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    A diamondlike structure gives some starfish skeletons their strength

    Some starfish made of a brittle material fortify themselves with architectural antics.

    Beneath a starfish’s skin lies a skeleton made of pebbly growths, called ossicles, which mostly consist of the mineral calcite. Calcite is usually fragile, and even more so when it is porous. But the hole-riddled ossicles of the knobby starfish (Protoreaster nodosus) are strengthened through an unexpected internal arrangement, researchers report in the Feb. 11 Science.

    “When we first saw the structure, we were really amazed,” says Ling Li, a materials scientist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. It looks like it’s been 3-D printed, he says.

    Li and colleagues used an electron microscope to zoom in on ossicles from several dozen dead knobby starfish. At a scale of 50 micrometers, about half the width of a human hair, the seemingly featureless body of each ossicle gives way to a meshlike pattern that mirrors how carbon atoms are arranged in a diamond.

    Zooming in on the bumpy growths called ossicles (seen in this electron microscope image) that make up a knobby starfish’s skeleton reveals a meshlike structure similar to the arrangement of carbon atoms in diamond. This arrangement strengthens the ossicles, which are mostly made of calcite, a relatively weak mineral.Ling Li/Virginia Tech

    But the diamondlike lattice alone doesn’t fully explain how the ossicles stay strong.

    Within that lattice, the atoms that make up the calcite have their own pattern, which resembles a series of stacked hexagons. That pattern affects the strength of the calcite too. In general, a mineral’s strength isn’t uniform in all directions. So pushing on calcite in some directions is more likely to break it than force from other directions. In the ossicles, the atomic pattern and the diamondlike lattice align in a way that compensates for calcite’s intrinsic weakness.

    It’s a mystery how the animals make the diamondlike lattice. Li’s team is studying live knobby starfish, surveying the chemistry of how ossicles form. Understanding how the starfish build their ossicles may provide insights for creating stronger porous materials, including some ceramics.

    We can learn a lot from a creature like a starfish that we may think is primitive, Li says.

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    Deep-sea Arctic sponges feed on fossilized organisms to survive

    In the cold, dark depths of the Arctic Ocean, a feast of the dead is under way.

    A vast community of sponges, the densest group of these animals found in the Arctic, is consuming the remains of an ancient ecosystem to survive, researchers report February 8 in Nature Communications.

    The study highlights just how opportunistic sponges are, says Jasper de Goeij, a deep-sea ecologist at the University of Amsterdam not involved with this work. Evolutionarily speaking, sponges “are more than 600 million years old, and they inhabit all parts of our globe,” he says. Scientists might not know about all of them because many places that sponges inhabit are really difficult to get to, he adds.

    Sponges are predominantly filter feeders, and are crucial to nutrient recycling throughout the oceans. The existence of this colony, discovered by a research ship in 2016, however, has been an enigma.

    The sponges, which include the species Geodia parva, G. hentscheli and Stelletta rhaphidiophora, live between 700 and 1,000 meters down in the central Arctic Ocean, where there are virtually no currents to provide food, and sea ice covers the water year-round. What’s more, sponges are largely immobile, yet in 2021 researchers, including Teresa Morganti, a marine biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany, reported that these ones slowly move, using their spicules — microscopic skeletal structures — and leaving them as thick brown trails in their wake.

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    In the new study, Morganti and colleagues turned their attention to the matted layer underneath the sponge colony, a smorgasbord of discarded spicules and blackened fossilized life, including empty worm tubes and mollusk shells. To see if this thick mat was a food source, the team analyzed samples of the sponges, the mat material and the surrounding water. The researchers also investigated the genetic makeup of the microbes that live within the sponge tissues, and those in the sediment.

    Carbon and nitrogen isotopes — atoms with different numbers of neutrons — in the sponge tissues closely matched those of the dead matter below, suggesting the animals were consuming it. The genetic signature of the microbes showed they had enzymes capable of breaking down the material and were likely dissolving the dead organic matter into food for the sponges (SN: 12/27/13).

    The matted layer is up to 15 centimeters thick in places, the researchers found. Assuming that the layer is, on average, greater than 4 centimeters thick, it could provide almost five times the carbon that the sponges would need to survive, the team calculates.

    The discovery that the sponges are feeding from below means they are likely moving to access more food, Morganti and colleagues suggest. The scientists also found many sponges to be budding, or breaking off parts to form new individuals, showing active reproduction.

    Radiocarbon dating showed the adult sponges — spread across more than 15 square kilometers on the peaks of an underwater volcanic mountain range — to be over 300 years old on average, a “truly outstanding” finding, says Paco Cardenas, a sponge expert at Uppsala University in Sweden who was not involved with the new study. “We expected sponges to grow very slowly, but this had never been measured in the deep sea,” he says.          

    The dead ecosystem below the sponges is around 2,000 to 3,000 years older, a once-thriving community of animals that lived in the nutrient-rich conditions created when the volcanoes were last active, the researchers suggest.

    Sponges often appear to take advantage of the most abundant carbon sources, which may change as global warming alters the composition of the oceans, says ecologist Stephanie Archer of the ​​Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Chauvin, who was not involved in the work. “One big question will be how flexible sponge-microbe associations are, and how quickly they change to take advantage of shifting carbon sources,” she says. More

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    A new book shows how animals are already coping with climate change

    Hurricane Lizards and Plastic SquidThor HansonBasic Books, $28

    As a conservation biologist, Thor Hanson has seen firsthand the effects of climate change on plants and animals in the wild: the green macaws of Central America migrating along with their food sources, the brown bears of Alaska fattening up on early-ripening berry crops, the conifers of New England seeking refuge from vanishing habitats. And as an engaging author who has celebrated the wonders of nature in books about feathers, seeds, forests and bees (SN: 7/21/18, p. 28), he’s an ideal guide to a topic that might otherwise send readers down a well of despair.

    Hanson does not despair in his latest book, Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid. Though he outlines the many ways that global warming is changing life on our planet, his tone is not one of hand-wringing. Instead, Hanson invites the reader into the stories of particular people, places and creatures of all sorts. He draws these tales from his own experiences and those of other scientists, combining reporting with narrative tales of species that serve as examples of broader trends in the natural world.

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    A trip to La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, for example, has Hanson reliving the experience of tropical ecologist and climatologist Leslie Holdridge, who founded the research station in the 1950s and described, among other things, how climate creates different habitats, or life zones, as elevation increases. As Hanson sweats his way up a tropical mountainside so he can witness a shift in life zones, he notes, “I had to earn every foot of elevation gain the hard way.” I could almost feel the heat that he describes as “a steaming towel draped over my head.” His vivid descriptions bring home the reason why so many species have now been documented moving upslope to cooler climes.

    Hanson doesn’t waste much breath trying to convince doubters of the reality of climate change, instead showing by example after example how it is already playing out. The book moves quickly from the basic science of climate change to the challenges and opportunities that species face — from shifts in seasonal timing to ocean acidification — and the ways that species are responding.

    As Hanson notes, the acronym MAD, for “move, adapt or die,” is often used to describe species’ options for responding. But that pithy phrase doesn’t capture the complexity of the situation. For instance, one of his titular characters, a lizard slammed by back-to-back Caribbean hurricanes in 2017, illustrates a different response. Instead of individual lizards adjusting, or adapting, to increasingly stormy conditions, the species evolved through natural selection. Biologists monitoring the lizards on two islands noticed that after the hurricanes, the lizard populations had longer front legs, shorter back legs and grippier toe pads on average than they had before. An experiment with a leaf blower showed that these traits help the lizards cling to branches better — survival of the fittest in action.

    In the end, the outcomes for species will probably be as varied as their circumstances. Some organisms have already moved, adapted or died as a result of the warming, and many more will face challenges from changes that are yet to come. But Hanson hasn’t given up hope. When it comes to preventing the worst-case scenarios, he quotes ecologist Gordon Orians, who is in the seventh decade of a career witnessing environmental change. When asked what a concerned citizen should do to combat climate change, he responded succinctly: “Everything you can.” And as Hanson points out, this is exactly how plants and animals are responding to climate change: by doing everything they can. The challenge feels overwhelming, and as a single concerned citizen, much feels out of my hands. Yet Hanson’s words did inspire me to take a cue from the rest of the species on this warming world to do what I can.

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    Climate change may be shrinking tropical birds

    In a remote corner of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, researchers have spent decades catching and measuring birds in a large swath of forest unmarred by roads or deforestation. An exemplar of the Amazon’s dazzling diversity, the experimental plot was to act as a baseline that would reveal how habitat fragmentation, from logging or roads, can hollow out rainforests’ wild menagerie.

    But in this pristine pocket of wilderness, a more subtle shift is happening: The birds are shrinking.

    Over 40 years, dozens of Amazonian bird species have declined in mass. Many species have lost nearly 2 percent of their average body weight each decade, researchers report November 12 in Science Advances. What’s more, some species have grown longer wings. The changes coincide with a hotter, more variable climate, which could put a premium on leaner, more efficient bodies that help birds stay cool, the researchers say.

    “Climate change isn’t something of the future. It’s happening now and has been happening and has effects we haven’t thought of,” says Ben Winger, an ornithologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who wasn’t involved in the research but has documented similar shrinkage in migratory birds. Seeing the same patterns in so many bird species across widely different contexts “speaks to a more universal phenomenon,” he says.

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    Biologists have long linked body size and temperature. In colder climates, it pays to be big because having a smaller surface area relative to one’s volume reduces heat loss through the skin and keeps the body warmer. As the climate warms, “you’d expect shrinking body sizes to help organisms off-load heat better,” says Vitek Jirinec, an ecologist at the Integral Ecology Research Center in Blue Lake, Calif. 

    Many species of North American migratory birds are getting smaller, Winger and colleagues reported in 2020 in Ecology Letters. Climate change is the likely culprit, Winger says, but since migrators experience a wide range of conditions while globe-trotting, other factors such as degraded habitats that birds may encounter can’t be ruled out.

    To see if birds that stay put have also been shrinking, Jirinec and colleagues analyzed data on nonmigratory birds collected from 1979 to 2019 in an intact region of the Amazon that spans 43 kilometers. The dataset includes measurements such as mass and wing length taken from 1979 to 2019 for over 11,000 individual birds of 77 species. The researchers also examined climate data for the region.

    By taking careful measurements of tropical birds, such as this white-crowned manakin (Pseudopipra pipra), researchers tracked shifts in body size over 40 years.Cameron Rutt

    All species declined in mass over this period, the researchers found, including birds as different as the Rufous-capped antthrush (Formicarius colma), which snatches insects off the forest floor, and the Amazonian motmot (Momotus momota), which scarfs down fruit up in trees. Species lost from about 0.1 percent to nearly 2 percent of their average body weight each decade. The motmot, for example, shrunk from 133 grams to about 127 grams over the study period.

    These changes coincided with an overall increase in the average temperature of 1 degree Celsius in the wet season and 1.65 degrees C in the dry season. Temperature and precipitation also became more variable over the time period, and these short-term fluctuations, such as an especially hot or dry season, better explained the size trends than the steady increase in temperature.

    “The dry season is really stressful for birds,” Jirinec says. Birds’ mass decreased the most in the year or two after especially hot and dry spells, which tracks with the idea that birds are getting smaller to deal with heat stress.

    Other factors, like decreased food availability, could also lead to smaller sizes. But since birds with widely different diets all declined in mass, a more pervasive force like climate change is the likely cause, Jirinec says.

    Wing length also grew for 61 species, with a maximum increase of about 1 percent per decade. Jirinec thinks that longer wings make for more efficient, and thus cooler, fliers. For instance, a fighter jet, with its heavy body and compact wings, takes enormous power to maneuver. A light and long-winged glider, by contrast, can cruise along much more efficiently.

    “Longer wings may be helping [birds] fly more efficiently and produce less metabolic heat,” which can be beneficial in hotter conditions, he says. “But that’s just a hypothesis.” This body change was most pronounced in birds that spend their time higher up in the canopy, where conditions are hotter and drier than the forest floor.

    Whether these changes in shape and size represent an evolutionary adaptation to climate change, or simply a physiological response to warmer temperatures, remains unclear (SN: 5/8/20). Whichever is the case, Jirinec suggests that the change shows the pernicious power of human activity (SN: 10/26/21).

    “The Amazon rainforest is mysterious, remote and teeming with biodiversity,” he says. “This study suggests that even in places like this, far removed from civilization, you can see signatures of climate change.” More

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    How intricate Venus’s-flower-baskets manipulate the flow of seawater

    A Venus’s-flower-basket isn’t all show. This stunning deep-sea sponge can also alter the flow of seawater in surprising ways.

    A lacy, barrel-shaped chamber forms the sponge’s glassy skeleton. Flow simulations reveal how this intricate structure alters the way water moves around and through the sponge, helping it endure unforgiving ocean currents and perhaps feed and reproduce, researchers report online July 21 in Nature.

    Previous studies have found that the gridlike construction of a Venus’s-flower-basket (Euplectella aspergillum) is strong and flexible. “But no one has ever tried to see if these beautiful structures have fluid-dynamic properties,” says mechanical engineer Giacomo Falcucci of Tor Vergata University of Rome.

    Harnessing supercomputers, Falcucci and colleagues simulated how water flows around and through the sponge’s body, with and without different skeletal components such as the sponge’s myriad pores. If the sponge were a solid cylinder, water flowing past would form a turbulent wake immediately downstream that could jostle the creature, Falcucci says. Instead water flows through and around the highly porous Venus’s-flower-basket and forms a gentle zone of water that flanks the sponge and displaces turbulence downstream, the team found. That way, the sponge’s body endures less stress.

    Ridges that spiral around the outside of the sponge’s skeleton also somehow cause water to slow and swirl inside the structure, the simulations showed. As a result, food and reproductive cells that drift into the sponge would become trapped for up to twice as long as in the same sponge without ridges. That lingering could help the filter feeders catch more plankton. And because Venus’s-flower-baskets can reproduce sexually, it could also enhance the chances that free-floating sperm encounter eggs, the researchers say.

    It’s amazing that such beauty could be so functional, Falcucci says. The sponge’s flow-altering abilities, he says, might help inspire taller, more wind-resistant skyscrapers.

    This simulation shows how water flows around and through a Venus’s-flower-basket (gray). Ridges that spiral across the outside of the sponge cause water inside to somehow slow and swirl, forming particle-trapping vortices. And the sponge’s shape creates a gentle zone of slower water that forms immediately downstream, buffering the creature against turbulence. Vertical cross sections contrast the flow activity of the calm zone (nearer the sponge) and the turbulent zone (downstream).G. Falcucci et al/Nature 2021 More

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    Climate change may be leading to overcounts of endangered bonobos

    Climate change is interfering with how researchers count bonobos, possibly leading to gross overestimates of the endangered apes, a new study suggests.

    Like other great apes, bonobos build elevated nests out of tree branches and foliage to sleep in. Counts of these nests can be used to estimate numbers of bonobos — as long as researchers have a good idea of how long a nest sticks around before it’s broken down by the environment, what’s known as the nest decay time.

    New data on rainfall and bonobo nests show that the nests are persisting longer in the forests in Congo, from roughly 87 days, on average, in 2003–2007 to about 107 days in 2016–2018, largely as a result of declining precipitation. This increase in nests’ decay time could be dramatically skewing population counts of the endangered apes and imperiling conservation efforts, researchers report June 30 in PLOS ONE.

    “Imagine going in that forest … you count nests, but each single nest is around longer than it used to be 15 years ago, which means that you think that there are more bonobos than there really are,” says Barbara Fruth, a behavioral ecologist at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany.

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    Lowland tropical forests, south of the Congo River in Africa, are the only place in the world where bonobos (Pan paniscus) still live in the wild (SN: 3/18/21). Estimates suggest that there are at least 15,000 to 20,000 bonobos there. But there could be as many as 50,000 individuals. “The area of potential distribution is rather big, but there have been very few surveys,” Fruth says.

    From 2003 to 2007, and then again from 2016 to 2018, Fruth and colleagues followed wild bonobos in Congo’s LuiKotale rain forest, monitoring 1,511 nests. “The idea is that you follow [the bonobos] always,” says Mattia Bessone, a wildlife researcher at the Liverpool John Moores University in England. “You need to be up early in the morning so that you can be at the spot where the bonobos have nested, in time for them to wake up, and then you follow them till they nest again.”

    In doing so, day after day, Fruth, Bessone and colleagues were first able to understand how many nests a bonobo builds in a day, what’s known as the nest construction rate. “It’s not necessarily one because sometimes bonobos build day nests,” Bessone says. On average, each bonobo builds 1.3 nests per day, the team found.

    Tracking how long these nests stuck around revealed that the structures were lasting an average of 19 days longer in 2016–2018 than in 2003–2007. The researchers also compiled fifteen years of climate data for LuiKotale, which showed a decrease in average rainfall from 2003 to 2018. That change in rain is linked to climate change, the researchers say, and helps explain why nests have become more resilient.

    These images show bonobo nests at different stages of decay. Knowing the time it takes for a nest to decay is crucial for estimating accurate bonobo numbers.© B. Fruth/MPI of Animal Behavior

    By counting the numbers of nests and then dividing that number by the product of the average nest decay time and nest construction rate, scientists can get an estimate of the number of bonobos in a region. But if researchers are using outdated, shorter nest decay times, those estimates could be severely off, overestimating bonobo counts by up to 50 percent, Bessone says.

    “The results are not surprising but also highlight how indirect (and therefore prone to errors) our methods of density estimates of many species are,” Martin Surbeck, a behavioral ecologist at Harvard University, wrote in an e-mail.

    Technologies such as camera traps can be used to directly count animals instead of using proxies like nests and are the way forward for animal population studies, researchers say. But until those methods become more common, nest counts remain vital for scientists’ understanding of bonobo numbers.

    This phenomenon is probably not limited to bonobos. All great apes build nests, and nest counts are used to estimate those animals’ numbers too. So, the researchers say, the new results could have implications for the conservation of primates far beyond bonobos. More

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    Focusing on Asian giant hornets distorts the view of invasive species

    Fingers crossed for finding nothing: July marks the main trapping season to check for Asian giant hornets still infesting Washington state.

    The first of these invasive hornets found in North America in 2021, in June, was probably not from a nest made this year, scientists say. So that find doesn’t say how well, or if, the pests might have survived the winter. Yet that hornet shows quite well the relentless risk of newly arriving insects.

    That initial specimen, a “crispy” dead male insect lying on a lawn in Marysville, Wash., belongs to the hefty species Vespa mandarinia. Nicknamed murder hornets, these were detected flying loose in Canada for the first time in 2019 and in the United States in 2020 (SN: 5/29/20). Yet the “dry, crispy” male is not part of known hornet invasions, said entomologist Sven Spichiger at a news conference on June 16.

    Testing shows the male “is definitely not the same genetic line as the ones we have found,” said Spichiger, of the Washington State Department of Agriculture in Olympia. Neither the U.S. finds, until now all from Washington’s Whatcom County, nor British Columbia’s on the other side of the border are closely related to the newfound hornet. It’s a separate incursion no one had noticed until now.

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    This oddball new specimen may help correct the skewed impression that sneaky invasive arrivals are rare. The hornets’ appearance in North America may have been a shock to some, but in reality, worrisome insects show up often, and will probably keep doing so. Fortunately making a permanent home is harder than getting here, scientists say.

    When news of the Asian giant hornets’ arrival first broke in 2019, one of the people who was not at all surprised at a foreign species was entomologist Doug Yanega of the University of California, Riverside. “It is very fair to say that there are many invasive species,” he emphasizes. “We just got a new African mantis species in California this past year in LA, and the expectation is that it is likely to spread.”

    But even alarming pest arrivals rarely kick up the fuss prompted by Asian giant hornets. At a peak in hornet news during May 2020, Yanega contrasted the new intruders with the South American palm weevil (Rhynchophorus palmarum). That big weevil had reached southern California and could “wipe out every palm tree in the state,” according to Yanega. Yet, “there have been ZERO [national] mainstream media reports about this, an insect that seriously threatens to have a VASTLY greater negative impact on the economy and our way of life than those hornets ever will,” he fumed in an e-mail.

    That relentless influx of invading insects may be one reason so few make it into the general news. For instance, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 31,785 incidents detecting some pest just for fiscal year 2020.

    For 2021, to pick just one example of worrisome arrivals that have not gone viral, inspectors at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia and later at Baltimore/Washington International noticed little brown pests called Khapra beetles (Trogoderma granarium) in Basmati rice and then in dried cow peas that travelers were trying to bring in from abroad. Officials banned the contaminated foodstuffs.

    The Dulles contraband had the bigger number of living insects: 12 larvae and four adults. Even that tiny number of tiny insects was unacceptable. This is the only insect species that U.S. customs officials act upon even when all specimens are found dead. The beetles nibble stored seeds but will also soil the goods with stray body parts and hairs that can make human babies fed dirty grain quite sick and adults uncomfortable. In 1953, a major California effort started to stamp out infestations of Khapra beetles and eventually preserved crop marketability. But the effort was expensive, costing the equivalent of about $90 million in today’s economy.

    Tiny but destructive Khapra beetles (shown, side and front view), which California eliminated at great expense, almost got into the United States at least twice in 2021 in air passenger luggage. Customs stopped those two incursions.Both: Pest and Diseases Image Library, (CC BY-NC 3.0 US)

    Tiny but destructive Khapra beetles (shown, side and front view), which California eliminated at great expense, almost got into the United States at least twice in 2021 in air passenger luggage. Customs stopped those two incursions.Both: Pest and Diseases Image Library, (CC BY-NC 3.0 US)

    Beetles aside, menacing hornets of other species have shown up before the latest Asian giants, says Paul van Westendorp, an apiculture specialist who now strategizes British Columbia’s fight against V. mandarinia. In May 2019, just months before the discovery of an Asian giant hornet’s arrival, a V. soror hornet appeared in Canada. It was “alive, but not for long,” van Westendorp says. “I had a chance to admire that specimen.” Not a frail beast, this species hunts down other insects and has been reported to catch prey as large as a gecko. V. soror looks very much like a V. mandarinia, he says.

    Even Asian giant hornets themselves have turned up at least once in the United States before 2020. An inspector in 2016 flagged a package coming into the San Francisco airport holding a papery insect nest but not mentioning insects on the label. The nest held Asian giant hornet larvae and pupae, some still alive when discovered. These and other species of hornets, including the ominously named V. bellicosa, accounted for about half of the 50 interceptions of hornets and yellow jackets flagged from 2010 to 2018 at U.S. ports of entry, researchers reported in 2020 in Insect Systematics and Diversity.  

    Only some stowaways will manage to make permanent homes in new territory. Of these, the real troublemakers seem to be a minority. For instance, out of 455 plant-attacking insects that settled into forests in the continental United States, 62 cause noticeable damage, according to a 2011 tally from U.S. Forest Service researcher Juliann Aukema and colleagues. Even a few rampaging invasive pests, though, can get expensive. Biologists are throwing themselves into the fight.

    Relentless as the onslaught of unwanted arrivals is, there’s hope for stamping out the more noticeable invasions if caught early. Vespa hornets are “very large-bodied and obvious, so people will see them,” says entomologist Lynn Kimsey of the University of California, Davis, one of the authors of the 2020 hornet overview. A Vespa affinis nest showed up in San Pedro, in Southern California at least a decade ago. However, she says, “it was killed and there’s been no sighting of the species since, as far as I’ve heard.”

    Catching such intrusions early isn’t always easy, however. The port of Oakland takes in about 1 million shipping containers from overseas a year, but at best U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors can check maybe only 10 percent for stowaway insects, Kimsey says. Add to this all the cargo coming into Long Beach, San Diego and the other West Coast ports — plus all the cargo jets. “What’s amazing is that we don’t see more invasives,” she says. “I think this tells you how hard it is for exotic species to get established.”

    They’ll keep arriving though. All the more reason to keep an eye out for something funny on the lawn, even if it’s just a withered nugget. More

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    A proposed ‘quantum compass’ for songbirds just got more plausible

    Scientists could be a step closer to understanding how some birds might exploit quantum physics to navigate.

    Researchers suspect that some songbirds use a “quantum compass” that senses the Earth’s magnetic field, helping them tell north from south during their annual migrations (SN: 4/3/18). New measurements support the idea that a protein in birds’ eyes called cryptochrome 4, or CRY4, could serve as a magnetic sensor. That protein’s magnetic sensitivity is thought to rely on quantum mechanics, the math that describes physical processes on the scale of atoms and electrons (SN: 6/27/16). If the idea is shown to be correct, it would be a step forward for biophysicists who want to understand how and when quantum principles can become important in various biological processes.

    In laboratory experiments, the type of CRY4 in retinas of European robins (Erithacus rubecula) responded to magnetic fields, researchers report in the June 24 Nature. That’s a crucial property for it to serve as a compass. “This is the first paper that actually shows that birds’ cryptochrome 4 is magnetically sensitive,” says sensory biologist Rachel Muheim of Lund University in Sweden, who was not involved with the research.

    Scientists think that the magnetic sensing abilities of CRY4 are initiated when blue light hits the protein. That light sets off a series of reactions that shuttle around an electron, resulting in two unpaired electrons in different parts of the protein. Those lone electrons behave like tiny magnets, thanks to a quantum property of the electrons called spin.

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    The two electrons’ magnets can point either parallel to one another or in opposite directions. But quantum physics dictates that the electrons do not settle on either arrangement. Rather they exist in a limbo called a quantum superposition, which describes only the probability of finding the electrons in either configuration.

    Magnetic fields change those probabilities. That, in turn, affects how likely the protein is to form an altered version instead of returning to its original state. Birds may be able to determine their orientation in a magnetic field based on how much of the altered protein is produced, although that process is not yet understood. “How does the bird perceive this? We don’t know,” says chemist Peter Hore of the University of Oxford, a coauthor of the new study.

    The idea that cryptochromes play a role in birds’ internal compasses has been around for decades, but “no one could confirm this experimentally,” says Jingjing Xu of the University of Oldenburg in Germany. So in the new study, Xu, Hore and colleagues observed what happened when the isolated proteins were hit with blue laser light. After the laser pulse, the researchers measured how much light the sample absorbed. For robin CRY4, the addition of a magnetic field changed the amount of absorbance, a sign that the magnetic field was affecting how much of the altered form of the protein was produced.

    When the researchers performed the same test on CRY4 found in nonmigratory chickens and pigeons, the magnetic field had little effect. The stronger response to the magnetic field in CRY4 from a migratory bird “could suggest that maybe there is really something special about the cryptochromes of migratory birds that use this for a compass,” says biophysicist Thorsten Ritz of the University of California, Irvine.

    But laboratory tests with chickens and pigeons have shown that those birds can sense magnetic fields, Ritz and Muheim both note. It’s not clear whether the higher sensitivity of robin CRY4 in laboratory tests is a result of evolutionary pressure for migratory birds to have a better magnetic sensor.

    One factor making interpretation of the results more difficult is that experiments on isolated proteins don’t match the conditions in birds’ eyes. For example, Xu says, scientists think the proteins may be aligned in one direction within the retina. To further illuminate the process, the researchers hope to perform future studies on actual retinas, to get a literal bird’s-eye view. More