Leeches expose wildlife’s whereabouts and may aid conservation efforts

Leeches suck. Most people try to avoid them. But in the summer of 2016, park rangers in China’s Ailaoshan Nature Reserve went hunting for the little blood gluttons.

For months, the rangers searched through the reserve’s evergreen forest, gathering tens of thousands of leeches by hand and sometimes plucking the slimy parasites from the rangers’ own skin. Each time the rangers found a leech, they would place it into a little, preservative-filled tube, tuck the tube into a hip pack and carry on. The work could help aid conservation efforts, at Ailaoshan and elsewhere.

There are many ways to measure how much effort goes into wildlife conservation, but it’s difficult to assess the success of that effort, even in protected areas, says Douglas Yu, an ecologist at the Kunming Institute of Zoology in China.
But bloodthirsty worms may be just the tool for the job. Leeches aren’t picky eaters — they’ll feast on the blood of many different creatures, from amphibians to mammals to fish. Scientists have shown they can extract animal DNA from blood that leeches and other bloodsucking creatures have ingested, what’s known as invertebrate-derived DNA, or iDNA, and identify the source animal.

And some researchers had suggested that iDNA, a type of environmental DNA, could be used to trace the ranges of animals in an area, Yu says (SN: 1/18/22). “We thought we would just actually just try to do it.”

Enlisting 163 park rangers, Yu and colleagues deputized the leech-hunters with gathering the parasites along rangers’ regular patrol routes, which covered all 172 areas of the reserve.

Three months later, the rangers had gathered 30,468 leeches. After extracting and analyzing animal DNA from the leeches’ blood meals, Yu and colleagues detected the presence of 86 different species, including Asiatic black bears, domestic cattle, endangered Yunnan spiny frogs and, of course, humans.

What’s more, the iDNA gave clues to where the animals preferred to roam, the researchers report March 23 in Nature Communications. Wildlife biodiversity was greatest in the reserve’s high-altitude interior, the researchers found, while domestic cattle, sheep and goats were more abundant in the reserve’s lower, more accessible zones. Because most of the wild species detected should be able to inhabit all parts of the reserve, the dichotomy suggests that human activity may be pushing wildlife away from certain areas, Yu says.

Compared with other methods for surveying wildlife, using iDNA from leeches is “really cost- and time-efficient and doesn’t require a lot of expertise,” says Arthur Kocher, an ecologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, who was not involved in the study.

Camera traps, for instance, are triggered only by animals of large enough size, and the instruments are expensive. Sight-based surveys require trained observers. With leeches, Kocher says, “there are clear advantages.”

Yu and Kocher both suspect that leeches and other bloodsucking critters, such as carrion flies or mosquitoes, will become more popular wildlife surveillance tools in the future. People are becoming more aware of what iDNA brings to the table, Yu says.

How a western banded gecko eats a scorpion

Western banded geckos don’t look like they’d win in a fight. Yet this unassuming predator dines on venomous scorpions, and a field study published in the March Biological Journal of the Linnean Society shows how the lizards take down such perilous prey.

Geckos bite the scorpion and thrash their heads and upper bodies back and forth, body-slamming the scorpion against the ground, new high-speed video reveals. “The behavior is so fast that you can’t see what’s actually happening,” says San Diego State University biologist Rulon Clark. “[You] see the gecko lunge and then see this crazy blur of motion … like trying to watch the wings of a hummingbird.”

Clark first noticed the behavior in the 1990s, during undergraduate fieldwork in the Sonoran Desert near Yuma, Ariz. When he returned with colleagues to study kangaroo rats and rattlesnakes, the team filmed geckos as well. The researchers captured western banded geckos (Coleonyx variegatus) and dune scorpions (Smeringurus mesaensis) in the desert at night (along with harmless arthropods, like field crickets and sand roaches, to compare), and documented the showdowns.
Normal gecko feeding behavior usually involves lunging out, grabbing prey with their mouth, and chomping it, says Clark. With scorpions, it’s totally different after the initial lunge. Such shake feeding is a known method for carnivores and adventurous eaters. For instance, dolphins shake (and toss) octopuses before eating (SN: 4/25/17).

The fact that this delicate, cold-blooded species not known for speed can achieve such physical gyrations is impressive, Clark says. Songbirds called loggerhead shrikes whip larger predators in circles (SN: 9/7/18), but at a lower frequency (11 hertz compared to 14 Hz in geckos). Whiptail lizards also violently shake scorpions, but at unknown speeds. The closest documented match to the speed of gecko shake feeding is small mammals shaking themselves dry; guinea pigs clock in at around 14 Hz, as well.

It’s unclear how common this behavior is among geckos. And aside from generally subduing a venomous foe, how it works — killing the scorpion, immobilizing it, damaging its stinger, or reducing how much venom gets injected — remains a mystery.

More than 57 billion tons of soil have eroded in the U.S. Midwest

With soils rich for cultivation, most land in the Midwestern United States has been converted from tallgrass prairie to agricultural fields. Less than 0.1 percent of the original prairie remains.

This shift over the last 160 years has resulted in staggering — and unsustainable — soil erosion rates for the region, researchers report in the March Earth’s Future. The erosion is estimated to be double the rate that the U.S. Department of Agriculture says is sustainable. If it continues unabated, it could significantly limit future crop production, the scientists say.

In the new study, the team focused on erosional escarpments — tiny cliffs formed through erosion — lying at boundaries between prairie and agricultural fields (SN: 1/20/96). “These rare prairie remnants that are scattered across the Midwest are sort of a preservation of the pre-European-American settlement land surface,” says Isaac Larsen, a geologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

At 20 sites in nine Midwestern states, with most sites located in Iowa, Larsen and colleagues used a specialized GPS system to survey the altitude of the prairie and farm fields. That GPS system “tells you where you are within about a centimeter on Earth’s surface,” Larsen says. This enables the researchers to detect even small differences between the height of the prairie and the farmland.

At each site, the researchers took these measurements at 10 or more spots. The team then measured erosion by comparing the elevation differences of the farmed and prairie land. The researchers found that the agricultural fields were 0.37 meters below the prairie areas, on average.
This corresponds to the loss of roughly 1.9 millimeters of soil per year from agricultural fields since the estimated start of traditional farming at these sites more than a century and a half ago, the researchers calculate. That rate is nearly double the maximum of one millimeter per year that the USDA considers sustainable for these locations.

There are two main ways that the USDA currently estimates the erosion rate in the region. One way estimates the rate to be about one-third of that reported by the researchers. The other estimates the rate to be just one-eighth of the researchers’ rate. Those USDA estimates do not include tillage, a conventional farming process in which machinery is used to turn the soil and prepare it for planting. By disrupting the soil structure, tilling increases surface runoff and erosion due to soil moving downslope.

Larsen and colleagues say that they would like to see tillage incorporated into the USDA’s erosion estimates. Then, the USDA numbers might better align with the whopping 57.6 billion metric tons of soil that the researchers estimate has been lost across the entire region in the last 160 years.

This massive “soil loss is already causing food production to decline,” Larsen says. As soil thickness decreases, the amount of corn successfully grown in Iowa is reduced, research shows. And disruption to the food supply could continue or worsen if the estimated rate of erosion persists.

Not everyone is convinced that the average amount of soil lost each year has remained steady since farming in the region started. Much of the erosion that the researchers measured could have been caused in the earlier histories of these sites, dating back to when farmers “began to break prairies and/or forests and clear things,” says agronomist Michael Kucera.

Perhaps current erosion rates have slowed, says Kucera, who is the steward of the National Erosion Database at the USDA’s National Soil Survey Center in Lincoln, Neb.
To help reduce future erosion, farmers can use no-till farming and plant cover crops, the researchers note. By planting cover crops during off-seasons, farmers reduce the amount of time the soil is bare, making it less vulnerable to wind and water erosion.

In the United States, no-till and similar practices to help limit erosion have been implemented at least sometimes by 51 percent of corn, cotton, soybean and wheat farmers, according to the USDA. But cover crops are only used in about 5 percent of cases where they could be, says Bruno Basso, a sustainable agriculture researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing who wasn’t involved with the study. “It costs $40 to $50 per acre to plant a cover crop,” he says. Though some government grant funding is available, “the costs of cover crops are not supported,” and there is a need for additional incentives, he says.

To implement no-till strategies, “the farmer has to be a better manager,” says Keith Berns, a farmer who co-owns and operates Green Cover Seed, which is headquartered in Bladen, Neb. His company provides cover crop seeds and custom seed mixtures. He has also been using no-till practices for decades.

To succeed, farmers must decide what particular cover crops are most suitable for their land, when to grow them and when to kill them. Following these regimens, which can be more complicated than traditional farming, can be “difficult to do on large scales,” Berns says.

Cover crops can confer benefits such as helping farmers repair erosion and control weeds within the first year of planting. But it can take multiple years for the crops’ financial benefits to exceed their cost. Some farmers don’t even own the land they work, making it even less lucrative for them to invest in cover crops, Berns notes.

Building soil health can take half a decade, Basso says. “Agriculture is really always facing this dilemma [of] short-sighted, economically driven decisions versus longer-term sustainability of the whole enterprise.”

How ancient, recurring climate changes may have shaped human evolution

Recurring climate changes may have orchestrated where Homo species lived over the last 2 million years and how humankind evolved.

Ups and downs in temperature, rainfall and plant growth promoted ancient hominid migrations within and out of Africa that fostered an ability to survive in unfamiliar environments, say climate physicist and oceanographer Axel Timmermann and colleagues. Based on how the timing of ancient climate variations matched up with the comings and goings of different fossil Homo species, the researchers generated a novel — and controversial — outline of human evolution. Timmermann, of Pusan National University in Busan, South Korea, and his team present that scenario April 13 in Nature.

Here’s how these scientists tell the story of humankind, starting roughly 2 million years ago. By that time, Homo erectus had already begun to roam outside Africa, while an East African species called H. ergaster stuck close to its home region. H. ergaster probably evolved into a disputed East African species called H. heidelbergensis, which split into southern and northern branches between 850,000 and 600,000 years ago. These migrations coincided with warmer, survival-enhancing climate shifts that occur every 20,000 to 100,000 years due to variations in Earth’s orbit and tilt that modify how much sunlight reaches the planet.
Then, after traveling north to Eurasia, H. heidelbergensis possibly gave rise to Denisovans around 430,000 years ago, the researchers say. And in central Europe, harsh habitats created by recurring ice ages spurred the evolution of H. heidelbergensis into Neandertals between 400,000 and 300,000 years ago. Finally, in southern Africa between 310,000 and 200,000 years ago, increasingly harsh environmental conditions accompanied a transition from H. heidelbergensis to H. sapiens, who later moved out of Africa.

But some researchers contend that H. heidelbergensis, as defined by its advocates, contains too many hard-to-categorize fossils to qualify as a species.

An alternative view to the newly proposed scenario suggests that, during the time that H. heidelbergensis allegedly lived, closely related Homo populations periodically split up, reorganized and bred with outsiders, without necessarily operating as distinct biological species (SN: 12/13/21). In this view, mating among H. sapiens groups across Africa starting as early as 500,000 years ago eventually produced a physical makeup typical of people today. If so, that would undermine the validity of a neatly branching evolutionary tree of Homo species leading up to H. sapiens, as proposed by Timmermann’s group.

The new scenario derives from a computer simulation of the probable climate over the last 2 million years, in 1,000-year intervals, across Africa, Asia and Europe. The researchers then examined the relationship between simulated predictions of what ancient habitats were like in those regions and the dates of known hominid fossil and archaeological sites. Those sites range in age from around 2 million to 30,000 years old.

Previous fossil evidence indicates that H. erectus spread as far as East Asia and Java (SN: 12/18/19). Timmermann’s climate simulations suggest that H. erectus, as well as H. heidelbergensis and H. sapiens, adapted to increasingly diverse habitats during extended travels. Those migrations stimulated brain growth and cultural innovations that “may have made [all three species] the global wanderers that they were,” Timmermann says.

The new habitat simulations also indicate that H. sapiens was particularly good at adjusting to hot, dry regions, such as northeastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Climate, habitat and fossil data weren’t sufficient to include additional proposed Homo species in the new evolutionary model, including H. floresiensis in Indonesia (SN: 3/30/16) and H. naledi in South Africa (SN: 5/9/17).

It has proven difficult to show more definitively that ancient environmental changes caused transitions in hominid evolution. For instance, a previous proposal that abrupt climate shifts resulted in rainy, resource-rich stretches of southern Africa’s coast, creating conditions where H. sapiens then evolved (SN: 3/31/21), still lacks sufficient climate, fossil and other archaeological evidence.

Paleoanthropologist Rick Potts of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., has developed another influential theory about how climate fluctuations influenced human evolution that’s still open to debate. A series of climate-driven booms and busts in resource availability, starting around 400,000 years ago in East Africa, resulted in H. sapiens evolving as a species with a keen ability to survive in unpredictably shifting environments, Potts argues (SN: 10/21/20). But the new model indicates that ancient H. sapiens often migrated into novel but relatively stable environments, Timmermann says, undermining support for Potts’ hypothesis, known as variability selection.

The new findings need to be compared with long-term environmental records at several well-studied fossil sites in Africa and East Asia before rendering a verdict on variability selection, Potts says.

The new model “provides a great framework” to evaluate ideas such as variability selection, says paleoclimatologist Rachel Lupien of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y. That’s especially true, Lupien says, if researchers can specify whether climate and ecosystem changes that played out over tens or hundreds of years were closely linked to ancient Homo migrations.

For now, much remains obscured on the ancient landscape of human evolution.

This is the biggest known comet in our solar system

The nucleus of a comet discovered in 2014 is the largest ever spotted.

The “dirty snowball” at the center of comet C/2014 UN271 is about 120 kilometers across, researchers report in the April 10 Astrophysical Journal Letters. That makes this comet — also known as Bernardinelli-Bernstein, after its discoverers — about twice as wide as Rhode Island, says David Jewitt, an astronomer at UCLA.

Though the comet is big — and vastly larger than Halley’s comet, which measures a little more than 11 kilometers across — it will never be visible to the naked eye from Earth because it’s too far away, Jewitt says (SN: 12/14/15). The object is now about 3 billion kilometers from Earth. At its closest approach in 2031, the comet will come no closer to the sun than 1.6 billion kilometers, about the same distance as Saturn.
Jewitt and colleagues sized up the comet with the help of new images from the Hubble Space Telescope, combined with images taken by another team at far-infrared wavelengths. The analysis also revealed that the comet’s nucleus reflects only about 3 percent of the light that strikes it. That makes the object “blacker than coal,” Jewitt says.

Comet Bernardinelli-Bernstein takes about 3 million years to circle the sun in a highly elliptical orbit. At its farthest, the comet may reach about half a light-year from the sun — about one-eighth of the distance to the next nearest star.

The comet is likely “just the tip of the iceberg” as far as undiscovered comets of this size go, Jewitt says. And for every comet this size, he suggests, there could be tens of thousands of smaller objects circling the sun undetected.

‘Wandering’ salamanders glide like skydivers from the world’s tallest trees

In one of the tallest trees on Earth, a tan, mottled salamander ventures out on a fern growing high up on the trunk. Reaching the edge, the amphibian leaps, like a skydiver exiting a plane.

The salamander’s confidence, it seems, is well-earned. The bold amphibians can expertly control their descent, gliding while maintaining a skydiver’s spread-out posture, researchers report May 23 in Current Biology.

Wandering salamanders (Aneides vagrans) are native to a strip of forest in far northwestern California. They routinely climb into the canopies of coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens). There — as high as 88 meters up — the amphibians inhabit mats of ferns that grow in a suspended, miniature ecosystem. Unlike many salamanders that typically spend their days in streams or bogs, some of these wanderers may spend their whole lives in the trees.
Integrative biologist Christian Brown was studying these canopy crawlers as a graduate student at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt in Arcata, when he noticed they would jump from a hand or branch when perturbed.

Now at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Brown and his colleagues wondered if the salamanders’ arboreal ways and proclivity to leap were related, and if the small creatures could orient themselves during a fall.

Brown and his team captured five each of A. vagrans, a slightly less arboreal species (A. lugubris), and two ground-dwelling salamanders (A. flavipunctatus and Ensatina eschscholtzii). The researchers then put each salamander in a vertical wind tunnel to simulate falling from a tree, filming the animals’ movements with a high-speed camera.

In all of 45 trials, the wandering salamanders showed tight control, using their outstretched limbs and tail to maintain a stable position in the air and continually adjusting as they sailed. All these salamanders slowed their descents’ speed, what the researchers call parachuting, using their appendages at some point, and many would change course and move horizontally, or glide.

“We expected that maybe [the salamanders] could keep themselves upright. However, we never expected to observe parachuting or gliding,” Brown says. “They were able to slow themselves down and change directions.”
A. lugubris had similar aerial dexterity to A. vagrans but glided less (36 percent of the trials versus 58 percent). The two ground huggers mostly flailed ineffectively in the wind.

The wandering salamanders’ maneuverable gliding is probably invaluable in the tops of the tall redwoods, Brown says. Rerouting midair to a fern mat or branch during an accidental fall would save the effort spent crawling back up a tree. Gliding might also make jumping to escape a hungry owl or carnivorous mammal a feasible option.

Brown suspects that the salamanders may also use gliding to access better patches to live. “Maybe your fern mat’s drying out, maybe there’s no bugs. Maybe there are no mates in your fern mat, you look down — there’s another fern mat,” Brown says. “Why would you take the time to walk down the tree and waste energy, be exposed and [risk] being preyed upon, when you could take the gravity elevator?”

There are other arboreal salamanders in the tropics, but those don’t live nearly as high as A. vagrans, says Erica Baken, a macroevolutionary biologist at Chatham University in Pittsburgh who was not involved with the research.

“It would be interesting to find out if there is a height at which [gliding] evolves,” she says.

A. vagrans’ relatively flat body, long legs and big feet may allow more control in the air. Brown and his colleagues are now using computer simulations to test how body proportions could impact gliding.

Such body tweaks, if they do turn out to be meaningful, wouldn’t be as conspicuous as the sprawling, membraned forms seen in other animals like flying snakes and colugos that are known for their gliding (SN: 6/29/20; SN: 11/20/20). There may be many tree-dwelling animals with conventional body plans that have been overlooked as gliders, Brown says. “The canopy world is just starting to unfold.”

Ice at the moon’s poles might have come from ancient volcanoes

Four billion years ago, lava spilled onto the moon’s crust, etching the man in the moon we see today. But the volcanoes may have also left a much colder legacy: ice.

Two billion years of volcanic eruptions on the moon may have led to the creation of many short-lived atmospheres, which contained water vapor, a new study suggests. That vapor could have been transported through the atmosphere before settling as ice at the poles, researchers report in the May Planetary Science Journal.
Since the existence of lunar ice was confirmed in 2009, scientists have debated the possible origins of water on the moon, which include asteroids, comets or electrically charged atoms carried by the solar wind (SN: 11/13/09). Or, possibly, the water originated on the moon itself, as vapor belched by the rash of volcanic eruptions from 4 billion to 2 billion years ago.

“It’s a really interesting question how those volatiles [such as water] got there,” says Andrew Wilcoski, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We still don’t really have a good handle on how much are there and where exactly they are.”

Wilcoski and his colleagues decided to start by tackling volcanism’s viability as a lunar ice source. During the heyday of lunar volcanism, eruptions happened about once every 22,000 years. Assuming that H2O constituted about a third of volcano-spit gasses — based on samples of ancient lunar magma — the researchers calculate that the eruptions released upward of 20 quadrillion kilograms of water vapor in total, or the volume of approximately 25 Lake Superiors.

Some of this vapor would have been lost to space, as sunlight broke down water molecules or the solar wind blew the molecules off the moon. But at the frigid poles, some could have stuck to the surface as ice.

For that to happen, though, the rate at which the water vapor condensed into ice would have needed to surpass the rate at which the vapor escaped the moon. The team used a computer simulation to calculate and compare these rates. The simulation accounted for factors such as surface temperature, gas pressure and the loss of some vapor to mere frost.

About 40 percent of the total erupted water vapor could have accumulated as ice, with most of that ice at the poles, the team found. Over billions of years, some of that ice would have converted back to vapor and escaped to space. The team’s simulation predicts the amount and distribution of ice that remains. And it’s no small amount: Deposits could reach hundreds of meters at their thickest point, with the south pole being about twice as icy as the north pole.

The results align with a long-standing assumption that ice dominates at the poles because it gets stuck in cold traps that are so cold that ice will stay frozen for billions of years.
“There are some places at the lunar poles that are as cold as Pluto,” says planetary scientist Margaret Landis of the University of Colorado Boulder.

Volcanically sourced water vapor traveling to the poles, though, probably depends on the presence of an atmosphere, say Landis, Wilcoski and their colleague Paul Hayne, also a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder. An atmospheric transit system would have allowed water molecules to travel around the moon while also making it more difficult for them to flee into space. Each eruption triggered a new atmosphere, the new calculations indicate, which then lingered for about 2,500 years before disappearing until the next eruption some 20,000 years later.

This part of the story is most captivating to Parvathy Prem, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., who wasn’t involved in the research. “It’s a really interesting act of imagination.… How do you create atmospheres from scratch? And why do they sometimes go away?” she says. “The polar ices are one way to find out.”

If lunar ice was belched out of volcanoes as water vapor, the ice may retain a memory of that long-ago time. Sulfur in the polar ice, for example, would indicate that it came from a volcano as opposed to, say, an asteroid. Future moon missions plan to drill for ice cores that could confirm the ice’s origin.

Looking for sulfur will be important when thinking about lunar resources. These water reserves could someday be harvested by astronauts for water or rocket fuel, the researchers say. But if all the lunar water is contaminated with sulfur, Landis says, “that’s a pretty critical thing to know if you plan on bringing a straw with you to the moon.”

Biocrusts reduce global dust emissions by 60 percent

In the unceasing battle against dust, humans possess a deep arsenal of weaponry, from microfiber cloths to feather dusters to vacuum cleaners. But new research suggests that none of that technology can compare to nature’s secret weapon — biological soil crusts.

These biocrusts are thin, cohesive layers of soil, glued together by dirt-dwelling organisms, that often carpet arid landscapes. Though innocuous, researchers now estimate that these rough soil skins prevent around 700 teragrams (30,000 times the mass of the Statue of Liberty) of dust from wafting into the air each year, reducing global dust emissions by a staggering 60 percent. Unless steps are taken to preserve and restore biocrusts, which are threatened by climate change and shifts in land use, the future will be much dustier, ecologist Bettina Weber and colleagues report online May 16 in Nature Geoscience.
Dry-land ecosystems, such as savannas, shrublands and deserts, may appear barren, but they’re providing this important natural service that is often overlooked, says Weber, of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany. These findings “really call for biocrust conservation.”

Biocrusts cover around 12 percent of the planet’s land surface and are most often found in arid regions. They are constructed by communities of fungi, lichens, cyanobacteria and other microorganisms that live in the topmost millimeters of soil and produce adhesive substances that clump soil particles together. In dry-land ecosystems, biocrusts play an important role in concentrating nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen and also help prevent soil erosion (SN: 4/12/22).

And since most of the world’s dust comes from dry lands, biocrusts are important for keeping dust bound to the ground. Fallen dust can carry nutrients that benefit plants, but it can also reduce water and air quality, hasten glacier melting and reduce river flows. For instance in the Upper Colorado River Basin, researchers found that dust not only decreased snow’s ability to reflect sunlight, but it also shortened the duration of snow cover by weeks, reducing flows of meltwater into the Colorado River by 5 percent. That’s more water than the city of Las Vegas draws in a year, says Matthew Bowker, an ecologist from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff who wasn’t involved in the new study.

Experiments had already demonstrated that biocrusts strengthened soils against erosion, but Weber and her colleagues were curious how that effect played out on a global scale. So they pulled data from experimental studies that measured wind velocities needed to erode dust from various soil types and calculated how differences in biocrust coverage affected dust generation. They found that the wind velocities needed to erode dust from soils completely shielded by biocrusts were on average 4.8 times greater than the wind velocities need to erode bare soils.

The researchers then incorporated their results, along with data on global biocrust coverage, into a global climate simulation which allowed them to estimate how much dust the world’s biocrusts trapped each year.

“Nobody has really tried to make that calculation globally before,” says Bowker. “Even if their number is off, it shows us that the real number is probably significant.”

Using projections of future climate conditions and data on the conditions biocrusts can tolerate, Weber and her colleagues estimated that by 2070, climate change and land-use shifts may result in biocrust losses of 25 to 40 percent, which would increase global dust emissions by 5 to 15 percent.

Preserving and restoring biocrusts will be key to mitigating soil erosion and dust production in the future, Bowker says. Hopefully, these results will help to whip up more discussions on the impacts of land-use changes on biocrust health, he says. “We need to have those conversations.”

Headbutts hurt the brain, even for a musk ox

Punishing headbutts damage the brains of musk oxen. That observation, made for the first time and reported May 17 in Acta Neuropathologica, suggests that a life full of bell-ringing clashes is not without consequences, even in animals built to bash.

Although a musk ox looks like a dirty dust mop on four tiny hooves, it’s formidable. When charging, it can reach speeds up to 60 kilometers an hour before ramming its head directly into an oncoming head. People expected that musk oxen brains could withstand these merciless forces largely unscathed, “that they were magically perfect,” says Nicole Ackermans of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “No one actually checked.”
In fact, the brains of three wild musk oxen (two females and one male) showed signs of extensive damage, Ackermans and her colleagues found. The damage was similar to what’s seen in people with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disorder known to be caused by repetitive head hits (SN: 12/13/17). In the musk ox brains, a form of a protein called tau had accumulated in patterns that suggested brain bashing was to blame.

In an unexpected twist, the brains of the females, who hit heads less frequently than males, were worse off than the male’s. The male body, with its heavier skull, stronger neck muscles and forehead fat pads, may cushion the blows to the brain, the researchers suspect.

The results may highlight an evolutionary balancing act; the animals can endure just enough brain damage to allow them to survive and procreate. High-level brainwork may not matter much, Ackermans says. “Their day-to-day life is not super complicated.”

Lasers reveal ancient urban sprawl hidden in the Amazon

A massive urban landscape that contained interconnected campsites, villages, towns and monumental centers thrived in the Amazon rainforest more than 600 years ago.

In what is now Bolivia, members of the Casarabe culture built an urban system that included straight, raised causeways running for several kilometers, canals and reservoirs, researchers report May 25 in Nature.

Such low-density urban sprawl from pre-Columbian times was previously unknown in the Amazon or anywhere else in South America, say archaeologist Heiko Prümers of the German Archaeological Institute in Bonn and colleagues. Rather than constructing huge cities densely packed with people, a substantial Casarabe population spread out in a network of small to medium-sized settlements that incorporated plenty of open space for farming, the scientists conclude.
Airborne lasers peered through dense trees and ground cover to identify structures from that low-density urban network that have long eluded land-based archaeologists.

Earlier excavations indicated that Casarabe maize farmers, fishers and hunters inhabited an area of 4,500 square kilometers. For about a century, researchers have known that Casarabe people fashioned elaborate pottery and constructed large earthen mounds, causeways and ponds. But these finds were located at isolated forest sites that are difficult to excavate, leaving the reasons for mound building and the nature of Casarabe society, which existed from about the year 500 to 1400, a mystery.

Prümers’ team opted to look through the Amazon’s lush cover from above, aiming to find relics of human activity that typically remain hidden even after careful ground surveys. The scientists used a helicopter carrying special equipment to fire laser pulses at the Amazon forest as well as stretches of grassland. Those laser pulses reflect data from the Earth’s surface. This technique, called light detection and ranging, or lidar for short, enables researchers to map the contours of now-obscured structures.

Looking at the new lidar images, “it is obvious that the mounds are platforms and pyramids standing on artificial terraces at the center of well-planned settlements,” Prümers says.

Prümers’ team conducted lidar surveys over six parts of ancient Casarabe territory. The lidar data revealed 26 sites, 11 of them previously unknown.

Two sites, Cotoca and Landívar, are much larger than the rest. Both settlements feature rectangular and U-shaped platform mounds and cone-shaped earthen pyramids atop artificial terraces. Curved moats and defensive walls border each site. Causeways radiate out from Cotoca and Landívar in all directions, connecting those primary sites to smaller sites with fewer platform mounds that then link up to what were probably small campsites or areas for specialized activities, such as butchering prey.

The Casarabe society’s network of settlements joins other ancient and present-day examples of low-density urban sprawl around the world, says archaeologist Roland Fletcher of the University of Sydney. These sites raise questions about whether only places with centralized governments that ruled over people who were packed into neighborhoods on narrow streets, such as 6,000-year-old Mesopotamian metropolises, can be defined as cities.

Some past urban settlements organized around crop growing spanned up to 1,000 square kilometers or more in tropical regions. These include locales such as Southeast Asia’s Greater Angkor roughly 700 to 800 years ago and interconnected Maya sites in Central America dating to at least 2,300 years ago (SN: 4/29/16; SN: 9/27/18). Today, extended areas outside large cities, especially in Southeast Asia, mix industrial and agricultural activities over tens of thousands of kilometers.

Clusters of interconnected Casarabe settlements ranged in area from 100 square kilometers to more than 500 square kilometers. Spread-out settlements of comparable area include 6,000-year-old sites from Eastern Europe’s Trypillia culture (SN: 2/19/20).

Tropical forests that have gone largely unexplored, such as Central Africa’s Congo Basin, probably hosted other early forms of low-density urban development, Fletcher predicts.

Only further excavations guided by lidar evidence can begin to untangle the size of the Casarabe population, Prümers says. Whether primary Casarabe sites represented seats of power in states with upper and lower classes also remains unknown, he adds.

Casarabe culture’s urban sprawl must have encompassed a considerable number of people in the centuries before the Spanish arrived and Indigenous population numbers plummeted, largely due to diseases, forced labor and slavery, says archaeologist John Walker of the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Whatever Casarabe honchos had in mind as their tropical settlement network spread, he says, “we may have to set aside some of our strongly held ideas about what the Amazon is, and what a city is, to better understand what happened.”