The “Longevity Under Adversity” of the Bristlecone Pine “Is a Metaphorical Dose of Qualified Hope in an Unstable World”

(p. C9) . . ., trees seem to grow on a timescale humans can comprehend. A seed planted by a child will be largely mature when she is—and will likewise get thicker and wrinklier as it ages. The tree, however, might long outlive her; there’s a reason we use the shape of a tree to chart the chain of human generations.

This intertwining of biology and chronology is the subject of Jared Farmer’s rich but overstuffed “Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees.”

. . .

Mr. Farmer, raised in Utah, is partial to the Great Basin of the American West, cradle of the oldest living things securely dated: gnarled specimens of bristlecone pine. The coronation of bristlecones in the 1950s followed a few decades of scientific progress. Counting rings had long been the main method of tree dating, one that held an intuitive power even beyond the laboratory. Slices of big trunks marked with purportedly significant dates had become popular exhibits, a way to make time tangible. Scientists at the University of Arizona perfected the trick of combining multiple samples and lining up shared clumps of thick and thin rings—caused by year-to-year variation in climate—to extend the chronology beyond the span of a single specimen.

Using this technique, the pioneering dendrochronologist Edmund Schulman pegged one bristlecone at more than 4,500 years old, announcing his discovery in a National Geographic article whose publication he didn’t live to see. Mr. Farmer chronicles Schulman’s career in novelistic close-third-person narration—one more idiosyncrasy in this fascinating farrago of a book—lingering on Schulman’s coinage “longevity under adversity.” For Schulman, the phrase was a tribute to the bristlecone’s ability to endure extreme conditions through partial death; for Mr. Farmer, it is a metaphorical dose of qualified hope in an unstable world.

For the full review, see:

Timothy Farrington. “Time Made Tangible.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date December 2, 2022, and has the title “‘Elderflora’ Review: Ancient Trees Grow Among Us.”)

The book under review is:

Farmer, Jared. Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees. New York: Basic Books, 2022.

Through Evolution, Body Parts Are Inelegantly Repurposed into Workaround Kluges

If the body itself is an amalgam of workaround kluges, then maybe our regulators should be more tolerant of medical MacGyvers who attempt to keep the body working through medical workaround kluges.

(p. A15) Mr. Pievani is a professor of biology at the University of Padua. His brief and thoughtful book (translated from the Italian by Michael Gerard Kenyon) isn’t just a description of imperfection, but a paean to it. There’s plenty of description and discussion, too, as “Imperfection” takes the reader on a convincing whirlwind tour of the dangers as well as the impossibility of perfection, how imperfection is built into the nature of the universe, and into all living things—including ourselves.

. . .

Readers wanting to get up to speed on imperfection would do well to attend to two little-known words with large consequences. The first is “palimpsest,” which in archaeology refers to any object that has been written upon, then erased, then written over again (sometimes many times), but with traces of the earlier writings still faintly visible. Every living thing is an evolutionary palimpsest, with adaptations necessarily limited because they’re built upon previous structures.

Consider, for example, childbirth. As smart critters, we’ve been selected (naturally) to have big heads. But in becoming bipedal, we had to rotate our pelvises, which set limits on the size of the birth canal. As a result, an unborn baby’s head is perilously close to being too big to get out. Usually, they manage it, but not without much painful laboring and sometimes, if this cephalopelvic disproportion is too great, or if the baby is malpositioned, by means of a cesarean delivery. In such cases, obstetricians take the newborn out the obvious way: through that large, unobstructed abdominal space between pelvis and lower ribs. Things would have been much easier and safer for mother and baby if the birth canal were positioned there, too, but our palimpsest nature precludes such a straightforward arrangement.

Which brings us to our second unusual word: “kluge,” something—assembled from diverse components—that shouldn’t work, but does. A kluge is a workaround: often clumsy, inelegant, inefficient, but that does its job nonetheless. Because we and all other living things are living palimpsests, we are kluges as well.

For the full review, see:

David P. Barash. “BOOKSHELF; Unintelligent Design.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, October 26, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date October 25, 2022, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Imperfection’ Review: Unintelligent Design.”)

The book under review is:

Pievani, Telmo. Imperfection: A Natural History. Translated by Michael Gerard Kenyon. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2022.

Shy and “Docile” Raccoons May Be “More Likely to Learn”

(p. D3) Despite their reputation, little is known about why raccoons are so good at urban living.

Over the past few years, researchers have taken to the streets of Laramie, Wyo., to uncover the raccoons’ secrets, adapting a cognitive test designed for captive animals so that it can be deployed in the wild.

Preliminary findings suggest that the most docile animals learned to use the testing devices more easily than bolder, more aggressive ones did, a result that has implications for our relationship with urban wildlife. The study was published on Thursday [Sept. 22, 2022] in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

. . .

Dr. Stanton’s team . . . wanted to know if certain characteristics made a raccoon more likely to excel on the test. They noted each animal’s behavior throughout the trapping and tagging process and found that individual raccoons reacted differently to the stress of being captured: Some were aggressive, hissing at the researchers, whereas others were quiet in their traps.

The scientists had expected that bolder raccoons would be more likely to interact with the testing devices. “But this isn’t what we found,” Dr. Stanton said.

Instead, the docile raccoons were more likely to learn how the devices work. The surprising discovery has implications for how cities deal with raccoons.

Urban wildlife management tends to focus on aggressive animals that may be confronting people and their pets, noted Sarah Benson-Amram, a behavioral ecologist at the University of British Columbia and a co-author of the study. By neglecting the docile animals, we may be increasing the proportion of problem-solving raccoons living in cities.

“Maybe they’re the ones who are learning how to open up the chicken coops and steal your chickens or break into your attic,” Dr. Benson-Amram said.

The results of the study add to a growing body of research suggesting animals that aren’t as aggressive or stressed by the presence of people may also have cognitive skills that help them thrive in urban areas.

“This is perhaps the first step towards domestication,” said Benjamin Geffroy, a biologist at the University of Montpellier in France. “Now we need to know more about what comes first, docility or cognitive abilities.”

. . .

Working with captive raccoons has convinced Dr. Benson-Amram that they actually enjoy cognitive challenges. “We give them problems, and even when there’s no reward, they just keep going for it,” she said.

Raccoons in urban environments can also be remarkably persistent, said Suzanne MacDonald, an animal behavior scientist at York University in Toronto. For one study, she put an open can of cat food in a trash bin, secured the lid with a bungee cord and deployed it in backyards to see how raccoons would react.

“I had one female spend like eight hours trying to get in,” Dr. MacDonald said. “And she did.”

For the full story, see:

Betsy Mason. “Shy Raccoons May Have an Edge in Learning.” The New York Times (Tuesday, September 27, 2022): D3.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version has the date Sept. 22, 2022, and has the title “Shy Raccoons Are Better Learners Than Bold Ones, Study Finds.”)

The article in the Journal of Experimental Biology mentioned above is:

Stanton, Lauren A., Eli S. Bridge, Joost Huizinga, and Sarah Benson-Amram. “Environmental, Individual and Social Traits of Free-Ranging Raccoons Influence Performance in Cognitive Testing.” Journal of Experimental Biology 225, no. 18 (2022) DOI: 10.1242/jeb.243726.

Patches of Plastic in Ocean Harbor Dense, Delicate, Diverse “Neuston” Sea Life

(p. D8) In 2019, the French swimmer Benoit Lecomte swam over 300 nautical miles through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to raise awareness about marine plastic pollution.

As he swam, he was often surprised to find that he wasn’t alone.

“Every time I saw plastic debris floating, there was life all around it,” Mr. Lecomte said.

The patch was less a garbage island than a garbage soup of plastic bottles, fishing nets, tires and toothbrushes. And floating at its surface were blue dragon nudibranchs, Portuguese man-o-wars, and other small surface-dwelling animals, which are collectively known as neuston.

Scientists aboard the ship supporting Mr. Lecomte’s swim systematically sampled the patch’s surface waters. The team found that there were much higher concentrations of neuston within the patch than outside it. In some parts of the patch, there were nearly as many neuston as pieces of plastic.

“I had this hypothesis that gyres concentrate life and plastic in similar ways, but it was still really surprising to see just how much we found out there,” said Rebecca Helm, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina and co-author of the study. “The density was really staggering. To see them in that concentration was like, wow.”

. . .

Dr. Helm and her colleagues pulled many individual creatures out of the sea with their nets: by-the-wind sailors, free-floating hydrozoans that travel on ocean breezes; blue buttons, quarter-sized cousins of the jellyfish; and violet sea-snails, which build “rafts” to stay afloat by trapping air bubbles in a soap-like mucus they secrete from a gland in their foot. They also found potential evidence that these creatures may be reproducing within the patch.

The findings were posted last month on bioRxiv and have not yet been subjected to peer review. But if they hold up, Dr. Helm and other scientists say, it may complicate efforts by conservationists to remove the immense and ever-growing amount of plastic in the patch.

. . .

. . . Dr. Helm said there is [an] . . . implication of the study: Organizations working to remove plastic waste from the patch may also need to consider what the study means for their efforts.

There are two nonprofit organizations working to remove floating plastic from the Great Pacific Patch. The largest, the Ocean Cleanup Foundation in the Netherlands, developed a net specifically to collect and concentrate marine debris as it is pulled across the sea’s surface by winds and currents. Once the net is full, a ship takes its contents to land for proper disposal.

Dr. Helm and other scientists warn that such nets threaten sea life, including neuston. Although adjustments to the net’s design have been made to reduce bycatch, Dr. Helm believes any large-scale removal of plastic from the patch could pose a threat to its neuston inhabitants.

“When it comes to figuring out what to do about the plastic that’s already in the ocean, I think we need to be really careful,” she said.

For the full story, see:

Annie Roth. “Marine Animals Float Amid Patch Of Pacific Garbage.” The New York Times (Tuesday, May 10, 2022): D8.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed word, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 8, 2022, and has the title “The Ocean’s Biggest Garbage Pile Is Full of Floating Life.”)

Helm’s co-authored draft paper is:

Chong, Fiona, Matthew Spencer, Nikolai Maximenko, Jan Hafner, Andrew McWhirter, and Rebecca R. Helm. “High Concentrations of Floating Life in the North Pacific Garbage Patch.” bioRxiv (posted April 28, 2022): 2022.04.26.489631.

Adapting to Climate Change, Bird Species Send Out Explorers to “Scout New Habitats”

(p. B1) From what we can tell, the Steller’s sea eagle trekking across North America does not appear homesick.

The bird has strayed thousands of miles from its native range in East Asia over the last two years, roving from the Denali Highway in Alaska down to a potential sighting South Texas before moving eastward and back north to Canada and New England. Its cartoonish yellow beak and distinctive wing coloration recently attracted crowds of rapt birders to Maine before turning up on April Fools’ Day in Nova Scotia.

“We live in a world of very little surprise,” said Nick Lund, the outreach manager for Maine Audubon and creator of The Birdist blog. Catching a glimpse of a far-flung bird in one’s backyard, he said, “is like the purest form of joy.”

But the rogue Steller’s sea eagle isn’t just a lost bird: It is an avian vagrant, a term that describes birds that wing their way well beyond their species’s normal range of movement.

Humans have long marveled at such exotic stragglers — which experts also refer to as waifs, rarities, extralimitals, casuals and accidentals — and what they suggest about the biological importance of wandering. “The ‘accidentals’ are the exceptional individuals that go farthest away from the metropolis of the species; they do not belong to (p. D4) the ordinary mob,” Joseph Grinnell, a field biologist in California, noted in 1922. “They constitute sort of sensitive tentacles, by which the species keeps aware of the possibilities of aerial expansion.”

. . .

A new book, “Vagrancy in Birds,” extends this century-old notion — arguing that vagrancy does not always represent a tale of navigational avian misfortune, but can be one of the first visible signs of bird species adapting to human-driven alterations to Earth’s waters, lands and skies.

“We’re destroying and creating habitats,” said Alexander Lees, a co-author of the book and a senior biodiversity lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University in England. “We’d expect wildlife to adapt to that.”

. . .

“We think of ranges as stable in space and time. But ranges are incredibly dynamic and they can change,” Dr. Lees, of Manchester Metropolitan University, said.

Vagrancy, the scientists argue, might help species chart an escape route from human-driven climate change and widespread habitat destruction. Instead of staying put and facing potential extinction, a few solitary pioneers can scout new habitats as their former homes become unlivable.

The critically endangered Chinese crested tern, for example, was presumed to be extinct after last being spotted in 1937. Then, in 2000, and again a few years later, biologists rediscovered the species at sites in China and Taiwan where it hadn’t bred before. In 2016, scientists found two nesting Chinese crested tern pairs incubating eggs on an uninhabited island in South Korea. Its tiny surviving population — only about 50 birds — is still threatened by egg-poaching humans and nest-destroying typhoons. But as one conservation officer noted in 2017, the Korean nesting site “means the future of this species looks more promising now.”

. . .

“There’s this historical narrative around vagrants that they have to be lost. They have to be aberrant. There’s something wrong with them,” Dr. Zawadzki said.

But faced with climate change, she said, the opposite might prove true: The ability to explore — or, seen another way, the opportunity to “get lost” — becomes a huge advantage.

“They’re more likely to survive,” she said.

For the full story, see:

Marion Renault. “They’re Not Lost. They’re Adapting.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 12, 2022): D1.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 12, 2022, and has the title “These Birds Aren’t Lost. They’re Adapting.”)

The book mentioned above is:

Lees, Alexander, and James Gilroy. Vagrancy in Birds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2022.

Flamingo Who Declared Independence on July 4, 2005, Still Flies Free in Texas

A few years ago I ran a blog entry on the flamingo who declared independence on July 4, 2005 by escaping from a Kansas zoo and flying to Texas. Well, apparently as of March 10, 2022, he still roams free.

(p. D4) David Foreman, a machinist and fishing guide in Edna, Texas, didn’t know any of this when he and a friend set out on a boat in Port Lavaca on March 10 this year.

. . .

. . . on this day he couldn’t believe his eyes. There it was, a tall, elegant bird standing on one leg as flamingos often do. He zoomed his phone’s camera in as far as it could go, searching for proof of what seemed unbelievable.

“My brain was telling me, ‘No way you’re looking at a flamingo,’ but my eyes were telling me, ‘That’s what it is, there’s no mistaking it,’” said Mr. Foreman, who grew up in a bird sanctuary.

. . .

Wildlife officials in Texas said it was surely No. 492. It was so named because one of its legs has worn a tag with that number since it arrived at the zoo from Tanzania in 2003.

. . .

It served as confirmation that No. 492, estimated to be about 20 years old, is still persevering despite striking out on its own. Its journey would fit snugly into a Pixar movie script. No. 492 was one of 40 flamingos to arrive at the Kansas zoo in 2003. Most of the birds were probably around 3 years old, Scott Newland, the curator of birds at the zoo, said in an interview in 2018.

He described feather clipping, the maintenance that keeps the birds grounded, as painless, “no different than you or I getting a haircut.” It must be repeated each year as birds molt their feathers and grow new ones.

But in June 2005, staff members missed the signs that No. 492’s wings needed to be clipped, and the bird flew away to a drainage canal in Wichita along with another flamingo, No. 347.

On July 4 — seriously, on Independence Day — the birds flew away from Wichita for good, No. 492 heading south and No. 347 heading north.

No. 347 was never seen again, and likely didn’t survive the winter. No. 492, though, found a suitable environment in Texas, with its shallow, salty wetlands, high temperatures year-round and ample food sources.

For the full story, see:

Daniel Victor. “A Flamingo Flourishes 17 Years After Escaping.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 12, 2022): D4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 12, 2022, and has the title “Flamingo No. 492 Is Still on the Run 17 Years Later.” Where there is a slight difference in wording between the versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

A Driving Goldfish Shows “Smart” Adaptive Intelligence

(p. A1) Ronen Segev is out to clear the goldfish’s bad reputation.

“Many times people come to me and ask me, ‘We thought that [a] goldfish has a three-second memory span.’ This is incorrect. It’s very important to make this point,” he said. “Fish are smart, even goldfish.”

His case rests on a viral video he tweeted last month of a goldfish driving a water-tank-equipped robotic vehicle down the side of a street and inside his lab at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. The roboride was part of a scientific study to test whether goldfish had the mental acuity to navigate a terrestrial environment toward a target using a machine. The six goldfish that took part in driver’s training passed their test.

. . .

(p. A9) “The ability to change in response to a changing environment, it’s so important to survival,” said Kelly Lambert, a neuroscientist at the University of Richmond in Virginia, who has trained rats, but not fish, to drive. “The flexibility is what is so amazing about a brain. If you had a brain that was fixed, if anything changed in the environment—we’re done.”

Dr. Segev, a neuroscientist who has been studying fish cognition for 16 years, didn’t hold back on the menu of challenges he devised for his goldfish. His aim was to show that animal brains aren’t inferior to human ones; they’re just different because they evolved in a different environment, he said. Animal brains are flexible enough to adapt to new situations, a fundamental characteristic of all brains, neuroscientists say.

He put a goldfish in a tank aboard a robot outfitted with computer-vision software that tracked the fish’s movement. When the fish moved inside its plexiglass pool, the robot moved with it. The fish had to learn that when it swam right, the robotic vehicle moved in that direction too.

The fish had to use their new cognitive skills to find a target, a pink board inside a lab. In return for hitting their mark, the fish got rewarded with a pellet of food.

For the full story, see:

Daniela Hernandez. “In This Fish Story, a Goldfish Drives a Vehicle Down the Street.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, February 7, 2022): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date February 6, 2022, and has the title “How Do You Teach a Goldfish to Drive? First You Need a Vehicle.”)

When Humans Control Animals, Their Wily Resilience Can Cause “Unforeseen Consequences”

(p. A15) For the past three years, a gray squirrel has set out to ruin my life, chewing leaves off my beloved exotic hibiscus and geraniums.

. . .

. . . , Mary Roach’s “Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law” makes me feel grateful that my nemesis is only a rodent, and that I live in Ohio, not Colorado or India. My refrigerator will not be emptied by a bear; I will not be throttled by a leopard while taking out the compost.

. . .

There’s something demonic at work in India’s leopards and macaques, but the dilemma finds its root in human behavior. For centuries, feeding monkeys has been considered a religious offering, but this ritual has fueled a certain conviction on the monkeys’ part that humans are in service to them. Ms. Roach’s attempts to pin down government officials on how they might tackle the problem (including hiring more monkey catchers and staffing more monkey sterilization centers) are hilariously convoluted and laced with bizarre anecdotes. She’s passed from one office to the next and back again, never getting an answer. Before redirecting her, one official “veered off into a story about a macaque that got inside the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and took to pulling IV needles out of patients’ arms and sucking the glucose like a child with a straw in a pop bottle.”

During World War II, the U.S. military established a naval air station on Midway Atoll, the strategically significant string of islets halfway between North America and Asia. But the islands turned out to be also a significant nesting ground for thousands of albatrosses, and the result was hundreds of collisions between the airplanes and the huge soaring birds. It is heartbreaking to read of sailors being made to club the long-living albatrosses—80,000 in one assault, 21,000 in another—to reduce the population. Still, nature prevailed. “For a brief time the hazard to aircraft was reduced,” read one report. “The following season there appeared to be as many albatrosses as before.” After every possible deterrent and lethal attack on the gentle birds failed, the air base was closed and in 1993 converted into a refuge. The contrast between this midcentury horror and the reverence shown earlier this year for Wisdom, the 70-year-old Laysan albatross still nesting on Midway, could hardly be more stark.

. . .

This book is largely about the unspooling of unforeseen consequences, and our feeble attempts to put the animal genies we’ve freed back into their bottles.

For the full review, see:

Julie Zickefoose. “BOOKSHELF; Rebellious Nature.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 1, 2021, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Fuzz’ Review: Rebellious Nature.”)

The book under review is:

Roach, Mary. Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law. NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2021.

Red Wolves “Declared Extinct in Wild,” Live in Wild Hybrid Coyotes

(p. D1) From a distance, the canids of Galveston Island, Texas, look almost like coyotes, prowling around the beach at night, eyes gleaming in the dark.

But look closer and oddities appear. The animals’ bodies seem slightly out of proportion, with overly long legs, unusually broad heads and sharply pointed snouts. And then there is their fur, distinctly reddish in hue, with white patches on their muzzles.

The Galveston Island canids are not conventional coyotes — at least, not entirely. They carry a ghostly genetic legacy: DNA from red wolves, which were declared extinct in the wild in 1980.

. . .

(p. D8) Mr. Wooten became convinced that the creatures that had taken his dog were actually red wolf-coyote hybrids, if not actual red wolves.

Eager to prove his hypothesis, he began looking for dead canids by the side of the road. “I was thinking that if these are red wolves then the only way they’re going to be able to tell is with genetics,” he recalled.

He soon found two dead animals, collected a small patch of skin from each and tucked them away in his freezer while he tried, for years, to pique scientists’ interest.

“Sometimes they wouldn’t respond,” he said. “Sometimes they’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s a neat animal. Nothing we can do about it.’ And, ‘They’re extinct. It’s not a red wolf.’”

. . .

Eventually, in 2016, Mr. Wooten’s photos made their way to Dr. vonHoldt, an expert on canid genetics.

The animals in Mr. Wooten’s photos immediately struck her. They “just had a special look,” she said. “And I bit. The whole thing — hook, line and sinker.”

. . .

The hybrids raise new conservation possibilities. For instance, scientists might be able to restore genetic diversity by carefully breeding red wolves to hybrids with high levels of red wolf ancestry. Or they could use artificial reproductive technologies or gene-editing techniques to insert the ghost alleles back into red wolves, Dr. vonHoldt said.

The findings also come as some scientists have begun rethinking the value of interspecies hybrids. “Oftentimes, hybridization is viewed as a real threat to the integrity of a species, which it can be,” Dr. Brzeski said.

One reason that the red wolf populations declined in the wild is because the animals frequently interbred with coyotes. But, she added, “here we have these hybrids that are now potentially going to be the lifeline for the highly endangered red wolves.”

For the full story, see:

Tristan Spinski and Emily Anthes. “Mystery ‘Coyotes’ Hold Key For Revival.” The New York Times (Tuesday, January 4, 2022): D1 & D8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 3, 2021, and has the title “The Ghost Wolves of Galveston Island.”)

Many Plants and Animals Quickly Adapt to Global Warming

(p. A15) Amid the ice floes of the Arctic, tiny seabirds called dovekies feed in the plankton-rich waters, a survival strategy that worked well until the pack ice began to dwindle around the islands in Russia’s Franz Josef Land, where the dovekies breed. Like their Arctic neighbors the polar bears, often seen stranded on shrinking icebergs, it appeared that the dovekies faced an existential threat because of climate change. Scientists working in the region predicted that they would have to fly an hour or more to find food.

Instead, data from radio-tagged birds have revealed something entirely different: Faced with the prospect of extinction, the dovekies adapted. They were able to pivot to a new foraging opportunity a five-minute flight away, where water from melting glaciers slams into ocean currents just offshore, making plankton there easy pickings. For now, the dovekie population is thriving, producing just as many healthy chicks as before. Unfortunately, this tactic is not a permanent solution, as Arctic glaciers are dwindling too. But it could buy the birds another century to try to adjust their survival strategy again.

The Franz Josef dovekies remind us that nature is not a passive bystander to climate change. In some surprising cases, new conditions can trigger new behaviors.

. . .

When a group of biologists recently fanned out across the eastern Pacific to study aggression in butterfly fish, they expected to witness the constant territorial skirmishes for which these feisty coral reef dwellers are famous. Then a marine heat wave caused the corals to expel their algae, a damaging process called bleaching that leaves once-colorful reefs ghostly pale and lacking in nutrients for fish.

Suddenly without meals worth fighting for, the butterfly fish changed too. They transformed from aggressors into pacifists almost overnight, becoming docile to save energy and eke out an existence, albeit a subdued one, in a calorie-starved environment. If the corals ever recover, then the fish may regain their previous territorial vigor. If not, then they’ll no longer be famous for defending their food; they’ll be too busy trying to find enough of it.

Butterfly fish and dovekies both employ what biologists call “plasticity,” a natural ability to be flexible.

. . .

Warmer temperatures are forcing conifers to shift northward, while many hardwoods are moving north and west, chasing increases in rainfall. But the direction of these shifts isn’t nearly as surprising as their speed. Red oaks like those at Walden Pond are lumbering north by more than 10 miles every decade, which is nothing next to the 40-mile pace set by honey locusts. Both are shifting considerably faster than the range of the average bird: . . .

. . .

When back-to-back hurricanes Irma and Maria battered the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2017, they flattened buildings, uprooted trees and left the community reeling. They also created a rare scientific opportunity. Surveys of a local species of anole—a distant cousin of iguanas—had just been completed prior to the storms. The researchers had intended to show the effects of predation on the lizards by non-native rats. Instead, they turned their attention to the impact of the hurricanes and immediately repeated their field work. What they found was survival of the fittest in action: Lizards in the post-storm population all had larger toe pads and stronger front legs better suited to gripping trees in high winds. And those traits were being passed on to the next generation.

While scientists expected to eventually see evolution in reaction to extreme weather, many were stunned that it could happen so fast. Understanding how some species adapt in various ways, while others can’t, may help to inform our own responses to climate change. Plasticity may become an unavoidable priority in preparing for a warmer world.

For the full commentary, see:

Thor Hanson. “Some Species Are Changing Along With the Climate.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date September 24, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

The commentary quoted above is adapted from Hanson’s book:

Hanson, Thor. Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change. New York: Basic Books, 2021.

Human Footprints from 23,000 Years Ago Found in New Mexico

(p. A3) At the height of the last Ice Age, generations of children and teenagers ambled barefoot along a muddy lakefront in what is now New Mexico, crossing paths with mammoths, giant ground sloths and an extinct canine species known as dire wolves.

Now, some 23,000 years later, the young people’s fossilized footprints are yielding new insights into when humans first populated the Americas. Unearthed in White Sands National Park by a research team that began its work in 2016, the tracks are about 10,000 years older and about 1,600 miles farther south than any other human footprints known in America, scientists reported Thursday in the journal Science.

“It is, in my view, the first unequivocal evidence of human presence in the Americas” during the last Ice Age, Daniel Odess, chief of science and research at the U.S. National Park Service and a senior author of the report, said of the discovery. “The footprints are inarguably human.”

. . .

In earlier work published in 2018, the scientists described an undated set of fossilized human tracks at the White Sands site that they believe were made by people stalking a giant sloth. The tracks overlapped those of the sloth, suggesting a pursuit.

“We will never see humans interacting with giant sloths, but the footprints are telling us the sloths were scared of humans and the humans were confident,” said Sally Reynolds, a paleontologist at Bournemouth and a member of the research team.

The scientists also uncovered what they believe to be the footprints of a prehistoric woman who traveled for almost a mile with a toddler, sometimes carrying the child and sometimes making the young one walk by her side. It is the longest fossilized human trackway ever discovered, according to their research, which was published in 2018 in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

For the full story, see:

Robert Lee Hotz. “Footprints Offer Clues About Earliest Americans.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Sept. 24, 2021): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date September 23, 2021, and has the title “Footprints Yield New Clues About the First Americans.” The last paragraph quoted above appears in the online, but not the print, version.)