THE image above shows one of Japan’s most charismatic rarely seen residents as it glides through its Hokkaido habitat: Pteromys volans orii, a subspecies of the Siberian flying squirrel.
It the other squirrels below were captured by photographer Tony Wu, who spent several weeks in their snowy home during mating season. Siberian flying squirrels are hard to spot, this opportunity was mostly down to luck, says Wu, since the animals are nocturnal are usually high off the ground.
Like all flying squirrels, they don’t actually fly, but use the skin membranes between their forelimbs hindlimbs, called patagia, to glide from tree to tree. They can soar for some 50 metres – an impressive feat for an animal that only grows to be up to 23 centimetres long.
Below, a pair of squirrels peek out from the branches after foraging for food.
Hokkaido is the northernmost prefecture of Japan the only place in the country where this subspecies of Siberian flying squirrel is found. Further south, on the Honshu Kyushu islands, they have been replaced by the Japanese dwarf flying squirrel (Pteromys momonga).
Above, two males fight for the right to mate with a female. The image captures the moment when one male body-slammed the other off the tree, although Wu says the squirrel was able to glide to a safe landing.
CHISELLED, grey rock walls loom on all sides, brought to life by the faint beam of my headlamp. Tiny rivulets of groundwater form a tangle of silver threads around me. As I inhale, I smell the heavy scent of cold, damp, stale air, which clings to my face like an invisible cloth. Slowly, I drag my welly-clad feet along the seemingly endless dirt track towards the eye of the tunnel ahead the guts of the glacier.
I have never had much of a proclivity for caves, but here I was living in a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the Norwegian glacier Engabreen of the Svartisen ice cap. I spent two weeks here in the winter of 2006, coming to visit its tantalisingly named “subglacial laboratory”, where you could access the glacier bed thanks to tunnels originally bored through the mountain to tap the copious meltwater for hydroelectric power.
The laboratory was equipped with an ingenious means of getting to the inhospitable glacier bed. You would open up a shaft (with a door made of iron girders) to reveal the dirty, basal layer of the glacier topped by a translucent, 200-metre-thick mass of slowly moving ice then melt your way in with a hot-water drill. My reason for being there was a grhunt for microbial life one of its troublesome by-products, methane.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas: it has around 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over 20 years. Some of the places most notorious for its production are rice paddies, landfill sites, wetlands even the stomachs of cows, but, increasingly, it seems like glaciers could be hotspots too.
That is because one type of microbe that thrives in the oxygen-starved conditions beneath a glacier is a methanogen, or “methane maker”. Its carbon supply comes from ancient soils, lake sediments marine muds that were entombed by the glacier when it grew. Remarkably, some methanogens may be fed by hydrogen produced as the glacier grinds over its rocky base.
If it were possible to venture deep into the vast basins of sediment buried beneath ice sheets in geothermically active zones, we think you would find methane forming without the input of life through the slow heating of carbon in these sediments.
My toils beneath Engabreen enabled me to obtain mud from the glacier’s bed, which I added to our burgeoning collection sampled by chainsaw from the edges of other glaciers around the world. We recreated the glacier bed in the lab using simple experiments with glacial mud meltwater. Two years later, measurable biological methane had been produced in all glacier samples, save those from Engabreen. Here, there was just hard rock not enough carbon for microbes.
Since then, the evidence for glaciers as methane producers has exploded. In 2015, we found that rivers issuing from the margin of the Greenlice sheet were supersaturated with the gas. High concentrations have also been found in other glacier rivers, a subglacial lake in West Antarctica even the dirty layers of ice cores. In deep parts of ice sheets, we worry that methane might be stored in its solid form, methane hydrate. As climate change thins ice sheets, this could be released as gas.
Research by Norway’s Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment Climate indicates that this happened to methane beneath former European ice sheets around 10,000 years ago as they collapsed after the last glaciation. Might this occur to current ice sheets in a warming world?
The jury is still out on whether glacier methane is a whiff of something small or something world-changing for our climate, but, regardless, we need to find out if we are going to halt global warming.
A newly discovered species of ant from Ecuador has been named with the suffix “-they”, rather than a traditional gendered Latin suffix, to celebrate gender diversity.
The ant was discovered by Philipp Hoenle at the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany, in 2018. He sent a photograph to taxonomic expert Douglas Booher at Yale University, who recognised it as a new species in the genus Strumigenys.
In contrast to traditional species-naming practices, which only recognise one of two distinct genders with the suffixes “-ae” for women “-i” for men, Booher suggested using the gender non-binary identifier “they” instead, naming the ant Strumigenys ayersthey after artist human rights activist Jeremy Ayers.
Ayers was a protégé of Andy Warhol in the 1970s under the pseudonym of Silva Thinn. He died in 2016. “He identified as a gay man outside of his Warhol character, but I’m naming it after him with the suffix added to include all non-binary people for his activism,” says Booher.
Booher also asked Michael Stipe, the lead singer of the bR.E.M. a mutual friend with Ayers, to join him in writing the etymology section of the paper outlining the new species.
According to Booher, there are 853 species in the Strumigenys genus, but the new ant was immediately identifiable as unique. “It’s very different from any ant in the genus,” he says. “There’s a lot of convergent evolution, so a lot of species in different countries look alike but aren’t related. So it was a special ant I was waiting for something like this to represent gender diversity biological diversity.”
Asked whether he will use the -they suffix to name future new species, Booher says he will use a female, male or non-binary suffix depending on the wishes of the person the species is named after.
It’s a fish-eat-belemnite-eat-crustacean world. A pair of remarkably preserved fossils appear to record the aftermath of a dramatic confrontation in the prehistoric ocean, when one predator was in the middle of a meal only to be targeted by a bigger one.
“The fossil is amazing by itself” because of its state of preservation, says Christian Klug at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. But the remains tell a story that sheds light on who was eating who millions …
A species of yeast has weird sex. While most organisms use sex to reshuffle their genes create offspring that are genetically different from their parents, this one goes to extreme lengths to avoid recombining its DNA.
The yeast, called Saccharomycodes ludwigii, illustrates a problem that all sexually reproducing species face: while sex has evolutionary benefits, it also has costs. In some circumstances, reshuffling genes can produce individuals that can’t survive, so it is better not to do it too much. …