January 10, 2020
Could fallow

farms advance


By Emma Bryce/Anthropocene
Photo by Victor Reynolds/flickr
The planet is littered with plots of degraded farmland, unproductive and unused. But what if we transformed this unwanted earth into conservation reserves? 

Researchers on a new  Nature Sustainability paper  make the case that converting millions of hectares of unproductive agricultural land globally could be an ingenious way to help us meet our conservation goals, and bring down global emissions.

Currently, conservationists tend to focus their attention on lands that also happen to be highly sought-after for other purposes – like farming, development, or resource extraction. This focus is understandable, because most often, these lands occur in regions that are hugely biodiverse and ecologically important. But acquiring these plots to safeguard for conservation can be hugely costly and time-consuming, precisely because they’re valued by so many different parties. And inevitably, that slows down crucial conservation efforts.

Recognizing this conundrum, the team of international researchers chose to highlight the overlooked conservation potential of what they call ‘uncontested’ lands: millions of hectares of fallow farmland that is no longer valuable or particularly attractive to anyone else. 

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The latest suburban menace: Wild turkeys  
By Laura Reiley/Washington Post
Photo by Don McCullough/flickr
In the  video , the male turkey — snood engorged, tail feathers spread extravagantly — struts briskly after the U.S. Postal Service vehicle, circling the boxy white truck and lunging as the mail carrier inserts envelopes in each box along the block. The viral video, with 7 million views and counting, is just one of the many examples of increasingly spirited human-turkey kerfuffles.

In Toms River, N.J., they have  terrorized  an over-55 community, attacking cars and pecking  kiddie pools  unto deflation. While flocks (a group of wild turkeys is called a rafter) have left their notable  calling cards  in communities in New Jersey, they have crashed through  windshields  in Florida,  pecked their  way into police stations in Massachusetts, and in Utah become such a nuisance that 500 were rounded up and  relocated  to the deep woods.

Invasive plants may hold a key for wetlands
By Ariel Wittenberg/E&E News
Photo by Mandy Jansen/flickr
With 15-foot-high stalks that literally overtake native vegetation and eliminate habitat for salt marsh birds without any obvious benefits, phragmites has long been considered a wetlands villain by East Coast conservationists.

That conventional wisdom is changing, with a growing school of researchers who argue the infamous weed could actually be key to responding to sea-level rise and climate change.

Land managers now face the unprecedented dilemma of prioritizing which of a wetland's many benefits are most worth saving.

"The question is what do you want a marsh for, storm surge or habitat?" said Scott Covington, a senior ecologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service's National Wildlife Refuge System.

What happened to America’s parakeet?
By Carl Zimmer/The New York Times
Photo by Ryan Mandelbaum/flickr
The face of the Carolina parakeet was red; its head was yellow, its wings green. Measuring a foot or more from beak to tail, the parakeets thrived in noisy flocks from the Atlantic Coast to what is now Oklahoma.

“I have seen branches of trees as completely covered by them as they could possibly be,” John James Audubon wrote in 1830. When the parrots landed on a farmer’s field, “they present to the eye the same effect as if a brilliantly coloured carpet had been thrown over them.”

Within a century, the Carolina parakeet was gone. In 1918, the last captive died in a Cincinnati zoo. After a few possible sightings in the wild, the species was declared extinct.

Today, scientists are left with little information about the bird. But now a team of researchers  has sequenced the genome of a specimen that died a century ago . The genome offers clues to how the Carolina parakeet became America’s native parrot millions of years ago, and how it disappeared.

Porcupines must find ways to adapt to climate
By Jennifer S. Holland/National Wildlife
Photo by Robert Shea/flickr
There’s only one good way to pick up a porcupine: Very carefully. (Oh, and wear gloves.) Biologist Cara Appel of Oregon State University mastered the art while doing field research in California. “We’d manage to coax a porcupine into a trash can, and then a brave soul had to grab it by the tail so we could anesthetize it,” she recalls. The last thing you want to handle, after all, is a 20-pound ball of jabby needles thrashing around while you try to measure and collar it.

The porcupine, indeed, wears a true suit of armor. If emitting a foul odor or chattering its teeth doesn’t scare off an attacker, the North American species—Erethizon dorsatum, or the  common porcupine —has some 30,000 quills it can thrust in defense. Each of these keratin stalks is tipped with microscopic barbs that hook tightly into a victim’s skin, and very few predators know how to avoid a face full.

One of the world’s 27 species of these spiky rodents, E. dorsatum thrives in diverse habitats—from Maine to California and from Alaska to Mexico—eating a plant diet tailored to each locale. It tolerates brutal winters, months-long hunger pangs and even human neighbors. “Porcupines are certainly adaptable to a wide range of conditions,” says Appel. But she and other biologists now worry that the animals may not be able to adapt to a  changing global climate .

“In seed time learn, in harvest teach,
in winter enjoy.”

- - William Blake

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