A passion for the natural world drives many of our adventures. And when we’re not outside, we love delving into the discoveries about the places we live and travel. Here are some of the best natural history links we’ve found this week.
Massive freshwater river underneath Antarctica: A discovery offers another explanation for the unprecedented pace at which Antarctic sea ice is melting.
Underneath the ice, there is a 460km freshwater river that flows three times faster than the river Thames. As the sea ice melts, more water joins the river.
“How much of the ice melts, and how quickly, is linked to how slippery the base of the ice is. The newly discovered river system could strongly influence this process,” natural scientist Martin Siegart explained.
Knowledge of the river will help scientists improve climate-change models for the Antarctic. Previously, there has been a disconnect between the rate of melting predicted by modeling and that observed in satellite imagery. Factoring in the effect of the river explains the disconnect.
Species on the edge
The wildlife poaching that is ignored: Conservation efforts tend to focus on charismatic megafauna. Less glamorous wildlife receives less attention.
Worldwide, wild goat and sheep populations are in decline. There are almost 40 species of these ungulates. Many live in mountains and are key species within their ecosystems. Unfortunately, people use their body parts in medical products and hunt them for meat and their pelts.
In visits to four wildlife markets in Myanmar, researchers found 1,041 products containing wild sheep or goat parts. They estimate that these consisted of 35 blue sheep, 93 gorals, 810 serow, and 90 takins.
“There’s this whole group of species that are getting completely wiped out, and there are no funds to step in and do anything about it,” says study co-author Chris Shepard.
Are crows the smartest animals of all? No one doubts that crows are highly intelligent. They can make rule-guided decisions, create and use tools, and seem to understand numbers.
It turns out that the birds have another skill, which scientists believed only humans possess. Crows understand recursion. Recursion is the linguistic process of using one phrase within another, for example, “the mouse the cat chased ran”. The phrase “the cat chased” is enclosed within the larger statement. It is a key feature that separates human communication from other animals.
Researchers taught crows to peck the central phrase in a recursive sentence. The birds succeeded 40% of the time. This is on par with children and better than monkeys.
Frozen bacteria escapes ice
Microbes released by melting glaciers: As glaciers melt, they release huge volumes of water into our oceans and waterways. New research confirms that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of bacteria, encased in the melting ice, are also freed.
The ice is a unique microbial ecosystem, and researchers are rushing to study it before it disappears. Some of the microbes could have positive impacts, such as fertilizing ecosystems, but many could be harmful pathogens.
Researchers have collected surface meltwater from eight sites across Europe, North America, and Greenland. In each millimetre of water, there were tens of thousands of microbes.
“We don’t have enough data to understand the value and the threat of these organisms,” researcher Arwyn Edwards said.
Hundreds of new mummies: On the 100th anniversary of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, archeologists have discovered hundreds of tombs and mummies in Giza.
Within walking distance of King Tut’s tomb, experts discovered a previously unknown pyramid belonging to an ancient Egyptian queen. They found mummies, 300 coffins, and several connecting tunnels. The mummies are the remains of King Tut’s generals and advisors.
Each coffin is unique, decorated with faces, names, and scenes from an Egyptian funeral text. The mummies are expertly preserved and show “that mummification reached its peak in the New Kingdom,” Egyptologist Zahi Hawass said. The New Kingdom ranged from the 16th to the 11th centuries BC. The dig adds a new queen, Neith, to our historical records.
Rare bird rediscovered: The black-naped pheasant-pigeon seemingly went extinct 140 years ago. Now, after a gargantuan effort, conservationists have rediscovered the bird on Fergusson Island, in Papua New Guinea.
Researchers undertook extensive interviews with locals, used camera traps, and had to avoid local pirates while trying to find the bird. Expedition leader John Mittermeier said it “felt like finding a unicorn”.
Two camera traps caught footage of the bird. They hope that finding the black-naped pheasant-pigeon will reignite conservation efforts for the species.
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