Category Archives: Research

Amusing Monday: Methane emissions from a moo-ving source

My wife Sue and I just returned from a two-week vacation that included a road trip through several western states. In addition to wildlife, we noticed thousands of little methane factories scattered across public and private lands.

I’m talking about cattle, of course, and their role in climate change. I have to admit that gaseous emissions from cows seems like a often-told joke. (Question: What do you call a cow fart? Answer: dairy-air.) But methane from cattle is a serious problem with worldwide effects. The millions of dollars in research being conducted to reduce bovine emissions is strong testimony to the level of concern.

Stories I have read on this topic often relate the amount of gases coming from a single cow to the effects of driving a car.

In fact, so much has been written about cow farts and climate change — mainly for the sake of humor — that I thought that the rear of the cow was the source of the biggest problems. It turns out that far more methane gets released from the other end, in the form of gaseous burps from the mouth.

A recent study, funded by NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System, concluded that the worldwide problem of methane from cattle is 11 percent worse than estimates reported in 2006 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The new study involved more precise estimates of methane production in a cow’s gut as well as that produced during manure management.

In the U.S. and Canada, methane production from total cattle operations was found to be 24 percent higher than previous estimates, largely because of open-air manure management. In Europe, more farmers are using methods that contain the methane, often using it for energy. The study was published in the journal “Carbon Balance and Management” and reviewed in “Popular Science.”

As greenhouse gases, methane is more potent than carbon dioxide, yet the amount released into the atmosphere is far less. The international goal is to reduce emissions of both gases to slow the average warming of the planet.

Researchers have found that feeding cattle different types of grains or silage can reduce the amount of methane produced by bacteria in the stomachs of cattle. Feedstocks effective in reducing methane include garlic and onions, but a major problem for dairy farmers is that those products can change the taste of the milk that cows produce.

One farm in Vermont began supplementing its cattle feed with cooked flax. The result was not only less methane coming from the cows, but the milk itself contained a higher level of beneficial omega 3 fatty acids.

Ongoing research is finding that a diet for cattle high in carbohydrates and/or fats can result in less methane production. Using ground or pellet forms of forage may reduce the time of passage through the cow, thus reducing methane production. See news release from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.

A story published last week in the online “Feed Navigator” discusses the complexity of the issue. Changing feedstocks can affect cattle and their emissions in different ways. One must account for the effects of growing the feedstocks, handling the manure generated and the health for both the cattle eating the forage and the humans consuming the milk or meat, according to the article by Aerin Einstein-Curtis.

“We have it very tight where we follow the diets, and we know the diets produce a certain type of manure, with certain emissions, and this is what you get out of it,” said Michael Wattiaux, professor of dairy systems management at the University of Wisconsin, who was quoted in the article. “One thing that I could see in terms of practical recommendations is maybe you want to have the agronomist and soil scientist and nutritionist all in the same room at the same time.”

Rainfall pattern returns to normal across the Kitsap Peninsula

After two years of near-record rainfall across the Kitsap Peninsula, precipitation has returned to a more normal pattern.

Halfway through the water year, which begins in October, rainfall in Hansville, Silverdale and Holly are all within 10 percent of the average for this time of year, according to weather instruments managed by Kitsap Public Utility District.

This near-average total for the first half of the year comes about despite a very wet November, when Hansville broke the all-time record for precipitation for that month. Since then, the monthly rainfall numbers have been mostly below average, except for a wet January when Holly nearly broke the record for that month.

As we’ve seen time and again, the amount of rainfall decreases dramatically as one travels from south to north on the Kitsap Peninsula. That’s the general pattern for all times of the year, although the amount of precipitation can vary wildly.

Hansville received 25.5 inches for the six months ending April 1, compared to a 28-year average of 23.1 inches for that period. Last year, the six-month figure was 7 inches higher at 32.5 inches, and the first half of 2016 went down in the record books with a total of 37.0 inches.

Silverdale posted 35.1 inches of rain by April 1, compared to a 28-year average of 38.1 inches for this time of year. Last year, this Central Kitsap area received 51.7 inches by April, and in 2016 the number was 52.3 inches, second only to 1999 with 69.8 inches.

In rainswept Holly, residents experienced 68.7 inches by April 1, compared to a 27-year average of 65.0 inches. By April 1 last year, Holly was practically swimming with 95.9 inches, driven by 24.0 inches during the month of October 2016 and 21.8 inches the next month. But nothing compares to the first half of water year 1999, when Holly received 120 inches for the first half of the year. Following a fairly dry summer, water year 1999 in Holly ended with 127.5 inches of precipitation.

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center has projected somewhat higher-than-average rainfall through the end of this month in the Pacific Northwest, followed by fairly average conditions going into summer. Forecasters rely heavily on observations about temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which influence a natural cycle known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. See video this page.

A very strong El Niño during 2015 and 2016 (associated with the much-discussed “blob”) shifted into a weak La Niña in 2017. Conditions have now reversed course again and seem to be headed toward neutral. La Niñas are generally associated with cooler and wetter weather for our region of the country, while El Niños suggest warmer and dryer conditions — although it does not always turn out that way.

Neutral conditions are expected to arrive by summer, and some forecasters predict that the warmer El Niño could arrive toward the end of the water year in September, according to information released today by the Climate Prediction Center.

“Some of the computer models are forecasting development of El Niño by next fall,” noted research scientist Emily Becker in a new post on the ENSO Blog, “but there are a number of reasons why we’re not completely taking the bait right now.

“First, forecasts made this time of year tend to be less successful,” she continued. “Another reason is that, while elevated subsurface heat content in the spring sometimes precedes the development of El Niño in the fall, some recent studies have found that this relationship has not been very reliable over the past two decades.”

Researchers observed a warming trend in March among subsurface waters in the Eastern Pacific. Those waters are expected to rise to the surface over the next few months to potentially neutralize any cool surface waters that remain. The outcome is likely to be the end of the current La Niña and possibly the beginning of a new El Niño, featuring warmer ocean conditions.

Amazing stories of place are retold at Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference

The Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference opened in Seattle yesterday with a reflection on people’s intimate, personal relationships with nature. The mood was heightened by an elaborate welcoming ceremony from Native American leaders who live on the shores of Puget Sound.

I would like to share an idea I had, but first let me report that Gov. Jay Inslee and former Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell offered their own personal experiences at the beginning of the conference. Please check out the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The conference this year has attracted more than 1,300 scientists, policymakers and other interested people. About 700 presentations are scheduled.

The welcoming ceremony yesterday began with an Indian song accompanied by drumming. Tribal leaders continued the ceremony by presenting Indian blankets to “witnesses” who have played important roles in protecting the Salish Sea.

Personal stories told by members of the local tribes have a special significance. For native people, telling stories is part of an oral tradition that goes back thousands of years. Their strong “connection to place” reaches back well beyond anyone’s own memory.

Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, said he is pleased to work with scientists and various officials on the problems facing the Salish Sea. Chief Seattle, a member of the Suquamish Tribe, was a boy when Capt. George Vancouver first explored Puget Sound in 1792. Vancouver anchored his ship for several days near the south end of Bainbridge Island. His crew was hungry for fresh meat, having been limited to dried rations during the long journey, Leonard said.

The Suquamish people brought the English men a deer to feast on, he said. Chief Seattle carried that experience of sharing with white settlers throughout his life until he led his people to sign over their lands in exchange for a promise that hunting and fishing would go on.

“We’re still fighting to get the government to honor that promise,” Leonard said. Still, much has been accomplished the past few years as portions of the Salish Sea ecosystem have undergone restoration, he added.

The land and water have spiritual significance, Leonard said. “Our ancestors are with us here. We have a covenant with the land and water.”

At the end of his talk, Leonard noted that he had a few minutes left on the schedule, so he asked Bardow Lewis, vice chairman of his tribe, to speak three minutes — no more. Bardow asked if people would rather have a speech or a story. Many people shouted, “story.”

Bardow began a condensed version of his tale by describing Doe Kag Wats, a near-pristine estuarine marsh near Indianola in the northern part of the Kitsap Peninsula. The name means “place of deer.” To tribal members, it remains a “spiritual place,” he said, just as it has been since ancient times.

One evening as the sun was going down, Bardow said he was digging clams with his daughter, who he could observe by watching her long shadow without having to look up. He kept his head down, focusing on the clams buried in the beach at Doe Kag Wats.

Out of the corner of his eye, Bardow saw a deer approaching, but he kept his head down to keep from frightening the animal away.

The deer kept approaching until she was standing right next to him, he said. She nudged him with her head, which alarmed him, but he kept digging until she nudged him again, practically pushing him over. Bardow got up, and when the deer started walking away, he followed her. She led him to the stream that feeds the estuary. There, stuck in the mud, was a baby deer.

Bardow said he was able to free the fawn from the mud, and a wonderful feeling came over him. “I cried — in a joyful way,” he said. “I learned more that day than I did in my lifetime.”

The event has opened his eyes to the possibility of other experiences, Bardow said., But his three-minute time limit was up before he could share another story.

“I think I might have been a deer in a previous life,” he said. “We have to keep these beautiful places and spread that out to all places where you live.”

While I may never enjoy such a profound experience, I would like to think that I would be open to that. Still, I would think that everyone who has spent meaningful time on or around the Salish Sea probably has had at least one experience to share.

One of my own favorite stories was from a dark night in 1997, when I was out in a boat on Dyes Inlet with whale researcher Jodi Smith. I was watching the lights of Silverdale when we were suddenly immersed in the sound of orcas speaking to us over a hydrophone. You can read the story as I originally wrote it on the Kitsap Sun website, and you can listen to the recording that Jodi made that night (below).

      1. whale

I know that many researchers presenting their work at the Salish Sea conference have exciting findings to convey, and I listen with keen interest, even though the talks are sometimes dry. I also know that the speakers feel a bit rushed to explain everything in 12 to 15 minutes. But wouldn’t it be nice if they could find a way to reduce their discussion about scientific methods — such as how they control for variables — and tell us a brief story?

I don’t think we lose our scientific or journalistic credibility if we allow ourselves to be captivated by a special moment that we have experienced in the Salish Sea.

Amusing Monday: Wacky steelhead return for new ‘Survive the Sound’ game

“Survive the Sound,” an online game that features cute little fish swimming for their lives, is back for a second year with some new additions, including free participation for students and teachers in the classroom.

The basics of the game remain as I described them last year. You pick out a wacky cartoon steelhead and then receive daily reports as the fish makes its way through a perilous Puget Sound over a 12-day period. The journey starts May 7, and signups are now open. See Water Ways, April 29, 2017.

As in real life, many fish will not make it to the ocean because of the effects of disease and pollution along with the constant risk of predation. But a few lucky steelhead will survive, and the winners will be recognized.

Individuals join the game with a $25 donation to Long Live the Kings, which will use the money to further research, ecosystem restoration and education. This year, anyone can start a team and encourage others to participate, sharing the joy or heartbreak of the salmon migration. Prizes will be awarded to the winning teams.

This year, teachers can sign up their classrooms for free and play the game while learning about the Puget Sound ecosystem. Extensive educational materials have been developed to go along with the game. Check out “Bring ‘Survive the Sound’ to your Classroom!”

The game is based on the real-life travels of steelhead, which have been tracked using implanted acoustic transmitters. Some fish swim faster than others and some even reverse course. This year, participants will be able to watch the progress of all of the fish making the journey, according to Michael Schmidt of Long Live the Kings.

Last year, more than 1,100 people joined the game, and organizers hope for even greater participation this year.

If nothing else, you should check out the cartoon fish and the clever things they have to say by clicking on the individual steelhead in the “Survive the Sound” fish list.

If you would like to learn more about the person who turned the concepts for these odd and wonderful fish into creative works of art, check out “Meet the Artist Behind Survive the Sound.” To see more of Jocelyn Li Langrand’s work, go to her website, her Instagram page or Facebook.

Killing of baby orca raises questions about whales’ social structure

By now, you may have heard about the male transient killer whale who attacked and killed a newborn orca while the baby was swimming next to its mother.

A newborn transient orca swims next to its mother shortly before being attacked by an unrelated adult male orca. // Photo: Jared Towers

Jared Towers, a researcher with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, witnessed the killing. He said he was both “horrified and fascinated” by the event, which he described as the first case of infanticide ever reported among killer whales. The incident took place in Canadian waters near the north end of Vancouver Island.

Jared told reporter Bethany Lindsey of CBC News that the distressing scene is something that he will never be able to unsee, but he did his best to observe and record the rare incident.

This killing of a tiny calf by an unrelated male orca has been troubling me since I first heard about it more than a week ago — and that’s what I told longtime orca researcher Ken Balcomb when I called him on the phone.

“I was shocked, as was Jared,” Ken told me. “It is very unusual. The interesting thing is that we know the individual who killed the baby. We don’t know why it happened. It could have been just a squabble of some sort.”

It wasn’t just the male orca involved. The attacker’s mother also played a role in keeping the mother of the calf at bay and ultimately dragging the dead baby away.

In the animal world, infanticide occurs in a myriad of situations among terrestrial species, including lions, rodents and even primates, Jared recounted in a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports. The practice of killing infants of the same species has also been observed in three types of dolphins.

The situations are too rare to identify specific causes, Jared noted, but several hypotheses have been put forth. The leading suggestion is that the death of the infant causes the mother to stop lactating and makes her fertile again. That means the attacking male may have a chance to integrate his genes into the population, as opposed to a competing male.

Less likely reasons, at least in this situation, involves the goal of reducing the number of mouths to feed when food is scarce for a given population. In some species, an infant may be cannibalized for food. But in this case food is not especially scarce for transients, which eat seals and sea lions. Also, there was no evidence of feeding, such as oil on the water or birds in the air, Jared reported.

“Lastly,” Jared writes, “non-adaptive explanations for infanticide purport that it is a socially pathological behavior that may be conducted accidentally or as a result of environmental stressors.”

Killer whales as pathological killers? That’s something to ponder. But, again, there is no evidence to point to a particular cause in this case.

I can’t help but wonder if transient killer whales, which eat marine mammals, may be more prone to committing infanticide than resident killer whales, which eat only fish. No doubt the male transient would know the technique for killing an orca calf, which is about the size of a sea lion.

Ken Balcomb has observed teeth marks on some of the Southern Resident killer whales, sometimes the result of juveniles playing too rough.

“Usually it’s a young whale biting a big whale,” he said. “They don’t have any hands, so they just bite. We’ve seen young whales tussling around together.”

On rare occasions, Ken has also observed serious wounds on some whales, including one adult male whose dorsal fin was bent over during an apparent attack by another orca. The size and shape of the teeth marks, known as rakes, provide clues to the size of the attacker. But since nobody sees most of the serious attacks, the cause or behavior leading up to the incidents will never be known.

In the recent case, which occurred in December 2016, Jared and his fellow researchers went out to observe a group of transients, whose calls had been picked up on hydrophones. When the researchers got to the area just north of Johnstone Strait, they saw an older female, known as T068, swimming with her 32-year-old son, T068A. The two were following a group of three orcas swimming unusually fast.

In that second group was a 13-year-old mother with a 2-year-old calf along with her 3-year-old sister, who exhibited bleeding wounds on her sides and loose flesh on her dorsal fin. About a mile ahead was the 28-year-old mother of the two sisters, T046B, who was accompanied by three young whales, an 8-year-old, a 5-year-old and a newborn.

The entire group of related whales came together just before noon near Haddington Island, while the two unrelated whales were about 200 yards behind and still following.

The attack apparently began about 20 minutes later with observations of splashing and erratic movements, then the male attacker was seen to move away from the group. The other whales followed. When they all came together, they began circling vigorously. That’s when the researchers caught up with the whales and noticed that the baby was no longer with its mother.

The male attacker “swam close past the research boat, and the fluke of the neonate could be seen in his mouth with the body intact trailing underneath his lower jaw,” states the report.

The baby’s mother seemed to chase the male attacker, while the attacker’s mother attempted to block her way.

“Intense vocal activity could be heard through the hull of the boat, so the hydrophone was deployed,” the report says. “A wide variety of excited discrete and aberrant pulsed calls, whistles, and percussive sounds were recorded….

“At 12:35, (the baby’s mother) rammed (the male) near the surface with sufficient force to cause a noticeable undulation through his body, sending blood and water into the air,” the report says.

The event was over about as quickly as it began, with the male carrying away the dead baby. Later the male’s mother was seen carrying the lifeless calf. The larger family group followed the two, staying about 200 yards behind and off to one side.

The researchers followed for another hour and a half, when underwater video showed that neither the male nor his mother had the baby. A short time before, they were seen circling as if paying attention to something below them. As darkness fell, the researchers broke off the observations and headed home, but not before noticing that the male had the intact baby in his mouth again, as he and his mother continued on.

Jared said it is not surprising that the attacker’s mother assisted her son, “because bonds between maternally related killer whales can be particularly strong.” After all, orca moms are known to help their sons find food and even share food with them. The mother’s bloodline would be continued through her son by the killing, provided that the dead infant was not his offspring and that he could later mate with the baby’s mother.

Killer whales are top predators and complex creatures. Their actions cannot always be explained. I remember being surprised to learn that resident orcas occasionally kill harbor porpoises, but they never eat them. See my story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

My discussion with Ken brought me back to the harsh reality of our world. Maybe we can’t fully explain why a male killer whale would attack a newborn of his own kind. But who can explain why a human being would abuse and sometimes kill his own child or take a gun and kill a large number of strangers?

Can people distinguish the taste of tap, bottled and recycled water

If you are thirsty and someone hands you a glass of water, you might or might not ask where the water came from. If you trust the person, you probably don’t worry much about the health risks of drinking the water.

On the other hand, if you are told that the water comes from highly treated sewage effluent, you might think twice about taking a drink — even if you are assured that the water is cleaner than tap water, bottled water or any other source.

It’s a matter of perception, which is why some people drink only bottled water. They think it must be more pure than water from the faucet. But studies have shown that much of the bottled water on the market is just someone else’s tap water, and often the source is unidentified.

A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Riverside, conducted a taste test to see if people’s perceptions about drinking treated wastewater has any connection to the actual taste of water. Findings were reported in the journal “Appetite.”

The 143 participants were provided three samples of water in a blind taste test, meaning that there were no clues about the source of water. One was a brand-named bottled water, which had been purified through reverse osmosis; another was tap water from a groundwater source; and a third was tap water that came from an indirect reuse (IDR) source. IDR processing, which is used in at least six California water systems, involves treating the water to a high degree through reverse osmosis and putting it into the ground, where it mixes with existing groundwater. From there, it is pumped back out and treated as a normal groundwater source.

Many of the findings of the study were surprising to the researchers. For example, the IDR water and bottled water were preferred over the groundwater source by many of the tasters.

“We think that happened because IDR and bottled water go through remarkably similar treatment processes, so they have low levels of the types of tastes people tend to dislike,” said co-author Mary Gauvain, professor of psychology at UC Riverside in a news release.

The groundwater source had the highest amount of sodium and carbonate, while the IDR source had more calcium. Concentrations of chloride and bicarbonate were similar for all three.

Another interesting finding: Women were twice as likely as men to prefer the bottled water.

Individuals who described themselves as more nervous or anxious than others had less preference for the IDR water, perhaps because of the higher mineral content. Individuals who described themselves as more open to new experiences showed a somewhat greater preference for the IDR water.

In describing the tastes, individuals often said their preferred choices had “no taste” or “no aftertaste,” which may be related to the mineral content. The IDR process may remove some unpalatable minerals during filtering, the authors said. Since IDR water goes into the ground, it may pick up other minerals that improve the taste.

The authors acknowledge that the preferences in the study may be more related to mineral content of each source than to the process that the water goes through before it gets into the drinking glass.

The taste of water involves many factors, starting with the makeup of a person’s own taste buds and saliva, as I described in a story last year in the Kitsap Sun:

“Experiments have shown that when a group of people with normal taste buds is given pure distilled water to drink, most people do not believe the water tastes normal,” I wrote. “Some even say it is slightly bitter or sour, perhaps because it contains less salt than saliva, or perhaps because it is totally lacking in minerals that people come to expect.”

As for mixing highly treated sewage effluent into the water supply, there are two hurdles to overcome. The first is convincing people that the water really is safe, such as by providing a clear assessment of the water content — including minute constituents that can make it through the treatment process, such as some pharmaceutical drugs.

Beyond an honest assessment of water quality, water managers need to address the emotional response of people when it comes to anything dealing with sewage. Revulsion is a deep-seated emotion designed to help people avoid contamination and disease.

One way to make treated effluent more palatable is to “naturalize” it by putting it into the environment, such as infiltrating it into the ground — even if that process makes it less pure before it goes through another step in purification. Removing or adding minerals may improve the taste.

Water itself — the H2O molecules — are no different in sewage than they are in bottled water or coffee. Water cycles through people, plants, clouds, soil, the ocean, and on and on. It gets used over and over again. The only real issue is the other chemicals that may go along for the ride.

Alex Spiegel of National Public Radio did a nice job analyzing the psychology behind the aversion people have to using treated wastewater and why people are more accepting of indirect use. Read or listen to “Why Cleaned Wastewater Stays Dirty In Our Minds.”

So far in Washington State, nobody is talking about using highly treated sewage effluent (“reclaimed water”) as a direct supply of drinking water — or even as an indirect supply where injection wells are close to extraction wells, as done in some areas of California.

Nevertheless, people’s concerns about the quality of their water may impair the acceptance of reclaimed water for irrigation, groundwater recharge, stream restoration or even industrial uses. Addressing both factual and emotional aspects of this issue should help get us over those hurdles.

Related Water Ways posts:

Nitrogen and plankton: Do they hold the missing keys to the food web?

In a way, some of Puget Sound’s most serious ecological problems have been hiding in plain sight. I have been learning a lot lately about plankton, an incredibly diverse collection of microscopic organisms that drift through the water, forming the base of the food web.

Sources of nitrogen in Puget Sound (click to enlarge)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

To put it simply, the right kinds of plankton help to create a healthy population of little fish that feed bigger fish that feed birds and marine mammals, including the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. On the other hand, the wrong kinds of plankton can disrupt the food web, stunt the growth of larger creatures and sometimes poison marine animals.

OK, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but Puget Sound researchers are just beginning to understand the profound importance of a healthy planktonic community to support a large part of the food web. That’s one of the main points that I try to bring out in five stories published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. I am grateful to the many researchers who have shared their knowledge with me.

Average daily nitrogen coming in from rivers and wastewater treatment plants (1 kg = 2.2 pounds)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

These stories tie together several major issues all related to nutrients — mainly nitrogen — that feed the marine phytoplankton, which use their chlorophyll to take energy from the sun as they grow and multiply. In the spring and summer, too much nitrogen can mean too much plankton growth. In turn, excess plankton can lead to low-oxygen conditions, ocean acidification and other significant problems.

The complex interplay of planktonic species with larger life forms in Puget Sound is still somewhat of a mystery to researchers trying to understand the food web. As part of the effort, the Washington Department of Ecology is working on a computer model to show how excess nitrogen can trigger low-oxygen conditions in the most vulnerable parts of the Salish Sea, such as southern Hood Canal and South Puget Sound.

Areas of Puget Sound listed as “impaired” for dissolved oxygen (click to enlarge)
Graphic: Washington Department of Ecology

Stormwater is often cited as the most serious problem facing Puget Sound, and we generally think of bacteria and toxic chemicals flowing into the waterway and causing all sorts of problems for the ecosystem. But stormwater also brings in nitrogen derived from fertilizers, animal wastes and atmospheric deposits from burning fossil fuels. Stormwater flows also pick up natural sources of nitrogen from plants and animals that end up in streams.

Sewage treatment plants are another major source of human nitrogen. Except for a few exceptions, not much has been done to reduce the release of nutrients from sewage-treatment plants, which provide not only nitrogen but also micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Some experts suspect that nutrients other than nitrogen help to determine which types of plankton will dominate at any given time.

I plan to follow and report on new scientific developments coming out of studies focused on the base of the food web. Meanwhile, I hope you will take time to read this package of related stories:

Amusing Monday: Water bears live in fire and ice, maybe in your driveway

Plump little microscopic creatures, commonly called “water bears” or “moss piglets,” have gained a reputation as the most indestructible animals on Earth, with some species living in the cold Arctic and others living in flaming hot volcanoes.

New species of tardigrade, Macrobiotus shonaicus // Photo: Daniel Stec, PLOS One

They have been known to survive 30 years without food. Researchers have dehydrated them, frozen them, bombarded them with radiation and even sent them into the vacuum of space. While a few died along the way, a remarkable percentage have lived through extreme endurance trials and just kept on going.

I’m talking about a group of more than a thousand species known collectively as tardigrades, whose largest members are no bigger than a pinhead. Many are much smaller. These tiny lumbering little creatures with short appendages occupy the phylum Tardigrada, Latin for “tortoise-like movement.”

Amusing just by being themselves, tardigrades also have been featured in cartoons — including an entire episode of Southpark, in which science students teach them to dance to Taylor Swift songs and then do the Hokey Pokey before the little guys are accidentally turned into football fans destined to save the NFL.

More worthy of note is the real-life story of Kazuharu Arakawa, a researcher at Tokyo’s Kelo University who had been studying and reclassifying tardigrades in Japan using refined morphological criteria along with advanced DNA analysis.

On a whim, Kazuharu picked up a clump of moss that he found growing in a concrete parking lot near his apartment complex. He took the sample to his lab, placed it under a microscope and found viable tardigrades, supporting the notion that these creatures can live anywhere. Further study revealed that Kazuharu had discovered a new species of tardigrade, whose defining features include its eggs, which seem to reach out with tentacle-like appendages.

Egg of Macrobiotus shonaicus, showing filaments of varying lengths (scale: microns)
Photo: Daniel Stec, PLOS One

For confirmation, Kazuharu called on tardigradologists at Jagiellonian University in Poland. They eventually named the species Macrobiotus shonaicus and wrote up their technical findings, which were published last week in the journal Plos One.

The paper’s lead author, Daniel Stec, describes why the study of tardigrades is important to humanity in an interview with Tessa Gregory, of PLOS Research News:

“The most basic reason is human curiosity,” Daniel said, “and once you fall in love with tardigrades you only want to know more, especially since there is still so much to discover about them. However, there are also other reasons. Recently, tardigrades started to be used as model organisms in a variety of studies ranging from astrobiology, developmental and cell biology, physiology, evolutionary ecology and many other disciplines, in hope to address more general questions.”

The ability of a living creature to survive extremes could have useful applications on a human scale.

“Tardigrades became very famous in popular culture thanks not only to their undeniable cuteness, but mostly because of their ability to enter into cryptobiosis, a latent state in which virtually no metabolic activity can be detected. Yet, when dried or frozen tardigrades are provided with liquid water they come back to life as if nothing had ever happened,” he continued.

“This ability to withstand harsh conditions and to suspend their lives inspired researchers to produce dry vaccines that don’t require refrigeration or create transgenic human cells that are more resistant to irradiation. Who knows, maybe someday, thanks to tardigrades, we will be able to preserve organs for transplantation, extend our lifespan, or travel to other planets and stars, not worrying about detrimental effects of cosmic radiation.”

Stories about the new findings and other details about tardigrades:

Tardigrades are the subject of many amusing products, including T-shirts with the slogans:

You can even find tardi-games, like the one by Schell Games below.


Amu

Volunteering can be rewarding in more ways than one might think

With spring around the corner, thoughts go to outdoor activities, and it’s always nice to include some community volunteer projects among the things we do.

Crab team members count and measure crabs caught in shallow waters on Zelatched Point in Jefferson County. Team members are part of a major effort to locate invasive green crabs before they gain a foothold in Puget Sound.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

As social media consumes more of our time, I’d like to consider the real values of dedicating some time to volunteer work: meeting people, enjoying friends, helping those in need and learning about new things.

On the environmental front, a wide range of activities allows people to find something that fits their style — from improving parks to battling invasive species, from teaching kids about nature to helping plan for a better ecosystem.

In Kitsap County, many volunteer jobs require no training. But those who are able to get some training — such as becoming a Kitsap Beach Naturalist — may find some expanded opportunities. Training for 30 beach naturalists will begin in April, and people are advised to sign up early. Go to Brown Paper Tickets or contact Lisa Rillie, (360) 337-7157 #3244 or lrillie@co.kitsap.wa.us.

WSU Kitsap County Extension has compiled a list of volunteer opportunities (PDF 300 kb), some requiring special training and some not.

Here are some volunteer opportunities worth considering:

  • Kitsap Water Festival, April 17, a major educational event for selected elementary school classes. Sign up through the Kitsap Public Utility District or contact Kimberly Jones, (360) 728-2222, kimberly.jones@kitsappublichealth.org
  • New members are being recruited for the Crab Team, a group of volunteers and professionals searching for invasive green crabs in Puget Sound. The next training, March 12 in Poulsbo, involves identifying various crab species and learning to use traps to sample the waters. See “Get Involved in Crab Team.”
  • Kitsap County parks need volunteers for tasks ranging from trail maintenance to planning for improved forest ecosystems. Visit Kitsap County Park Volunteer Program.
  • Monthly water-quality monitoring is underway for Clear Creek, both the stream and estuary. Contact Mary Earl for details and schedule, (360) 434-7665. Volunteers also are needed for salmon releases this month as part of the Salmon in the Classroom program. See schedule and sign-up list.
  • SEA Discovery Center, Poulsbo’s marine science center, offers monthly training for a variety of volunteer opportunities. For information, visit the SEA Discovery Center website. No advance training is required to help monitor changes in the native Olympia oyster population as part of an ongoing restoration effort. For details, email Sylvia Yang, sylvia.yang@wwu.edu.
  • Kitsap Public Works is seeking volunteers to monitor amphibian eggs in area stormwater ponds, particularly those ponds that have been “naturalized” as wetland habitat. The program includes brief in-field training. See sign-up sheet for details and contact.

Other Kitsap County volunteer websites

In Clallam County, the Marine Resources Committee is offering training to help recover wildlife in the event of a major oil spill.

One’s own interest can point to possible volunteer efforts. Inquire at your favorite museum, animal shelter, community theater, library, emergency management office and so on.

National databases — some better than others — list volunteer opportunities. Some provide easy searches by geographical area or type of organization:

If anyone knows of other volunteer opportunities of interest, feel free to add them in the comments section.

Amusing Monday: Using musical notes to describe salmon migration

Researchers working on innumerable scientific investigations throughout the world continue to present their findings in new and interesting ways, often apart from the usual charts and graphs. Some have turned to animation, others to interactive graphics and some to the medium of sound — a process called sonification.

Jens Hegg of the University of Idaho has collaborated with several musical composers to turn the migration of young chinook salmon into a musical score — although it doesn’t exactly have a beat you want to dance to.

In the first video on this page, you can close your eyes and imagine that you are standing at the mouth of the Snake River facing upstream, Jens advises in an email. To get the full effect, you need to listen with headphones. Fish moving on the Upper Snake River are represented by notes that sound the farthest away, the Clearwater River somewhat closer and the Lower Snake River closer still.

“The ocean is at your back, so as they enter the ocean, the washy sound sounds as if it is either behind you or directly between your ears,” Jens told me.

“Each river has it’s own set of tones that build a chord,” he continued. “The YouTube video uses the same WAV recording every time, but the actual sonification program randomly assigns fish to a new tone each time it is played, so that the music actually changes and is slightly different each time it is played while maintaining the same meaning.”

I have to confess that I’ve listened to this recording more than a dozen times and I’m still trying to visualize the movement in my mind. The map on the video actually helps with the understanding, but that’s not the movement of fish on the river that I’m trying to visualize. Jens said the program was set up so that fish in the Upper Snake are heard in the right ear; fish in the Lower Snake are heard in the left ear; and fish in the Clearwater are heard in the center.

Some sonification efforts result in music that is quite enjoyable to listen to. See Water Ways, Jan. 1, 2016. But if the point is to convey information, then the underlying music can sometimes be a distraction.

Jens told me that his experiments with sound originated in a roundabout way, somewhat out of desperation, as he tried to design his doctoral dissertation to meet the cross-disciplinary requirements for the program in Water Resources Science and Management.

“I had been told that the geology/ecology combination I had used for my master’s in the same program was not quite interdisciplinary enough, so I was in search of other possibilities,” he said.

Jens had read a newspaper profile about Jonathan Middleton of Eastern Washington University, who was creating music from protein data. He was finding that the people could discern variations in complex protein structure more easily with sonic rather than visual clues.

Jens always enjoyed music. He even writes his own songs. (See second video on this page.) Combining music and scientific data provided a fascinating challenge. “Nobody could say this wouldn’t be interdisciplinary,” he noted, “and it incorporates something I enjoy already, so it seemed like something worth pursuing.”

The data needed to create the sonic composition comes from Jens’ extensive study of salmon migration based on the ear bones of fish, called otoliths. Otoliths are composed of chemicals that build up over time as a fish grows. Rivers have their own chemical signatures, which are captured in the otoliths, so the movement of salmon can be determined by the chemical record stored in their ear bones.

Understanding the timing of salmon migration can help researchers figure out why some populations are more successful than others, especially as climate change shifts the timing of streamflows and alters the temperature and dissolved oxygen levels.

Mounds of otolith data were converted to notes with the help of Middleton at Eastern and Ben Luca Robertson at the University of Virginia. Middleton had developed a software program to help researchers turn their data into sound. Courtney Flatt of Northwest Public Broadcasting separated out some of the individual sounds in a piece she produced for Earthfix. Listen below.

      1. Tracking Salmon With Musical Notes

Part of Jens’ research was to see if people could tell when the sound pattern changed, thus discerning the movement of fish from one place to another. The complexity of the sound reduced the ability of listeners to distinguish transitions, according to a new report by Jens and his collaborators in the journal Heliyon. Check out the additional sounds and animations in the “supplementary content” at the end.

It also turned out that people were able to describe the changes more accurately if they were not watching a related animation. One reason could be that the visual clues caused people to divide their attention, focusing less on the sound.

“We have a long way to go before a sonification of a large number of fish can clearly indicate movement,” Jens told me in his email. “Our paper shows that people can accurately distinguish movement of individuals played alone, two at a time, or three at a time. But we haven’t spent as much time optimizing the sonification for a large number of fish.

“Knowing how it is set up helps in interpreting it,” he said. “On repeated listenings, you can hear times where larger numbers of fish are all moving at once from one place to another. These are the kinds of trends we want to highlight in terms of understanding salmon migration timing.”