We Need To Talk About Bird Poop
Seabird poop—sometimes called guano—was the “white gold” of fertilizers for humans for millennia. Rich in nitrogen and phosphorus from birds’ fish-based diets, the substance shaped trade routes and powered economies until chemical fertilizers replaced it.
But while people may no longer find bird poop profitable, these same poop deposits—often found on islands or coasts where the birds nest and rear their young—may also be nurturing ecosystems that would be left high and dry if the birds were to disappear. As seabird populations quickly decline, that’s becoming an increasing risk.
Australian researchers Megan Grant and Jennifer Lavers talk to Ira about the under-appreciated role of bird guano in ecosystems, and why scientists should be looking more closely at the poop patterns of endangered seabirds.
How Did ‘Prehistoric Planet’ Make Dinosaurs Look So Real?
Being a fan of dinosaurs has its challenges. The largest, perhaps, is that no human has seen these creatures with their own eyes. Depictions of prehistoric creatures in film and media have been based on the research available at the time, but accurate knowledge about feathers, colors, and behavior have changed as science has progressed.
The much-anticipated docuseries “Prehistoric Planet” dives into the most recent research about dinosaurs and their environment and illustrates what the world might have looked like 66 million years ago. The show uses hyper-realistic computer imaging to make the most realistic dinosaurs seen on film yet. The result is an epic look at how dinosaurs once lived.
Joining Ira to talk about “Prehistoric Planet” is producer Tim Walker and paleontologist Darren Naish, who served as the show’s lead science consultant.
Midwestern Farmers Face Drought And Dust
Even with a few recent rains, much of the Great Plains are in a drought. Wildfires have swept across the grasslands and farmers are worried about how they’ll make it through the growing season. Randy Uhrmacher is in his tractor, planting corn and soybeans in central Nebraska. But it’s hard to see his work. The soil is so dry that clouds of dust hang in the air as he drives through his fields. “Not sure how I’m supposed to see what I’m doing tonight,” Uhrmacher said on a recent night of planting.
Even turning on the windshield wipers didn’t help him see through the dust storm. If he didn’t use soil conservation practices like reduced tillage and cover crops, he said his fields could look like something out of the 1930s Dust Bowl. It’s the driest spring Uhrmacher can remember in his 38 years of farming. Drought is a challenge many farmers and ranchers are facing in the middle of the country.
When Climate Change Reaches Your Plate
No matter how you slice it, climate change will alter what we eat in the future. Today, just 13 crops provide 80% of people’s energy intake worldwide, and about half of our calories come from wheat, maize and rice. Yet some of these crops may not grow well in the higher temperatures, unpredictable rainfall and extreme weather events caused by climate change. Already, drought, heat waves and flash floods are damaging crops around the world.
“We must diversify our food basket,” says Festo Massawe. He’s executive director of Future Food Beacon Malaysia, a group at the University of Nottingham Malaysia campus in Semenyih that studies the impact of climate change on food security.
That goes beyond what we eat to how we grow it. The trick will be investing in every possible solution: breeding crops so they’re more climate resilient, genetically engineering foods in the lab and studying crops that we just don’t know enough about, says ecologist Samuel Pironon of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London. To feed a growing population in a rapidly changing world, food scientists are exploring many possible avenues, while thinking about how to be environmentally friendly.
Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.