What happens when you lose a limb?
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Eating grains may have given rise to human speech, say Swiss researchers. The change from hunter-gathering to milled-grain consumption is correlated with a change in human tooth structure, where the upper teeth were pushed slightly in front of the lower teeth. This allowed the mouth to produce new sounds known as ‘labiodentals’, which are found in half the world’s languages. They are made by touching the lower lip to the upper teeth, such as when saying ‘f’ or ‘v’.
We’re increasingly stressed, and so are our kids. Their rates of anxiety have surged by 875 per cent over the past decade, and that’s just for children under 14. But there’s something that can help, and it’s free. Nature is good for us primarily because it acts on stress. Earlier this year, United States science journalist Aaron Reuben tallied more than 450 studies showing a positive connection between nature and human health. You don’t need a lot of it, either: a recent British study of 20,000 adults found that spending two hours per week in a park provided the same benefits as five. But for those able to devote a weekend to the wilderness, nature appears to act like a deep-clean for the brain: people emerge better able to concentrate, problem-solve, and think creatively. In other words, a research-approved remedy for our increasing rates of depression, anxiety and health problems costs us nothing extra. We simply need to use a resource that we’re already paying to maintain for other purposes. The Department of Conservation is a health provider, and its land—a third of New Zealand—a massive therapeutic facility. So how do we get people there? How do we teach them about it? How do we help them use it? These connections are starting to be made. DOC’s Healthy Nature, Healthy People initiative, a partnership with the Mental Health Foundation, is a step in the right direction—it’s based on the pioneering Parks Australia programme that saw the concept of ‘nature prescriptions’ spread around the world. But it needs to be scaled up a thousand times. It needs funding, support and other partnerships. Then there’s Federated Mountain Clubs, its members overflowing with knowledge and goodwill, but facing an ageing membership and lacking connection with young people. We need better connections between healthcare providers and the people who manage and advocate for our outdoor places. We need better infrastructure to help our diverse population, with its various needs, to access these places. And we need better information about how much our conservation land can help us. Imagine if we designated areas ‘therapy forests’ or ‘therapy beaches’ or ‘therapy valleys’, and there was a subsidised bus that took you there on Saturdays, and once you got there, a track that was good enough for strollers and wheelchairs, too. We can learn from the many successful initiatives overseas. In the United States, the non-profit Park Rx connects healthcare providers with park areas or non-profits that help improve access among groups of people who typically don’t go bushwalking or tramping. Community group Unlikely Hikers provides support for people living with disability to access parks, as well as people who feel they don’t fit in with traditional tramping clubs. Hike It Baby does the same thing for parents with young children. We underestimate what can be learned and gained from time outdoors. On my way to meet the Rapsey family (see page 32), I hitchhiked to Nelson Lakes National Park with an high-school outdoor education instructor (the lack of transport between Nelson and its proximate national park is another story). She told me outdoor education was falling out of favour among students—the subject was perceived as a dead-end, as fun rather than useful, not the kind of thing that smart kids might do. Nature shouldn’t really be an option, but a default, like maths, like English, like eating five fruits or vegetables a day. Nature is the environment that our bodies evolved to fit, not the cities we’ve made for ourselves. Nature activates our parasympathetic nervous system, the ‘rest-and-digest’ process that’s the opposite of the ‘fight-or-flight’ one. Our bodies know it’s home, even if we don’t.
Fish have been forming shoals since at least the Eocene Epoch, according to this fossil of 259 tiny, extinct Erismatopterus levatus, which lived about 50 million years ago in giant lakes that covered Wyoming, Colorado and Utah in the United States. By analysing the positions and swimming directions of the fish, researchers from Arizona State University found their group behaviour to be the same as fish species today: they avoid straying too far from the shoal and swimming too close to each other. Communication and behaviour are usually absent from the fossil record, but in this case, a mystery remains: how were these fish preserved mid-swim?
It’s not a squirrel, or a bat, but a dinosaur that acted like all three. The newly discovered species Ambopteryx longibrachium lived in the forests of China 163 million years ago, climbing trees and gliding between them. Ambopteryx, which was described in a paper published in Nature in May, is only the second feathered dinosaur to have been found with signs of membranous, bat-like wings. The first, Yi qi, or ‘strange wings’, reshaped theories about the evolution of flight following its 2007 discovery. (It’s now believed that dinosaurs developed flight up to four times, using multiple types of wings.) Ambopteryx is a member of the scansoriopterygid family: tiny, feathered, lightweight dinosaurs. Alive, it probably weighed a few hundred grams, or about the same as a burger. It had long hands and fingers, feet suited to perching, and wrist bone called a styliform which looks like it would support a wing. “These fossils demonstrate that, close to the origin of flight, dinosaurs closely related to birds were experimenting with a diversity of wing structures,” write the authors. Now, the hunt is on for relatives of Ambopteryx and Yi.
Spearfishers are taking aim at freshwater pests instead of dwindling marine species.
It’s been alone for two million years, during which time it lost the ability to fly, and its habitat has shrunk to just a few hundred metres of stream with a view of Dunedin Airport—but the Maungatua stonefly is finally enjoying a moment in the spotlight. Its discovery was an accident: Jon Waters, a professor of zoology at the University of Otago, was out in the Maungatua Range looking for an entirely different species of stonefly. But this species was different, and Waters knew it. It’s flightless, chunky, and short, less than two centimetres long. PhD student Brodie Foster, who led its taxonomic description, called it a “relict”. Juvenile stoneflies, called nymphs, live under stones in rapids. At first, researchers found only nymphs of the Maungatua stonefly, so they reared a male to adulthood to study. DNA analysis confirmed it as a new species, named Zelandoperla maungatuaensis. Landcare Research considers nymphs from the Zelandoperla genus to be indicators of good water quality—they’re among the first species to disappear from an unhealthy stream.
Chytrid fungus is the Genghis Khan of the amphibian world: it has spent the past 50 years invading nations one by one, slaughtering as it goes. It has spread to more than 60 countries, wiped out 90 species, and caused significant population declines in more than 500 species, according to an international study led by the Australian National University. The fungus, which eats the skin of amphibians, is responsible for the world’s greatest biodiversity loss due to a disease. Researchers say it should be considered one of the most damaging invasive species in the world—up there with rats and cats in terms of the number of species it endangers. Though chytrid is present in New Zealand and Australia, one nearby land mass remains a sanctuary: New Guinea, which is home to six per cent of the world’s frog species. In June, a team of 30 international experts published a paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment calling for greater support and protection for New Guinea’s island haven.
For palaeontologists, the dark diatomite layers of Foulden Maar are like the shelves of a great library. Outside that library, bulldozers wait.
When spider monkeys, honey bees, or sharks are foraging for food, they’ll use a pattern of movement called a Lévy walk—random but correlated steps with no destination in sight, involving many short movements mixed with a few longer ones. The theory goes that this pattern is statistically best for finding randomly distributed objects, such as food. Now, Japanese scientists have shown humans also do the Lévy walk when moving through crowds—the free spaces substituted as the resources being sought. Though people move haphazardly, they naturally choose efficient routes. The study has implications for crowd-behaviour research and urban design.
Last October, Chris and Jorinde Rapsey and their two children set off from Cape Reinga to walk Te Araroa, the 3000-kilometre track that runs the length of New Zealand. They lived outdoors for five months and walked an average of 20 kilometres a day. For nine-year-old Elizabeth and six-year-old Johnny, it was an immersive education—a form of learning increasingly absent from the lives of young New Zealanders, even as international research affirms the importance of children spending time in nature.
Wherever penguins and seals wander on the Antarctic peninsula, biodiversity hotspots spring up in their wake, thanks to the soil enrichment provided by their poo. Its nourishment allows mosses and lichens to grow, which in turn host small invertebrates, such as mites and springtails. The poo partly evaporates as ammonia, and this is blown inland, resulting in a total area of enrichment up to 240 times the size of the penguin or seal colony. In a study published in Current Biology in May, Dutch researchers mapped these biodiversity hotspots across the peninsula, which will be updated in future by tracking penguin and seal movement by satellite. Next, they plan to look at whether these hotspots are enabling invasive species to spread.
Three fathers, two mothers, one father and two mothers—all are naturally occuring parent combinations for honeybees. Honeybees are haplodiploid, which means that females hatch from fertilised eggs (and have two parents) while males hatch from unfertilised eggs (and have no father). This makes it possible for new forms of reproduction to occur, and new research into bees’ DNA, published in Biology Letters last November, found that they can have multiple parents of various sexes. Researchers estimate that one to two per cent of bees are born this way—they’re known as sex mosaics, or gynandromorphs, and have a mixture of male and female characteristics.
Why did hundreds of dead kororā—little blue penguins—wash up on beaches around the country two summers ago? Has their fate got anything to do with the weather? Or has it got something to do with us?
Trees give us a better life: they keep us cool, provide habitat, filter carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, help with flood protection, improve our mental health, increase house prices, reduce car crashes and shield us from wind. But trees can be a marker of inequality, too. Auckland Council data from 2017 shows that urban trees cover 18 per cent of the city’s land on average—but that can fluctuate from eight per cent to 74 per cent depending on the suburb. Māngere, Ōtāhuhu, Ōtara, Papatoetoe, Manurewa and Papakura had an average of 10.5 per cent tree coverage, while central areas had 19.3 per cent and Devonport and Takapuna 24.6 per cent. How to get the benefits of more trees in our cities, and share those with everyone? Other than discouraging cutting them down, new research from Boston University, published in PLOS One in May, suggests that just planting more trees isn’t enough, as those in cities grow faster but die younger than their relatives in the country. Our understanding of trees is based on intact, rural forests and doesn’t apply to urban ecosystems, say the authors. They conclude that taking better care of existing trees can have more of an impact—in terms of the total biomass of urban trees—than planting loads of new ones.
It seems like an ancient, static hunk of old rock, but the moon does seem to be tectonically active, according to new research based on four seisometers left on its surface during NASA’s Apollo programme. The devices recorded 28 shallow ‘moonquakes’ between 1969 and 1977. A recent paper published in Nature Geoscience analysed them in an attempt to pinpoint their epicentres. Researchers from the United States and Canada compared the epicentres to land features such as fault scarps, loose soil and rock deposits, and boulder movements, and say their findings may mean the moon is currently tectonically active.
A citizen-science project to spot Otago skinks will help a Dunedin PhD student collect valuable data about the weather conditions that they prefer. Jo Virens set up eight cameras in Redbank Reserve to photograph Otago skink habitat every minute. The result: 750,000 images. Virens now needs help identifying which pictures feature skink appearances. By plotting the reptiles’ activity alongside detailed data on wind, solar radiation, temperature and humidity, Virens will be able to figure out which temperature conditions best suit them. “It’s all about how that affects body temperature, they’re going to be wanting to maintain a body temperature of probably around 25 to 35 degrees.” Then, using localised weather projections for the next 100 years, Virens will be able to create a skink forecast: will there be skink-friendly weather, encouraging them to bask all day long? Or will they need to move to new habitat to survive? There aren’t many skinks to spot—they’re endangered—but they pop into the frame often enough to tempt a viewer to spot just one more. “I’m not expecting it to be that entertaining,” says Virens. “I’m hoping the challenge behind it is what’s going to be appealing about it.” Otago skinks have black and gold markings reminiscent of lichen growing on rock, and reach up to 30 centimetres in length. Their patterns are unique—individual skinks can be identified from pictures of their face markings. Not that they always come that close in Virens’ pictures. Virens has set up the project on citizen-science platform Zooniverse—anyone can view 10 time-lapse images at a time, and flag when Otago skinks appear. Follow this shortcut to access them: nzgeo.com/skink The skinks are hard to spot, warns Virens, so look closely. “The beta test revealed that false negatives—people missing skinks—were relatively common, whereas false positives—people saying they saw a skink when there wasn’t one—practically never happened.”
Most people don’t understand what a museum is for. Unfortunately, nor do some of the people managing them.
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