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.

Octopuses Outsmart Us

| Mon Dec. 14, 2009 9:36 PM EST

If you've been following developments in Copenhagen and find yourself doubting primate intelligence, check out the cephalopods, widely regarded as the smartest of the invertebrates. A new paper in Current Biology details the first scientific report of invertebrate tool use in the charismatic little octopus Amphioctopus marginatus, the veined octopus, who has a habit of carrying multiple coconut shells around (awkwardly, you'll see). This cumbersome behavior turns out to be well worth the trouble when the octopus deploys its coconut shell as a magical, instantaneous cloaking device.

I found the footage on YouTube, and although I don't speak German I can pretty well understand what they're talking about. I think.

During 500 hours of observation underwater, the Australian and Brit researchers report some veined octopuses traveling considerable distances—up to 20 meters—while carrying stacked coconut shell halves under their body, an ungainly motion the researchers call stilt walking. The only benefit of stilt walking to the ocotopus is to use the shells later as a shelter or a lair—a different strategy from a hermit crab living inside the discarded shell of a snail. The authors explain:

[The octopus behavior] highlights a key feature of widely used functional definitions of tool use—simple behaviours, such as the use of an object (or objects) as shelter, are not generally regarded as tool use, because the shelter is effectively in use all the time, whereas a tool provides no benefit until it is used for a specific purpose. This rules out examples such as the use of gastropod shells by hermit crabs, but includes situations where there is an immediate cost, but a deferred benefit, such as dolphins carrying sponges to protect against abrasion during foraging, and where an object is carried around in a non-functional form to be deployed when required.

So, if octopuses can think ahead and be prepare themselves for abstract threats and needs, why can't we?

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Parodying an Oil Spill

| Sat Dec. 12, 2009 6:26 PM EST

A 1:42 break from Copenhagen to deconstruct the most rational explanation of an oil tanker spill I've heard. Thanks to the legendary John Clarke and Bryan Dawe from Australia's A Current Affair.

Based on a real oil spill off Western Australia when the the front fell off the Kirki.

Checking Palin's Funny Facts

| Wed Dec. 9, 2009 8:17 PM EST

I wish I'd thought of this. Thankfully, James Hrynyshyn at the Island of Doubt on Scienceblogs did. He decided to do what the Washington Post declined when it published Sarah Palin's imaginary science in an op-ed piece today. Hrynyshyn tackled Sarah's facts:

"The e-mails reveal that leading climate 'experts' deliberately destroyed [deleted copies of] records, manipulated adjusted data to 'hide the decline' in global select North American temperatures [tree-ring proxy data that conflicted with observational records], and tried to silence [challenge] their [non-expert] critics' by preventing them from publishing [competency and the wisdom of allowing flawed papers to appear] in peer-reviewed journals. What's more, [T]he documents show that there was no a real consensus even within the CRU crowd. [While s]ome scientists had strong doubts about the accuracy of estimates reliability of temperatures [proxy data] from centuries ago [the last three decades, estimates used to back claims that more recent temperatures are rising at an alarming rate, [the observational data since 1850 only confirms the science behind anthropogenic climate change]."

Hope is revived that WaPo will print my Op-Ed on UFOs! I've got rockin' opinions.

Elouise Cobell's Bittersweet Victory

| Wed Dec. 9, 2009 2:37 AM EST

A break from the Copenhagen news now to note a quietly momentous development regarding one of the largest and longest-running class action lawsuits in American history. I first wrote about the mind-boggling intricacies of this suit, brought by Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet banker of incredible courage and tenacity, in MoJo four years ago.

It took 13 years and four named defendants (Cobell v. Salazar, Cobell v. Kempthorne, Cobell v. Norton, Cobell v. Babbitt) spanning three presidents (Clinton, Bush II, Obama), for Elouise Cobbell to win her suit againt the federal government for mismanagement of the Individual Indian Trust.

In a nutshell, the feds lost or otherwise never paid hundreds of thousands of Indian plaintiffs the monies owed them on lands they owned but were "managed" by the government for their mineral rights (think: oil wells) and agricultural rights for more than 100 years. Cobell's forensic accountants estimated the government owed the Indians $176 billion.

Well, today, at long last, a settlement was reached with the Department of the Interior and the Department of the Treasury for a fraction of what Cobell believes the Indians were owed. Nevertheless, the federal government has now agreed to create on behalf of the Individual Indian Trust:

  • A $1.4 billion Trust Accounting and Administration Fund
  • A $2 billion Trust Land Consolidation Fund
  • A $60 million federal Indian Education Scholarship fund to improve access to higher education for Indian youth
  • Plus a commitment to appoint a commission to oversee and monitor specific improvements in the Department’s accounting for and management of individual Indian trust accounts and trust assets, from now on

The settlement is believed to be the largest ever against the federal government and dwarfs the combined value of all judgments and settlements of all Indian cases since the founding of this nation. That's the good news.

But as Elouise Cobell says:

"Indians did not receive the full financial Settlement they deserved, but we achieved the best Settlement we could. This is a bittersweet victory, at best, but it will mean a great deal to the tens of thousands of impoverished Indians entitled to share in its financial fruits, as well as to the Indian youth whose dreams for a better life, including the possibility of one day attending college, can now be realized."

 

Itsy Bitsy Mercury Crept Up the Polar Bear's Snout

| Tue Dec. 8, 2009 9:18 PM EST

We all know polar bears are suffering from a melting Arctic. We know they're being found far out at sea, far from shore. Some have been seen drowning.

Well now it turns out the loss of their mobile ice islands isn't the only problem. A warming world may well be poisoning them too. In ways no one  imagined.

Here's how: A new study in the journal Polar Research has made the important finding that polar bears feed from one of two different food webs. Each contains mercury. But one is worse than the other.

  • The phytoplankton food web derives from the free-floating single-celled plants inhabiting the sunlit layer of ocean.
  • The ice algae food web derives from the microscopic plants living on the underside of the icepack covering the frozen ocean.

The researchers figured out which was worse by teasing data from hundred-year-old museum samples of polar bears. They analyzed late-19th- and early-20th-century polar bear hair for the chemical signatures of nitrogen isotopes, carbon isotopes, and mercury concentrations.

In other words, they took a look back in time to the period before anthropogenic mercury emissions escalated ferociously.

What they discovered was that the polar bears who get most of their nutrition from the phytoplankton-based food webs carry heavier mercury burdens that those who feed primarily on ice algae-based food webs.

A finding that does not bode well for polar bears living in an increasingly iceless world.

Listen up, Copenhagen. It's not about the weather.
 

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