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  • Astronaut Garrett Reisman took in countless indescribably beautiful views while he lived in space. But most shocking, he says, was observing the thinness of Earth's atmosphere.
  • You can compare the thickness of the atmosphere to the diameter of Earth to the skin on an apple, or the shell of an egg. It's incredibly thin and shows just how seemingly fragile our planet is.
  • But to put this into perspective, whereas the atmosphere reaches a height of 300,000 feet from Earth's surface, the deepest part of the ocean only reaches 35,000 feet, ten times thinner than Earth's atmosphere. Everything we experience on Earth, from sea to sky, exists on just a tiny slice of precious surface coating.
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The future of the Amazon may depend on tapir poop

Each pile of dung contains a cornucopia of seeds, perfect for reforesting.

Image source: slowmotiongli/Shutterstock
  • Tapirs produce towering piles of feces full of large-tree seeds other animal can't pass.
  • Stashing tasty fecal morsels for later, dung beetles bury the seeds.
  • Tapirs prefer burned-out areas, making them ideal re-foresters.

The Amazon rainforest has been in trouble for some time. In the last 40 years, more than 18% of Brazil's rainforest, for example, has been decimated by logging, farming, mining, and cattle ranching. That's an area about the size of California. If it isn't deliberate deforestation for commercial purposes, it's fires. Last years's unprecedented rainforest conflagrations, 85% more severe than the previous year's, were absolutely devastating, burning away some 10.123 square kilometers of forest. This year looks worse — in the first four months of 2020 alone, 1,202 square kilometers have been incinerated.

Often poking their way though the charred remains are trunk-nosed lowland tapirs (Tapirus terrestris), and that's a great thing. "Tapirs in Brazil are known as the gardeners of the forests," says ecologist Lucas Paolucci of Amazon Environmental Research Institute in Brazil. They're prodigious defecators whose feces is packed with a remarkable assortment of seeds from the plants they ingest. Paolucci has great hopes for the role that tapirs, along with dung beetles, their partners in grime, can play in reforesting the Amazon. It's something they're already doing on their own.

Tapir poop in a zoo

Image source: Kulmalukko/Wikimedia

The tapir is South America's largest native mammal, looking a bit like a pig with a trunk. It's actually more closely related to a horse or rhinoceros, and is believed to have been around for tens of millions of years.

Paolucci found tapir's massive mounds of dung — "bigger than my head" — hard to miss. Inside each pile is a treasure trove of seeds including those from large, carbon-storing trees that are just too big to pass through the digestive tracts of smaller mammals. This makes them invaluable disseminators of exactly the sort of trees needed to rebuild a forest.

Tapirs seem to prefer the burned-out areas in which they're most needed, too. In 2016, Paolucci joined other researchers in studying the type of areas tapirs like to frequent. In eastern Mato Grasso, they tracked the goings-on in three plots of forest land. Two of these plots had been subjected to controlled burns from 2004 to 2010. One of then was burned every year, while the other was torched every three. The third plot was left unburned as a control.

Patrolling the plots, the researchers recorded the locations of 163 tapir-dung piles, confirming their source with camera-trap recordings of the perpetrators. The tapirs, it turned out, spend much more time in the burned out forest plots than the untouched one. Paolluccis suggests they may prefer the warm sunshine in areas not covered by forest canopy.

When the researchers extracted and counted up the seeds in those piles, an impressive array was cataloged: 129,204 seeds representing 24 plant species. Biodiversity writ in poo.

Distribution

Image source: Jasper_Lensselink_Photography/Shutterstock

Seeing the tapirs' deposits leading to widespread new growth meant that something, or someone, else, had been spreading them out for planting: Dung beetles, of the superfamily Scarabaeoidea. Paolucci conducted an experiment that confirmed that dung beetles break off piles of tapir dung, roll them away, and bury them for later munching. The seeds in their snacks are in effect planted where they can grow.

Early last year, Paolucci retrieved 20 kilograms of tapir poop from the Amazon, breaking it apart into 700-gram clumps. He returned these clumps to the Amazon after stuffing each one with plastic pellets to serve as as dummy seeds. After 24 hours, Paolucci collected the clumps and counted the pellets gone missing, a simple way to calculate the number of new plants the dung beetles had planted that day. He hopes to publish the details of his study next year.

Looking forward

While tapirs and their dung-beetle buddies clearly can help reforest the Amazon, they, like everything else trying to live in the rainforest region, are themselves endangered by the raging forest fires. If they're lost, going with them will be a fantastic means of spreading large-tree seeds through the region.

Whale-watching is now bigger than whaling in Iceland

Two of Iceland's largest whaling companies are keeping their boats in port this summer. One of them permanently.

Image source: RnDmS/Shutterstock
  • Since the International Whaling Commission's ban on whaling went into effect in 1986, only three countries are still whaling: Norway, Iceland, and Japan.
  • The whale-watching industry is rapidly eclipsing whaling in Iceland these days.
  • If you visit Iceland, don't eat the whale meat — Icelanders don't.

In 1982, 25 member nations of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) voted to ban commercial whaling by 1986. Seven nation voted against the ban: Brazil, Iceland, South Korea, Japan, Norway, Peru, and the-then Soviet Union. Nonetheless, in 1986, large-scale hunting of whales ended worldwide. Mostly.

Norway never stopped whaling, and Iceland resumed whaling in 2003. Japan exited the IWC in 2019 and announced they would be ending their already-controversial annual Antarctic whaling expeditions and resuming commercial whaling in their territorial waters and in the country's 200-mile exclusive economic zone along its coast, claiming research as their reason for doing so. According to the World Wildlife Federation, 31,984 whales have been killed since the moratorium when into effect.

Iceland's two largest whaling companies have just announced they're going keep their ships ashore for the 2020 whaling season. The companies' motivations are apparently strictly monetary. "I'm never going to hunt whales again, I'm stopping for good ," Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson of the minke whaling company IP-Utgerd told Agence France-Presse (AFP). The second company, Hvalur, which hunts fin whales, has only committed to halting operations for 2020. Neither company was out on the seas in 2019 due to low catches in recent years and other financial consideration.

Minke whale, (left), and a fin whale, (right)

Image source: Jemma Craig/ Leonardo Gonzalez /Shutterstock

Jonsson explained his decision to stop whaling to AFP as being primarily a reaction to an extension of the no-fishing coastal zone that forced his ships out further in search of whales, saying the change made continuing no longer financially feasible.

The CEO of Hvalu, Kristján Loftsson, explained his thinking to Icelandic newspaper, Morganbladid. Loftsson claimed that social distancing was a factor since it made operating vessels and processing whale meat more difficult. This doesn't explain why his ships stayed home in 2019.

A more plausible explanation would be that Japan — the company's primary market — has become less hospitable to his whale meat. He told Morganbladid that Japanese government subsidies for domestic whalers made it difficult for him to compete. It's also the case that people in Japan are eating less whale meat.

A sea change

Image source: Chris Yang/Unsplash

Árni Finnsson, chairman of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association tells National Geographic there's another reason for Jonsson and Loftsson calling it quits: public sentiment is turning against the whaling industry. Finnson says, "What has changed is that the fishing industry is not willing to support him anymore. They feel that Iceland needs to be able to export fish to the U.S. market, and they don't want to continue defending whaling. I think he's done."

In fact, Icelanders overall are less in favor of whaling, particularly in light of a newly booming industry: whale watching, which grew from 15-34% each year between 2012 and 2016. The most popular area for catching a glimpse of the animals is the eastern part of the large Faxaflói Bay.

These waters are minke territory. To keep whale-lovers and whalers apart, a small sanctuary in the bay was created in 2007. That was expanded by the government at the urging of Icewhale, an association of whale-watching companies in 2017. The enlarged sanctuary included the waters where 321 of the 335 minkes caught by Icelandic whalers between 2007 and 2016 were harvested, thus pushing whalers such as Jonnson out to sea.

In addition, while whale meat was never highly regarded in Iceland, and a recent poll found that just 1% of Inlanders now eat whale meat regularly while 84% say they never have.

"Hunting whales with cameras delivers economic benefits to coastal communities around the world, and Iceland is pointing the way," says Patrick Ramage, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

Even Norway is showing signs that the days of whaling may be coming to an end: The number of whaling vessels in 2017 was half of what it was in 2016, and just a third of the officially allowed number of whales were being taken during that time.

Climate change to make outdoor work more dangerous

Today's agriculture workers face 21 days of heat that exceed safety standards. That number will double by 2050.

(Photo: Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images)
  • According to a recent study, the number of days agricultural works will spend in sweltering, unsafe conditions will double by 2050 and triple by 2100.
  • These workers already face significant health risks due to compounding circumstances such as poverty, migrant status, and a lack of access to health care.
  • Climate change will make many the United States' most fatal occupations more dangerous, but no less essential.
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    Chemists develop fast-degrading plastic for cleaner oceans

    The researchers hope to develop a no-trace plastic to curtail marine pollution and ghost fishing.

    (Photo: NOAA)
    • Cornell University chemists have developed a polymer with the strength of industrial-grade plastics but degrades quickly in sunlight.
    • They hope the plastic will one day be used to make fishing nets that leave no environmental trace.
    • Their research joins other programs and initiatives aimed at restoring our oceans.
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