White noise could warn birds to avoid colliding with tall structures

To keep birds from smashing into tall structures, blare white noise in their direction

Markus Reder/Getty Images/EyeEm

Projecting white noise in the direction of oncoming birds could stop them from colliding with buildings or wind turbines.

Birds keep their heads down to streamline their bodies as they fly, says John Swaddle at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. So, visual cues may not be enough to warn them of oncoming structures. That is why billions of birds around the world, particularly those that migrate long distances, die in collisions with manufactured structures each year.

“Birds fly a bit like texting while driving,” says Swaddle. He his team used white noise at around 70 decibels – about as loud as a vacuum cleaner – to try to get their attention when they are near tall structures. “These acoustic stimuli are like someone honking at them, making them more aware of their surroundings,” he says.

The team used directional speakers around two communication towers along the Delmarva peninsula in Virginia, an area that millions of birds pass through going south during the North American autumn migration. The speakers were angled to only be heard by oncoming birds travelling from the north, cameras recorded the flight paths of birds within a 500-metre radius.

The team broadcast two sounds within the frequency range that most birds can hear, playing them for 30 minutes at a time with 30 minutes of silence between them over a total of 3 hours. One sound fell between 4 6 kilohertz, the other between 6 8 kilohertz. The team played these sounds for six days between September November 2019.

Compared with the periods of silence, bird activity decreased roughly 16 per cent around the towers when the 4-6 kilohertz sound was played, 12 per cent while the sound at 6-8 kilohertz played.

When birds flew within 100 metres of the tower, they were considered at risk for a collision. But the lower sound frequencies caused them to slow down more divert their trajectories further around the tower. Swaddle says this may be because birds hear frequencies between 4 6 kilohertz more clearly.

Swaddle says this suggests that certain frequencies of sounds may be more efficient at making birds aware of structures like communication towers wind turbines. “The technology is already out there to do this so the implementation shouldn’t be that difficult,” he says.

Journal reference: PLOS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0249826

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New species of ‘pumpkin toadlet’ poisonous frog found in Brazil

A tiny pumpkin toadlet crawls past a bright orange mushroom, a common feature of its habitat

Edelcio Muscat

Pumpkin toadlets are poisonous frogs with brilliant orange skin that are small enough to fit on a thumbnail – researchers have uncovered a new species of these vibrant amphibians.

Ivan Nunes at São Paulo State University in Brazil his colleagues suspected a local toadlet species (Brachycephalus ephippium) was more than it appeared to be. Unusually widespread for a pumpkin toadlet, the species was found throughout the south-eastern coastline of Brazil. The team suspected that the wide-ranging frogs were actually multiple species with smaller ranges.

Nunes his team collected wild toadlets from the Project Dacnis preserve near São Paulo, measuring comparing the physical features of 276 frogs. The team also made 76 field surveys between October 2018 September 2019 to study toadlet behaviour habitat use.

They also included museum specimens that were collected over a range of 200 kilometres. The team analysed DNA samples from 71 toadlets, recorded the mating calls of several males to see how they compared with those of close relatives.

Most pumpkin toadlet species are quite similar. They are exceptionally tiny frogs, among the smallest in the world at just over a centimetre long, often have bright, tangerine skin that secretes a powerful neurotoxin.

But the researchers found that a group of toadlets in the southern Mantiqueira mountains – a rugged, forested landscape with a diverse array of frogs found nowhere else – were distinct from their neighbours. They were smaller than B. ephippium, with faded black spots DNA that differed by about 3 per cent. These differences warranted classification as a new species: B. rotenbergae.

Like some other pumpkin toadlets, B. rotenbergae has bony plates on its skull back that are fluorescent glow through the skin under UV light. Nunes says it isn’t known what the fluorescent bones are for, but they might play a role in communication.

Jodi Rowley at the Australian Museum in Sydney says the discovery highlights how much we have to learn about frog biodiversity.

“Despite being amongst the most threatened groups of animals on the planet, we still have a rather terrible understanding of how many [frog] species we have,” says Rowley, who wasn’t involved in the research.

Nunes says B. rotenbergae enjoys relative protection in its preserved habitats in high elevations, but habitat loss is a potential threat.

“We have to pay attention to the expansion of urban areas in that area,” says Nunes, adding that the toadlets should be monitored to learn more about their reproduction feeding.

Journal reference: PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0244812

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The Deep-Sea Podcast review: The mind-boggling mysteries of the deep

Wolf eels can be found more than 200 metres below the ocean surface

Franco Banfi/naturepl.com

The Deep-Sea Podcast
Armatus Oceanic

IT IS hard to imagine what the deep sea actually looks like. There is practically no light in this lowest layer of the ocean, which starts at a depth of 1800 metres reaches almost 11,000 metres at its deepest-known point within the Mariana trench in the western Pacific Ocean. Hence nobody has actually seen the deep sea close up, meaning we typically rely on colourful depth maps created with acoustic techniques to visualise it.

Furthermore, it is hard to make sense of the sheer scale of what lies underwater. The Pacific Ocean covers almost half the planet, for example. Due to its intangible nature, inaccurate analogies are often used to describe the deep sea.

Alan Jamieson at the University of Newcastle, UK, is renowned for his journeys to the deepest parts of the ocean. He has teamed up with Thomas Linley, a deep-sea fish expert, to co-host a podcast that portrays the deep sea as it really is, but without removing any of the wonder. Every episode of The Deep-Sea Podcast delves into both important issues, such as whether deep-sea mining should be allowed to happen, more light-hearted angles, such as a Halloween special on why humans seem to intrinsically fear the deep sea.

The first instalment kicks off with one of Jamieson’s biggest bugbears: comparing the deep sea with the moon. It is often said that we know more about the moon’s surface than the deep sea, which he says is just plain wrong. “What other scientific discipline would start by saying how little they know about it?”

Jamieson thinks the analogy is unfair, firstly because the moon isn’t that big. The surface area of the Atlantic Ocean, for example, is almost three times larger than that of the moon. And while crewed missions to the moon have pretty much stopped, those to the deep sea have never ceased have even ramped up. “We know so much more about the deep sea now than we did five years ago or 10 years ago,” says Jamieson.

Each episode features an interview with a guest. Recent examples include director producer James Cameron, who chatted about deep-sea tech delved into the secrets of underwater lighting he learned while filming Titanic, as well as discussing ideas like walking on the seafloor by embedding consciousness in a robot.

The guests provide unique perspectives. For example, Alexandra Gould, a UK-based artist who accompanied scientists on a deep-sea expedition in 2019, sketched almost all the crew, as well as sea life moments that represented her interaction with the vessel when she was onboard. While marine biologists typically aim to analyse deep-sea creatures in detail, she says she prefers not to know too much about their biology as it can take away from the awe they inspire.

The Deep-Sea Podcast has many compelling moments, the hosts provide expertise on aspects of the field. However, episodes are quite long, often lasting more than hour, try to cover too much. They incorporate deep-sea news, for instance, which seems like it could merit its own podcast.

All in all, the show suggests that our relationship with the deep sea is becoming more complex. So far, it has been relatively untouched, apart from during scientific research. However, new ventures like deep-sea mining tourism could soon change that, with the first leisure trips taking place last year. “Vast amounts of the deep ocean haven’t even been looked at,” says Cameron. “It would be nice if we understood it before we destroy it.”

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Nature’s hardest-to-reproduce colours recreated in exhibition


Naturally Brilliant Colour, Kew Gardens, London

THESE beautiful, vibrant images are from a forthcoming exhibition exploring colour at Kew Gardens, London. The show highlights nature’s most brilliant hues, as well as the brightest human recreations of them.

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What we perceive as colour is normally the result of certain wavelengths of light being absorbed by the coloured molecules in pigments while others are reflected to our eyes. But some of the colours we see are created by light reflecting off microscopic colourless structures on animals plants. These are called structural colours.

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Mimicking this process could help industry to replace pigments that are hard to source ethically or sustainably.

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These images are from Lifescaped, the lab-studio of scientist-artist Andrew Parker. Lifescaped has reproduced structural colours in their most vivid form, using technology called Pure Structural Colour. This uses transparent materials to replicate colour-producing plant animal structures.

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The first image shows a kaleidoscope of glass coloured with Pure Structural Colour. The second is Developmental Flow, made using watercolour gouache, later digitally enhanced.

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The third forth images show dots of Pure Structural Colour on canvas, the iridescent feathers of taxidermied hummingbirds. The fifth sixth show rainbow-like abalone shells, lily flowers fluorescing under UV light.

Naturally Brilliant Colour opens at Kew Gardens on 17 May.

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Suzanne Simard interview: How I uncovered the hidden language of trees

First she discovered the wood wide web. Now Suzanne Simard has found that underground connections in a forest are like a brain that allows trees to form societies – look out for their kin


28 April 2021

An old-growth conifer forest in British Columbia, Canada

R. Tyler Gross/Getty Images/Cavan Images

Suzanne Simard was raised in the Monashee mountains in British Columbia, Canada. Her research, beginning with the discovery of the wood wide web, has transformed our understanding of forests. She is now a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia.

FEW scientists make much impact with their PhD thesis, but, in 1997, Suzanne Simard did just that. She had discovered that forest trees share trade food via fungal networks that connect their roots. Her research on “the wood wide web” made the cover of Nature. What was then a challenge to orthodox ideas is today widely accepted.

But Simard her colleagues continue to challenge our preconceptions of how plants interact. Among other things, their research shows that the wood wide web is like a brain can communicate information throughout the entire forest, that trees recognise their offspring nurture them that lessons learned from past experiences can be transmitted from old trees to young ones.

Simard calls herself a “forest detective”. Her childhood was spent in the woods of British Columbia, Canada, where her family had made a living as foresters for generations. As a young woman, she joined the family profession, but soon realised that modern forestry practices were threatening the survival of the ecosystem she loved. She knew that, when logged with a lighter touch, forests can heal themselves, she set out to discover how they are so naturally resilient. Along the way, her concern for the future of forests sparked an intense curiosity about what makes them tick. …

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