Posts Tagged ‘sense’

All Hail Haber-Bosch

7 November 2008

fertilizer-ad-retooledWhen corporations start running ad campaigns with cute kids while taking credit for the well-being of society, and  setting up flashy websites with pages devoted to “grassroots activism” — you know that some executives are getting a little jittery.  Remember that whole, “carbon dioxide–some call it pollution, we call it life” campaign?

cei_adWell, it seems the fertilizer industry has realized that if the public can get concerned about the environmental consequences of massive anthropogenic manipulation of the carbon cycle, they might eventually start getting concerned about the emerging evidence that our massive anthropogenic manipulation of the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles may also have some negative consequences.

Episodes of dramatic biogeochemical flux in the past were not happy times to be alive, and just as with carbon, there is substantial reason to believe that we are dramatically altering the global balance of nitrogen and phosphorous, perhaps at rates and levels that have never been seen before.

Look, there’s no doubt that the “Green Revolution” that increased global food production in regions historically prone to debilitating famine has been a net-plus from a humanistic stand-point.  But just as with the industrial revolution a century before, it’s now crystal clear that these technological breakthroughs have come with significant costs and risks to the biosphere.  And ultimately it is the biosphere that sustains us.  If we continue to rape the biosphere as we have been, well, you better start developing a taste for raw nitrates.

bee-hiveWe are in desperate need of a Greener Revolution,  one that focuses on sensible farming practices: crop rotation and diversification, proper soil management, an end to devoting so much arable land to produce factory-made animal protein,  and a reduction of exogenous input (fossil fuels, fossil and synthetic fertilizers) and output (emissions, runoff).  As consumers we need to develop sensible eating practices, endeavor to figure out where our food comes from and how it’s produced and make a concerted effort to send our food waste back to the soil and not to the landfill or incinerator (growing some of your own food and patronizing local farmers helps a lot on all of these counts).  Actually there is one easy word that covers all of this: sustainability.

It was innovation that brought about the original Green Revolution not advertising and not re-branding famine as the “South Bengal Diet.”  This is what these corporations should be investing in, sustainable innovation, not some million dollar PR campaign.  Reupholstering the deck chairs and pointing out to everyone that the iceberg is “completely natural and organic” just isn’t going to cut it.

Also, that’s not penne you idiots it’s rotini.

[uh, I don’t know when microecos became a political blog…sorry we’ll get back to comparative American studies soon enough]

Smells like Shrew Spirit

10 January 2008
Star-nosed Mole (Condylura cristata) “sniffing” underwater
from Catania 2006

The kind of thing to drive any formerly self-respecting paleontologist nuts: underwater olfaction in mammals. Smell is an important sense for mammals, no surprise to anyone who has stepped into a Sephora outlet recently. Though we are generally far more conscious of sight and sound, we’re still led around by the nose far more than we would guess…especially when it comes to eating and mating.

And other mammals, especially those who have stuck to more respectable mammalian lifestyles (i.e. grubbing around for worms and bugs at night), put humans to shame in the olfaction department. Still, the announcement that some specialized “insectivorans” (or soricomorphs if you’re T.C. like that) are able to smell underwater came as a surprise – to me at least.

As seen in the photo above, this amazing feat is accomplished by expiring a small bubble of air then re-inspiring it. This allows these air-breathing mammals to safely search for odors underwater as they search for prey. Notably, many other aquatic mammals rely exclusively on other senses especially hearing and touch; whales have apparently little or no sense of smell judging from their brains.

A detailed analysis of the tactile and olfactory abilities of the American Water Shrew (Sorex palustris) in PNAS, expands upon the initial report of underwater smelling by shrews and moles. Like the previous Nature paper there are awesome photos and slow-mo videos documenting this amazing behavior, highly recommended.

The elaborate experiments by Catania and co. showed that S. palustris uses a combination of tactile (via whiskers) and olfactory clues to evaluate potential prey items. One video shows a shrew puzzled by an artificial cricket which apparently “feels” right but “smells” wrong. They also used experiments to rule out echolocation or electroreception – strategies employed by other mammals that forage underwater.

As for the paleontological lament: it took a serendipitous flash of insight plus the availability of high speed cameras and infrared lighting to bring this interesting behavior to light. One has to wonder how many strange behaviors among fossil taxa, peculiar and mundane, have yet to and may never be guessed at.

Interestingly, aquatic olfaction has been suggested in plesiosaurs based upon skeletal evidence, but I suspect we’ll be waiting awhile for the slow-mo vid.