from the world's big
Choosing new 'umbrella' species in Australia could save many others
Is the way we choose which animals to protect out of date?
- "Umbrella" species are animals selected for protection because doing so protects other species in the habitat.
- However, there may be a better, more efficient way of picking umbrella species: ignoring shared habitats and focusing instead on shared threats.
- Using this new methodology, researchers discovered that seven times as many species could be protected using the same budget.
Across the world, species are going extinct at a rate 1,000-fold higher than what experts consider natural. Aside from the intrinsic value of preserving diverse animal species, animal life contributes to the ecosystem and makes human society possible. Having a high diversity of animal species keeps this system stable.
That's why governments often designate key species as "umbrella" species. These animals are protected because they perform critical work that facilitates the survival of numerous other species in its ecological community. For instance, the northern spotted owl is considered an umbrella species because their habitat, old-growth forests, are also home to many other productive creatures, like mollusks and salamanders. Since humans can't log old-growth forests without infringing on the northern spotted owl's protective status, these other species are indirectly protected as well. Others include grizzly bears, whose umbrella protects elk, deer, mountain goats, mountain lions, and bison, and tigers, whose habitats also support leopards, monkeys, hares, boars, and other animals.
Building a bigger umbrella
But this system isn't perfect. Umbrella species are selected solely on the basis that they share a geographical range with other species — the northern spotted owl and old-growth forests, for instance, or the grizzly bear and woodlands and meadows.
There's likely a better, more effective way to select umbrella species. That's why Ph.D. candidate Michelle Ward and colleagues examined umbrella species in Australia and developed a new methodology for their selection based on threats to the species, actions that can be taken to mitigate those threats, and their costs.
"The Australian Federal Government's umbrella prioritization list identifies 73 species as conservation priorities," Ward said in a statement. "But this only ends up benefiting six percent of all Australia's threatened terrestrial species. This figure could be increased to benefit nearly half of all threatened terrestrial species for the same budget."
Species protection is a particularly critical task for Australia, as the nation is home to nearly 1,830 threatened species and sees the highest extinction rates on Earth.
Threats tend to be specific to particular species, and taking action to address those threats doesn't necessarily help the other species that have overlapping habitats. It could, however, help a large number of species living in distinct habitats.
An example of how protecting species based on shared threats rather than shared habitat works. Koalas face several threats, such as from fires, feral cats, and foxes. Putting koalas under protective status would require taking action against wildfires (protecting orchid species) and foxes (protecting the greater bilby).
Ward et al., 2020
Consider the Australasian bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus). The Australasian bittern's greatest threats are fire, habitat loss, pollution, grazing livestock, feral cats, and high water salinity. If the idea of an umbrella species were redefined to focus on addressing threats rather than protecting habitat, protecting the Australasian bittern would coincidentally protect 15 other species.
Protecting the Australasian bittern, the researchers calculated, would cost $2.3 million a year out of Australia's estimated $550 million budget for threatened species protection, a far more cost-effective solution than protecting animals based solely on overlapping geographical ranges.
Ward also identified the koala, red goshawk, matted flax-lily, and purple clover as both highly impactful and highly cost-effective species to target for protective status. "Yet none of these appear on the existing federal government priority species list," she said.
The sixth extinction
Currently, the Earth is in the midst of its sixth extinction event. These events have had different causes, such as the comet that killed 75 percent of all species including the dinosaurs, or the development of plant life and the subsequent sudden change in atmospheric composition.
The current extinction event, however, is entirely attributable to the different activities of human life. Most notably, this includes climate change, but it also is due to habitat destruction, pollution, and overexploitation of flora and fauna.
From the dawn of human civilization to today, 83 percent of wild mammals, 80 percent of marine mammals, 50 percent of plants, and 15 percent of fish have disappeared. Half of all existing species on Earth are expected to face extinction by the year 2100. While this crisis has been borne out of humanity's excess cleverness, that cleverness may be able to help repair some of the damage as well — improving our conservation methodologies is just one part of what must be a larger strategy.
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
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In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
- The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
A pastor at the chapel of the St. Josef Hospital on April 1, 2020 in Bochum, German
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images<p>Christian nationalists, in general, believe the U.S. and God's will are tied together, and they want the government to embody conservative Christian values and symbols. As such, they also believe the nation's fate depends on how closely it adheres to Christianity.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unsurprisingly then, in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, conservative pastors prophesied God's protection over the nation, citing America's righteous support for President Trump and the prolife agenda," the researchers write.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Correspondingly, the link between Christian nationalism and God's influence on how COVID‐19 impacts America can be seen in proclamations about God's divine judgment for its immorality―with the logic being that God is using the pandemic to draw wayward America <em>back </em>to himself, which assumes the two belong together."</p><p>The logical conclusion to this kind of thinking: America can save itself not through cautionary measures, like mask-wearing, but through devotion to God. What's more, it stands to reason that Christian nationalists are less likely to trust the media and scientists, given that these sources are generally not concerned with promoting a conservative, religious view of the world.</p><p>(The researchers note that they're unaware of any research directly linking Christian nationalism to distrust of media sources, but that they're almost certain the two are connected.)</p>
Predicted values of Americans' frequency of incautious behaviors during the COVID‐19 pandemic across values of Christian nationalism
Perry et al.<p>In the new study, the researchers examined three waves of results from the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. One wave of the survey was issued in May, and it asked respondents to rate how often they engaged in both incautious and precautionary behaviors.</p><p>Incautious behaviors included things like "ate inside a restaurant" and "went shopping for nonessential items," while precautionary behaviors included "washed my hands more often than typical" and "wore a mask in public."</p><p>To measure Christian nationalism, the researchers asked respondents to rate how strongly they agree with statements like "the federal government should advocate Christian values" and "the success of the United States is part of God's plan."</p><p>The results suggest that, compared to other groups, Christian nationalists are far less likely to wear masks, socially distance and take other precautionary measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior during the pandemic, and the second leading predictor that Americans avoided taking precautionary measures."</p><p>But that's not to say that religious beliefs are causing Americans to reject mask-wearing or social distancing. In fact, when the study accounted for Christian nationalist beliefs, the results showed that Americans with high levels of religiosity were likely to take precautionary measures for COVID-19.</p>
Limitations<p>Still, the researchers note that they're theorizing about the connections between Christian nationalism and COVID-19 behaviors, not documenting them directly. What's more, they suggest that certain experiences — such as having a family member that contracts COVID-19 — might change a Christian nationalist's behaviors during the pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Limitations notwithstanding, the implications of this study are important for understanding Americans' curious inability to quickly implement informed and reasonable strategies to overcome the threat of COVID‐19, an inability that has likely cost thousands of lives," they write.</p>
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