Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

While Few Noticed, Hawaiian Lizard Went Extinct

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 11:34 AM PDT

Copper-striped blue-tailed skink.: Credit: Chris Brown, USGS.

Copper-striped blue-tailed skink: Chris Brown, USGS. 

A species of lizard native to the Hawaiian Islands—the copper striped blue-tailed skink (Emoia impar)—is now officially extinct. The species was once common throughout the Hawaiian Islands and is still found on other island groups in the tropical Pacific.

But the last confirmed sighting in the state of Hawaii was on the Na'Pali coast of Kauai in the 1960s. Repeated field surveys between 1988 and 2008 on Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and Hawai'i yielded no evidence of their existence.

The authors of a new paper in the science journal Oryx write that this is a case of a cryptic extinction—that is, when a species easily confused with a similar species goes missing for decades and no one notices. From the paper:

The introduction and spread of a similar skink Lampropholis delicata across the islands appears to temporally follow the decline of Emoia impar, although there is no evidence of competition between these species. It appears that  Lampropholis delicata is spreading to occupy the niche vacated by the extirpated Emoia impar. Further confusion exists because the skink Emoia cyanura, which is very similar in appearance to Emoia impar, appears to have been introduced to one site within a hotel on Kaua'i and persisted as a population at that site for approximately 2 decades (1970s–1990s) but is now also extirpated. 

Big-headed ant (Pheidole megacephala): April Nobile / © AntWeb.org / CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Big-headed ant (Pheidole megacephala): April Nobile / © AntWeb.org / CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 

So what was the driver behind this extinction? It remains something of a mystery, though there are hints that predation by invasive ants was a factor. The authors write:

A review of the plausible causal factors indicates that the spread of the introduced big-headed ant Pheidole megacephala is the most likely factor in this lizard decline... This study highlights the cryptic nature of this early species extinction as evidence that current biogeographical patterns of non-charismatic or enigmatic reptiles across the Pacific may be the historical result of early widespread invasion by ants. 

 

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Mutant Heat Wave Shattering Records

| Mon Mar. 19, 2012 11:18 AM PDT

 NOAA/Southern Regional Climate Center

Credit: NOAA/Southern Regional Climate Center

More than 2,200 warm temperature records have been set so far in March. Take a look at the map above to see where temps are crazy departures from normal.

This isn't your average heat wave. Its duration, set against more than a century of record keeping, makes it one for the climate change chronicles. Here's what some meteorologists are saying:

From the National Weather Service in Chicago: Chicago and Rockford have now both broken high temperature records 5 days in a row. There is even the potential they could tie or break record highs for up to an unbelievable 8 days in a row depending on how warm temperatures get Monday through Wednesday. It is extraordinarily rare for climate locations with 100+ year long periods of records to break records day after day after day.

From Jeff Masters' Wunderblog: The ongoing March heat wave in the Midwest is one of the most extreme heat events in US history. With so many records being shattered, it is difficult to cover in detail just how widespread, long-lasting, and extreme the event is.

According to the CapitalClimate blog (HT Climate Central) warm weather records this month are outpacing cold records by a whopping 19-to-1. 

Credit: NWS.Credit: NWS.

Take Chicago. You can see in the graph above how radical this year's heat wave is compared with the five other top warmest Marches on record. The hashed black line shows the average month-to-date temps in degrees Celsius for March (convert here). The dotted blue line shows the month-to-date average temps for 2012 based on current predicted temperatures.

The upper Midwest topped out at Winner, South Dakota, yesterday, which hit 94°F—the earliest 90° reading ever recorded in the Northern Plains, according to Jeff Masters. He also points out the high temps aren't stopping at the border. Canada is weathering record-breaking heat too:

Winnipeg, Manitoba broke its record high for the past four days in a row, and hit 21°C (70°F) yesterday, its hottest temperature on record so early in the year. With today's forecast by Environment Canada and wunderground both calling for highs near 25°C (77°F), Winnipeg is likely to record its highest March temperature on record.

 

 

To put what's going on into a bigger perspective, this NASA/Goddard Institute for Space Studies video shows 131 years of global warming between 1880 and 2011 in 26 seconds. This year looks set to reinforce that accelerating trend. 

Furtive New York City Frog Finally Found

| Wed Mar. 14, 2012 11:29 AM PDT

New species of leopard frog: Brian Curry, Rutgers UniversityNew unnamed species of leopard frog: Brian Curry, Rutgers University

The Algonquian peoples doubtless knew about this as yet unnamed species of leopard frog living in the heart of New York City. As far back as the late 1800s scientists had speculated about the "odd frogs." But it took the advent of molecular genetics to verify that a species of leopard frog different from kin to the north and south was living in plain sight.

Jeremy Feinberg of Rutgers who made the initial discovery was doing research on the alarming decline of leopard frogs in the wetlands of New York and New Jersey when he noticed Staten Island frogs displaying unusual behaviors and peculiar croaks. Instead of the typical "long snore" or "rapid chuckle," these frogs had short repetitive croaks.

Northern leopard frog (Rana pipiens): Credit: Balcer via Wikimedia Commons.

The new species is not a northern leopard frog (Rana pipiens): Balcer via Wikimedia Commons. 

"When I first heard these frogs calling, it was so different, I knew something was very off," says  Feinberg. "It’s what we call a cryptic species: one species hidden within another because we can't tell them apart by looking.  But thanks to molecular genetics, people are really picking out species more and more that would otherwise be ignored."

The research published by a team from Rutgers, UCLA, UC Davis, and the U of Alabama in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution revealed the "new" species to be neither a northern leopard frog nor a southern leopard frog—nor a hybrid of the two. But a species all its own whose range epicenter was once probably Yankee Stadium, and who now survives on Staten Island and in mainland New York and New Jersey, maybe even as far away as Pennsylvania and Connecticut. From the paper:

While our data support recognition of R. sp. nov. as a novel species, we recommend further study including fine-scaled sampling and ecological, behavioral, call, and morphological analyses before it is formally described. 

Southern leopard frog (Rana sphenocephalus): Coveredinsevindust via Wikimedia Commons.The new species is not a southern leopard frog (Rana sphenocephalus): Coveredinsevindust via Wikimedia Commons.

"It's very surprising for a new species like this to have been unrecognized in this area until now," says Feinberg. "Their naturally limited range coupled with recent unexplained disappearances from places like Long Island underscores the importance of this discovery and the value that conservation efforts might have in the long-term survival of this urban species."

Pacific Island Nation Buys New Home

| Tue Mar. 13, 2012 10:44 AM PDT

Kiribati: Credit: jopolopy via Flickr.

Kiribati: Credit: jopolopy via Flickr. 

The Pacific island nation of Kiribati (say: Kirr-y-bus) is comprised of 32 coral atolls and 1 raised coral island spread across 1.3 million square miles (3.5 million square kilometers) of ocean. It bumps up against many parameters of our world: the equator, the International Date Line, and—most important to its 100,000 inhabitants—sea level.

That's because the atolls rise only about 6.5 feet (2 meters) above today's sea level. Not high enough to withstand any of the projected rises—low, medium, or high—this century.

To get a sense of how the projections play out, the Republic of Kiribati has created an interactive Google Earth layer showing which parts of what islands will become uninhabitable under different projections of sea level rise by 2030, 2050, 2070, and 2100. You can access it at the end of the document here.

Now the government of Kiribati intends to purchase 9.6 square miles (25 square kilometers) on the high island of Viti Levu in Fiji, nearly 1,400 miles (2,253 km) southeast of Kiribati, for their people to move to if—when—necessary. Reports New Scientist:

"Relocation is our last resort," [said President Anote Tong last week], adding that effects of climate change are already hindering the nation's economic development.

I first wrote about this problem as it affected Kiribati's neighbors, the Pacific islands nation of Tuvalu, in my 2003 MoJo article, All the Disappearing Islands (and more in my book The Fragile Edge). Tuvalu was already experiencing land loss due to rising high tides inundating their water table and sowing their soil with saltwater and threatening to make their islands uninhabitable long before they actually disappear beneath the waves.

Both of these island nations have contributed only a fraction of a percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions now virtually guaranteeing to drown them.

LSD Trumps Booze

| Fri Mar. 9, 2012 2:35 PM PST

 

The psychedelic effects of LSD beat back the physiological effects of alcoholism, according to a new paper in the  Journal of Psychopharmacology.

The study—a meta-analysis of prior research from the groovy 1960s and 1970s—found that 59 percent of 536 participants in six trials who received LSD reported lower levels of alcohol misuse for the next three to six months, compared to 38 percent who received placebos. One dose did the trick.

This reminds me of other fascinating research from this era that showed LSD removed the fear and dread of death from terminally ill patients.

 fractal glass cycling (essence of Acid) from teamfresh on Vimeo.

I wonder what the effects might be from observing the infinitely deep math porn of a Mandelbrot set. Maybe aided by a little medical-grade weed. Check it out. 

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