Amusing Monday: A slime mold named ‘Blob’ becomes a hit in Paris

A zoo in Paris, Parc Zoologique Paris, captured headlines and incited fits of laughter while announcing a new exhibit called “The Blob,” which is also the name of a particular slime mold that zookeepers have boldly placed on display for the public to see.

Yes, the zoo is proudly showing off a yellow slime mold, whose name is causing people to remember a 1950s horror movie, “The Blob,” starring Steve McQueen. The zoo’s website has stirred up passions and attracted visitors with this promotion:

“Sheltered in dark and humid habitats, Blob knows how to be discreet. This unicellular being is surprising by its unusual abilities. Even though he has no mouth, stomach or eyes, he is perfectly able to detect the presence of food (spores of fungi, bacteria and microbes) and to ingest it.

“Devoid of legs or wings, it moves up to 1 centimeter per hour while stretching its membrane. Cut it into pieces, the blob will heal in two minutes! He does not have two different sexes, but around 720, so reproduction is not a problem for him.

“The most amazing is his ability to solve problems, present different personalities, and even communicate, while being devoid of brains!”

You may have seen reports on television (videos this page) or heard NPR commentator Scott Simon’s interview Saturday with Audrey Dussutour of the French National Center for Scientific Research.

“If it were right in front of me on the bathroom floor, what would it look like?” Scott asks.

“Scrambled eggs; it would look exactly like scrambled eggs,” came the reply.

“Oh, but don’t mistake it for such,” Scott says, “This blob has been called a genius. What makes a blob with no brain a genius?”

The answer is based on years of scientific research into this eukaryotic organism called Physarum polycephalum, “the many headed slime.” Once considered a fungus, slime molds are not plants, animals or fungi but are grouped in the kingdom Protista, along with paramecia and amoebae.

Years ago, scientists realized that slime molds have a way of growing and moving to optimize their access to food sources. They can even find their way through a maze. Because slime molds don’t have a brain, their decisions are based on chemistry and physics. As researchers learned more about them, they came to realize that if the movements of the Blob can be explained mathematically, they might form the basis of a computer program.

In 2004, a group of Japanese researchers described how the slime mold was able to build a network of tubes through which chemicals and nutrients are transported, resulting in an impressive communications network. See Proceedings of the Royal Society – Biological Sciences.

Two years ago, a team of researchers based at Harvard University were able to simulate the observed responses of a slime mold with a mathematical model. Their hypothesis was that an unidentified chemical drives the response.

As they describe in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, ““A stimulus triggers the release of a signaling molecule. The molecule is initially advected by fluid flows but also increases fluid flows, generating a feedback loop and enabling the movement of information throughout the organism’s body.”

If you were wondering about the 720 different sexes, that is based on the large number of variants of three possible sex genes, with two genes making up an individual. Many combinations are possible. Check out the paper on genetics by two University of Tokyo researchers.

By the way, researchers have been referring to slime molds as “blobs” or “goo” for at least a decade, probably much longer. Basic information about these interesting creatures and how they are being studied can be seen in the bottom two videos on this page.

Most interesting of all perhaps is the video at this top of this page, which I found while searching for research on slime molds. It is a musical piece by Eduardo Miranda produced through the sonification of a slime mold as it searches for food.

I can’t say I understand all the steps taken to produce the music or the visualization that we see on the video, but you can read the 17-page paper written on the subject, including this tidbit:

“The instrumental part and the synthesized sounds are musifications and sonifications, respectively, of a computer simulation of Physarum goo foraging for food. A visual animation of the simulation that generated the materials for the composition is displayed during the performance, but the images are twisted by the musicians as they play: The music controls software that manipulates the animations in real-time. Each instrument holds a microphone, which relays the sound to a system that controls the images.”

Perhaps it is better to just enjoy the music.

After all the recent talk about slime molds, some people are wondering if the Blob would make a good pet. Sure, why not? An Internet search turns up a variety of do-it-yourself projects, and I even found a “Slime Mold Growing Kit” designed for classroom use.

Audubon warns that bird species are threatened by changing climate

Birds in Kitsap County and across the globe are telling us that the world is changing — and rarely in ways that benefit our avian friends.

Loss of habitat is affecting even our most common birds, according to a study published this month in the journal Science. Bird populations across North America have dropped by nearly 3 billion since 1970, a decline of 29 percent, the study says. Writer Rachael Lallensack of Smithsonian magazine does a good job putting the issue into perspective.

Coming on the heels of that abundance study is a forward-looking report by the National Audubon Society that focuses on the future of bird species, particularly with respect to climate change.

“Two-thirds of America’s birds are threatened with extinction from climate change,” said National Audubon President David Yarnold in a news release, “but keeping global temperatures down will help up to 76 percent of them.”

The Audubon report, called “Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink” (PDF 3.9 mb), holds out hope, Yarnold said, “but first it’ll break your heart if you care about birds and what they tell us about the ecosystems we share with them. It’s a bird emergency.”

Being relatively mobile creatures, birds are good indicators of habitat changes, as they generally move north to seek temperatures suitable for their kind. They may find their new habitats already occupied, squeezed by space or not quite as conducive to reproductive success, given the stresses they face. The result is often a shrinking of their overall range.

“We never saw California scrub jays this far north,” said Gene Bullock, president of Kitsap Audubon Society. “Now they are nesting all along our coasts.

“We never saw Anna’s hummingbirds in the winter,” he added. “Now they are coming to winter feeders as far north as Cordova, Alaska.”

On the other hand, Gene told me, birds such as common nighthawks — identified by their nightly calls of “peent … peent … peent” as they move about — are largely gone from the Kitsap Peninsula.

The new report shows photographs of 22 “highly vulnerable species” for most of Kitsap County, 50 “moderate vulnerable speces,” 29 “low vulnerable species” and 37 “stable species.” The Rufus hummingbird, for example, is expected to disappear from the lowlands of Puget Sound as it loses 39 percent of its range in Western Washington and Western Oregon while increasing its range by 26 percent in Northern British Columbia, Canada. That’s under the best climate scenario that we can hope for at this point.

Adding to the climate-change problems for birds is the loss of forests to development throughout the Puget Sound region, Gene said. A decline in insect populations — in part because of pesticides — constrains the populations of some birds, while a dwindling number of forage fish constrains others.

“Audubon scientists are showing us pretty clearly that habitat loss is huge,” Gene said, “but in the long run climate change will be the number-one culprit as the ranges of birds continue to shrink. It’s affecting all of our species across the board.”

Brooke Bateman, senior climate scientist for National Audubon, led the study of climate-related effects, including sea level rise, urbanization, cropland expansion, drought, extreme spring heat, fire weather and heavy rain. The scientists examined 140 million bird records, including observational data from amateur bird watchers as well as professional field biologists.

“Birds are important indicator species, because if an ecosystem is broken for birds, it is or soon will be for people too,” she said. “When I was a child, my grandmother introduced me to the common loons that lived on the lake at my grandparent’s home in Northern Wisconsin. Those loons are what drive my work today, and I can’t imagine them leaving the U.S. entirely in summer — but that’s what we’re facing if trends continue.”

To help people understand the potential effects on birds where they live, Audubon experts created a zip-code-based tool call “Birds and Climate Visualizer.” The result is a listing of vulnerable species based on location and whether the temperature rises by 1.5, 2 or 3 degrees Celsius. Without major change, the temperature is certain to rise by 1.5 degrees by 2050, expert say.

The Audubon website also includes a report for each state. The Brief for Washington (PDF 4.2 mb), for example, predicts a major shakeup in the state’s biological communities. Changing the plants that will grow in a particular place changes the diversity of wildlife, including birds.

“By the end of the century under a 3-degree C (5.4-degree F) global warming scenario, approximately 30 percent of the state of Washington will transition to a different biome,” the brief states. “At present, the largest biome in the state is conifer forest, covering 59 percent of the state. By the end of the century, conifer forest will cover approximately 46 percent of the state.”

The report ends on a note of optimism: “We have the ability to reverse the direction of this massive threat. We can adapt, improve, and innovate; we can protect birds, the planet, and ourselves. We can power our cars, homes, cities, factories, farms, communities and economy with clean energy —without contributing to climate change.”

While striving to reduce climate change, people can take steps to improve the resilience of habitats, so that changes occur more slowly and birds have a chance to survive. Restoring coastal wetlands, for example, can provide refuge for birds as sea-level rise wipes out nesting areas. Cleaning up pollution and protecting floodplains can help birds adapt to increasing drought and extreme rain events, according to the report.

Gene Bullock, who has been involved in Kitsap Audubon for more than 15 years, says he has never seen stronger support for the organization, which is growing in membership and financial strength. Thanks to generous donations, Kitsap Audubon is playing an important role in preserving habitats throughout Kitsap County, including the Kitsap Forest and Bay Project (PDF 1.5 mb).

I expected Gene to tell me that concerns about climate change have become a central part of everything that Kitsap Audubon does — but that’s not the case. Aside from specific presentations and discussions about the threats to birds, the organization remains focused on learning about birds, watching them in the wild and having fun with fellow bird-watchers.

Monthly educational programs and field trips near and far are mainstays of the organization. Check out the Kitsap Audubon Society website and “The Kingfisher,” the monthly newsletter of Kitsap Audubon.

Gene says his organization is environmentally oriented, but members also realize that there is a risk from the “Chicken Little syndrome.”

“People are tired of hearing about apocalyptic gloom and doom,” he said. “You have to offer them hope and point the way to things they can do to help — and there are a lot of things you can do in your own backyard.”

To help birds in your neighborhood, he suggests that people stop using toxic chemicals, keep bird feeders clean, use decals to reduce window strikes and keep cats indoors.

In terms of climate change, the National Audubon Society makes these suggestions:

  • Reduce your use of energy, and ask elected officials to support energy-saving policies.
  • Ask elected officials to expand clean energy development, such as solar and wind power.
  • Encourage innovative and economic solutions to reduce carbon pollution, such as a fee on carbon in fuels and specific clean-energy standards for appliances and other devices.
  • Advocate for natural solutions, such as increasing wetlands and protecting forests and grasslands, which provide homes for birds. Grow native plants on your own property.

Amusing Monday: Pacific Research Expedition shown live on video

Deep-sea corals and sponges are the focus of an intense research program now exploring the seabed along the West Coast. Live video from the bottom of the ocean can be viewed via the research ship Reuben Lasker, owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

I’ve posted the two primary video feeds on this page, or you can link to the video pages associated with the 29-day expedition, which began a week ago and will continue until Nov. 7. Previous video recordings are often shown when live video is not available.

The research cruise is exploring the seabed off the Washington, Oregon and California coasts, as shown in the map below. Researchers are using Yogi, a tethered remotely operated vehicle (ROV), as well as SeaBED, an untethered autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), to collect samples of corals and sponges and observe changes in previously surveyed sites.

“Recent advances in deep-ocean exploration have revealed spectacular coral gardens in the dark ocean depths, far from the sunny, shallow reefs most of us associate with corals,” states a description of the mission. “Similar explorations have revealed new and familiar species thriving where we once expected little activity.”

Proceeding from north to south, the sites to be surveyed (green dots) are Willapa Canyon head, North Daisy Bank, Sponge bycatch Oregon shell, Brush Patch, Humboldt and Mad River, and Mendocino Ridge before a layover Oct. 19-22, followed by Cordell Bank/Farallones, Cabrillo Canyon, West of Carmel Canyon, Monterey Bay, wind site, Santa Lucia Bank, Channel Islands and Catalina Basin.

One goal is to characterize habitats at 12 specific sites along the West Coast. That information could help the Pacific Fishery Management Council modify fishing regulations while protecting essential fish habitat. Survey data may also suggest feasible locations — and locations to avoid — when developing offshore wind power and other energy projects.

The expedition is a collaboration of NOAA, the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). The expedition consists of two legs: from the Washington Coast to San Francisco, where a public event will be held at the Exploratorium Museum, followed by the second leg from San Francisco to San Diego.

“With every survey I’ve been a part of there’s a frantic flurry of last-minute logistics getting the expedition together and loading the ship,” Elizabeth Clarke, co-leader of the voyage, said in a news release. “Once we start the expedition, however, things settle down and we start each day excited, wondering what new discoveries we will find.”

As of today (Monday, Oct. 14), poor weather conditions had delayed activities on the bottom since last night. “We are looking to get back in the water tomorrow (10/14) evening, weather permitting,” states last night’s Twitter feed, @Discover_GFOE, which is the best way of keeping track of the voyage. You can also use Twitter #expresscruise.

Additional information:

Chum fishing closed in San Juans but opens soon elsewhere in P. Sound

Commercial fishing for chum salmon has been called off this year in the San Juan Islands, but that does not necessarily mean low numbers of chum will be returning to Puget Sound, experts say.

It will be interesting this year to see how the southern resident orcas respond to the movements of chum — the whales’ second choice after Chinook salmon. And, as always, chum salmon provide Puget Sound residents the best chance of observing salmon in the wild.

The San Juan closure is mandated under the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada whenever the number of chum coming through Johnstone Strait is estimated to be less than 1 million fish. This year marks the first closure since this particular treaty provision was put in place a decade ago.

The estimate of chum abundance, based on test fishing along Vancouver Island’s inside passage, is not a direct indicator of how many chum will make it back to streams in Puget Sound, said Aaron Default, salmon policy analyst with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Many of the fish in the Johnstone Strait test fishery are headed for Canada’s Fraser River, he noted.

Chum salmon are important to commercial fishers, and this year’s closure in the San Juans could affect the bank accounts of those who had planned to get an early start on the chum fishery, Aaron told me.

“I would say this is a real concern,” Aaron said. “Reef net fishermen, for example, actively fish for chum as well as sockeye and pinks.”

Gillnet and purse seine boats that don’t make the trip to Alaska often get in on the fishing in Areas 7 and 7A of the San Juans, especially in years when the chum runs are strong.

To the south, in Puget Sound and Hood Canal, commercial fishing is scheduled to begin next week — and it won’t be long before the rest of us can visit our local streams to marvel at the annual migration and maybe catch a glimpse of spawning activities.

The year’s first test fishery for chum runs to Central and South Puget Sound was held this week near Kingston. The operation caught 169 chum, compared to a recent 10-year average of 760 chum for the first week, Aaron reported. While that number is low, it won’t be used as an indicator of abundance for at least a couple more weeks, because it could just mean that the run is later than usual, he said.

State and tribal salmon managers predicted a chum run of 444,000 fish this year in Central and South Puget Sound, compared to a 10-year average of about 527,000. Fishing schedules were based on the forecast of 444,000, but fishing times could be adjusted if chum numbers are lower or higher than that.

In Hood Canal, the run size of 518,000 chum is well below the 10-year average of about 750,000. But that 10-year average is a little misleading, because it contains two extraordinary years: 2013 with a return of 1.4 million chum, and 2017 with just over 1 million, Aaron explained. If we exclude those two years, Hood Canal’s fall return this year should be fairly typical.

Nest week’s opening of commercial fishing in Puget Sound and Hood Canal allows nontribal purse seiners to fish on Wednesday and gillnetters to follow on Thursday. Typically, we see a lot of purse seiners lining up south of the Hood Canal bridge for the first day of fishing, and this year should be no exception. For commercial fishing openings, one can check the WDFW Fishing Hotline online, or call (360) 902-2500.

The fishing closure in the San Juan Islands is likely to remain, although salmon managers will reassess conditions on or before Oct. 22, using information from the Albion test fishery near the Fraser River. By then, many of the chum will have already moved through the San Juan Islands on their way to their home streams.

As the chum runs arrive in Central and South Puget Sound, our southern resident orcas are likely to make more treks into these regions, intercepting chum salmon returning to streams along the east side of the Kitsap Peninsula and inside Sinclair and Dyes inlets. The orcas spent about two weeks in Central and North Puget Sound during September, but then headed back to sea. In good years, the whales will venture past the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to hunt chum that are headed to streams as far south as Olympia.

The endangered southern residents now number 73 and their population has reached a critical stage. The Southern Resident Orca Task Force has made recommendations for restoring the orca population, with a primary goal of increasing their food supply.

For humans, we are now approaching prime salmon-viewing season. For years, I have encouraged people to visit our local streams to observe the end of a journey that has taken these fish thousands of miles as they prepare to produce a new generation of chum. Please approach the stream slowly and avoid disturbing the water out of respect for the salmon and to give yourself a chance to observe spawning behavior.

The Kitsap Sun still maintains a map with videos showing some of the best places on the Kitsap Peninsula to view salmon. Some of the videos are out of date, and this year Kitsap County’s Salmon Park near Chico is closed for construction of a new bridge across Chico Creek. Still, the map shows many places to view salmon — including places on this year’s Kitsap Salmon Tours.

Eight places will be featured on this year’s Kitsap Salmon Tours on Saturday, Nov. 9. This annual event, sponsored by WSU Kitsap Extension, is fun and informative for the entire family.

Erlands Point Preserve won’t have a salmon-viewing platform, as I reported in Water Ways Aug. 23, because beavers built a dam that flooded the proposed viewing site. Nevertheless, the preserve will be the place to visit informational booths, learn about salmon and enjoy some refreshments.

Details on each of the sites on the tour can be found on the Kitsap Salmon Tours website, including these additional outings with knowledgeable guides:

  • Nov. 13, 10 a.m. to noon, at Jarstad Park on Gorst Creek,
  • Nov. 13, 11 a.m. to noon, at Poulsbo’s Fish Park on Dogfish Creek,
  • Nov. 14, noon to 1 p.m., at Poulsbo’s Fish Park on Dogfish Creek and
  • Nov. 17, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Salmon Haven on Dickerson Creek.

Amusing Monday: Costumes for people who wish to be sea creatures

I’m not sure if costume parties are as popular today as they once were, but costume makers have never been more creative. Given the theme of this blog, I decided to see what kind of costumes are available for people who wish to be a creature from the sea.

With concerns running high for our southern resident killer whales, I wondered if anyone might have an orca costume for sale. An Internet search turned up an amazing variety of costumes to fit people of any size.

 


 

 

In the picture above, we have a lightweight mascot costume from Amazon Fashion, a sleeveless adult costume from Walmart, a “sexy” orca costume from Sale Lolita, and an infant costume from Amazon Fashion.

 


 
 
There are many, many more orca costumes, as you can find with an image search for “killer whale costume” or “orca costume.” One costume, from Wonder Child, gives the appearance of a child riding on an orca. Others allow you to dress up in just a hat, as in the middle photo and the right photo above, both from Amazon.

When I think of a sea creature costume for Halloween, my first thought is the Creature from the Black Lagoon from the 1954 movie starring Richard Carlson and Julia Adams with the creature played by Ben Chapman on land and Ricou Browning underwater, according to Wikipedia. The movie was filmed in 3-D, but I remember watching the film — or at least clips — on a home movie projector without sound. I can’t tell you what the story is about, but I guess that doesn’t matter. The costume has been worn for years, and it makes for a good conversation piece. The costume at right is from Wholesale Halloween Costumes.

Other adult costumes include a seahorse, a penguin and a hammerhead shark, all from Spirit Halloween.

For babies, the list of manufactured costumes goes on and on, adding up to endless cuteness, even if we are talking about sea creatures. How about this octopus costume from Oriental Trading Co. The jumpsuit with extra tentacles attached and a matching headpiece “is sure to make your child’s Halloween one unforgettable night,” states the website.

One can also dress up the youngster to pay tribute to the late Dr. Seuss, author of “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” Check out the “baby blue fish bunting” and the “baby red fish bunting” and other fish costumes on the Spirit Halloween website.

Dr. Seuss, whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel, wrote numerous whimsical books for children. “One Fish, Two Fish …” has been described in many ways — including a lovely children’s classic, a deeply confusing fantasy, an instructive story about human differences and a twisted satire about World War II and the Holocaust. Check out several essays about the book on an instructive website for teachers by Corbett Harrison.

 

 
 

I never would have guessed that there are so many costumes related to sea creatures, and I didn’t even consider all the mermaids, pirates and divers that can add to a night of fantasy for young and old alike.

In Hansville, September rainfall was highest in 30 years of records

September was a record-setting month for rainfall in Hansville in North Kitsap, but not for the rest of the Kitsap Peninsula, which overall still received lots of rain. This demonstrates again how different one part of our region is from another — and how Kitsap County is a world apart from the rest of the Puget Sound region.

As we close out Water Year 2019, we can see from the charts that that the annual rainfall (blue line) was below average (pink line), but September rains nearly pushed Hansville up to the average mark.

Hansville had a total of 3.56 inches of rainfall in September, according to data maintained by the Kitsap Public Utility District. That’s more rain than any other September going back to 1990, when the KPUD records begin. The second-highest September rainfall was in 2013, with 2.88 inches.

In Silverdale, the monthly total was 2.71 inches of precipitation. Typically, Silverdale gets more rain than Hansville. In fact, the median average for Silverdale in September is 25 percent higher — 1.0 inch, compared to Hansville’s 0.8 inch.

But if you’re talking about records for Silverdale, you need to go back to 2013, when 6.8 inches of rain fell in September. That’s far more than any other year going back to 1991. In 1997, 5.4 inches fell on Silverdale in September, but no other year had even 3 inches.

In fact, the month of September 2013 was reported as “one for the record books” in a Kitsap Sun story at the time. Reporter Brynn Grimley said rainfall Sept. 28-29, 2013, was 2.2 inches in one day — the most since 1899. The storm also brought winds that knocked down trees and power lines, Brynn reported.

The year 2013 set rainfall records throughout most of Kitsap County.

Holly, which typically gets some of the heaviest rainfalls on the peninsula, received 5.4 inches this past September. That is a lot, considering that September is typically fairly dry, but it is nowhere near the record of 9.6 inches set for Holly in 2013. The median average there is 1.5 inches in September.

We have to recognize that we are limited to a 30-year period when talking about records in the KPUD database, but it’s still worth discussing. Bellingham, where the records go back to 1949, set a new rainfall high last month with 4.73 inches of precipitation, just above the old record of 4.71 inches for September 1969, according to the National Weather Service’s Twitter feed.

In September, Western Washington and much of the Northwest experienced at least twice the normal rainfall, while dry weather was seen over much of the East.

So September was indeed a wet month on the Kitsap Peninsula and other places in the Puget Sound region. For Water Year 2019 as a whole, however, we did not reach the annual average. Hansville received a total of 29.4 inches, compared to a median average of 30.7 inches. Silverdale received 37.2 inches, compared to a median average of 42.8. And Holly received 68.5 inches, compared to a median average of 79.2.

While Western Washington and much of the Northwest experienced at least twice the normal rainfall in September, much of the country was fairly dry. By next week, most of the eastern portion of the country will get some rain, predicts Brad Rippey, meteorologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Heavy rain may occur across the upper Midwest, where some rivers are already running high, he said.

Cooler-than-normal conditions with above-normal precipitation are expected to continue from the Northwest into Montana during the Oct. 8-12 time period, while large sections of the Plains, Southwest, Midwest and mid-South undergo drier-then-normal conditions, according to the forecast (PDF 5.7 mb) in the “USDA Water and Climate Update.”

Amusing Monday: Wildlife caught in the act of being humorous

Forty finalists have been named in the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards, which features a variety of animals looking and acting funny — or at least it seems that way from a human perspective.

“He’s right behind me… isn’t he?” Tiger shark, Tiger Beach, Bahamas
© Anthony N Petrovich / Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2019

Take a look at the 40 finalists and vote on your favorite if you are inclined. The picture getting the most votes will receive the People’s Choice Award. I thought readers might like to participate in the voting, which is why I’m letting you know of these awards at the finalist stage and not after the winners are announced. Deadline for voting is Oct. 20.

Now in its fifth year, the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards is the inspiration of professional photographers Paul Joynson-Hicks and Tom Sullam, originally from Great Britain, now living in Tanzania. For previous finalists and winners, visit the Gallery page.

“Family disagreement,” Croatia
© Viado-Pirsa / Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2019

“Every year we do this competition, it gets more and more exciting seeing how people visualize the funny sides of wildlife in the wild,” said Joynson-Hicks in a news release. “And each year we see a wider variety of species doing funny things — whether it’s a very naughty penguin (which had my kids rolling around the floor in hysterics) or dancing lions, a chillin’ chimp or even bee-eaters having a shouting match. (They’re hysterical!)

“To be or not to be…” Snow monkey, Japan
© Txema Garcia / Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2019

“Of course, the other aspect of our funny competition is letting people know what they can do at home to be conservationists,” he added. “Our planet is in distress; we all know that. Now we just need to know what to do. Hopefully, we can provide a few small tips to get people started.”

The conservation message, featured on the competition’s website, focuses on these three ideas:

  1. Shop responsibly
  2. Use water carefully
  3. Become a “wildlife influencer”
“Chest Bump,” King penguin amd Antarctic fur seal, South Georgia Island
© Tom Mangelsen / Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2019

In addition to Paul and Tom, the judges for the contest are Kate Humble, wildlife TV presenter and writer; Hugh Dennis, actor and comedian; Will Burrard-Lucas, wildlife photographer; Andrew Skirrow, co-counder of Amazing Internet; Simon Pollock, photographer; Will Travers, wildlife expert and co-founder of the Born Free Foundation; Ashley Hewson, managing director of Affinity photography and graphic design; Oliver Smith, online travel editor for “The Telegraph;” Bella Lack, a “next generation” conservationist; Celina Dunlop, lead photo editor for “The Economist;” and Henrik Tanabe, marketing manager for Olympus Nordic optical company.

“Rhino Warning! Territory marking, follow at your own risk.” White rhino and egret, Nairobi NP, Kenya
© Tilakra Nagaraj / Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2019

Although the competition has a British orientation, these are photos that can make anyone smile.

Winners will be announced on Nov. 13, so return to the contest page at that time if you are interested in seeing how your favorite photos fared. Books of photos from the completion are available on the website as well as on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers.

Sponsors and partners include the Born Free Foundation, Affinity photo, Amazing Internet, Think Tank, Alex Walker’s Serian, Spectrum Photo and Olympus Nordic.

Spring Chinook take on high flows because of ‘early-migration gene’

It’s a bit mind-boggling to think that a single, tiny fragment of genetic material determines whether a Chinook salmon chooses to return to its home stream in the spring or the fall.

Photo: Ingrid Taylar (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/dmbyre

I’ve been following the scientific discoveries about spring chinook since 2017, when Mike Miller’s lab at the University of California, Davis, published research findings showing the location of this “early-migration gene” on chromosome 28.

In a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, I wrote about some of the latest discoveries surrounding spring Chinook. I also thought it worthwhile to describe the importance of these fish to the ecosystem and to the native people of the Puget Sound region.

Up until the past two years, I never gave much thought to spring Chinook, nor apparently have most people, including many biologists. These are the salmon that often struggle to reach the upper reaches of the rivers when the streams are swollen with spring snowmelt. Much of these upper spawning grounds have been destroyed by human activity, and more than half the spring chinook runs in Puget Sound have gone extinct.

The more I learned about spring Chinook the more fascinated I became. The southern resident killer whales used to arrive in Puget Sound in April or May to feast on spring Chinook from Canada’s Fraser River, but those salmon runs have declined along with many fall runs of chinook. The result is a major change in behavior and migration patterns by the whales.

Spring Chinook were at one time an important food for bears coming out of hibernation, for eagles who had scavenged for food through the winter, and for native people who looked forward to fresh fish after a season of dried foods.

As I researched this story, I learned about the history of spring Chinook in the Skokomish River of southern Hood Canal and how a once-plentiful fish became extinct. I was pleased to describe the success of current efforts to create a new run of spring Chinook with the help of a hatchery in the North Fork of the Skokomish, where adult spawners are showing up nearly a century after the fish disappeared.

Spring Chinook in Salmon River, California
Photo: Peter Bohler, via UC Davis

Genetics is a fascinating field, and advances are coming rapidly in the studies of many species, including humans. The idea that a single gene can completely change the migration timing of a Chinook by four months raises many scientific and legal questions — including whether spring Chinook should get their own protection under the Endangered Species Act. As things stand now, Chinook salmon in Puget Sound — both spring and fall together — are listed as threatened under the ESA. But that could change as things shake out with the ESA in Oregon and California.

Ongoing genetic studies — including those involving various salmon species — are causing biologists and legal experts to re-examine the criteria for listing populations as threatened or endangered, as they teeter on the edge of extinction. No matter what the extinction risk is judged to be, spring Chinook are now recognized as something very special.

New app allows people to report problems to local Kitsap agencies

Over the past few months, I’ve called 911 to report dead animals on the roadway, a downed road sign that warns drivers of a curve, and an old car that had been abandoned.

I’m not sure I should be calling an emergency line for non-emergency issues, but the dispatchers never complain. They take the needed information and tell me they will report the problem. Most of the time they ask if I would like to receive a phone call when the problem gets fixed. That would be nice, I say, but I can’t remember ever getting a call back.

Recently, Kitsap County launched a new mobile phone app called “SeeClickFix,” which allows GPS to report the location, and you can take a picture of the problem and include whatever information you think is needed. The information is sent rapidly to Kitsap1, the county’s customer-service system, which then forwards it to the right people.

In the app, you click a box to identify the problems, which can include potholes, flooding and drainage issues, graffiti, overgrowth onto roadways or view issues, illegal dumping, noxious weeds, burned-out street lights and illegal burning, among many others.

The app with its backend operating system is used by dozens of cities and counties around the country, including SeaTac in Washington state. You can download the app from the App Store and other sites. A browser version for a laptop or desktop computer is also available.

“This really helps residents process requests,” said Jamie Linville, supervisor for Kitsap1. “They get real time updates on the app, engage in their community and can report problems anywhere in the County.

“This helps ensure we get accurate data in the initial request, which helps us get the request routed to the correct agency,” she said, adding that people can create a “watch area” to receive notice of all issues reported in their area.

The app tells the status of the problem, including when it was reported and when it gets fixed.

Having the app does not mean you shouldn’t call Kitsap1, 360.337.5777, or email the center, help@kitsap1.com, which is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, but the SeeClickFix app might be easier at times, and it never closes. Of course, you should call 911 if an issue needs immediate attention.

I asked Doug Bear, the county’s communications manager, if the app is designed to take environmental problems. His answer is that some problems are listed as options and others are not — and that is the key.

“We continually evaluate which options to present and can change them as demand increases,” Doug told me in an email. “The app is better suited to concerns that have a clear consistent path to who responds.”

When you click an option, you get a list of questions specific to that type of problem.

“We did consider an option for ‘other’ that could capture what isn’t specifically listed, but that didn’t work out well,” he added. “It’s hard to collect the proper information for processing if we don’t know what the problem is.”

Using the app or another approach can take some strategic thought. The app has an option for “illegal dumping,” “spill or illicit discharge” and “stormwater maintenance.” But if you see an oil spill that could get into a waterway, I wouldn’t hesitate to call 911 along with the state oil-spill hotline, (800) OILS-911.

Amusing Monday: Ig Nobel prizes make us laugh, then think

True-life research catching the attention of humorists this year includes studies on the health benefits of pizza — but only in Italy, the psychological needs of scratching an itch, and figuring out which countries have money that is more likely to carry dangerous bacteria.

Of course, I’m talking about the Ig Nobel Prize, which holds an annual ceremony to celebrate seemingly off-the-wall research published in actual scientific journals. Judges reward researchers whose studies first make them laugh and then make them think.

Marc Abrams, who founded the event, served as master of ceremonies for the “29th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony” Sept. 12 at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. Abrams is editor of the “Annals of Improbable Research,” a publication that seeks out oddball investigations in science and other fields.

Researchers really do have a sense of humor, as you can see in the amusing video on this page. Winners show up at the ceremony, smiling as others subject their work to good-natured ridicule. Acceptance speeches are sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but always short — thanks to antics of a little girl who keeps track of the time.

This year’s theme was “Habits,” which led to a variety of stunts, demonstrations and musical numbers, all shown in the video.

I’m listing the winning research projects as they were described in announcing the winners. Links to the actual research papers along with the names of the authors can be found on the website “Ig Nobel Prize Winners for 2019,” which also includes winners from previous years.

The 2019 Ig Nobel Prize Winners
  • Medicine Prize: Researchers in Italy and the Netherlands awarded for collecting evidence that pizza might protect against illness and death, if the pizza is made and eaten in Italy.
  • Medical Education Prize: U.S. researchers awarded for using a simple animal-training technique — called “clicker training” — to train surgeons to perform orthopedic surgery.
  • Biology Prize: Researchers from various countries awarded for discovering that dead magnetized cockroaches behave differently than living magnetized cockroaches.
  • Anatomy Prize: French researchers awarded for measuring scrotal temperature asymmetry in naked and clothed postmen in France.
  • Chemistry Prize: Researchers from Japan awarded for estimating the total saliva volume produced per day by a typical five-year-old child.
  • Engineering Prize: An Iranian researcher awarded for inventing a diaper-changing machine for use on human infants (patent application).
  • Economic Prize: Researchers from Turkey, the Netherlands and Germany awarded for testing which country’s paper money is best able to transmit dangerous bacteria.
  • Peace Prize: Researchers from various countries awarded for trying to measure the pleasurability of scratching an itch.
  • Psychology Prize: A German researcher awarded for discovering that holding a pen in one’s mouth makes one smile, which makes one happier — and for then discovering that it does not.
  • Physics Prize: Researchers from various countries awarded for studying how, and why, wombats make cube-shaped poo.