Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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The elephant-human relationship dates back into prehistory

Tim Flannery writes: In January 1962, on my sixth birthday, I was taken to Melbourne Zoo, where I rode an elephant. We children climbed a scaffold and perched on rough wooden benches atop the elephant’s back, where my fingers furtively reached for a feel of its wrinkled skin. A few months later, elephant rides were discontinued, for safety reasons, at most zoos in Australia, Europe, and the US. I was

Buddhism and ecology shed light on the nature of reality and the reality of nature

David P Barash writes: Once, while waiting for a wilderness permit at a ranger station in North Cascades National Park, Washington state, I overheard the following message, radioed into headquarters by a backcountry ranger: ‘Dead elk in upper Agnes Creek decomposing nicely. Over.’ This ranger was not only a practical and profound ecologist, she also possessed the wisdom of a Buddhist master. The ‘over’ in her communication seemed especially apt.

Mapping the human oral microbiome

In an interview with Knowable Magazine, Floyd Dewhirst says: We don’t really know the number of bacteria in an average mouth. But there are something like 1011 [100 billion] organisms per gram of plaque — so we’re looking at a large number. What people usually talk about is how many species are in there. The Human Oral Microbiome Project identified a little over 700 different species of bacteria. (There are

Ocean acidification can cause mass extinctions, fossils reveal

The Guardian reports: Ocean acidification can cause the mass extinction of marine life, fossil evidence from 66m years ago has revealed. A key impact of today’s climate crisis is that seas are again getting more acidic, as they absorb carbon emissions from the burning of coal, oil and gas. Scientists said the latest research is a warning that humanity is risking potential “ecological collapse” in the oceans, which produce half

How ballooning carbon emissions will impact trees

Daniel Grossman writes: Apart from the experts, few people realize that climate change could be worse. Every year, trees, shrubs, and every other kind of plant absorb 9 billion tons of CO2—one quarter of what we let loose from our tailpipes and smokestacks—and help slow the gas’s accumulation in the atmosphere. If not for the world’s photosynthesizers, the concentration of CO2 in the air, along with Earth’s temperature, would be

What an embodied history of trees can teach us about life

Dalia Nassar and Margaret M Barbour write: Place yourself on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, near the Franz Josef Glacier. Officially, this forest is a temperate podocarp-hardwood rainforest, but these dry words belie the rich diversity of plant life around, encompassing every imaginable shade of green, brown and grey. They also do an injustice to the experience of standing dwarfed by the soaring trunks of

How the loss of Native American languages affects our understanding of the natural world

Dance is a unique way of passing on cultural stories to a younger generation. Aaron Hawkins/, CC BY-ND By Rosalyn R. LaPier, The University of Montana Alaska has a “linguistic emergency,” according to the Alaskan Gov. Bill Walker. A report warned earlier this year that all of the state’s 20 Native American languages might cease to exist by the end of this century, if the state did not act. American

For microorganisms, cooperation rather than competition, is the key to survival

The University of Copenhagen reports: New microbial research at the Department of Biology reveals that bacteria would rather unite against external threats, such as antibiotics, rather than fight against each other. The report has just been published in the scientific publication ISME Journal. For a number of years the researchers have studied how combinations of bacteria behave together when in a confined area. After investigating many thousands of combinations it

Global warming threatens two-thirds of North American bird species

National Geographic reports: As they soar through the sky, birds seem blissfully impervious to the stresses of Earth. Indeed, their ability to migrate makes them more resilient to habitat disruption than less dynamic creatures. That makes the most recent annual report produced by the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting birds and their habitat, particularly startling. Released this week, the report predicts that if Earth continues to warm

‘If you pour poison unremittingly onto the land for 70 years — which is what we’ve done — you’re going to kill everything’

  One in seven British species is threatened with extinction, according to a new report by the country’s main wildlife and conservation charities. The study shows there have been strong or moderate declines in 41% of all species since 1970.

South America’s second-largest forest is also burning – and ‘environmentally friendly’ charcoal is subsidizing its destruction

The Paraguayan Chaco, South America’s second largest forest, is rapidly disappearing as agriculture extends deeper into what was once forest. Here, isolated stands of trees remain amid the farms. Joel E. Correia, CC BY-NC-ND By Joel E. Correia, University of Florida The fires raging across the Brazilian Amazon have captured the world’s attention. Meanwhile, South America’s second-largest forest, the Gran Chaco, is disappearing in plain sight. The Gran Chaco, which

400 million indigenous people protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity

The Guardian reports: As presidents, prime ministers and corporate executives gathered at the UN climate action summit on Monday, for the first time, an indigenous representative joined the event in a formal capacity. Tuntiak Katan of the Ecuadorian Shuar people spoke on behalf of the International Indigenous People’s Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC), a caucus of indigenous rights advocates who, for years, has been working towards more robust participation and

Studying the hidden effects of artificial light

Rebecca Boyle writes: Light is the basis for all life, but it is more than just a source of energy. It is also a source of information, telling organisms when to sleep, hunt, hide, migrate, metabolize, and reproduce. Since the advent of incandescent light bulbs, humans have been interfering with those messages. And the interference is worsening with the spread of LEDs, which consume less electricity and so are often

This isn’t extinction, it’s extermination of nature

Jeff Sparrow writes: We know that, as far back as the late 50s, researchers for the oil industry understood the effects of carbon on the atmosphere but did nothing about it. In 1988 George HW Bush promised on the campaign trail to fight climate change. “I am an environmentalist,” he declared. “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House

The end of life on Earth?

Apocalyptic statements always sound crazy and talking about the end of life on Earth at this juncture in its history will, for many people, seem like an overly pessimistic assessment of the perils we face. Temperatures rise, extreme weather events become more frequent, species dwindle or disappear, forests burn, glaciers melt — no doubt the situation is dire, but surely not so bad that we are witnessing the destruction of

Dangerous new hot zones are spreading around the world

The Washington Post reports: The day the yellow clams turned black is seared in Ramón Agüero’s memory. It was the summer of 1994. A few days earlier, he had collected a generous haul, 20 buckets of the thin-shelled, cold-water clams, which burrow a foot deep into the sand along a 13-mile stretch of beach near Barra del Chuy, just south of the Brazilian border. Agüero had been digging up these