Category Archives: Environmental sciences

Shrewed survivor

From Vanderbilt’s Exploration online mag comes this dispatch (excerpts below) about the pound-for-pound audaciousness of the water shrew. The zine includes great high-speed video of the creature’s hunting prowess.
The scientist, Ken Catania, is a former MacArthur Fellow … and slightly resembles a woodland creature himself. Exploration previously reported on his groundbreaking work (ahem) with the starnosed mole.

The research reveals that the small animal possesses remarkably sophisticated methods for detecting prey that allow it to catch small fish and aquatic insects as readily in the dark as in daylight.

It is a skill set that the water shrew really needs. About half the size of a mouse, water shrews have such a high metabolism that they must eat more than their weight daily and can starve to death in half a day if they can’t find anything to eat. As a result, water shrews are formidable predators ounce for ounce.

“Water shrews do much of their hunting at night, so I began wondering how they can identify their prey in nearly total darkness,” says Ken Catania, the associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt who headed the study.

Catania teamed up with James Hare and Kevin Campbell at the University of Manitoba and used a high-speed infrared video camera to answer this question. The results of their study are reported in a paper titled “Water shrews detect movement, shape, and smell to find prey underwater” published Jan. 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our research confirms that shrews in general, and water shrews in particular, are marvels of adaptation, with specializations and behaviors that put many other mammals to shame,” says Catania.
Its hunting methods are pretty amazing, and all without a 12-pack of cheap beer.





Not nerdy? Where’s the fun in that?

The University of Maine has started a program just for middle-school girls to prove to them that “science and engineering aren’t nerdy.”

“Math, science and engineering [are] relevant,” Vetelino says, “and not such a nerdy field.”

John Vetelino is a computer science prof who started a very novel program to teach Maine’s high school teachers about sensor technology in a summer school program. He’s getting great NSF grants for these programs. Takin it to the streets!

ALSO from UMaine, a story about raising halibut on the farm. Indoors. Thanks largely to a fish called Wanda.
UMaine and a couple of entrepreneurs have raised the first generation of halibut on land, and now the university’s aquaculture incubator is growing the progeny.  Wanda’s an especially lovable and productive female.

Halibut look really weird, especially when they’re in giant tanks and swim up to the surface to spy you with their eyes.  But they sure do taste good. A little lemon, a little butter.

UMaine has video to go with the story. Good stuff.

Rivers and climate change on the East Coast

This week’s issue of Science has a good research study on rivers in the mid-Atlantic states. It’s the geomorphic equivalent of hormone replacement therapy studies that showed HRT was bad for most women: everything you thought is wrong.

The Science study shows that the meandering twists and turns that characterize eastern rivers and streams result from man’s influence.

The news would make a good lead-in for a feature on climate change and rivers. Rivers are important economically (commerce, fishing, tourism) and socially (imagine a river abandoning a town) for the eastern states: how will climate change affect yours?

Typically, scientists who study the Earth look at what happened in the past to predict the future. But the nature of rivers has changed so much, it will take a new paradigm to figure out what the future holds for coastal and river communities.

Brent McKee, chair of UNC’s marine sciences department, studies how rivers respond to rising sea level (one of his sites is the Roanoke River). The huge influence of human activity on rivers makes it hard for McKee to judge whether the Roanoke and other rivers will lose their deltas, flood the coast, jump and take over other, smaller streams, etc., as sea level rises. To answer these questions, McKee and others are using field work, satellite imagery and other techniques like mapping the surface with airborne lasers.

Dam nation

The US is pock-marked with dams that no longer generate power, bridges that can’t hold up a Tata and roads that go nowhere.
They’re not doing nothing, of course. They’re continuing to affect the environment and the immediately surrounding ecology.
So what are we supposed to do with them?

Use them to the environment’s advantage, Martin Doyle says in a Science policy paper about infrastructure decay and ecology restoration.

When dams are removed, like in this photo, it’s been shown that the ecology makes a quick comeback. That’s what happened to the endangerd North Carolina shiner, a cute little minnow, when a dam was peeled off the river near Carbonton, N.C., as seen in the photo.