Conservation biologists often obsess over counting animals in the wild.

“How many [insert animal name] are in [insert habitat name] this month? How do those population figures compare to last year at this time?”

If you think such questions are exciting, head to your nearest research university to start your Ph.D. in conservation biology. For the rest of us, take a few moments to appreciate how difficult it is to answer those questions. Counting animals? For the 2010 Census alone, the United States government has hired over 400,000 people to help count the total number of Americans, at a cost of over $11 billion. Even the most optimistic of scientific grants for counting another animal species wouldn’t cover a fraction of that budget.

Thus, to count their targets, conservationists have to get creative. A popular method for larger animals involves setting up motion-triggered cameras in the wild: an animal comes close to the camera, sensors record that motion and activate the camera, and the camera records a few seconds of footage for scientists to view later. Over time, the camera can record multiple images of animals passing by the camera, and scientists can extrapolate the total number of animals from a particular species based on the number of appearances of that species in the camera footage. They have to take other measures into account as well (the distance between cameras, what is known about the roaming or migratory patterns of the species in question, etc.), but this passive method sure beats hiring 400,000 Americans to count the number of jaguars in Guatemala.
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Bitter Pill

Apparently, today (and every 8 June) is World Oceans Day. Along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, I’m guessing today’s holiday was overshadowed by more bad news from the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

If you’re like me and spent most of today unaware of World Oceans Day, the Ocean Project has a few easy steps you can take (aside from the obvious: drive less) to help out in response to the Deepwater Horizon crisis. Take a look and see how you can lend a hand.

The picture above shows thick oil piled up along a private beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Image provided courtesy of Katherine Bourg and the New York Times.

In 2005, the Kavli Foundation, in partnership with the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, announced a new prize for outstanding achievement in three scientific fields. The Kavli Prize would be awarded every two years, and recipients in each category would split a $1 million award. Thus, in 2008, Crown Prince Haakon of Norway handed out the inaugural Kavli Prizes in the three anointed fields: neuroscience, astrophysics, and nanoscience. Two scientists, for example, shared the 2008 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics for their studies of quasars, the most energetic and luminous objects known in the universe.

His Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon of Norway (on the right) hands out the 2008 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience during a ceremony in Oslo, Norway. Image provided courtesy of the Kavli Foundation.
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In July of 2009, something hit Jupiter, leaving behind a hole the size of the Pacific Ocean. Apparently, no one noticed except for Anthony Wesley, an amateur astronomer from Australia. Wesley runs an observatory out of his home in New South Wales. There, on 19 July 2009, he observed what he thought was a dark storm racing across one of Jupiter’s poles. It didn’t take long for him to realize that there was no dark storm. Instead, something had hit Jupiter, leaving a scar the planet’s thick upper atmosphere.

Wesley contacted NASA, and the space agency turned the Hubble Space Telescope toward our closest gas giant neighbor. They confirmed the scar in the Jovian atmosphere, and word spread that another astronomical body had collided with our solar system’s largest planet, just over 15 years after comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke apart and hit Jupiter.
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Tropical Storm Agatha pounded Central America over the past few days. The storm is blamed for 180 deaths, and caused widespread flooding.

An hour after a clothing factory in Guatemala City closed on Saturday, the building’s security guard left the empty factory to tend to his flooded house. Shortly after he left, the entire factory disappeared into the sinkhole pictured above. The sinkhole also claimed an intersection, and sent nearby residents fleeing for fear that the ground would soon disappear beneath their feet.

The sinkhole is 66 feet in diameter, and at least 100 feet deep. It’s sudden appearance, coupled with the it’s “perfect” circular shape have made some geologists hypothesize that a previously unknown cave formation is to blame. However, in 2007 a similar sinkhole consumed several homes and killed three people a mere three miles from this new formation. That sinkhole was ultimately blamed on heavy rains coupled with the city’s flawed drainage system. Geologists will certainly take the city’s drainage system into account as they investigate the causes of this new sinkhole.

In the meantime, law enforcement officers are keeping curious onlookers away from the sinkhole, as geologists prepare to descend the Earth’s newest opening and see what’s going on. Tread lightly.

Image provided courtesy of Paulo Raquec and the Guatemalan government.

Charles Darwin, proponent of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Nature has a brief and fascinating interview with evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson of New York’s Binghamton University. Dr. Wilson is a full time researcher, yet he also spends time injecting evolution into public policy debates. He advocates engaging the general public with evolutionary ideas, and giving evolutionary theories real world relevance for society.

Dr. Wilson’s ideas couldn’t come at a better time. Among Western nations, Americans are famously skeptical of evolution. It was only four years ago that a comprehensive review of surveys on public perceptions of evolution determined that less than half of Americans agreed with the assertion that human beings evolved from other animal species. A mere 14% of the general public believes that evolution is “definitely true.” Of all the Western countries surveyed, only Turkey had a population that was more wary of evolution, while Scandinavian countries had over three-quarters of their citizens accepting evolutionary theory.

Americans have unique historical and sociological reasons for their skepticism and hostility toward evolution. Many have theorized that the strong presence of Protestant fundamentalism in the American tradition decoupled religious learning from the major universities. As a result, whole Protestant groups educated and cultivated clergy and congregations hostile to mainstream Western education ideals and standards, especially in regard to the natural sciences. In addition, in recent decades, the political climate in the United States has added fuel to the notion of evolution as a dangerous, foolhardy, and heretical falsehood. President Reagan famously littered some campaign speeches with the line, “I have no chimpanzees in my family,” to ridicule a whole field of biological study. Some argue that the link between the political right in the United States with hostility toward evolutionary theory was cemented to curry favor among religious fundamentalists. If so, it is an alliance that is noticeably absent in other Western countries. In much of Europe and Japan, far-right political groups are just as a likely to accept evolutionary theory as other segments of the population.

Another reason the American public is so hostile to evolution may be the poor state of scientific literacy in general in the United States. Most Americans have only a minimal scientific education up through high school, barely touching on subjects like evolution, genetics, and inheritance. Beyond high school, most Americans don’t further their scientific education at all. Dr. Wilson’s group at Binghamton University is researching ways to inject evolution back into the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans. It will be interesting to see if these methods bear fruit, especially since Dr. Wilson himself believes his methods of engagement may not please a prominent pro-evolution group: atheists.

Dr. Wilson is an atheist himself, but does not agree with many “new atheists” who take an openly hostile view to all religious belief. In fact, part of Dr. Wilson’s work looks at the group benefits of religious belief from an evolutionary perspective.

To learn more, read Dr. Wilson’s whole interview with Nature.

Here’s something you’ll probably never see again: the space shuttle Atlantis landing at the Kennedy Space Center at the completion of mission STS-132. Atlantis had spent nearly two weeks in space, delivering supplies and a new research module to the International Space Station and conducting a few scientific experiments.

NASA’s wildly successful space shuttle program has only two more missions left before the fleet is retired. Mission STS-132 was Atlantis‘ final scheduled mission, and orbiters Endeavour and Discovery will each make their own trips to the International Space Station before the end of the year.

Thus, for only two more times will we see space shuttles launch from Cape Canaveral, and return home. And for only two more times will we be able to browse NASA’s audio files of the infamous “wake-up calls” used to rouse astronauts at the beginning of each day in outer space. Astronaut families choose one or two special songs to use to wake up the astronauts each morning. For Atlantis‘ final mission, “wake-up call” songs included “Sweet Home Alabama” (my favorite on the list) and the theme from Wallace and Gromit. You can find a full list of wake-up call songs from STS-132 here, and an index to all space shuttle mission wake-up calls (as well as mission images and videos) here.

Finally, watch Atlantis return home for the last time. I’m only sorry I missed seeing it live.

Image provided courtesy of NASA and Ben Cooper. Video provided courtesy of NASA.

Chicken or Egg

The western honeybee, Apis mellifera.

Scientists from the United States Department of Agriculture announced at a recent meeting that they have identified the primary pathogens associated with honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). American beekeepers first reported CCD in 2007, and the implications are dire. Honeybees (Apis mellifera) are major crop pollinators. In California alone, their commercial crop value easily exceeds $1.5 billion annually. Though CCD has only been recognized for a few years, the potential loss of honeybees as crop pollinators sent scientists scrambling to determine the cause of this odd and devastating syndrome.
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A northern gannet, covered in thick brown oil, lies dead on a beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Northern gannets are usually white.

Over a month after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, oil continues to gush from its open well. This week, scientists and government officials announced that oil has fouled Louisiana marshlands and coastal habitats along the massive Mississippi River delta. The extent of the destruction and magnitude of the loss of won’t be known for some time. However, the bodies continue to mount, and many are questioning whether such complex marshlands can ever recover from such a catastrophe. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, take a look at the image below of Louisiana’s irreplaceable coastal marshes, now coated in thick brown oil.

In the meantime, the federal government has admitted that it does not have enough equipment and experts to take over BP’s failed attempts to stop the flow of oil from the untapped well or contain the spill. Thus, for now, BP remains in charge of the spill itself, while states along the Gulf of Mexico try in vain to protect precious miles of shoreline.

First image provided courtesy of Sean Gardner and Reuters. Second image provided courtesy of Gerald Herbert and the Associated Press.