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Did Humans Once Live by Beer Alone? An Oktoberfest Tale

By Lina Zeldovich

In October of 1953, the farmers of the Western hemisphere were busy toiling over harvested grain, either milling it into flour or prepping it for brewing. Meanwhile, a group of historians and anthropologists gathered to debate which of these two common grain uses humans mastered first—bread or beer?

The original question posed by Professor J. D. Sauer, of the University of Wisconsin’s Botany Department, was even more provocative. He wanted to know whether “thirst, rather than hunger, may have been the stimulus [for] grain agriculture.” In more scientific terms, the participants were asking: “Could the discovery that a mash of fermented grain yielded a palatable and nutritious beverage have acted as a greater stimulant toward the experimental selection and breeding of the cereals than the discovery of flour and bread making?”

Interestingly, the available archaeological evidence didn’t produce a definitive answer. The cereals and the tools used for planting and reaping, as well as the milling stones and various receptacles, could be involved for making either the bread or the beer. Nonetheless, the symposium, which ran under the title of Did Man Once Live by Beer Alone?, featured plenty of discussion.

The proponents of the beer-before-bread idea noted that the earliest grains might have actually been more suitable for brewing than for baking. For example, some wild wheat and barley varieties had husks or chaff stuck to the grains. Without additional processing, such husk-enclosed grains were useless for making bread—but fit for brewing. Brewing fermented drinks may also have been easier than baking. Making bread is a fairly complex operation that necessitates milling grains and making dough, which in the case of leavened bread requires yeast. It also requires fire and ovens, or heated stones at the least.

On the other hand, as some attendees pointed out, brewing needs only a simple receptacle in which grain can ferment, a chemical reaction that can be easily started in three different ways. Sprouting grain produces its own fermentation enzyme—diastase. There are also various types of yeast naturally present in the environment. Lastly, human saliva also contains fermentation enzymes, which could have started a brewing process in a partially chewed up grain. South American tribes make corn beer called chicha, as well as other fermented beverages, by chewing the seeds, roots, or flour to initiate the brewing process.

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But those who believed in the “bread first, beer later” concept posed some important questions. If the ancient cereals weren’t used for food, what did their gatherers or growers actually eat? “Man cannot live on beer alone, and not too satisfactorily on beer and meat,” noted botanist and agronomist Paul Christoph Mangelsdorf. “And the addition of a few legumes, the wild peas and lentils of the Near East, would not have improved the situation appreciably. Additional carbohydrates were needed to balance the diet… Did these Neolithic farmers forego the extraordinary food values of the cereals in favor of alcohol, for which they had no physiological need?” He finished his statement with an even more provoking inquiry. “Are we to believe that the foundations of Western Civilization were laid by an ill-fed people living in a perpetual state of partial intoxication?” Another attendee said that proposing the idea of grain domestication for brewing was not unlike suggesting that cattle was “domesticated for making intoxicating beverages from the milk.”

In the end, the two camps met halfway. They agreed that our ancestors probably used cereal for food, but that food might have been in liquid rather than baked form. It’s likely that the earliest cereal dishes were prepared as gruel—a thinner, more liquidy version of porridge that had been a Western peasants’ dietary staple. But gruel could easily ferment. Anthropologist Ralph Linton, who chose to take “an intermediate position” in the beer vs. bread controversy, noted that beer “may have resulted from accidental souring of a thin gruel … which had been left standing in an open vessel.” So perhaps humankind indeed owes its effervescent bubbly beverage to some leftover mush gone bad thousands of years ago.

The post Did Humans Once Live by Beer Alone? An Oktoberfest Tale appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

The Sky’s Creepiest Parasites

By James MacDonald

Brood parasitism is a truly diabolical life strategy employed by certain birds, most famously cowbirds and cuckoos. Brood parasites make no nest of their own. Instead, they lay their eggs in another bird’s nest while the host bird is away. The impostor egg hatches, then often tosses all or some of the host eggs or babies out of the nest, killing them. The unsuspecting host parents dedicate their energy to raising the impostor chick. Oddly, they usually don’t seem to notice, no matter how significant the difference—as discussed by Oliver Krüger in Philosophical Transactions, cuckoos may lay eggs in nests of hosts up to six times smaller than they are. Sometimes, the chick dwarfs the hosts but the hosts diligently raise it anyway.

This sneak attack allows brood parasites to lay more eggs in one season than non-parasites, as they do not need to put any energy into building a nest or caring for offspring. The cost to the host, however, is enormous. They either waste energy caring for a parasitic egg, or in worst case the impostor kills every single host egg.

Hosts are not defenseless; brood parasites do not choose their victims randomly. Hiding nests better, for example, seems to be a deterrent in some cases, as does placing the nest so that there is no nearby place for a parasite to bide its time. Experience can help, in that young host birds are often more vulnerable. Sometimes the best defense is a good offense, many potential host species simply attack nearby brood parasites during breeding season. The downside, of course, is that while aggression may deter a parasite, it also lets the parasite bird know that a nest is near.

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Once a brood parasite successfully infiltrates a nest, astute hosts will notice and damage or kill the parasite egg. In some cases hosts will even abandon the entire nest rather than raise a parasite chick. Some potential hosts lay homogeneous clutches of eggs to make parasite eggs stand out. Others are able to tell if one egg is much larger; they will kill the large egg. A related strategy is to stop feeding any chick when its needs become too great.

According to Krüger, this parasite-host struggle has the hallmarks of a co-evolutionary arms race. As host birds develop counter-measures, parasites develop new techniques for duping the hosts. When host defenses become too effective, the parasites might even switch hosts. Neither side is threatening the other with extinction, so the arms race stalemate drags on.

The post The Sky’s Creepiest Parasites appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

The Seal That Flew 1000 Miles To Get Home

By Lina Zeldovich

On March 19, 2019, several Bermuda locals found an unusual animal on Tobacco Bay Beach—a gray seal. Resting on the rocks, the seal appeared exhausted, with several lacerations on its flippers. The marine mammal was completely out of place in this subtropical island, so the locals sought help from the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo (BAMZ), which rehabilitates sea turtles, birds, and other marine and terrestrial creatures.

Seals, however, are rare guests at the BAMZ, says Ian Walker, the organization’s principal curator and veterinarian. “There had been six recorded seals here since 1873,” he says. “They aren’t common in Bermuda at all.”

Gray seals are northern creatures found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In North America, they live around Rhode Island and Connecticut, and farther up north in Nova Scotia. They are solitary creatures that usually swim alone, except during breeding seasons when they form groups.

The seal turned out to be a young female, later named Lou-Seal. How Lou-Seal ended up in Bermuda is a mystery. Walker says that as the climate changes, food sources fluctuate and seals may be following them. Currents change too, so as she was foraging, Lou-Seal may have been pulled into the wrong stream. “The Gulf Stream is constantly shifting in terms of eddies and currents, so it’s possible she got wrapped up in an eddy and ended up in the Gulf Stream,” he explains. “And then she managed to get across it, swam to the next landmass and ended up here. She was lucky to get here because there’s not a lot of land at this latitude, just Bermuda.”

During that long journey, Lou-Seal lost a lot of weight because there was little food she could eat. Gray seals feed on herring, cod, squid, and sand eels as well as other northern marine species, which don’t live in the subtropical waters. She was anemic, had a respiratory tract infection, and was so emaciated that for a while things didn’t look promising. Luckily, she was young and strong, Walker says. Thanks to antibiotics, abundant food, and good care from the BAMZ team, she got better.

At first, Lou-Seal was at ease with humans and followed them for food. As she got stronger she became more aggressive, which was a good thing, according to Walker. “We don’t want the seals to associate humans with food, because they get in trouble taking fish from the fishermen’s nets or swimming around boats in a harbor,” he explains. Seals have been known to infuriate fishermen by breaking their nets and stealing their catch. Years ago, a fisherman in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, was quoted as saying, “I believe seals should be dealt with as you would deal with rats.” Lou-Seal is better off not perceiving humans as friends, which is why Walker was happy to see her acting feisty. “It was a huge relief to me when she lunged for me!” he recalls. “At first I wasn’t sure she was going to make it in the wild—but that was a good sign.”

Now the BAMZ team had a new challenge: How could they get Lou-Seal home? Her native waters were 1,000 miles away and the Gulf Stream represented the natural barrier between Bermuda and her home shores.

Lou-Seal

Walker had previous experience with sending a stranded seal home on a FedEx plane. This time, he contacted Canadian company, Cargojet, which agreed to fly Lou-Seal to the United States for free. “They they were terrific to work with and agreed to fly at lower altitudes to compensate for Lou-Seal’s anaemia,” Walker says. He also contacted Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, which has an animal clinic facility. Mystic offered to finish her rehabilitation until she was ready to return to sea. In the meantime, BAMZ built her a travel crate and Bermudian children decorated it with colorful marine artwork. “I accompanied the seal on the journey to Newark and she was transported by an all-female flight crew which seemed very fitting.” Walker says. “We also sent up a crate of Gosling’s Black Seal Rum,” he adds—so that the Mystic crew could toast to her release.

When Lou-Seal landed, Mystic’s stranding animal rescue vehicle was already waiting, and she was quickly taken to the rehabilitation clinic. She did well there, says Sarah Callan, assistant manager of Mystic’s animal rescue program. “She was eating about twenty pounds of fish a day and you could clearly see the difference in her appearance,” Callan says. “She was only 211 pounds when she came in, and she was 362 pounds at the end.” Like the BAMZ personnel, Mystic’s crew took precautions to avoid habituating her to humans, throwing Lou-Seal fish in such a way that she did not see them.

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On May 30, 2019, a crew of Mystic staff and volunteers released Lou-Seal into the ocean. When the crate was opened, she took some time to examine her surroundings, looking back and forth. “The last time she saw ocean water was on Bermuda,” Callan says, “so she took a couple of minutes to take it all in.” And then she hopped straight into the waves and swam away.

The Mystic team toasted to Lou-Seal’s release with the Gosling’s rum. Thanks to a satellite tracking device, they hope to follow her journey for about a year. “She is a unique case,” Callan says, “so we wanted to monitor her location and depth post-release.”

The post The Seal That Flew 1000 Miles To Get Home appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

The Amazing Eyes of the Archerfish

By James MacDonald

The archerfish inhabits shallow water across much of tropical Asia and Northern Australia. Unlike most fish, archerfish have a unique hunting method. Feeding on insects, these fish choose a target perched above the water, take aim, and then spit a jet of water at the hapless bug. If the shot strikes home, the insect falls into the water where the fish can easily capture it. These piscine water guns make it look easy, but it isn’t.

Scholar K. H. Lüling explains how such a feat is possible. After all, most fish cannot generate a spout of water. From the outside the archerfish’s mouth looks the same as any other fish’s mouth, but it has some subtle modifications. In particular, the tongue is flatter at the front and thicker towards the back of the mouth, and fits into a depression in the top of the mouth. With the tight fit, only a small funnel exists between the tongue and the top of the mouth. When it is time to shoot, the fish rapidly closes its gill covers, and water is forced through the narrow passage at high pressure. Some species can shoot seven to ten feet.

A bigger challenge for the fish, however, is accurate aim. As biologist Lawrence M. Dill explains, the archerfish keeps its eyes under the water’s surface when it stalks prey. When light hits water, it is refracted, distorting the appearance of an object above the surface to the fish observing below. That means the fish must hunt and aim without being able to see exactly where its prey is; the fish must compensate for refraction every time in order to hit its target. Below the surface, additional senses such as smell cannot help, so the process is entirely visual.

To avoid detection, the fish cannot approach from directly below the prey where refraction is minimized. The fish must instead approach from different angles, and the angle of refraction changes depending on the position of the fish relative to its prey. Refraction also distorts the apparent distance and elevation of the prey, creating further difficulties. Nor is the archerfish water jet immune to physics; the water droplet trajectory curves with distance travels, and the fish must compensate for that with its aim. Accuracy declines with the increasing shot distance, but despite the difficulties the archerfish frequently aims accurately.

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It is now known that the structure of the archerfish’s eye helps compensate for the distortion at the air/water interface. Still, their ability to compensate for all of the factors at once is one of the most impressive feats of marksmanship anywhere.

The post The Amazing Eyes of the Archerfish appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

Camouflage Gets Weird

By James MacDonald

Camouflage is one of the most incredible phenomena in the animal world. Animals can change color or even texture, blend into the background, and virtually disappear. Such camouflage is intended to fool predators who hunt their prey using vision. But what if a predator relies on other senses besides vision? There’s camouflage for that too.

Zoologist Graeme D. Ruxton writes about one quite common way of avoiding non-visual detection: staying silent. Keeping quiet is an easy way to avoid notice when predators are near. Ruxton, however, considers that technique to be hiding rather than camouflage. Of course, some organisms might not be able to stay silent. Some frogs, hiding from bats during mating season when silence is not an option, sometimes make simpler calls that attract less attention. They only ramp up complexity when many other frogs are around. This both offers safety in numbers and increases the potential payoff for the risk.

A much rarer technique is chemical crypsis, or altering scent to match background odors and avoid olfactory predators. Take the Biston robustum, the caterpillar of the giant geometer moth. These insects resemble twigs, but they also seem to match the chemical signature of their home twigs. Ants hunt through scent, and they will walk right over the caterpillars on their home twigs. Move one of these caterpillars to a different plant, however, and the ants quickly attack. Luckily, as soon as the caterpillars molt and feed on the new plant, they regain their chemical camouflage. Since the protection comes from their diet, they are safe as long as they stay on one type of plant.

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There are other unusual ways to use camouflage, and in fact some predators can use camouflage as well. Certain predatory fish will follow directly behind prey fish, hiding in the wake generated by their caudal fins. Hiding in the disturbed water of the wake can foil the sensitivity to water movements that most fishes have. In this manner the predator can remain undetected until it is too late for the prey.

Even more esoteric senses such as vibration detection and electrosensing have countermeasures. Of course there are no known examples of camouflage against heat sensors, such as the pits of pit vipers. But for the most part, if a means to detect prey or danger exists, defenses have probably evolved to foil it.

The post Camouflage Gets Weird appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

Green Birds Aren’t Really Green

By James MacDonald

Birds have some of the most spectacular coloration of any living creatures in the world. Even birds that at first glance seem drab—the common grackle comes to mind—reveal different hues under various lights. But what gives birds their spectacular colors? As it turns out, when it comes to birds, color is not always what it seems.

Take green, for example. There are many birds that appear to be brilliant green, but only one, the turaco, is truly green, colored by a unique pigment called turacoverdin. The turaco’s green is what is known as true color, derived directly from a pigment. As explained by biologist Charles L. Ralph in a 1969 American Zoologist article, all other green birds derive their appearance through structural, rather than true, color.

A Turaco in South Africa
A Turaco in South Africa. Getty

Structural color in birds is produced when light hits the structural features of feathers and bends the light waves. For example, barbules—tiny barbs on the feathers—and melanin grains are capable of refracting light in this way. Structural colors have a metallic sheen, often seeming to shimmer in the light.

In birds, blue is also a structural color. Blue results from a phenomenon called Tyndall scattering. Blues and purples are the shorter wavelengths of the visible light spectrum. Small particles in feathers, such as proteins, scatter these shorter wavelengths, making them more visible. (The sky appears blue for the same reason, incidentally). Sometimes melanin is present as well, enhancing the effect. So a brilliant, iridescent blue bird might actually be dark in pigment.

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All in all, the amazing color variety in birds comes from a surprisingly small number of pigments. Birds’ bright reds, yellows, and oranges, for example, result from a class of pigments called carotenoids. These pigments color not only feathers but beaks, feet, and even eggs. Dark and muted hues result from melanin, also responsible for variations in human skin tone. The final pigment group is comprised of the porphyrins, not responsible for any particular color type. Often several different pigments are mixed to almost infinitely expand the color possibilities.

Whether color is true or structural, of course, makes no difference to either the birds or their admirers.

The post Green Birds Aren’t Really Green appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

Three Ways to Turn Your Apartment into a Sustainable Garden

By Lina Zeldovich

Urban parks and gardens help city dwellers stay connected with nature. Then there is the growing trend of gardening within one’s living space—no matter how small. These urban gardens comprise their own unique ecosystems. More than just houseplants, if done right, these urban mini-gardens can be lush and green even inside the tiniest spaces—in courtyards, on balconies, or inside living rooms.

Got a Courtyard? Dig Right In.

If you live in a large building with an unpaved courtyard, you’re in luck. You can easily arrange a few flowerbeds or vegetable patches, planting right into the ground. If your courtyard is paved, a few raised beds filled with topsoil from a store might be an easier solution.

According to Kate Smalley of Small Spaces Garden Design, when choosing what to plant, it’s important to take into account your environment, assessing what’s around or what may be growing in your neighbors’ yards. If you are planting into the ground and your neighbors have tall, sprawling trees, those trees will provide shade on hot summer days, but will draw moisture from the soil. And if your courtyard is very narrow or has tall fences, getting enough sunlight may be a challenge. The buildings or boundary fences can cast a shadow over your beds, blocking light and rainfall. In these cases, shade-loving plants may be a good choice. If your beds aren’t getting enough rainwater, you will have to water them by hand. Another option may be installing a drip irrigation system, possibly connected to a battery-operated timer to assure that the plants get water regularly.

A Few Pots on the Front Porch

No matter how small front porches and balconies are, they can fit a few pots, whether on the floor or hanging from the rails. Unless the space is covered, your plants will likely receive some sunlight and rainfall. If you are planting on a balcony, which is elevated by definition, your miniature garden will likely be more exposed to the drying effects of the winds. Placing your pots in saucers with water isn’t a good solution because it stops oxygen from getting to the root zone and roots need air just as much as they need water. Using bigger planters would help preserve moisture, and also allow you to grow some small trees. When planting on a balcony you have to consider the weight of your miniature garden. If you are aiming to use larger pots or troughs, opt for lightweight containers, such as fiberglass rather than concrete or stone.

Permaculture experts Dan Palmer and Adam Grubb suggest using wicking beds—containers that water the plants from ground up by maintaining a layer of water on the bottom, which slowly rises up. Wicking beds are a perfect solution for busy horticulturists who don’t always have time to water their gardens and for those who travel frequently.

Give Your Living Room a Living Wall

If you have no outdoor options, you can green your inside space. Who says you can’t have an herb garden on your wall? Vertical horticulture goes back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. More recently, living walls have become a popular trend, partially in response to the increasing urban population density.

Small planters can be attached to the walls. This article in ReNew: Technology for a Sustainable Future suggests Woolly Pockets made of recycled polyethylene, which can sustain herbs that have shorter roots. An assemblage of such wall-mounted Woolly Pockets can grow a variety of edible herbs, including oregano, thyme, parsley, basil, and rosemary. Non-edible plants that would look good on a wall are ground covers and grasses, especially of different colors and foliage shapes. Ferns and some flowers, such as fuchsia and begonia, can make your wall even more picturesque by adding color and blooms.

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Because small pots dry out quickly, vertical gardens are best combined with an automatic watering system that is programmed to supply water to each pocket for a few minutes a day. You will also need to keep all that moisture away from the wall, so stretching a piece of plastic between the wall and the planters is a good idea.

Got a bigger garden? Here’s how you can turn it into a carbon sink.

The post Three Ways to Turn Your Apartment into a Sustainable Garden appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

The Hidden Extinction Crisis

By James MacDonald

The U.N. has released an exhaustive report on the state of global biodiversity, and the news is grim. Thanks to overpopulation and human activity, especially habitat modification and anthropogenic climate change, diversity of plants and animals has decreased across the board. Up to a million more species may go extinct in the coming decades. Notably, the report details how the disruption of ecosystem services is going to negatively impact humankind’s well-being if this trend is not reversed. But the situation might be even worse than the report suggests.

Writing in PNAS in 2015, biologist Claire Régnier and colleagues note that humans have a very limited and biased understanding of the sixth mass extinction. The trouble is that humans tend to pay most attention to species like terrestrial vertebrates. The U.N. report seeks to rectify this by noting the extreme damage done to the world’s oceans. But according to Régnier et al., our models are leaving many species out.

The IUCN Red List, one of the most exhaustive sources of information about threatened species, is full of mammals and birds but contains a relatively low percentage of invertebrates. Of the invertebrates, most are “popular” species such as butterflies or corals. Countless other invertebrates either have no data or aren’t listed at all.

Shells of the Hawaiian tree snail
Shells of the extinct Hawaiian tree snail via Wikimedia Commons

Take land snails. Land snails appear on the IUCN list less than some more popular taxa; understudied organisms like snails tend to lack data sufficient to assess their conservation status properly. To assess their status, Régnier and colleagues scoured the literature and consulted local experts regarding 200 land snail species. Despite the limitations, the researchers were able to cobble together enough data from existing studies on land snails to still draw reliable conclusions about their extinction risk.

The researchers analyzed all the available data on the snails, and assuming that snails can speak for the other under-represented species they got their number of extinctions. They ran computer models on the snail data. Accounting for the difficulty of proving extinction, and some minor discrepancies between the computer model and the expert review, the study concluded that 10% of land snails are probably extinct. Extropolating to all understudied invertebrates, combined with known extinctions, closer to 7% of known species on Earth had been driven extinct by 2015.

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If Régnier et al. are correct, then the one million species figure cited in the U.N. report is almost certainly too low. It also means that we have lost ecosystem functions that we might not even be aware of—the ecosystem as we know it might not even be functioning as it once did. Factor in even more obscure taxa, like bacteria, and the true extent of human modification to the globe is mind-boggling.

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The Delicate Science-Art of the Blaschka Invertebrate Collection

By The Editors

The Cornell Collection of Blaschka Invertebrate Models is like nothing else: a public collection of hundreds of strangely beautiful glass models of ocean creatures. Long used for educational purposes, these delicate objects are now digitally preserved for anyone to see. Collection curators Eveline V. Ferretti and Dr. Drew Harvell shared some background about the Blaschkas, who created the models, and the collection’s own fascinating history. We’ve included some of our favorite images here. You can click on the images to see them in greater detail or see the entire collection in Artstor’s Public Collection.

When I came to Cornell as Curator of Invertebrates, I launched an effort to restore the Blaschka collection and bring it back to Cornell for display and teaching. We wanted this collection to be public, because it shows an unusual and inspiring vision of the richness of ocean biodiversity. It also helps us communicate that the biodiversity of the oceans is as fragile as glass.

-Dr. Drew Harvell, Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University

Velella velella, By-The-Wind Sailor
Velella velella, By-The-Wind Sailor. Image courtesy Cornell University Library Digital Collections. Photo by Claire Smith

The nineteenth century saw an explosion of interest in the exploration of the natural world, resulting in growing numbers of zoological and natural history societies, which often established museums to garner more popular interest and support. Expeditions that investigated ‘new frontiers’—rugged tropical rainforests, the fossil record, the ocean depths—proved particularly sensational, and the findings they gathered were often put on museum display.

-Eveline V. Ferretti, Public Programs & Communication Administrator at the Mann Library / Cornell University Library

Pista cretacea, Spaghetti Worm
Pista cretacea, Spaghetti Worm. Image courtesy Cornell University Library Digital Collections. Photo by Claire Smith

Curators faced a problem with the display of invertebrate marine life, though—these were fragile and prone to disintegration once removed from their ocean environments. Leopold Blaschka (1822-1895) solved this problem for the curators of these new natural history museums by rendering fragile marine life creatures into glass. -EF

Eledone moschata, Musky Octopus
Eledone moschata, Musky Octopus. Image courtesy Cornell University Library Digital Collections. Photo by Claire Smith

In the mid-1800s, oceanography was in its very early infancy, not yet its own field of study.  The 1872-1876 HMS Challenger expedition yielded over fifteen volumes in detailed reports and illustrations, and was a source of significant inspiration to Leopold Blaschka. Drawing from illustrations made during his own 1853 trans-Atlantic voyage, as well as from illustrations by naturalists of the time, Leopold—and, later, his son Rudolf—proved more than able to translate these 2D images into 3D figures. In the hands of these exceptional glass-working masters, the medium proved extraordinarily suitable for creating scientifically precise and surprisingly life-like models, perfectly suited not only for display in museums but also for use as teaching models for a nascent science. -EF

Cyanea capillata, Lion's Mane Jellyfish
Cyanea capillata, Lion’s Mane Jellyfish. Image courtesy Cornell University Library Digital Collections. Photo by Claire Smith

It’s also conceivable that the HMS Challenger expedition helped expand the market for Leopold Blaschka’s invertebrate marine life models. As far as we know, there were no other glassblowers who produced the kinds of scientifically precise marine life models that the Blaschkas were known for—or if there were, their work didn’t make the cut for museum display or use by research institutions. -EF

Doto coronata, Crowned Doto
Doto coronata, Crowned Doto. Image courtesy Cornell University Library Digital Collections. Photo by Claire Smith

Blaschka worked with his son, thanks to an unprecedented combination of tradition, extraordinary talent, and opportunity.  Leopold Blaschka himself came from a glassblowing family. Originally, he made a living by producing lamps and glass eyeballs. A side hobby of creating glass flowers earned him some notice by aristocratic Dresden-based German collectors and museum curators, eventually earning him commission for more flowers and also—with the growing interest in ocean life noted above—marine creatures.

These commissions were so successful that Leopold soon devoted his workshop solely to that line of work. His son, Rudolf, shared his interest and talent—not to mention the good fortune of being trained by the very best in the craft. He joined his father’s thriving workshop and continue the work even after Leopold’s death.  The family glass-blowing lineage ended with Rudolf, as Rudolf did not have children of his own. But the tremendous Blaschka survives in the fabulous glass art (I’d like to call it “science-art”) that they left behind. -EF

Apolemia uvaria, String Jellyfish
Apolemia uvaria, String Jellyfish. Image courtesy Cornell University Library Digital Collections. Photo by Kent Loeffler

In the 1870s, the Rochester-based Henry Ward Science Establishment became the U.S. agent for the marketing of Blaschka models to American institutions. Cornell entomologist John Henry Comstock successfully proposed to Cornell’s co-founder and president Andrew Dixon White that Cornell acquire a teaching collection of Blaschka models. In 1882, White authorized the purchase of around 500 models to support teaching in marine zoology at Cornell. Professor Tom Eisner noticed in the early 1960’s that it was not cared for properly at Cornell and moved it to Corning Museum of Glass on loan and for safekeeping. Corning Museum of Glass has recently helped restore many models for display at Corning and Cornell. The models are very fragile and need a lot of cleaning and glasswork. -DH

Histioteuthis bonnellii, Umbrella Squid
Histioteuthis bonnellii, Umbrella Squid. Image courtesy Cornell University Library Digital Collections. Photo by Kent Loeffler

While researching my book A Sea of Glass: Searching for the Blaschka’s Fragile Legacy in an Ocean at Risk, I tried to find contemporary examples of the invertebrates that the Blaschkas recreated in glass, using them as a ‘living time capsule’ to see how much our oceans have changed in 150 years. I found that although some of the Blaschka matches in our contemporary oceans are rare or hard to find, others are very common. We have been able to confirm that most are at least present somewhere in our contemporary oceans. Some of these animals are from the Mediterranean and have suffered big declines in recent years. I want people to be astounded and inspired by the beauty of ocean spineless animals! -DH

Editors’ Note: Dr. Harvell’s book chapter “Octopus and Squid: Shape-Shifters under Pressure” is available here for free download! In this chapter, she describes her efforts to find a particular octopus, the visual match for the Blaschkas’ octopus model, in the wild. Dr. Harvell also writes about the unique qualities of cephalopods and what the Blaschkas’ glass models reveal. Thanks to University of California Press for giving us permission to share this chapter with our readers.

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The Military Response to Poaching

By James MacDonald

Poaching is always a violent business, and the casualties are sure to increase as poaching and the efforts to stop it are becoming more and more like a military conflict. Is this increasing militarization of conservation work a good idea? The issue is explored in a 2016 Conservation and Society article by Cape Research Centre General Manager Wendy Annecke and botanist Mmoto Masubele. They write that in South Africa, social media images of bloodied, dying, and orphaned rhinos led to loud calls for action. The response was to ask rangers to deploy military assets against poachers, including aircraft and tracking technology.

Masubele and Annecke point out that the military approach may net short/medium term gains—a decrease in the number of animals killed. But there is also potentially a long-term detriment, both for the anti-poaching personnel and for the poachers’ communities. Especially in countries where armed forces have been tools of violence under past regimes, military deployments often bring negative connotations and engender fear rather than cooperation between the local communities and the deployed military personnel. Long-term deployments are expensive and take a great psychological toll on personnel. Many rangers did not sign up to be soldiers, and most did not sign up to kill.

What’s more, violent responses to poaching may end up being counter-productive. Masubele and Annecke note that poachers tend to come from areas surrounding protected areas; if a poacher is killed, his family is forced into poverty and resentment. Any hope of cooperation between the communities is lost.

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According to Masubele and Annecke’s findings, military force in anti-poaching can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The vast sums of money at stake in the wildlife trade attract organized crime and cross-border militias. In many areas, weapons are readily available. So as anti-poaching ramps up its capabilities, poachers respond in kind, leading to a vicious cycle of violence. Ultimately, towns also become economically dependent on military installations.

It’s a knotty issue. Most agree that some law-enforcement response, even armed response, will be necessary to protect Africa’s wildlife. But escalation is a major risk. One possible model may be the unarmed but highly-effective Black Mambas, a majority female anti-rhino-poaching unit. According to the Black Mambas’ website, these 30+ South African women are working to help their communities “understand that the benefits are greater through rhino conservation rather than poaching, addressing the social and moral decay that is a product of the rhino poaching within their communities.” It’s an approach that seeks to net the same results as armed rangers, but without resorting to lethal force.

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Denmark Builds a Wild Boar Wall

By James MacDonald

Wild boar are making a comeback throughout Europe. This sounds like good news, but not everyone is happy. Denmark, concerned about disease threatening their pork industry, is constructing boar-proof fencing along almost their entire border with Germany to keep the wild pigs out. The Danish fence is highly controversial. Some fear the ecological impacts, while others fear the hostile image a fence presents. But there’s a deeper question: is the fence even necessary?

Interestingly, this very question was already considered back in 2006 by Néstor Fernández, Stephanie Kramer-Schadt, and Hans-Hermann Thulke. Writing in Ecology and Society, Fernández et al. considered how wild boar might be reintroduced successfully to Denmark without causing too much damage to pig farming. Their approach included a spatial analysis of Denmark, pointing out the most suitable boar habitat, where a small number of introduced individuals could multiply. They also highlighted areas where boars might risk contact with pig farms. Fortunately for the boars, while there are many pig farms, they are concentrated in certain areas. Fernández et al. identified several areas, mostly in the Jutland peninsula, where wild boar could be reintroduced to Denmark with suitable habitat and acceptable risk to pigs.

Even so, action would be required to manage boar populations while preventing disease exchange with domestic pigs. According to Hannes Geisser and Heinz-Ulrich Reyer in Journal of Wildlife Management, managing boar damage is easier said than done. (They’re focused on crop damage rather than preventing spread of disease, but many of the same issues still apply.) The two main methods for protecting crops, and presumably pig farms, from wild boar are fencing and culling of boar populations. Fencing, as it turns out, is usually not effective.

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What is effective, according to Geiser and Reyer, is hunting. But hunting is time-consuming, and even successful hunts have limited results given the high fecundity of the average wild boar sow. In some places, fences combined with hunting are successful. In general, though, Geiser and Reyer advocate for greater hunting effort, in addition to researching different harvest models and hunting techniques.

It is clear, unfortunately, that the reintroduction of wild boar will inevitably cause some damage to pig farming. It is also clear that the wild boar population will require heavy management and in most areas will never truly be wild. Even in the unlikely event that the fence works as advertised, the fence alone will probably not be sufficient to protect the pork industry or prevent culling of boar. According to Fernández et al., local residents are more likely to support boar reintroduction when the risks and benefits are properly explained. Approaching the boar issue as a manageable risk may ultimately be more effective than attempting to completely eliminate any risk.

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Coexisting With Crocodiles

By James MacDonald

Crocodiles, which have been in existence since before the dinosaurs, are the ultimate primordial predator. While some crocodile species are threatened, in many areas conservation efforts have been successful and crocodile populations are actually increasing. The increased numbers, however, mean more overlap with people. This has sometimes resulted in fatal attacks: In the Philippines, attacks on humans have been on the rise, gruesomely illustrated last November by a crocodile “spotted in the water with a human arm clasped in its jaws.” A local watchman said, “‘It was like he was showing off.'” Locals in the croc-infested area have been understandably on edge. Can the interests of an ancient predator be balanced with human populations?

One important step toward encouraging coexistence is understanding the risks. Researchers Yusuke Fukuda, Charlie Manolis, and Kristen Appel studied one of the most dangerous species, the Saltwater crocodile of tropical Australia and Southeast Asia. They found that as the human population of Northern Australia has grown, attacks have become more frequent. Unsurprisingly, attacks by larger crocodiles (~3-3.5 meters long) were rare, but more often fatal. Transient younger males, around two meters long, were most likely to disperse into populous areas. The slightly smaller crocs are more likely to be a problem, but they’re also less likely to kill you if they attack. Authorities can look out for crocs in that big-but-not-huge size range, and the best place to do that is in the transition zones before they enter a populated area. Informed management combined with public education has prevented a lot of conflict.

In Bhitarkanika, India, both the human and the crocodile populations have increased. High tides have proved to be dangerous times for both humans and livestock, as larger crocodiles come closer to populated areas. Degrading mangrove forests has also increased risks by improving people’s access into crocodile habitats. Fortunately, the circumstances suggest some ways to mitigate the problem. The crocodile population has been rebuilt by releasing captive-bred individuals; authorities can expand the release area to prevent over-concentrating croc populations. Restoration of mangroves, especially closer to villages, can discourage risky behavior such as grazing livestock near riverbanks.

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A final option, explored by Jan van der Ploeg, Robert R. Araño, and Merlijn van Weerd in the Philippines, is to aim for more tolerance. There’s no reasoning with crocodiles, but people can change their attitudes. Traditionally, conservationists have worked on ecotourism projects or other economic incentives to encourage crocodile conservation, but what happens when those projects are impractical or don’t provide enough revenue? After rebuilding numbers of the critically endangered Philippine crocodile through captive breeding, the government tried a test project to preserve them through appeals to cultural pride. As people in the study area transformed their views, they also ceased some of the most destructive fishing practices that damaged crocodile habitats. Deliberate culling meant to protect people has ended. Rules are enforced by local rangers.

As these experiences show, human/crocodile conflict can be managed. Perhaps the greatest challenge is in sub-Saharan Africa, where the Nile crocodile is responsible for extensive conflict. But clearly people and crocs can share, with careful management and responsible practices in place.

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