Wild Things: Life As We Know It | Science | Smithsonian

Wild Things: Life As We Know It

Icebergs, ice age wolves and honeybee queens

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A Frigid Dead Zone? Hardly

New research shows that icebergs are hot spots of marine life. Enriched with dirt that was collected when the ice was still part of a glacier, a melting berg slowly releases trace metals that help phytoplankton grow, feeding krill, fish and seabirds. Scientists from California's Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and elsewhere found increased concentrations of underwater sea creatures up to two miles from two bergs they studied from aboard ship and with underwater rovers.

New Old Wolf

An extinction 12,000 years ago claimed woolly mammoths, saber-toothed cats, mastodons. And a wolf, according to a new Smithsonian-led study of ancient bones from Alaska. Scientists previously thought ice age wolves were variants of modern ones, but the ancient animals' DNA differs from today's wolves and they had wider, stronger skulls.

The Hive Mind

A honeybee queen produces a pheromone that attracts young workers and stimulates them to feed and groom her. Now New Zealand scientists say the same pheromone prevents these caretaker bees from learning to extend their stingers when threatened. Such "brainwashing" may protect the queen from accidental harm. Older workers lose sensitivity to the pheromone; leaving the hive, they defend the colony—by stinging.

Transplanting Agriculture

People domesticated certain plants—that is, cultivated them rather than just collecting wild fruits or seeds—well over 10,000 years ago. But when did people first introduce crops to new areas? The oldest known New World evidence comes from a study in the Peruvian Andes. Squash seeds found in houses and storage places were dated to about 9,240 years ago. But wild squash doesn't grow in the valley studied by Vanderbilt researchers and others. They say the squash was planted by early agriculturists trying to put down (squash) roots in a new place.

Observed

NAME:Tachornis squamata, or the fork-tailed palm-swift.

WAS KNOWN TO: Build nests out of plant matter, saliva and other birds' feathers.

NOW KNOWN TO: Procure those feathers by ripping them off other birds' backs, in flight.

WE KNOW THIS BECAUSE?: Ornithologist Bret Whitney of Louisiana State University saw them do it. The birds, he reports, circle high above their Amazon palm-grove homes until "striking their victim in the middle of the back and tugging at feathers with the bill...to dislodge a mouthful." The swifts favored parrot and pigeon feathers. Most victims, Whitney notes, "react only slightly."

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