Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson’s Helps Develop Test
Joy Milne, 72, from Perth, Scotland, has a hyper-sensitive sense of smell, allowing her to be able to smell Parkinson’s disease, which progressively damages parts of the brain over many years.
She discovered her unusual ability when her late husband, Les, developed a different odour when he was 33. She described it as a ‘musky aroma’. That was 12 years before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Les, who was a doctor, was determined to research the link between odour and Parkinson’s, and contacted Dr Tilo Kunath at the University of Edinburgh, who paired up with Professor Perdita Barran to begin the research. They determined that the reasons for a change in the scent of a person suffering the disease is due to a chemical change of the skin oil (sebum).
In the preliminary sessions, Milne was asked to smell T-shirts worn by people who had Parkinson’s and those who did not. She successfully identified all of the Parkinson’s patients, but told researchers that a member of the control group, a non-Parkinson’s patient, did smell like the disease. 8 months later, they were diagnosed with the disease.
Now, a team of researchers at the University of Manchester have developed a simple test involving a cotton bud swiped down the back of the neck that can identify those with Parkinson’s. The molecules on the cotton bud can be examined using mass spectrometry, which helps the diagnosis. This is a huge leap forward, as there is no definitive test for Parkinson’s, and a diagnosis is based on symptoms and medical history. Currently, there are no cures for Parkinson’s, but an early diagnosis can help begin the treatment early, lessening the speed of the deterioration.
Milne says she can sometimes smell that a person has Parkinson’s when walking down the street, but has been told by medical ethicists that she cannot tell them. She is continuing to work with scientists to see if she can smell other diseases, like cancer or TB, and hopes that one day her talent can be considered normal diagnosis.
Source: the Guardian, written by PA Media
I might be a little biased but I’m honestly starting to believe that there’s no purer form of love than the defensive spite you see from biologists that have devoted their life to the study of a maligned or misunderstood species. For example:
The hyena biologist that arranged for Disney animators to come sketch captive hyenas for The Lion King film (Laurence Frank) was so incensed when the animals were depicted as villains in the movie that he later included boycotting the film on a list of ways the average person could help hyena conservation.
Though it’s commonly known that Charles Darwin’s distaste for parasitic wasps played a role in his development of evolution theory (since he felt no loving God would create animals with such a disturbing life cycle), the biologists who study these wasps find it an unfair characterization. When they were tasked with coming up with a common name for the family of parasitic wasps (Ichneumonidae) that old Charles so disliked, they proposed the name “Darwin Wasps” to spite the famous naturalist who had insulted their beloved family of insects.
Parasitologist Tommy Leung was so frustrated with the way people write about parasites to evoke horror and gore that he started writing a Parasite of the Day blog, that specifically avoids inflammatory or unsettling language to describe them. He also illustrates different species in colorful anime art on Twitter in a series called Parasite Monster Girls—which he calls his “love letter to parasites.”
I guess I’m just saying that if you’re a biologist studying an unpopular species and you have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder about it you can always count on me to be in your corner if you want to get a little petty with the public!
My dear sweet squidmobile's gone viral again. Proud of her.
May the record show that my spare tire is supposed to have a Sepioteuthis on it. I KNOW IT LOOKS LIKE A CUTTLEFISH. I tried my best you guys.
are pycnofibers and feathers the same structure just diverged early on?
Short answer: Maybe, but really the question is kinda unanswerable currently
Long answer: The answer to this are built on not just one maybe, but multiple layers of maybes. To start with, in case anyone's unfamiliar, let's talk about analogous and homologous structures. In evolutionary biology, a physical feature is homologous if it is shared between two species, and the common ancestor of those two species also had that feature. A common example is that the arm of a human and the wing of a bird are homologous, because we share the same pattern of bones and our distant common ancestor had those same bones!
On the other hand, a physical feature is analogous if it has a shared function, and it may or may not share an evolutionary origin! So for example, a bat's wing and a bird's wing are both analogous (same function, powered flight) and homologous (same bone pattern shared with common ancestor). A bird's wing and a dragonfly's wing, however, are analogous, but are not homologous (they do not share an evolutionary origin).
This table sums it up in a way that I find helpful, comparing analogous structures in insects and mammals. Via Wikimedia Commons.
So, the fuzz on dinosaurs and pterosaurs are pretty evidently analogous structures. They provide the same functions: temperature regulation, probably display, possibly smoothing the body's silhouette in flight? But the key question is, are they homologous? Did the common ancestor of pterosaurs and dinosaurs also have fuzzy structures?
Now, let's get to those multiple layers of maybes, starting with the issue of whether even dinosaurs had a fluffy common ancestor. We see evidence of filamentous structures in both theropods and ornithischians. These structures maybe come from the same evolutionary origin, and if they do, then the common ancestor of all dinosaurs right at the base of the tree also had filaments. As far as I'm aware, whether or not this is likely is a fairly subjective matter, but as you can probably tell from my palaeoart I lean towards the idea that dinosaurs were ancestrally fluffy.
This little fellow, Lagerpeton, is one of the closest things to a dinosaur that isn't actually a dinosaur. If the ancestor of all dinosaurs was feathery, this guy probably was too!
If dinosaurs were ancestrally fluffy, then maybe the filaments of dinosaurs and pterosaurs come from the same evolutionary origin. If ancestral dinosaurs were fuzzy, that puts two very closely related lineages of fuzzy archosaurs very close together in time, some point in the Middle Triassic probably. If that's the case, then it makes sense that the common ancestor of these two groups was probably fuzzy.
However, you'll probably notice that this hypothetical scenario where ancestral fuzz is likely is constructed on top of the assumption that dinosaurs were ancestrally fuzzy, which is something that's still not fully proven. It's not even certain that all dinosaur fuzz is homologous, which makes pterosaurs tricky.
Even whether the earliest pterosaurs, like Peteinosaurus, had pycnofibres is currently only a matter of hypothesis!
The reality is the evidence which would most easily resolve the mystery currently does not exist. If, say, a Triassic dinosaur and Triassic pterosaur were discovered with fuzzy filaments then that would basically confirm that these two very close groups we both ancestrally fuzzy. Even better still would be some basal avemetatarsalian from the Middle Triassic with preserved fluff. That's basically like asking for the Holy Grail though, a genuine common ancestor of pterosaurs and dinosaurs.
Unfortunately, the oldest records we do have for feathered dinosaurs and pycnofibred pterosaurs stop at about the Middle Jurassic. Any older than that, and we lose the sites with immaculately fine silt grains that preserve soft tissue like feathers. That's not to say a future beautiful Middle Triassic silt bed couldn't show up, and oh boy I really hope one does eventually, but for now there's simply nothing out there to offer concrete proof.
Jeholopterus, an anurognathid pterosaur from the Middle to Late Jurassic of China, preserved with evidence of pycnofibres. Via Wikimedia Commons.
So in the absence of this proof, what do we do? I'd consider Occam's Razor a decent guiding principle here, although it's less reliable in some other areas of evolutionary biology. Occam's Razor basically states that the most reasonable explanation is one that doesn't unnecessarily multiply the entities of a problem.
To put it another way, it seems more reasonable, in an evolutionary sense, that three closely related groups (ornithischians, theropods, and pterosaurs) got their fuzziness from one fuzzy common ancestor. The alternate explanation is that two (or possibly three) very closely related groups all independently evolved remarkably similar feathery coats from being initially scaly.
Occam's Razor isn't foolproof, and there's a reason that we have the term convergent evolution, but in this case I think we should consider it a reasonable guess that the common ancestor of dinosaurs and pterosaurs had some sort of fluffy filaments, and that feathers and pycnofibres are indeed homologous.
But just to be clear, this is not the answer!! This is a best guess, a hypothesis based on available lines of evidence that disappear in the crucial stages of its evolutionary history, and the application of a logical rule of thumb to cap it off. Just because that's the side I lean towards, doesn't mean that the issue is settled or that I wouldn't change my perspective if new evidence came to light. That's the great thing about science after all!
So, I do hold to my original statement that right now, this question is not truly answerable (even though I've now spent almost 1000 words trying to answer it). We can guess and hypothesise, but for now the real answer remains out of reach.
How Fireworks Harm Nature
Originally posted at my blog at https://rebeccalexa.com/how-fireworks-harm-nature/
It’s that time of year again, when millions of Americans celebrate our country’s independence by buying tons of fireworks to blow up over a period of several days. Admittedly I loved setting off firecrackers and M-60s when I was a kid, but no one had taken the time to explain to me the damage these explosives could do, other than warnings about not blowing off my fingers. And while I dutifully went out and swept up the debris afterward, I didn’t understand fully how fireworks harm nature.
Had I known then what I know now, I might not have been so enthusiastic about fireworks. I’ve always been a nature nerd, even at a very young age, but I didn’t always know how to connect everyday activities to their impact on the natural world. Environmental topics were always presented to me as something that happened elsewhere, like trying to keep giant pandas from going extinct, or saving the rainforests of the Amazon. That, of course, served to keep anyone from questioning what was happening right here at home.
Now that I am older and wiser, I have a much better understanding of how everything is connected, and how everything we do has some impact for good or ill. Let’s dig deeper into how the fireworks that will be detonated this year can affect the nature around them.
From end to end, the manufacture and use of both commercial and consumer-grade fireworks involves a whole host of chemicals that are hazardous to both our health and that of the ecosystems around us. Most start with potassium nitrate (which becomes gunpowder when mixed with the correct amounts of carbon and sulfur). A number of other compounds are added to create various colors and effects, as per this image from Compound Interest (click image for a larger version):
When these compounds are burned, they release significant amounts of airborne pollutants that affect the air we breathe, and then land in our water and soil. Some of these pollutants are toxic heavy metals such as magnesium, barium, strontium, lead, copper, potassium, and lithium. When certain heavy metals are absorbed into our bodies, whether through airborne particulates, the water we drink, or the food we eat, they can cause significant negative health effects. Even if you don’t experience any immediate, acute effects, long-term exposure often leads to chronic illnesses.
It’s not just ourselves that we have to worry about, either. Wildlife don’t have the option to move elsewhere if their habitat has been polluted by fireworks, and their health is often seriously compromised by heavy metals. Fish are especially susceptible to these pollutants which may accumulate in higher concentrations the higher up the food web you go.
Every being is at risk from the greenhouse gases produced by fireworks, including carbon dioxide and monoxide, nitrogen, nitrous oxide, and sulfur dioxide (the lattermost of which is well-known as a contributing factor to acid rain.) While fireworks may not be the biggest source of greenhouse gases that are fueling anthropogenic climate change, they’re one that is easy to cut out of our lives as they are completely unnecessary.
It’s not just the chemicals that threaten wildlife, though. the loud, percussive noise of fireworks is incredibly terrifying and disruptive to many wild animals (and domestic ones, too!) When a region is full of fireworks noise, animals may have nowhere to go to escape many nights of noise and flashing lights. The stress can cause their immune systems to tank, and has even led to the deaths of wildlife that either die from fear, or which run in front of vehicles while fleeing in panic. The effects may persist even after the fireworks are done for the year.
The timing of Independence Day is especially troubling as it is during the breeding/nesting season of many species of bird and other wild animal. The disruptive influence of fireworks can scare parent animals away from nests and dens, causing them to abandon their young, who will die without their parents’ support. (Birds that nest on beaches are at particular risk, since these places are especially popular for blowing up fireworks.) For what it’s worth, New Year’s Eve fireworks are also dangerous, as birds roosting in large groups nearby may die as a result of the commotion.
Another way fireworks harm nature is the explosions themselves. If a small animal happens to be in the ground at or near where a firework is being lit, the explosion can burn them to death or kill them through percussion. Other animals nearby can also be injured by the heat and percussion. The force of larger airborne fireworks can even knock birds out of the sky if they happen to be in range. And even if the wildlife are able to escape, they may waste a lot of precious energy being constantly panicked by the ongoing terrifying displays. The loss of that energy may be the difference between life and death if the animals are not able to find enough food to make up for the caloric deficit.
Even after the fireworks are done and everyone goes home, the debris left behind continues to pose a threat to wildlife. Like other trash, fireworks debris can be mistaken for food by birds, fish, and other animals. Even if they aren’t poisoned by its ingestion, the debris builds up in their stomach until they die of a fatal impaction or starve because they can no longer eat and digest actual food.
As climate change has caused prolonged drought across large portions of the United States and beyond, the decades of built-up ladder fuels left from fire suppression become a greater wildfire hazard. Any source of sparks may set off wildfires that could consume hundreds or even thousands of acres, but fireworks are one of the most unnecessary sources of potential wildfire danger.
The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon and Washington torched nearly 50,000 acres of forest and damaged several popular trails; parts of it continued to smolder nearly a year later. The fire threatened almost 300 homes and other buildings, and trapped over 150 hikers on the Eagle Creek trail.
The cause? One fifteen year old boy tossing firecrackers over the edge of a cliff. This illustrates that anyone with fireworks, even something as seemingly small and insignificant as a firecracker shorter than one’s finger, can start a devastating wildfire. These fires kill numerous wild animals and plants, and additionally threaten any humans living in the area or working to fight the fire.
With so many people insisting on blowing things up to celebrate holidays, it can feel like an uphill battle. Yet there is a growing movement to ban the sale and use of fireworks in many municipalities, counties, and other regions. Some states restrict the sale of certain fireworks, and Massachusetts has even banned all of them. If you are concerned about fireworks in your community, try to find other people with similar concerns. Then, as a group, present your arguments to your city or county councilpeople and urge them to ban fireworks in their jurisdiction.
It’s also important to educate others on how fireworks harm nature. Many people simply don’t know the connection, much like I was unaware as a child because no one has told me. While you may meet resistance from some people, it’s important to keep putting the information out there in a calm, reasonable manner so that more receptive people can access it. (You can even use this article you’re reading right now as an easy access resource! Just please give me credit and include a link to my website if you decide to print it out to hand out to others.)
Finally, offer up alternatives to fireworks. Here are some fun, kid-friendly projects that are easy to find or put together (please make sure to clean up any plastic like glow sticks or silly string.) Consider laser or light displays instead of fireworks (by the way, “silent” fireworks are not actually silent, and they still release pollutants into the air, water, and soil.) If you absolutely must burn something, consider having a small bonfire in a safe, contained area (unless there’s a burn ban in your area) and always practice campfire safety. It can be a great way to get together with friends and family, and a campfire is better anyway since you can’t roast hot dogs or make s’mores over a pile of fireworks!
Did you enjoy this post? Consider taking one of my online foraging and natural history classes, checking out my other articles, or picking up a paperback or ebook I’ve written! You can even buy me a coffee here!
The flow of genetic information from DNA to Protein in prokaryotes and eukaryotes
More paleo news! https://www.nhm.ac.uk/press-office/press-releases/europe-s-largest-land-predator-unearthed-on-the-isle-of-wight.html https://peerj.com/articles/13543/ (Hopefully, posting this here is useful to some who don’t use Twitter, which is where I normally post this sort of thing.) #Paleontology #Science #SciComm #Dinosaur #Dinosaurs #Fossil #Fossils #Geology #Biology #Zoology https://www.instagram.com/p/Ce2tHcwua_R/?igshid=NGJjMDIxMWI=
Do you, too, find bacteria fascinating? 🧫 Check out our newest YouTube Short! 🎉 ▶️ https://youtu.be/WfzehZx3yWI
September reads 📚🍂
Completed another Allosaurus a couple weeks ago (kept forgetting to upload it lol)
I think this is the 5th Allosaurus I've done, and definitely not the last
Stay tuned for more!
Introducing Scientist Maker 1.0, a mini dress-up game promoting visibility of science in visual media! You can customize your scientist’s eyes, facial expressions, hairstyles, and give them science-y accessories!
Here we have a chemist, an astrophysics student, a environmental science student, a math student, a programmer, and a microbiologist!
The website is here: https://picrew.me/image_maker/634561
Any non-commercial uses are welcome! Please credit @alchemysciviz if you are using it!
Snailfish With Anti-Freeze In It's Veins Found Beneath Greenland Iceberg
A snailfish (Liparis gibbus) with the "highest expressions levels" of bioluminescent green anti-freeze proteins in its veins has been found by scientists drilling into an iceberg off Greenland.
The anti-freeze proteins work the same way that anti-freeze in cars works. It regulates the temperature of the organism . How, you say? Well, the proteins stick to the surface of ice crystals and slow them, preventing them for growing larger. Fish, unlike other cold blooded organisms, cannot survive when bodily fluids freeze, so grains of ice form in their cells, freezing them from the inside out. The anti-freeze stops this.
Even more extraordinary than the snailfish's ability to produce the anti-freeze, it exhibits biofluorescence (the ability to convert blue light into green, red, or yellow light, typically used during extended periods of darkness, like those at the poles). This characteristic is normally found in fish swimming in warmer waters, and this is the first reported case of an arctic fish species displaying it.
However, due to warming water temperatures caused by climate change, warmer water species can migrate further north now, creating more competition for the snailfish, making it's anti-freeze proteins slightly unnecessary.
This extraordinary little creature certainly has provided us with some food for thought about how organisms adapt to their environments.
Source: LiveScience, written by Jennifer Nalewicki, and, Burns, J. et al. (2022). Transcriptomics of a Greenlandic Snailfish Reveals Exceptionally High Expression of Antifreeze Protein Transcripts. Evolutionary Bioinformatics, 18 . Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/11769343221118347. Accessed: 17th August 2022
We have talked a little bit about how the pupils of some birds can serve as field marks in the wild and you might be surprised to learn that oystercatchers are in this group as well! Take a look at this American Oystercatcher that I spotted in the Galapagos and see if you can tell what looks odd about the eye
It’s a weird shape, right? What you’re seeing in this bird’s eye is actually an iridial depigmentation that ornithologists commonly call an “eye fleck”. Here’s a closer look:
We don’t really know why, but recent studies suggest that the presence of this eye fleck is a really good field mark for identifying sex in American oystercatchers, as only females tend to have the feature. Based on this finding, the bird I spotted is female! Though the study I’m referencing was conducted on American oystercatchers in Texas, the researchers found 97% agreement with the sex identification using eye flecks and genetic testing for sex. The eye fleck method is far less invasive and may be as accurate or even more accurate than physically assessing morphometric measurements of each bird. I really love these shorebirds and I just think this is the coolest identification trick ever.
I am on a personal mission to balance the amount of octopus artwork in the world with squid art.
When I go into seaside town gift shops I count the number of octopuses and squid. Sometimes there are NO squid items, other times octopuses outnumber squid 10 to one, one time, I shit you not, 30 to 1.
Yesterday as I walked the streets of New York, I encountered NOT ONE, but TWO gigantic octopuses.
"FINE!" I said, out loud to no one, & I pasted up 42 squid.
This mission-from-God hasn't been exclusively gluing squid to random ass poles, electrical boxes, and trash cans.
I teamed up w/ local artist @SeanMartorana to make some squid art to share with all of you!
I want to see a squid art renaissance, ok??
We have 11x14 inch prints and stickers too.
Over the years, I’ve mailed out about 400 squid facts hotline stickers all over the country for you to put up. This has all been part of the long game.
Want to help me on my mission to get more people thinking about squid?
Buy a firefly squid sticker and put it somewhere public 😈
I’ll even toss in one of these squid facts stickers to accompany it, but it *must* go somewhere public. Not a laptop or water bottle- true public space.
Just DM me after you order with the name on your order and I’ll make sure it gets in there 😘
The $$ from these prints and stickers directly supports the squid facts project so even if you don’t want to buy one, when you see stuff about this collection, a reblog goes a long way!
So there’s a challenge being run by Wyatt Andrews on twitter and instagram called #DinosThroughThe Decades, the aim being to compile a timeline of our scientific understanding of one prehistoric species as represented through palaeoart! I decided to do Stegoceras validum, since I feel like it’s gone through a lot of changes that aren’t appreciated as they should be! And so, here’s my breakdown of each drawing in this timeline:
The year in which Stegoceras was described, as Stegoceras validus, by Lawrence Lambe. The identity of the fossil was pretty much completely up in the air at the time, since all we had of it at that point was the dome of the skull:
One of the conclusions that Lambe reached, and the one I’ve gone with here, is that the dome was the base of a large single horn on the snout of a ceratopsian dinosaur. There is sadly no actual palaeoart depicting Stegoceras like this, so I based my reconstruction heavily on Charles Knight’s beautiful ceratopsian illustrations from the 1890s and 1900s.
By 1918, Lambe was now suggesting that Stegoceras was not a ceratopsian, but a member of the group stegosauria, which included ankylosaurs and stegosaurs and is now known as thyreophora. He even erected a new clade for Stegoceras, psalisauridae, which did not last long.
This was probably the toughest one for me to work out since the brief is basically “a thick-headed 1910s-style generic thyreophoran”, and I ended up working mostly from Knight’s Stegosaurus and improvising the armour. That said, it’s a wonderfully weird concept and it’s one of my favourite end products!
We finally know what the rest of Stegoceras looks like! Charles Gilmore described a complete skull and partial skeleton of Stegoceras, and very helpfully for me it included a skeletal diagram!
But yes, the small birdlike elephant in the room: Gilmore’s description reassigned our beautiful bumpy-head boy to the now-considered-dubious tooth taxon “Troodon”. This ended up with the kinda confusing situation of having what is now known as pachychephalosauridae being grouped under the name “troodontidae”, which now refers to a clade of dromaeosaurs. Even after the clade name was changed, new pachycephalosaurs were still being described as species of “Troodon” all the way into the 1950s!
The way that palaeontology viewed dinosaurs was beginning to alter during the 70s and 80s, and dinosaurs were starting to run faster and lift their tails up off the ground. The last few decades had been good for pachycephalosauridae too, with new fossils showing a much greater scope of the group’s diversity in North America and Asia, and “Troodon” finally being ejected from the group as recently as 1987 by Phil Currie.
My main inspiration for this one was these awkward dinosaur book illustrations from around this era that just seem kinda off. Either it’s something about how cylindrical and formless the limbs are, or the stiffness in the pose, but I find them charmingly odd. They look very much like plastic dinosaur toys.
The Dinosaur Revolution is in full swing at this point, and dinosaurs are tending to look leaner, meaner, and kinda in need of a decent meal. The 90s and the 2000s really form a bit of a single era in dinosaur palaeoart, with dinosaurs in wiry muscle and skin and not much else, often adorned with spikes and osteoderms and the occasional single spiny dewlap. It was a weird time and of all of them this one was the hardest to draw faithfully and correctly without feeling like I was making a parody.
And finally, my comfort zone! The impact of the book All Yesterdays on the trajectory of modern palaeoart is truly hard to understate, since it basically pushed weird, experimental palaeoart into the mainstream palaeo consciousness. Moving on from the almost literally bare bones dinosaurs of the 2000s, we’ve started rounding out or dinosaurs a bit, and inferring speculative structures and behaviours from what we observe in the fossil record and in the world around us!
The details of integument including quills but also the foot scales and skin on the legs are inferred from the absolutely stunning Psitaccosaurus specimen from a few years ago, since it’s really the closest species we have to pachycephalosaurs that preserves those details.
I think a big part of the culture shift around palaeoart in the last few years is the acknowledgement that we as palaeoartists can never reconstruct a species 100% accurately, and that there is room for interpretation and speculation. If you’re guaranteed to be wrong anyway, you might as well experiment and try out new things, so long as it doesn’t contradict the things that are knowable!
And that’s brought us all the way through almost 120 years of Stegoceras validum, and also 120 years of cultural and artistic evolution in the way we look at and understand dinosaurs! Thanks for sticking with me, I hope you enjoyed the ride!
Are Insects Pests? On Loving the Unloved
(Originally posted at my blog at https://rebeccalexa.com/are-insects-pests-on-loving-the-unloved/)
I do a lot of internet searches in the process of writing my articles and books, putting together class materials, and so forth. Sometimes the subject of insects comes up, and that often includes researching individual species. What gets me is how often some of the first search results won’t be informational sites, but those dedicated to labeling insects “pests” and eradicating them. I get that some species are potentially more problematic when found in or around someone’s home; cockroaches and bedbugs come to immediate mind. But again and again, regardless of what sorts of insects I was searching for, many times the results included exterminator sites.
The fact that so many of the highest search results are dedicated to killing insects suggests there’s a lot of demand for such services and products. It makes me sad, honestly, because we’re right in the middle of an insect apocalypse. There’s already a lot of apathy about conserving invertebrates in general, and “bugs” in particular; many folks simply don’t get why it’s so important to protect the creepy-crawlies of the world. And when it’s common for any insect found in a house to be routinely smashed and discarded without a second thought, regardless of species, “save the bugs!” may seem like an ineffective rallying call indeed.
But let’s look at a few of those search results first, shall we?
My favorite search engine is Ecosia; I have it set up as my default search engine in my browser. They use the profits from ads to plant trees, and as of this writing they’ve planted over 150 million trees. I use Google as a backup, if Ecosia’s results aren’t getting me what I want.
The other day I wanted to know about wasp species in Washington. So I searched Ecosia for “Washington wasp species”, and the ninth result on the first page was a pest control site:
Google was even worse. It took scrolling down only to the third result on the first page to end up with a pest control site:
Okay, so wasps don’t exactly have a great P.R. team., and media furor over the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) didn’t help the results become any friendlier, either. I figured I’d try a few more very general searches just to see how long it took to hit a pest control site or other site that talked about eradicating the insects I was searching for:
True Bugs: Ecosia 8th on page 1, Google 1st on page 2
Bees: Ecosia 3rd on page 1, Google 3rd on page 1
Grasshoppers: Ecosia 2nd on page 2, Google 5th on page 1 (this was without filtering out things like the Grasshoppers Minor League Baseball team)
Crickets: Ecosia 3rd on page 1, Google 3rd on page 1
Weevils: Ecosia 1st on page 1, Google 2nd on page 1 (never mind that the vast majority of weevils are harmless to us and our food.)
Beetles: Ecosia 1st on page 2, 4th on page 1
Oregon Beetle Species: Ecosia 1st on page 2, Google 4th on page 1
Unsurprisingly when I searched for “fireflies” and “butterflies”, I went back several pages on both search engines and didn’t find anyone advocating for the mass slaughter of these beloved insects. You’d think bees would get the same treatment what with all the “save the bees” campaigns over the past few years, but the 3rd result from both search engines was from a site called “Pest World for Kids”, run by the National Pest Management Association. Really?
Okay, so admittedly this was definitely NOT a scientific study. And I recognize there are a number of factors determining search results, SEO, etc. like how large and popular a given site is, age of the site, backlinks, etc. Still, given how high up in the ranking sites treating insects as pests were, and how many of the recommended related searches had to do with things like whether the insects being searched for would bite, or how to get rid of them, that suggests a lot of people are searching for how to go to war with insects rather than learning about them as unique beings.
On the bright side, most of the results were site that genuinely wanted to educate people about various insects on their own merits. So it’s not as though everything is terrible (unless you’re a weevil, for whom almost all the top search results were pest-related.) Whether those sites got as many genuine clicks as the pest-related ones, I couldn’t tell you. But it was nice to see them anyway.
Maybe I’m in the minority when I wish that people would spend less time trying to eradicate insects, and more time learning about them. It’s just that most folks seem to ignore them unless they become a perceived nuisance. I’ve had to deal with problem insects before–narcissus bulb flies (Merodon equestris) in the garden, pantry moths (Plodia interpunctella) in the flour, etc. And yes, sometimes that involves smushing them on sight, especially in the case of a non-native species.
But I also try to make an effort to learn about even these species. It’s not just to learn how to get rid of them, but to find out more about their adaptations and habits, where they came from, what makes them different from other insects–what makes the species what it is. It’s curiosity that drives me, and I find myself appreciating their ability to find a niche, even if it’s one that’s at odds with my own interests.
It also makes me really think about whether I really need to persecute a particular species, and how that affects my attitudes toward not just insects, but other living beings. When I stop and consider my actions toward another species, it breaks the conditioning that so many of us have to just see nature as something to serve us–only good if it does what we want, and bad if it goes against our wants and needs. And I find myself being able to make a more informed decision that, at times, may be summed up as “leave well enough alone.”
Hence the nest of black-tailed bumblebees (Bombus melanopygus) that has spent multiple years buzzing about the entryway of my garage. Hence the common house spiders (Parasteatoda tepidariorum) that are allowed space in the corners and window-wells of my home to help control flies that may buzz their way in on warm days. Hence the cabbage looper caterpillars (Trichoplusia ni) who get a reprieve in the garden, even though they go after cruciferous vegetables, because they never take everything, and they’re important food for other species. Some would easily justify my killing these and many others, simply for being mildly inconvenient, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But I prefer to coexist whenever possible, and to look beyond the “pest” label as well.
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The Scientific Method