. If a given male does not work out, ideally other eligible bachelors will be on hand.

It can be taxing for zoos to juggle specific cheetah mating demands along with those of other animals. But large, private off-site facilities, or “breeding centers,” offer a solution.

“You can look at the numbers over the last 25-30 years and the facilities that have by far had the best success are the ones that are keeping the larger numbers of cheetahs,” says Steve Bircher.

Cheetah cubs Carmelita and Justin, shortly after their May 2012 birth. Photo by Adrienne Crosier, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

A handful of centers were initially built in the 1980s. Only in the last ten years have new centers cropped up, including the Smithsonian-run one in Virginia. The centers are spread out across the United States, from Florida to California. They range in size from 1,800 acres to 10,000 acres, and house between 12 to 30 cats.
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Breaking the Cheetah Curse – Part II

This is the second part of a three-piece feature on the idiosyncrasies of the cheetah–and the myriad struggles zoos face when attempting to mate these majestic felines in captivity. Part One is here; the final installment will be posted tomorrow.

Cheetahs exude elegance. With a more slender frame than lions and tigers, the sleek hunters are built to run fast—70 miles per hour fast—and look good doing it. Prized for their beauty and hunting prowess, owning cheetahs was a symbol of wealth and power in places like Egypt, India, and China. Records of collecting cheetahs date back to 3000 BC. But even back then mating cheetahs was recognized as a near impossible task.

The first record of a successful cheetah mating in captivity did not occur until the 1600s at the home of ostentatious cheetah collector Akbar the Great. A famous Indian mogul, he was purported to have owned over 1,000 cheetahs and used them as hunting companions. The second instance occurred around 300 years later at the Philadelphia Zoo in 1957. Both matings were “accidental.”

Photo by Janice Sveda, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Admittedly historical cheetah collectors and zoos were not trying too hard to mate cheetahs, as wild cheetahs were seemingly abundant and easily obtainable. This relaxed breeding attitude made its own small dent in wild populations: Between 1829, when the first known cheetah was showcased in a zoo, and 1994, over 1,567 wild-caught cheetahs were transferred to some 373 facilities. Until the 1960s, most of those captive cats died within a year.

Everything changed in 1973.
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Breaking the Cheetah Curse – Part I

This is three-piece story about the idiosyncrasies of the cheetah–and the myriad struggles zoos face when attempting to mate these majestic felines in captivity.

A pair of cheetah cubs, a brother and sister named Justin and Carmelita, has charmed Smithsonian National Zoo visitors in Washington D.C. since their public debut in July 2012. The eleven-month old cats have shed their baby fuzz for sleek orange fur patterned with black spots. Yet despite their adult stature, the cats still act like rambunctious youngsters, chasing each other around their pen and playfully wrestling.

This is all good for now – but in a year’s time these young cats will be taken off exhibit, just like their parents before them, and started down parallel paths to confront their destiny as genetically robust cheetahs, sired to save their species from extinction.

Ally, the proud mother of new cheetah cubs. Photo courtesy of Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

The world has undergone a massive cheetah drain over the last century largely due to loss of natural habitats and conflicts with humans. Wild cheetah populations have plunged 90 percent, from around 100,000 cheetahs in the early 1900s to roughly 10,000 today. The situation is further complicated by low genetic variability among the species. Saving the cheetahs from extinctions means not only increasing numbers, but also ensuring the new population is genetically healthy.

In recent decades, zoos like the Smithsonian have taken on this challenge.
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