May 4, 2009

See a squirrel, become a "citizen scientist"

Posted: 09:09 AM ET

In today's Tech section I write about how "citizen scientists" around the world are collecting data that helps professional scientists do their research.

The movement is gaining steam as climate change and biodiversity loss ramp up. Especially with so much changing, scientists can't be everywhere.

Here are a few of the citizen science efforts I found interesting while I was reporting the story. It's by no means an exhaustive list, so feel free to tell us in the comments about other cool sites.

Squirrel sightings:

Bird photos: [includes a big list of citizen science sites ... thanks to Rick Bonney and a commenter for the link]

Ant anthologies:

All species:

Water quality info:

Beetle hunts:

Firefly tracking:

Toad enthusiasts: and

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Filed under: Animals • Birds • citizen science

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April 2, 2009

Renewable energy could threaten wildlife

Posted: 12:27 PM ET

In a weird sort of environmental paradox, the Natural Resources Defense Council on Wednesday released maps of the American West showing areas that would be damaged if they're developed for renewable energy.

Renewable energy expansion is a priority of the Obama administration, but some of the land that could be used for wind or solar power also is home to endangered and threatened species.

It's an interesting example of environmental issues butting heads. Environmentalists generally support renewable energy projects because they reduce the amount of heat-trapping gases going into the atmosphere - and therefore help to slow global climate change. But this could be a sign they may oppose some wind and solar projects.

NRDC says the issues don't have to be in opposition. Careful planning could solve the conflict, the group says.

You can check out the maps on Google Earth.

Here's one example: a birding group mapped areas of Wyoming where the sage-grouse lives.

In my previous life as an environment reporter in Oklahoma, I wrote about how wind farms in that state are crossing paths with a funky bird called the lesser prairie chicken. The bird is so popular it even has YouTube videos.

What do you think? Can we ditch fossil fuels and protect wildlife? What should be the priorities?

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Filed under: Animals • Birds • climate change • endangered species • Energy • environment • Politics • solar energy

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February 25, 2009

Don't mess with this gang (of birds)

Posted: 10:53 AM ET

[cnn-photo-caption image=

caption="Common ravens, contrary to what was thought, sometimes forage in gangs."]
You may think of ravens as solitary creatures rapping at chamber doors, but new research shows that some of young ones form gangs when they look for meals, which consist of animal carcasses.

Gangs, in this context, mean groups of juvenile ravens that forage together and overwhelm the territorial adults defending the animal carcass, said researcher Sasha Dall of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, in an e-mail. In other words, the kids get together try to chase off the adults defending the food, which may influence their social standing among their peers.

This is the first time that flock foraging has been observed in common ravens, Dall said. In a typical raven roost, a bird attains dominance by finding a carcass alone.

"Since most birds will therefore have to suffer being bullied a lot, there is a strong advantage to doing things to avoid giving any one bird such finder advantages," Dall said. "Turns out foraging in gangs is one such tactic."

In fact, the birds' behavior can be explained by game theory, a branch of mathematics that looks at strategic interactions, Dall's research found. The ravens forage in gangs when searching for food alone is no more efficient than foraging with others, the model shows. It's unlikely that the birds are consciously making such calculations, however, and these responses are likely hard-wired, Dall said.

Any analogies to human behavior are limited, but the research does illustrate how food availability, environment, and other external factors can influence social advancement and the stability of groups, Dall said. Scientists believe human ancestors also faced problems of food scarcity, and one solution to surviving in particular environments is to pool the food-finding efforts. If the group solution works in particular circumstances, it's "nevermore" to individual foraging.

The research is published Wednesday in the journal PLoS One.

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Filed under: Animals • Birds

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November 11, 2008

Evolution Revolution: "We haven't scratched the surface"

Posted: 01:29 PM ET

Galapagos tortoises and finches may be the first creatures that come to mind when we think of evolution. But as intriguing as Charles Darwin’s discoveries were, he didn’t write the only book on evolution. In fact, a lot of books on the subject haven’t even been written yet.

New understanding of evolutionary concepts could help humans understand contemporary problems, from renewable energy to health care. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Scientists have only discovered and named about ten percent of the plant and animal species on earth.

“There’s a huge amount to learn, we have not scratched the surface,” said Professor David Lynn, chair of the chemistry department at Emory University.

Lynn was among organizers of an Emory workshop, “Evolution Revolution: Science Changing Life.” It was aimed at high school teachers trying to rev up their students’ interest in how evolution is changing our world now.

The gathering is getting a head start on celebrating Darwin’s 200th birthday next year. It’s also the 150th anniversary of “On the Origin of the Species,” Darwin’s pioneering research on one of the most important concepts in science.

Darwin described natural selection, the concept that individuals who are better adapted to their current environment have an advantage over those not so well adapted. "Survival of the fittest" is sometimes used to describe natural selection. But it's not always the biggest and toughest who win in the long run. Evolutionary fitness sometimes involves cooperation with other organisms and the ability to reproduce and pass those genes on. Researchers in scores of different fields are constantly updating this elegant idea.

“Technology moves very quickly, and even scientists have a hard time keeping up,” said Lynn, professor of biomolecular chemistry. That’s why the evolution workshop reached out to the community, and to people in the arts as well as science.

Understanding evolution today could help with contemporary challenges, from harnessing new biofuels to understanding communicable diseases to developing new strategies for health care.

(And before you ask, yes, the Emory scientists did discuss with teachers how to answer questions about creationism and “intelligent design.” But no, that wasn’t the focus of their meetings. )

Mostly, said Lynn, “Teachers were interested in the best way to teach this marvelous discovery, with questions like, ‘How do I explain this concept to my tenth graders in a digestible, artistic way?’”
Hundreds of people, from students to tweedy professors to plenty of locals packed Emory’s Glenn Memorial Auditorium to hear Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson’s address on “Darwin and the Future of Biology.”

Wilson is known as the “father of biodiversity” (as well as the guy who is so passionate about ants he wrote a 700+ page book about their behavior that earned him the Pulitzer prize for literature).

Wilson provided a glimpse into Darwin’s life, including his five- year journey on H.M.S. Beagle, from 1831-1836.

“He was a 21 year old, newly escaped from Cambridge University, on a five year journey with no TV, no radio, no newspapers,” said Wilson.

The world, Wilson said, was Charles Darwin’s to possess. And perhaps, during his six weeks in the Galapagos Islands, came his “aha” moment. The captain pointed out that the turtles, and the finches, were different from island to island. Which got Darwin thinking, “Maybe they’re changing?”

By 1838 Darwin had conceived of evolution by natural selection. In 1871 he published “The Descent of Man,” applying the theory directly to human beings. But members of Victorian society were limited in their embrace of scientific theory. Most folks were okay with plants and other animals evolving. But, said Wilson, “They were scandalized by apes as OUR ancestors.”

But the reason Darwin’s work holds up today, said Wilson, was because he was the epitome of a disciplined scientist.

“This man was irritatingly accurate. He was very careful.”

By Marsha Walton, CNN Science and Technology Producer

Filed under: Animals • Birds • Politics • Religion • Scientists • teachers

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April 23, 2008

Birds' singing in spring linked to hormones

Posted: 03:58 PM ET

As Romeo and Juliet disputed whether they heard a lark or a nightingale singing on the pomegranate tree, they probably did not ponder the biological underpinnings of why birds sing in springtime.

Scientists unlock mysteries of why birds sing.

In fact, the precise mechanisms for springtime bird singing have always been mysterious to scientists. But a recent study breaks new ground in the biology of bird songs.

A group of researchers has discovered a hormone that sets off neural activity that causes birds to sing when the days get longer. The study, led by Takashi Yoshimura of the Nagoya University, Japan, was reported in a recent issue of the journal Nature.

The scientists studied 38,000 genes of male Japanese quails under both long and short days. They found that some genes were only switched on 14 hours after dawn on the first long day.

These particular genes were found only in cells on the surface of the hypothalamus, and produced a thyroid-stimulating hormone, said Peter Sharp, a collaborator on the study at the Roslin Institute in Scotland. This hormone sets off the release of another hormone which stimulates spring breeding, he said in an e-mail.

The pituitary gland gets a boost from the hormone, pumping out other hormones that make the birds’ testes grow, the study said. This process makes birds sing.

But it’s not just our fowl friends that could benefit from this study. Human conditions such as seasonal affective disorder and poor fertility could be connected to a malfunction of the very same cells studied in the birds, Sharp said.

“Discoveries in basic biology increase the chances of developing new ways of improving animal and human well being,” he said.

–Elizabeth Landau, Associate Producer,

Filed under: Animals • Birds

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February 15, 2008

For the birds

Posted: 12:25 PM ET

If you like birds, this Presidents Day weekend is the time to get out your binoculars. Thousands of birders, from novice to expert, will be looking skyward for the 11th annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

This event is not just for fun (although it is that).

Organizers of the Count want you to enter the types and numbers of birds you spot at . Last year, participants reported a record-breaking 11 million birds and more than 600 species. Scientists use the information to learn more about how birds in North America are faring and what that means for the environment.


The Count includes an online photo gallery and contest.

But new this year - participants can upload video of their sightings on YouTube and tag it “Great Backyard Bird Count.” The best clips will be posted on the Bird Count web site.

So whether you count robins for 15 minutes from your kitchen window, or make a four-day trek through an Arkansas swamp in search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, the Great Backyard Bird Count wants to know what you see. Details are at .

- Diane Hawkins-Cox,  senior producer, CNN Sci-Tech Unit

Filed under: Animals • Birds

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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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