What bees did during the Great American Eclipse

When the 2017 Great American Eclipse hit totality and the sky went dark, bees noticed.

Microphones in flower patches at 11 sites in the path of the eclipse picked up the buzzing sounds of bees flying among blooms before and after totality. But those sounds were noticeably absent during the full solar blackout, a new study finds.

Dimming light and some summer cooling during the onset of the eclipse didn’t appear to make a difference to the bees. But the deeper darkness of totality did, researchers report October 10 in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America. At the time of totality, the change in buzzing was abrupt, says study coauthor and ecologist Candace Galen of the University of Missouri in Columbia.
The recordings come from citizen scientists, mostly school classes, setting out small microphones at two spots in Oregon, one in Idaho and eight in Missouri. Often when bees went silent at the peak of the eclipse, Galen says, “you can hear the people in the background going ‘ooo,’ ‘ahh’ or clapping.”
There’s no entirely reliable way (yet) of telling what kinds of bees were doing the buzzing, based only on their sounds, Galen says. She estimates that the Missouri sites had a lot of bumblebees, while the western sites had more of the tinier, temperature-fussy Megachile bees.
More western samples, with the fussier bees, might have let researchers see an effect on the insects of temperatures dropping by at least 10 degrees Celsius during the eclipse. The temperature plunge in the Missouri summer just “made things feel a little more comfortable,” Galen says.

This study of buzz recordings gives the first formal data published on bees during a solar eclipse, as far as Galen knows. “Insects are remarkably neglected,” she says. “Everybody wants to know what their dog and cat are doing during the eclipse, but they don’t think about the flea.”

If the past is a guide, Hubble’s new trouble won’t doom the space telescope

Hubble’s in trouble again.

The 28-year-old space telescope, in orbit around the Earth, put itself to sleep on October 5 because of an undiagnosed problem with one of its steering wheels. But once more, astronomers are optimistic about Hubble’s chances of recovery. After all, it’s just the latest nail-biting moment in the history of a telescope that has defied all life-expectancy predictions.

There is one major difference this time. Hubble was designed to be repaired by astronauts on the space shuttle. Each time the telescope broke previously, a shuttle mission fixed it. “That we can’t do anymore, because there ain’t no shuttle,” says astronomer Helmut Jenkner of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, who is Hubble’s deputy mission head.
The most recent problem started when one of the three gyroscopes that control where the telescope points failed. That wasn’t surprising, says Hubble senior project scientist Jennifer Wiseman of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. That particular gyroscope had been glitching for about a year. But when the team turned on a backup gyroscope, it didn’t function properly either.

Astronomers are working to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it from the ground. The mood is upbeat, Wiseman says. But even if the gyroscope doesn’t come back online, there are ways to point Hubble and continue observing with as few as one gyroscope.

“This is not a catastrophic failure, but it is a sign of mortality,” says astronomer Robert Kirshner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. Like cataracts, he says, it’s “a sign of aging, but there’s a very good remedy.”
While we wait for news of how Hubble is faring, here’s a look back at some of its previous hiccups and repair missions.

1990: The blurry mirror
On June 27, 1990, three months after the space telescope launched, astronomers discovered an aberration in Hubble’s primary mirror. Its curvature was off by two micrometers, making the images slightly blurry.

The telescope soldiered on, despite being the butt of jokes on late-night TV. It observed a supernova that exploded in 1987 (SN: 2/18/17, p. 20), measured the distance to a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way and took its first look at Jupiter before the space shuttle Endeavour arrived to fix the mirror in December 1993.
1999: The first gyroscope crisis
On November 13, 1999, Hubble was put into safe mode after the fourth of its six gyroscopes failed, leaving it without the three working gyros necessary to point precisely.
An already planned preventative maintenance shuttle mission suddenly became more urgent. NASA split the mission into two parts to get to the telescope more quickly. The first part became a rescue mission: Astronauts flew the space shuttle Discovery to Hubble that December to install all new gyroscopes and a new computer.

2004: Final shuttle mission canceled
After the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated while re-entering Earth’s atmosphere in 2003, NASA canceled the planned fifth and final Hubble reservicing mission. “That could really have been the beginning of the end,” Jenkner says.

The team has known for more than a decade that someday Hubble will have to work with fewer than three gyroscopes. To prepare, Hubble’s operations team deliberately shut down one of the telescope’s gyroscopes in 2005, to observe with only two.

“We’ve been thinking about this possibility for many years,” Wiseman says. “This time will come at some point in Hubble’s mission, either now or later.”

Shutting down the third gyroscope was expected to extend Hubble’s life by only eight months, until mid-2008. In the meantime, two of the telescope’s scientific instruments — the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph and the Advanced Camera for Surveys — stopped working due to power supply failures.
2009: New lease on life
Fortunately, NASA restored the final servicing mission, and the space shuttle Atlantis visited Hubble in May 2009 (SN Online: 5/11/09). That mission restored Hubble’s cameras, installed new ones and crucially, left the space telescope with six new gyroscopes, three for immediate use and three backups. The three gyroscopes still in operation (including the backup that is currently malfunctioning) are of a newer type, and are expected to live five times as long as the older ones, which last four to six years.

The team expects Hubble to continue doing science well into the 2020s and to have years of overlap with its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in 2021. “We are always worried,” says Jenkner, who has been working on Hubble since 1983. “At the same time, we are confident that we will be running for quite some time more.”

Here’s what’s unusual about Hurricane Michael

Call it an October surprise: Hurricane Michael strengthened unusually quickly before slamming into the Florida panhandle on October 10 and remained abnormally strong as it swept into Georgia. The storm made landfall with sustained winds of about 250 kilometers per hour, just shy of a category 5 storm, making it the strongest storm ever to hit the region, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center, or NHC.

Warm ocean waters are known to fuel hurricanes’ fury by adding heat and moisture; the drier air over land masses, by contrast, can help strip storms of strength. So hurricanes nearing the Florida panhandle, a curving landmass surrounding the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, tend to weaken as they pull in drier air from land. But waters in the Gulf that were about 1 degree to 2 degrees Celsius warmer than average for this time of year, as well as abundant moisture in the air over the eastern United States, helped to supercharge Michael. Despite some wind conditions that scientists expected to weaken the storm, it strengthened steadily until it made landfall, which the NHC noted “defies traditional logic.” The fast-moving storm weakened only slightly, to a category 3, before hurtling into Georgia.
Although it is not possible to attribute the generation of any one storm to climate change, scientists have long predicted that warming ocean waters would lead to more intense tropical cyclones in the future. More recent attribution studies have borne out that prediction, suggesting that very warm waters in the tropical Atlantic helped to fuel 2017’s powerful storm season, which spawned hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Hurricane Harvey, fueled by unusually warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico in August 2017, also underwent a rapid intensification, strengthening from a tropical storm to a category 4 hurricane within about 30 hours. And this year, scientists reported that Hurricane Florence, which slammed into the Carolinas in September, was probably warmer and wetter due to warmer than average sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean.

People who have a good sense of smell are also good navigators

We may truly be led by our noses. A sense of smell and a sense of navigation are linked in our brains, scientists propose.

Neuroscientist Louisa Dahmani and colleagues asked 57 young people to navigate through a virtual town on a computer screen before being tested on how well they could get from one spot to another. The same young people’s smelling abilities were also scrutinized. After a sniff of one of 40 odor-infused felt-tip pens, participants were shown four words on a screen and asked to choose the one that matched the smell. On these two seemingly different tasks, the superior smellers and the superior navigators turned out to be one and the same, the team found.

Scientists linked both skills to certain spots in the brain: The left orbitofrontal cortex and the right hippocampus were both bigger in the better smellers and better navigators. While the orbitofrontal cortex has been tied to smelling, the hippocampus is known to be involved in both smelling and navigation. A separate group of nine people who had damaged orbitofrontal cortices had more trouble with navigation and smell identification, the researchers report October 16 in Nature Communications. Dahmani, who’s now at Harvard University, did the work while she was at McGill University in Montreal.

A sense of smell may have evolved to help people find their way around, an idea called the olfactory spatial hypothesis. More specific aspects of smell, such as how good people are at detecting faint whiffs, could also be tied to navigation, the researchers suggest.

Malaysia is ground zero for the next malaria menace

Vinita Surukan knew the mosquitoes were trouble. They attacked her in swarms, biting through her clothes as she worked to collect rubber tree sap near her village in Sabah, the northern state of Malaysia. The 30-year-old woman described the situation as nearly unbearable. But she needed the job.

There were few alternatives in her village surrounded by fragments of forest reserves and larger swaths of farms, oil palm plantations and rubber tree estates. So she endured until a week of high fever and vomiting forced her to stop.
The night of July 23, Surukan was trying to sleep off her fever when the clinic she visited earlier in the day called with results: Her blood was teeming with malaria parasites, about a million in each drop. Her family rushed her to the town hospital where she received intravenous antimalarial drugs before being transferred to a city hospital equipped to treat severe malaria. The drugs cleared most of the parasites, and the lucky woman was smiling by morning.

Malaria has terrorized humans for millennia, its fevers carved into our earliest writing on ancient Sumerian clay tablets from Mesopotamia. In 2016, four species of human malaria parasites, which are spread by mosquito from person to person, infected more than 210 million people worldwide, killing almost 450,000. The deadliest species, Plasmodium falciparum, causes most of the infections.

But Surukan’s malaria was different. Hers was not a human malaria parasite. She had P. knowlesi, which infects several monkey species. The same parasite had recently infected two other people in Surukan’s village — a man who hunts in the forest and a teenager. Surukan suspects that her parasites came from the monkeys that live in the forest bordering the rubber tree estate where she worked. Some villagers quit working there after hearing of Surukan’s illness.

Monkey malaria, discovered in the early 1900s, became a public health concern only in the last 15 years. Before that, scientists thought it was extremely rare for monkey malaria parasites, of which there are at least 30 species, to infect humans.
Yet since 2008, Malaysia has reported more than 15,000 cases of P. knowlesi infection and about 50 deaths. Infections in 2017 alone hit 3,600.
People infected with monkey malaria are found across Southeast Asia near forests with wild monkeys. In 2017, another species of monkey malaria parasite, P. cynomolgi, was found in five Malaysians and 13 Cambodians. And by 2018, at least 19 travelers to the region, mostly Europeans, had brought monkey malaria back to their home countries.

The rise of monkey malaria in Malaysia is closely tied to rapid deforestation, says Kimberly Fornace, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. After testing blood samples of nearly 2,000 people from areas in Sabah with various levels of deforestation, she found that people staying or working near cut forests were more likely than people living away from forests to have P. knowlesi infections, she and colleagues reported in June in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases. Stepping over felled trees, humans move closer to the monkeys and the parasite-carrying mosquitoes that thrive in cleared forests.
It’s out there
There’s no feasible way to treat wild monkeys for an infection that they show no signs of. “That’s the problem with P. knowlesi,” says Singapore-based infectious disease specialist Fe Espino, a director of the Asia Pacific Malaria Elimination Network.

In 2015, the World Health Organization set a goal for 2030: to stop malaria transmission in at least 35 of the 91 malaria-endemic countries. WHO targets the four human malaria parasites: P. falciparum, P. vivax, P. malariae and P. ovale. Monkey malaria is excluded from the campaign because the agency regards it as an animal disease that has not been shown to transmit among humans.

But as countries reduce human malaria, they will eventually have to deal with monkey malaria, Espino says, echoing an opinion widely shared by monkey malaria scientists.

“Something nasty” could emerge from the pool of malaria parasites in monkeys, says malariologist Richard Culleton of Nagasaki University in Japan. Culleton studies the genetics of human and monkey malaria. Malaria parasites can mutate quickly — possibly into new types that can more easily infect humans (SN: 9/6/14, p. 9). To Culleton, the monkey malaria reservoir “is like a black box. Things come flying out of it occasionally and you don’t know what’s coming next.”
Malaysia is very close to reaching the WHO target of human malaria elimination. In 2017, only 85 people there were infected with human malaria. But that success feels hollow as monkey malaria gains a foothold. And while monkey malaria has swelled into a public health threat only in Malaysia, the same could happen in other parts of Southeast Asia and beyond. Even in southeastern Brazil, where human malaria was eliminated 50 years ago, the P. simium malaria parasite that resides in howler monkeys caused outbreaks in humans in 2015 and 2016.

From tool to threat
In the late 1800s, scientists discovered the Plasmodium parasite and its Anopheles mosquito carriers. Humans retaliated by draining marshes to stop mosquito breeding and spraying insecticides over whole communities. Governments and militaries pursued antimalarial drugs as the disease claimed countless soldiers during the two World Wars.

Scientists soon found malaria parasites in birds, rodents, apes and monkeys. To the researchers, the parasites found in monkeys were a tool for testing antimalarial drugs, not a threat. An accident, however, showed otherwise.
In 1960, biologist Don Eyles had been studying the monkey malaria P. cynomolgi at a National Institutes of Health lab in Memphis, Tenn., when he fell ill with malarial fevers. He had been infected with the parasites found in his research monkeys. His team quickly confirmed that the malaria parasites in his monkeys could be carried by mosquitoes to humans. Suddenly, monkey malaria was not just a tool; it was an animal disease that could naturally infect humans.
The news shook WHO, McWilson Warren said in a 2005 interview recorded by the Office of NIH History. Warren, a parasitologist, had been Eyles’ colleague. Five years before Eyles became infected, WHO had launched the Global Malaria Eradication Programme. Banking on insecticides and antimalarial drugs, the agency had aimed to end all malaria transmissions outside of Africa. A monkey malaria that easily infects humans would sink the program because there would be no way to treat all the monkeys.

A team of American scientists, including Eyles and Warren, traveled to Malaysia — then the Federation of Malaya — where the P. cynomolgi parasites that infected Eyles came from. Funded by NIH, the scientists worked with colleagues from the Institute of Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur, established in 1900 by the British to study tropical diseases.

From 1961 to 1965, the researchers discovered five new species of monkey malaria parasites and about two dozen mosquito species that carry the parasites. But the researchers did not find any human infections. Then, in 1965, an American surveyor became infected with P. knowlesi after spending several nights camping on a hill about 160 kilometers inland from Kuala Lumpur.

Warren surveyed the forested area where the infected American had camped. The hill sat beside a meandering river. Monkeys and gibbons, a type of ape, lived on the hill and in adjacent forests. The closest house was about two kilometers away. Warren sampled the blood of four monkeys and more than 1,100 villagers around the hill; he collected mosquitoes too.

He found P. knowlesi parasites in the monkeys, but none among the villagers. Only one mosquito species, A. maculatus, appeared capable of transmitting malaria between monkeys and humans, but Warren deemed its numbers too low to matter. He concluded that monkey malaria stayed in the forests and rarely ever spilled into humans.

With those results, NIH ended the monkey malaria project, Warren said, and the Institute of Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur returned to its primary focus: human malaria, dengue and other mosquito-borne diseases. Monkey malaria was struck off the list of public health concerns.

Wake-up call
P. knowlesi landed back in the spotlight in 2004, with a report in the Lancet by malariologist Balbir Singh and his team. The group had found 120 people infected over two years in southern Malaysian Borneo. The patients were mostly indigenous people who lived near forests. Clinicians initially had checked the patients’ blood samples under microscopes — the standard test — and diagnosed the parasites as human malaria. But when Singh, of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, applied molecular tools that identify parasite species by their DNA, he revealed that all the samples were P. knowlesi. Monkey malaria was breaking out of the diminishing forests.

By 2018, P. knowlesi had infected humans in all Southeast Asian countries except for East Timor. Singapore, declared malaria free in 1982, reported that six soldiers were infected with P. knowlesi from wild monkeys in a forest reserve. The parasite also turned up in almost 380 out of 3,700 visitors to health clinics in North Sumatra, Indonesia, an area that is close to being deemed free of human malaria.
Many scientists now recognize P. knowlesi as the fifth malaria parasite species that can naturally infect humans. It is also the only one to multiply in the blood every 24 hours, and it can kill if treatment is delayed. People pick up P. knowlesi parasites from long-tailed macaques, pig-tailed macaques and Mitred leaf monkeys. These monkeys range across Southeast Asia. So far, malaria parasites have been found in monkeys near or in forests, but rarely in monkeys in towns or cities.

Scientists propose several reasons for the recent rise in monkey malaria infections, but two stand out: improvement in malaria detection and forest loss.

Malaysia, for instance, finds more monkey malaria cases than other Southeast Asian countries because it added molecular diagnostic tools in 2009. Other countries use only microscopy for detection, says Rose Nani Mudin, who heads the vectorborne disease sector at Malaysia’s Ministry of Health. Since 2008, annual monkey malaria cases in Malaysia have climbed tenfold, even as human malaria cases have plummeted. “Maybe there is a genuine increase in [monkey malaria] cases. But with strengthening of surveillance, of course you would detect more cases,” she says.

Data collected by Malaysia’s malaria surveillance system have also revealed strong links between infection risk and deforestation. Fornace, the epidemiologist, examined the underlying drivers of monkey malaria in Surukan’s home state of Sabah. Fornace mapped monkey malaria cases in 405 villages, based on patient records from 2008 to 2012. Satellite data showed changes in forested areas around those villages. The villages most likely to report monkey malaria infections were those that had cut more than 8 percent of their surrounding forests within the last five years, she and colleagues reported in 2016 in Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Fornace’s team went into the field for a follow-up study, published in June in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases. The team collected blood samples from almost 2,000 people in two areas in Sabah and checked for current and past malaria infection. People who farmed or worked in plantations near forests had at least a 63 percent higher risk of P. knowlesi infection, and — like in the 2016 study — forests and cleared areas escalated risk of infection.

“It feels almost like P. knowlesi follows deforestation,” Fornace says. Several years after a forest is cut back, nearby communities “get a peak of P. knowlesi.”

Today, the hill where the American surveyor camped in 1965 is a small island in a sea of oil palm estates. From 2000 to 2012, Malaysia cleared a total amount of forest equaling 14.4 percent of its land area, more than any other country, according to a study published in 2013 in Science. A study in 2013 in PLOS ONE used satellite images to show that in 2009, only one-fifth of Malaysian Borneo was intact forest. Almost one-fourth of all forest there had been logged, regrown and logged many times over.

Since 2008, oil palm acreage in Malaysian Borneo has increased from 2.08 million hectares to 3.1 million, according to the Malaysian Palm Oil Board. In Malaysia, the four states hit hardest by deforestation — Sabah, Sarawak, Kelantan and Pahang — report 95 percent of the country’s P. knowlesi cases.
Fornace thinks deforestation and the ecological changes that come with it are the main drivers of monkey malaria’s rise in Malaysia. She has seen long-tailed macaques spend more time in farms and near houses after their home forests were being logged. Macaques thrive near human communities where food is abundant and predators stay out. Parasite-carrying mosquitoes breed in puddles made by farming and logging vehicles.

Where monkeys go, mosquitoes follow. Indra Vythilingam, a parasitologist at University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, studied human malaria in indigenous communities in the early 1990s. Back then, she rarely found A. cracens, the mosquito species that carries monkey malaria in Peninsular Malaysia. But in 2007, that species made up over 60 percent of mosquitoes collected at forest edges and in orchards, she reported in 2012 in Malaria Journal. “It’s so much easier to find them” now, she says.

As Fornace points out, “P. knowlesi is a really good example of how a disease can emerge and change” as land use changes. She recommends that when big projects are evaluated for their impact on the economy and the environment, human health should be considered as well.

What to expect
While P. knowlesi cases are climbing in Malaysia, scientists have found no evidence that P. knowlesi transmits directly from human to mosquito to human (though many suspect it happens, albeit inefficiently).
Following a review by experts in 2017, WHO continues to exclude P. knowlesi from its malaria elimination efforts. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, a tropical medicine specialist who coordinates WHO malaria control in the western Pacific region, says the agency will reconsider P. knowlesi as human malaria if there is new evidence to show that the parasite transmits within human communities.

In Malaysia last year, only one person died from human malaria, but P. knowlesi killed 11. “We don’t want that to happen, which is why [P. knowlesi] is our priority even though it is not in the elimination program,” says Rose Nani Mudin from the country’s Ministry of Health.

Unable to do much with the monkeys in the trees, Malaysian health officers focus on the people most likely to be infected with P. knowlesi. Programs raise awareness of monkey malaria and aim to reduce mosquitoes around houses. New mosquito-control methods are needed, however, because conventional methods like insecticide-treated bed nets do not work for monkey malaria mosquitoes that bite outdoors around dusk.

Fighting malaria is like playing chess against an opponent that counters every good move we make, says Culleton in Japan. Malaria parasites can mutate quickly and “go away and hide in places and come out again.” Against malaria, he says, “we can never let our guard down.”

This article appears in the November 10, 2018 Science News with the headline, “The Next Malaria Menace: Deforestation brings monkeys and humans close enough to share an age-old disease.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on November 6, 2018 to correct the WHO’s position on monkey malaria. The agency excludes monkey malaria parasites from its malaria eradication goals, not because those particular parasites rarely infect humans, but because the parasites have not been shown to transmit among humans.

Climate change may have made the Arctic deadlier for baby shorebirds

Climate change may be flipping good Arctic neighborhoods into killing fields for baby birds.

Every year, shorebirds migrate thousands of kilometers from their southern winter refuges to reach Arctic breeding grounds. But what was once a safer region for birds that nest on the ground now has higher risks from predators than nesting in the tropics, says Vojtěch Kubelka, an evolutionary ecologist and ornithologist at Charles University in Prague. With many shorebird populations dwindling, nest success matters more every year.
A longtime fan of shorebirds, Kubelka had heard about regional tests of how predator risk changes by latitude for bird nests. He, however, wanted to go global. Shorebirds make a great group for such a large-scale comparison, he says, because there’s not a lot of variation in how nests look to predators. A feral dog in the United States and a fox in Russia are both creeping up on some variation of a slight depression in the ground.
So Kubelka and his colleagues crunched data from decades of records of predator attack rates on about 38,000 nests of various sandpipers, plovers and other shorebirds. After a massive literature search, the study zeroed in on the experiences of 237 populations of a total of 111 shorebird species at 149 places on six continents. It’s the first attempt at a global comparison by latitude of predator attack rates on shorebird nests over time, he says.

Historical data of predator attack rates worldwide averaged about 43 percent before 1999, but has since reached 57 percent, the team reports in the Nov. 9 Science. The most dramatic upward swoop came from the Arctic nest reports. There, the rate of predator attacks averaged around 40 percent in the last century, jumping to about 65 or 70 percent since 1999. Meanwhile, tropical perils in the Northern Hemisphere changed “only modestly” the researchers say, from around 50 percent to about 55 percent.
Researchers also looked at how much, and how erratically, temperatures had changed at each site. Overall, the growing dangers to nests fit with climate change trends.
Biologists have discussed the idea that nest predation generally lessens when birds move out of the tropics. One advantage of migrating toward the pole to breed was, in theory, to escape from tropical abundance of snakes, rodents and other egg-lovers.

But rapid warming in the Arctic might have discombobulated some of the old predator-prey relationships, says coauthor Tamás Székely, a conservation biologist at the University of Bath in England. For instance, Arctic foxes used to get much of their nourishment from lemmings, voles and other small rodents. Skimpy snow cover in warmer winters, however, doesn’t insulate little rodents as well as it used to. Boom-and-bust cycles of lemming populations are in many places now “mostly bust,” he says. Foxes and other predators may be shifting more to bird eggs and nestlings.

That scenario of rodent-loving predators hunting more birds sounds “highly probable,” but may be just part of what’s going on, says Dominique Fauteux, an ecologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa who studies small mammals. Lemming collapses haven’t been reported across the whole Canadian Arctic, he says.

Instead, some researchers have proposed that shorebird nest failures come from a boom in geese that attract more bird predators overall. Also, a 2010 study suggests that nest predation in the Canadian Arctic was still lower than in temperate areas. There may be some global pattern, but on the ground, Fauteux says, “there clearly are nuances.”

Beavers are engineering a new Alaskan tundra

In a broad swath of northwestern Alaska, small groups of recent immigrants are hard at work. Like many residents of this remote area, they’re living off the land. But these industrious foreigners are neither prospecting for gold nor trapping animals for their pelts. In fact, their own luxurious fur was once a hot commodity. Say hello to Castor canadensis, the American beaver.

Much like humans, beavers can have an oversized effect on the landscape (SN: 8/4/18, p. 28). People who live near beaver habitat complain of downed trees and flooded land. But in areas populated mostly by critters, the effects can be positive. Beaver dams broaden and deepen small streams, forming new ponds and warming up local waters. Those beaver-built enhancements create or expand habitats hospitable to many other species — one of the main reasons that researchers refer to beavers as ecosystem engineers.
Beavers’ tireless toils — to erect lodges that provide a measure of security against land-based predators and to build a larder of limbs, bark and other vegetation to tide them over until spring thaw — benefit the wildlife community.

A couple of decades ago, the dam-building rodents were hard to find in northwestern Alaska. “There’s a lot of beaver around here now, a lot of lodges and dams,” says Robert Kirk, a long-time resident of Noatak, Alaska — ground zero for much of the recent beaver expansion. His village of less than 600 people is the only human population center in the Noatak River watershed.
Beavers may be infiltrating the region for the first time in recent history as climate change makes conditions more hospitable, says Ken Tape, an ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Or maybe the expansion is a rebound after trapping reduced beaver numbers to imperceptible levels in the early 1900s, he says. Nobody knows for sure.
And the full range of changes the rodents are generating in their new Arctic ecosystems hasn’t been studied in detail. But from what Tape and a few other researchers can tell so far, the effects could be profound, and most of them will probably be beneficial for other species.

In the areas newly colonized by beavers, “some really interesting processes are unfolding,” says John Benson, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln who studies wolves and coyotes, among other beaver predators. “I’d expect some pretty dramatic changes to the areas they take over.”

Beavers’ biggest effects on Arctic ecosystems may come from the added biodiversity within the ponds they create, says James Roth, an ecologist at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. These “oases on the tundra” will not only provide permanent habitat for fish and amphibians, they’ll serve as seasonal stopover spots for migratory waterfowl. Physical changes to the environment could be just as dramatic, thawing permafrost decades faster than climate change alone would.

The Arctic tundra isn’t the first place beavers have made their mark. Changes seen in beaver-rich areas at lower latitudes may offer some clues to the future of the Alaskan tundra, home to moose, caribou and snowshoe hares.

North through Alaska
As Earth’s climate has warmed in recent years, some plants and animals — such as the mountain-dwelling pika, a small mammal related to rabbits — have fled the heat by moving to higher altitudes (SN: 6/30/12, p. 16). Others, from moose and snowshoe hares to bull sharks and bottlenosed dolphins, have moved toward the poles to take advantage of newly hospitable ecosystems (SN: 5/26/18, p. 9).

Arctic environments have changed more than most, Tape says. Polar regions are warming much faster than other parts of the world, he says. Studies estimate that average temperatures in the Arctic have risen about 1.8 degrees Celsius since 1900, about 60 percent faster than the Northern Hemisphere as a whole.

This warming is bringing great change to the Alaskan tundra, Tape says. Winter snow cover doesn’t persist as long as it used to. Streams freeze later in the fall and melt earlier in the spring. Permafrost, the perennially frozen ground, is thawing, allowing shrubs to take hold. New species are moving in, few more noticeable than the beaver. The dams they build and the ponds they create are hard to miss; these newly formed bodies of water even show up on satellite images.
Beavers have infiltrated three watersheds in northwestern Alaska in the last couple of decades. Together these drainages cover more than 18,000 square kilometers — an area larger than Connecticut.

On images of the region collected by Landsat satellites in summer months from 1999 through 2014, Tape and colleagues looked for new areas of wetness that covered at least half a hectare (1.24 acres), or about four times the area covered by an Olympic swimming pool.

The researchers then used newer, high-resolution satellite images to verify the presence of beaver ponds. Available aerial photographs taken before 1999 didn’t pick up any signs of beaver activity in the area, Tape says. Kirk notes that beavers were present in the Lower Noatak River watershed before 1999, but in vastly smaller numbers than they are today.

Based on the images at hand, the researchers found 56 new complexes of beaver ponds in the area over the 16-year study period. On average, beavers expanded their range about 8 kilometers per year, Tape and colleagues reported in the October Global Change Biology.

“This is remarkable, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise,” Tape says. “Beavers are engineers that work every day, all summer long.”

The animals have also made their way into western Alaska’s Seward Peninsula and the northern foothills of the Brooks Range, mountains that stretch east to west across northern Alaska, the researchers found. If the animals’ recent rate of expansion continues, beavers could spread throughout Alaska’s North Slope in the next 20 to 40 years, the researchers say.
The Lower Noatak River watershed, one of the areas that Tape and colleagues studied, is mostly tundra. By definition that means treeless plain. But the area also is about 3.5 percent forest, mainly concentrated along the river and its tributaries. The watersheds just to the north are completely tundra. So how do the beavers there build dams without trees? In those areas, Tape says, the animals construct smaller dams than they might at lower latitudes, using the branches, twigs and foliage of willows and other shrubs.

“I never expected to see beavers on the tundra,” Roth says, intrigued by Tape’s team’s findings.

Happy place
The beavers are not only persisting on the tundra, they’re thriving. The moderately sized streams and flat terrain provide ideal habitat. And once they gain a foothold, these industrious creatures set about making improvements that are probably an overall plus for myriad other species, Tape says.

For instance, frigid conditions in the region cause shallow streams to freeze solid in winter. But when a beaver builds a dam, the water that gathers upstream of the structure becomes deep enough to remain liquid below a sheet of ice that provides insulation from the chilly winter air.

That persistent liquid lets the beavers move about under the ice even in the depths of winter. The water gives them a place to stockpile food, too, Tape notes. That constant supply of liquid water also provides year-round habitat for fish, amphibians and even some insects in their larval stages. None of these species are part of the beaver’s diet, but they could serve as food for other creatures. “All that diversity would add whole new layers to food webs,” Roth says.
Ecological changes could extend well beyond the beaver pond. The water impounded by beaver dams sometimes finds its way past the dam, Tape says. The satellite photos that he and his colleagues analyzed revealed that some stretches of river just downstream of beaver dams now remain unfrozen even in winter. That flowing water probably spills over the dam or around its edges, but some may seep through or under the structure.

That liquid water also helps thaw the underlying permafrost. Previous studies have shown that even a shallow pond less than a meter deep can boost sediment temperature by as much as 10 degrees C above the locale’s average air temperature. That kind of warming causes permafrost to thaw decades earlier than it would without the pond. Although scientists are concerned that permafrost thawing will release stored carbon into the atmosphere, no one yet knows how that thawing will affect the balance of carbon emissions to the atmosphere (SN: 1/21/17, p. 15).

Field studies at lower latitudes hint that beavers will probably bring about other ecological changes, too, Tape says, which might shift over time. For example, moose and snowshoe hares eat the same willow shrubs that beavers consume and build their dams with. And ptarmigan, a crow-sized bird in the grouse family, rely on those shrubs for cover, especially during winter. So immediately after beavers move into an area and start clearing that brush, populations of those species may decline.

But the long-term benefits will probably outweigh the short-term impacts on those species, says Matthew Mumma, an ecologist at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, Canada. Permafrost that thaws along the fringe of a beaver pond will probably boost numbers of the shrubs that these species depend on, Tape and colleagues suggest. So in the long run, the overall numbers of moose, hares and ptarmigan may rise.
Likewise, Mumma notes, beavers could provide big benefits for salmon and other migratory fish. Beaver dams were once thought to impede the travel of such fish upstream or to reduce the number of places where fish could spawn. But studies in the western United States, among other places, have suggested that the presence of beavers actually helps boost populations of salmon. For instance, the aquatic grasses in beaver ponds offer hiding places for young fish. Also, the languid ponds provide a resting spot for adult fish migrating upstream to spawning sites.

Better-fed wolves
Boosting herbivore populations on the tundra would be a boon for local predators, of course. Larger numbers of snowshoe hares, for example, could feed the populations of the arctic foxes that prey upon them, Mumma says. And more moose could mean better-fed wolves.

Beavers themselves make a meal for bears, wolverines and wolves. In areas where wolves and beavers coexist, the rodents make up as much as 30 percent of the wolf diet, Roth says. The presence of a more reliable and more diversified food supply could lead wolves to settle down in smaller territories rather than migrating widely.

Benson and his team have already seen the impact of beaver populations on wolves, coyotes and wolf-coyote hybrids in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park from August 2002 until April 2011.

In that time, 37 of the 105 pups that had been tagged with radio transmitters died, Benson says. The second-highest cause of death was starvation. Every one of those starvation-related deaths took place in the western portion of the park, which has relatively rugged terrain and few beavers. In the eastern portion of the park, where beavers are plentiful, none of the pups starved, Benson and his team reported in 2013 in Biological Conservation.
In a separate study, Mumma and colleagues analyzed aerial surveys of beaver populations within seven broad regions in northeastern British Columbia in 2011 and 2012. Proximity to human activity, such as roadbuilding or oil and gas exploration, didn’t seem to affect beavers’ decisions to build at a particular locale. Nor did the presence of wolves in the area, the researchers reported in February in the Canadian Journal of Zoology.

Although having wolves nearby seemed to affect the number of beavers present (quite possibly via consumption), the predators didn’t seem to scare the rodents away entirely, Mumma notes.

More beavers, fewer sick moose
Whether the presence of beavers on the Alaskan tundra ends up boosting the numbers of moose and other ungulates, the dam builders could have a big, though indirect, impact on the hoofed browsers’ health.

Roth and parasitologist Olwyn Friesen, now at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, recently studied how a wolf’s diet affects the parasites it carries — which can then be passed on to other creatures in the environment. The researchers analyzed 32 wolf carcasses collected by provincial conservation officers in southeastern Manitoba in 2011 and 2012. Those remains came from hunters, trappers and roadkill.

In particular, the team tallied the parasites in the wolves’ lungs, liver, heart and intestines. The group also measured the ratio of carbon-12 and carbon-13 isotopes in the wolf tissues, which provided insight into what sorts of prey each individual wolf had eaten near the time those tissues formed.

Typical prey for wolves in this area are, from most consumed to least: white-tailed deer, snowshoe hare, moose, beaver and caribou, Roth says. Each of these creatures has a distinct ratio of the two carbon isotopes in its tissues. That ratio gets passed along to the predators that eat them.

The wolves with diets heavier in beaver had, on average, fewer intestinal parasites called cestodes. (Tapeworms are the best-known members of that group.)

The implications are clear, Roth and Friesen reported in 2016 in the Journal of Animal Ecology. Beaver-eating wolves are much less likely to excrete parasites into the environment where they could be picked up by ungulates, such as moose and caribou. Wolves don’t seem to be detrimentally affected by such parasites. But ungulates that become infected — especially older animals — may have reduced lung capacity, making escape from predators more difficult.
A new resource
Although beavers may speed changes in the Arctic, those effects may still take a long time to manifest.

Despite the proliferation of beavers in the Lower Noatak River watershed in the last couple of decades, “things around here grow so slowly, they’re not really having a long-term impact yet,” says local resident Kirk. Shrubs haven’t yet noticeably spread into any areas of permafrost that have been thawed by waters impounded by recent dam-building.

Nor have the beavers made much of a mark on the local economy, he says. “There’s a lot of people harvesting them now, since there’s so many of them around,” he adds. However, the pelts from those rodents are so far used by the trappers themselves, not sold to others.

The beavers haven’t become a big draw on the local food scene, either. Even connoisseurs say the meat has a gamey, greasy taste. As Kirk puts it, “we haven’t adjusted our taste buds to them yet.”

Here’s how much climate change could cost the U.S.

The United States is poised to take a powerful economic hit from climate change over the next century. Heat waves, wildfires, extreme weather events and rising sea levels could cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars in lost labor, reduced crop yields, health problems and crumbling infrastructure.

A report authored by hundreds of U.S. climate scientists from 13 federal agencies presents a stark picture of the country’s fate due to climate change. The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released November 23, predicts the U.S. economy will shrink by as much as 10 percent by the end of the century if global warming continues apace.
A separate report released November 27 by the United Nations Environment Programme reveals that in 2017, global emissions of carbon dioxide — a major driver of warming — rose for the first time in three years. That suggests that the nations that promised to curb emissions as part of the historic 2015 Paris agreement are falling short (SN: 1/9/16, p. 6).

It’s unclear what effect, if any, the reports will have on the U.S. government’s strategy on dealing with climate change and its consequences. President Donald Trump has previously announced he would withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement (SN Online: 6/1/17). And on November 26, Trump told reporters that he had read “some of” his scientists’ report. “It’s fine,” he said. But when it comes to the dire predictions of economic losses, he added, “I don’t believe it.”

The National Climate Assessments are mandated by Congress and produced every four years, focusing on the risks of climate change specifically to the United States. What’s different about the new report compared with previous editions is its precision about the risks to different parts of the U.S. economy, putting a price tag on the potential losses in agriculture, trade and energy generation.

To put a dollar value on bad air quality or worsening heat waves, for instance, scientists try to assess the measurable impacts of those issues — for example, the number of days of work or school missed, or the number of doctors’ visits triggered (SN Online: 10/14/18).
The more-than-1,600-page report includes detailed examinations of the effects of climate change on the country’s different regions. People living in the northeastern United States, for example, will be among the hardest hit by deaths due to poor air quality and temperature extremes by the end of the century. Labor losses in the southeastern United States are the highest of all regions, as are projected damages to roads and bridges, the report found.

Meanwhile, the Midwest will see the highest increase in premature deaths from increased amounts of ozone. And the Southwest, which includes California in these analyses, will suffer from extreme heat, drought and an increase in future cases of the mosquito-borne West Nile virus.

The report estimates that cumulatively the country will spend $23 billion responding to wildfires by the end of the century, even if greenhouse gas emissions are modestly reduced. The Southwest will bear the brunt of that impact, spending $13 billion dollars.

The report also details the many ways in which climate change is already hurting the country economically. For example, three storms that made landfall during the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season — Harvey, Irma and Maria — together cost the United States at least $265 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

By continuing on its current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions, the “business-as-usual” scenario, the United States will see the greatest losses, the assessments concludes. However, the report also considers climate impacts in an alternate future, in which the world has taken modest actions to curb greenhouse emissions, including using more carbon-neutral fuels and the growth of technological innovations to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (SN Online: 10/20/18).

A patch studded with tiny needles may help heart attack survivors recover

A new type of implantable bandage could help mend broken hearts.

Each bandage is a thin film that oozes a cocktail of molecules to heal tissue damaged during a heart attack. In experiments with rats and pigs, these patches helped minimize scarring and preserve the heart’s ability to pump blood, researchers report online November 28 in Science Advances. Such devices could someday curb heart attack survivors’ risk of heart failure.

The base of each heart-healing film is a polymer sheet studded with tiny needles — similar to other microneedle patches that deliver vaccines but designed to stick to a patient’s heart rather than her skin (SN: 8/5/17, p. 8). The surface of the polymer opposite the array of microneedles is coated in a gel containing cardiac stromal cells. These cells secrete molecules, such as proteins and tiny pieces of genetic material known as microRNAs, that support the growth of heart muscle cells.
“We’re treating [the patch cells] as little pharmacies,” says study coauthor Ke Cheng, a biological engineer at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. When a patch is attached to the heart, the microneedles funnel curative molecules from the cardiac stromal cells directly into the damaged tissue.

In rats, Cheng’s team tested how well the microneedle patches promoted healthy tissue growth and mitigated scarring. Three weeks after researchers induced rats to have heart attacks, the animals with microneedle patches had roughly 40 percent healthy tissue in the regions of their hearts affected by the heart attack, whereas as untreated rats had only about 10 percent.
For the pigs, the researchers tracked heart health by measuring how much blood was pumped from the animal’s left ventricle to the rest of its body with each heartbeat. Four hours after a heart attack, each heartbeat released about 56 to 57 percent of all the blood in the left ventricle, in both treated and untreated pigs. But 48 hours after the attack, the results began to diverge: Hearts treated with microneedle patches pumped about 60 percent of the left ventricle’s volume, while untreated hearts pumped about 50 percent.
The new microneedle design “is a very interesting and exciting” idea, but researchers need to investigate how animals implanted with these patches fare over longer periods, says Tamer Mohamed, a cardiovascular researcher at the University of Louisville in Kentucky not involved in the work.
Before these microneedle patches are used to treat humans, Cheng’s team plans to swap out the polymer used in this study for a material that gradually dissolves inside the body. The researchers are also exploring less invasive ways to implant patches than open-heart surgery, Cheng says.

To assemble a Top 10 list, Science News starts in June

When most people were thinking about summer vacation, we were contemplating the biggest science stories of 2018.

Yep, it takes more than six months of effort to put together Science News’ annual issue on the Top 10 science stories of the year. 2018 was no different, though we were hit with some exciting twists that had us revisiting our decisions just a week or so before closing the issue.

The early discussions tend to be more about themes — climate emerged as a big one, even before the recent reports linking increased severity of hurricanes, floods and wildfires to climate change. Reporters lobby to get the stories that intrigued them the most or the discoveries that mark critical turning points onto the short list.
By August, our editors have identified contenders for the top of the list and are assigning stories so writers can get to work. We try to keep the choices under wraps; it’s part of the fun. All of the stories are assigned by October 1. By then, we’re also planning illustrations, graphics and bonus items, like our much-loved list of favorite science books of the year. By Thanksgiving, we’ve nailed down the “map” for the magazine, including story order and page designs.

And then news happens. This year was particularly rich in breaking news that had us reshuffling the deck. That included the discovery of an impact crater hidden under Greenland’s ice, which some scientists argue contributed to the die-off of the mammoths. That story broke on November 14 (SN: 12/8/18, p. 6).

Then there was the U.S. report on domestic climate change impacts, which was released the Friday after Thanksgiving. A few days later came an even bigger surprise: A Chinese scientist claimed that he had created the world’s first gene-edited babies. The announcement unleashed a torrent of criticism from scientists around the world.
So what would you pick as the No. 1 science story of the year? After much discussion, our editorial team decided to stick with our original choice of climate change, considering the extraordinary amount of new data released this year and the import of those findings. The Chinese babies elbowed their way into the No. 2 slot. Even though the scientist’s claim may prove false, the technology has clearly advanced to the point where scientists and governments must act to set ethical standards for human gene editing.

Note to our readers: The magazine will be taking a break over the holidays. The next issue you receive will be dated January 19. But we’ll still be hard at work reporting on developments in science, medicine and technology; visit us at www.sciencenews.org for the latest. In 2019, we’ll publish four double issues, in May, July, October and December. These special issues include more features and in-depth coverage of topics like last summer’s “Water woes,” which included reporting from Mumbai, India. We love having the opportunity to dig deep on pressing issues and hope you enjoy the results. Thank you for being part of the Science News community. We wish you joyous holidays and an evidence-based new year.