Study reveals intensive grassland management hampers recovery of soil food webs from drought

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Picture of an intensively managed grassland from M. Chomel. Credit: University of Manchester

New research led by a team of scientists from The University of Manchester has shown that intensive grassland management impairs the capacity of soils to buffer extreme droughts, which are becoming more frequent and intense.

The study investigated how of grasslands across northern England modifies the transfer of recently photosynthesised carbon by plants to roots and soil organisms and the transfer of soil nitrogen to plant and soil organisms following a severe drought.

The team found that intensive management reduced the below-ground transfer of carbon photosynthesised by plants to roots and soil biota after drought. This impairs the capacity of carbon transfer belowground to recover whereas under extensive, more traditional management, this below-ground transfer of plant carbon to soil biota was less disrupted and hence more able to buffer the effects of extreme drought.

Dr. Chomel, the lead author of the paper, said: “Soils contain a vast diversity of organisms crucial to key soil processes like carbon and nitrogen cycling. Our study shows that interactions between plants and soil organisms are vital for helping soil to resist to climate extremes, such as drought, which are already more common.”

“It is remarkable how intensive management reduces the transfer of carbon to beneficial root-associated fungi compared to more traditional grassland management consistently across the three sites. This result shows that intensive management disrupts plant-fungal pathways of resource transfer impacting key soil fauna like detritivorous mites.”

“Grasslands are under multiple threats including intensive management practices and climate change, including extreme climatic events. A major challenge is to understand how these drivers interact to help inform sustainability policy aimed at protecting the multiple that grasslands provide and enhance their resilience to future .”

Prof Johnson, who was part of the research team at Manchester, said: “This research highlights how extensive management tightens the linkage between plant and soil communities, which makes these systems better able to resist climate extremes like drought.”

Prof Bardgett, who was also part of the Manchester team who coordinated the project, said: “We hope that this research will help us to advise farmers and landowners to optimise the way they manage land to benefit from the living soil and improve how grasslands resist and recover from perturbations.”

The study was done by simulating a event in three paired extensively and intensively managed mesotrophic grasslands in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. This study was part of a large project working on 15 paired grasslands sites in the UK representing a range of soil types and in Aberdeenshire, North Yorkshire and Devon.

By using non-radioactive stable isotope tracers (13C and 15N), the researchers were able to accurately trace the transfer of carbon recently photosynthesised from plant shoots to roots and soil organisms, as well as the transfer of soil nitrogen into plants and organisms. These detailed measurements allowed them to disentangle the interaction between , and carbon and nitrogen cycles.

The study was led by Dr. Mathilde Chomel, a former postdoctoral research associate at The University of Manchester, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, who is now working at The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL France). The project was coordinated by The University of Manchester Professors David Johnson and Richard Bardgett—both based in the University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences—and involved an international team of researchers from the University of Edinburgh, University of Dublin, University of Colorado, University of Amsterdam and Queen’s University of Belfast.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications in a paper entitled “Intensive grassland management disrupts below-ground multi-trophic resource transfer in response to .”

More information:
Mathilde Chomel et al, Intensive grassland management disrupts below-ground multi-trophic resource transfer in response to drought, Nature Communications (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-34449-5

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Study reveals benefits of hybrid working for disabled workers but some fear choice between health and career progression

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Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Eighty-five percent of disabled workers in the UK say they are more productive working from home, new research by the Work Foundation reveals.

In a survey of hundreds of disabled workers across the UK, 80% agree remote working would either be essential or very important when looking for a new job, and 66% ideally want to work remotely 80-100% of the time. Seventy percent say that not being allowed to work remotely would negatively impact their , but most fear remote working will damage their career progression.

While many are being allowed to continue working from home, some feel it has been arranged reluctantly. Seventy percent of disabled workers with two or more impairments also fear that working from home will mean they are overlooked for training or “stretch” opportunities, suggesting that pre-pandemic perceptions amongst managers and employers could remain.

The new study, published today by the Work Foundation think-tank at Lancaster University, explores disabled workers’ experiences of remote and hybrid working, before and during the pandemic. Commissioned by City Bridge Trust, the City of London Corporation’s charity funder, the study involves a survey of 406 disabled workers living and working across the UK earlier this year, along with 20 in-depth interviews and two roundtable events.

With only 52.7% of disabled people employed in the UK compared to 81% of non-disabled people, and the disability pay gap increasing from 11.7% in 2014 to 13.8% in 2021; the study emphasizes the significant barriers and disadvantages disabled people continue to face in the labor market.

One in five of the UK working-age population now identify as disabled, so the Work Foundation says it’s imperative that colleagues, managers, employers and government do more to support disabled people to enter and stay in the workplace.

“Disabled people have been worst affected by the economic fallout of the pandemic, experiencing higher rates of unemployment and redundancies than non-disabled people,” Ben Harrison, Director of the Work Foundation, explains.

“Many employers refused to offer remote or hybrid working options before COVID-19 hit—even as reasonable adjustments—which probably goes some way to explain the shocking disability employment gap we face in the UK.

“Despite seeing an overall rise in remote and flexible working since, it’s particularly concerning to see that ‘pre-pandemic’ perceptions are still affecting the experience of work for disabled people, with many fearing their career progression and access to training and development will be limited if they continue working from home.

“The actions and language of politicians, policymakers and employers matter here. Implicitly or explicitly asserting flexible working leads to lower productivity or somehow undermines organizations isn’t only inaccurate but could have very damaging consequences for those managing health issues and disabilities.

“As vacancies rise to record levels and employers struggle to recruit into roles, a vast pool of talent is being overlooked amongst disabled people currently out of work. Given the right conditions and flexibility to thrive, disabled people could help alleviate the shortages we see across the country. But if flexibility and autonomy isn’t adopted into workplace culture, there is a real danger we could reverse any progress that has been made.”

The majority of respondents felt the support at work had not gotten worse during the pandemic, with respondents in some sectors noticing a marked improvement while working from home. However, of all survey respondents who requested additional support or new adjustments while working remotely, almost 1 in 5 (19%) had their request refused. Many interviewees had to use their own money to purchase equipment they needed themselves.

Gaining more autonomy and control over working environments was highlighted as one of the main benefits for disabled workers, with many reporting significant improvements to their health, quality of work and overall job satisfaction as a result. For example, autistic workers stressed the benefits of being able to control lighting and noise levels at home, which is more challenging to do in an open-plan office.

Those with multiple conditions or those who were affected “a lot” by their impairments were more than three times likely to say that not being able to work remotely would impact their ability to do all of their job.

Dr. Paula Holland from Lancaster University, a co-researcher on the study, said, “Our findings bring into sharp focus the benefits that having more autonomy over a work environment has brought so many disabled people in the UK. And, while more than 65% of respondents want to work remotely for the majority of the time, there are around 10% who don’t want to predominantly work from home—what suits one, won’t suit all. What is abundantly clear, however, is that when disabled workers are able to control their working environment, they manage their conditions more easily—they feel healthier and more productive.”

City Bridge Trust Grants Committee Chairman Paul Martinelli said, “The pandemic transformed our lives in many ways, not least in how and where we work. This research demonstrates that flexible working, which many companies and organizations have now adopted, has particularly far-reaching benefits for disabled employees.

“Not only does it empower disabled people to better manage their health and well-being, it increases the likelihood of their securing work, staying long-term and progressing in their , to the benefit of employee and employer alike.

“This report contains some clear recommendations as to how , employers and colleagues can work to provide the flexibility and support disabled people need, and in the process address the shocking pay and gaps which still exist.

“It’s vital that the voice of disabled people is heard when decisions which affect their working arrangements are made, and that experience gained during the pandemic is put to use to ensure that even if working remotely, disabled people are treated inclusively, as valued members of the team.”

“The Changing Workplace: Enabling disability-inclusive hybrid working” report outlines a series of recommendations.

For policymakers

  • To narrow the reasons for employers to refuse flexible working requests to make them more accessible and require larger organizations to publish their flexible working policies externally and monitor uptake
  • Increase resourcing for the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and widen its remit to allow it to constructively challenge employers who do not provide adjustments for disabled workers
  • The EHRC should open an enquiry into reasonable adjustments for disabled workers in the context of remote and hybrid working, to understand the challenges that organizations face in assessing reasonable adjustment requests, and use findings to develop comprehensive guidance for employers
  • Reform Access to Work, providing better funding and resourcing so that it works effectively for individuals and employers, and breaks down barriers to accessing occupational health expertise

For employers

  • Invest in training and supporting line managers. Managers embody company values and culture, so employers must make sure they are equipped to run hybrid teams that are productive and inclusive
  • Consultation: The importance of autonomy is clear, so it is vital that decisions about hybrid working practices are not made via a top-down approach. Consultation should be a continuous exercise to better adjust conditions and help workers be more productive.
  • Explore wider forms of flexibility. Employers need to consider that for some, remote work can cause isolation or anxiety. They should support the full spectrum of flexible work, including job-sharing, flex-time and compressed hours.
  • Workplace adjustment passports for all: Adjustment passports are a valuable tool to record and communicate needs and preferences about how and where we work. Using these for all workers has been widely welcomed and seen as a way of destigmatizing the adjustment request process.

To help create a truly disability-inclusive culture, colleagues are encouraged to:

  • Educate themsel

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Research reveals the science behind this plant’s blue berries

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Lantana strigocamara in the Ramaley Greenhouse on the CU Boulder campus. Credit: Patrick Campbell / CU Boulder

On a beautiful fall day in 2019, Miranda Sinnott-Armstrong was walking down Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado when something caught her eye: a small, particularly shiny blue fruit, on a shrub known as Lantana strigocamara. While its tiny clusters of pink, yellow and orange flowers and blue berries commonly adorn the pedestrian mall in spring, city workers were ripping these common Lantanas out to prepare for the winter season.

Sinnott-Armstrong, postdoctoral researcher of ecology and at CU Boulder, quickly asked if she could take a specimen back to the lab. She wanted to know: What made these berries so blue?

Sinnott-Armstrong’s results are now published in the journal New Phytologist. The study confirms Lantana strigocamara as the second-ever documented case of a plant creating blue-colored fruits with layered fat molecules. She and her co-authors published the first-ever documented case, in Viburnum tinus, in 2020.

The two plants are among only six in the world known to make their fruits’ hues using a trick of the light known as structural color. But Sinnott-Armstrong has a hunch there are more.

“We’re literally finding these things in our backyards and on our streets, people just haven’t been looking for structurally colored plants,” said Miranda Sinnott-Armstrong, lead author on the new study. “And yet, just walking on Pearl Street, you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s one!'”

Structural color is very common in animals. It’s what gives peacocks’ otherwise brown feathers their brilliant greens, and many butterflies their bright blues. But this optical illusion of sorts is much rarer in plants, according to Sinnott-Armstrong.

Stacey Smith, co-author on the publication and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, peels the skin off of a Lantana fruit. Credit: Patrick Campbell / CU Boulder

To create its unique color, these blue fruits use microscopic structures in their skin to manipulate light and reflect the wavelengths our eyes perceive as blue, giving it a distinctive metallic finish. Pigmented color does the opposite, absorbing select visible wavelengths of light. This means structurally-colored berries have no color within themselves; if you were to squish them, they would not stain blue.

In fact, if you peel the skin off a Lantana and hold it up to the light, it looks completely translucent. But if you place it against a dark background, it looks blue again, due to the nanostructures on the surface responsible for reflecting the color.

The evolution of color

What’s especially unique about Lantana strigocamara—besides the fact that the color blue is quite scarce in nature, especially in fruits—is that it creates this structural color in its skin using layers of lipid molecules, or fats.

Stacey Smith, co-author on the publication and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, peels the skin off of a Lantana fruit. Credit: Patrick Campbell / CU Boulder

Viburnum tinus is the only other plant known to do the same thing, and Lantana and Viburnum last shared a common ancestor more than 100 million years ago. Meaning, the two plants evolved this shared trait completely independent of one another.

“It puts us on the hunt for other groups where this happens, because we know it can be done multiple ways,” said Stacey Smith, co-author on the publication and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

The researchers also chat often about why such a thing would evolve. Does structural color provide an ?

Some theorize that structural color could help with seed dispersal. While there are very few known structurally colored plants, they are globally widespread. Lantana itself is invasive in many parts of the world, especially in tropical regions. It’s possible that the metallic, shiny nature of the fruit provides strong contrast with surrounding foliage, attracting animals to eat them and disperse their seeds, according to the researchers.

Lantana strigocamara in the Ramaley Greenhouse on the CU Boulder campus. Credit: Patrick Campbell / CU Boulder

“But just being blue and sparkly might be enough for an animal to think it’s decorative,” said Smith.

The researchers noted that many birds, especially in Australia, like to use structurally colored fruits to adorn their bowers and attract mates. Humans, interestingly, may also be contributing to the spread of Lantana for the same reason.

“The fact that they made their way into horticulture suggests that we are susceptible to the same things are that other animals find attractive about them,” said Smith. “We’re like, oh, look at that sparkly, cute thing. I should put that in my garden.”

Another possibility is that the thick, fatty layer which creates this unique color is a protective mechanism for the plant, providing defense against pathogens or improving the structural integrity of the fruit, said Sinnott-Armstrong.

The color blue itself could also be a clue.

Pigmented and structural color are not mutually exclusive in plants, but perhaps plants stumbled across structural as a way to make blue because it’s not as easy to create in other ways, she said.

Some researchers in Silvia Vignolini’s lab at the University of Cambridge—where Sinnott-Armstrong is currently based—are now trying to make colored paints, fabrics and more out of , by better understanding the assembly of cellulose nanocrystals in colored fruits.

Researchers hope to learn more about the possible evolutionary prompts for this mechanism, as more structurally colored fruits are discovered.

“They’re out there,” said Sinnott-Armstrong. “We just haven’t seen them all yet.”

Co-authors on this publication include: Yu Ogawa, Université de Grenoble Alps; Gea Theodora van de Kerkhof, University of Cambridge; and Silvia Vignolini, University of Cambridge.

More information:
Miranda A. Sinnott‐Armstrong et al, Convergent evolution of disordered lipidic structural colour in the fruits of Lantana strigocamara (syn. L. camara hybrid cultivar), New Phytologist (2022). DOI: 10.1111/nph.18262

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Hexbyte Glen Cove New research reveals clues to how antibodies become fine-tuned to fight infection

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Hexbyte Glen Cove A deep data dive reveals extent of unequal water provision in Nairobi

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

Many African cities struggle to supply safe, potable water to their residents. One of the main reasons for this is urbanization; cities’ populations grow rapidly as more people move to them from rural areas.

Another reason, in some regions, is water scarcity.

Researchers have long suspected that informal urban neighborhoods are lagging behind their formal counterparts when it comes to accessing safe drinking . But this reality can be obscured when data is aggregated to city scale rather than being examined at a granular, localized level.

Numerous studies have been conducted to examine inequalities in safe water access. Most measure this access through source type, such as access to tap water. Some have incorporated other dimensions of water service delivery, notably water quality. However, relatively few studies have examined intra-urban differences in the volumes of water consumed.

In our study in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, we examined patterns of domestic piped water distribution between 1985 and 2018. We used data from Nairobi’s water and sewerage utility using small areas they call “itineraries.” These have an of 700. We also examined granular population data from the WorldPop mapping initiative and we drew on spatial data about the age of different neighborhoods for the years between 1975 and 2014 from the Global Human Settlement project.

This data allowed us to examine differences between neighborhoods in sufficient domestic water consumption, cost, and water access. Crucially, we could examine changes over time. The data revealed that newly developed low-income urban neighborhoods—home to up to a third of Nairobi’s population—are not as well serviced as older, wealthier and less densely populated areas.

Our hope is that these findings may influence governance and policy in the water sector. Water supply must be reliable, safe and affordable to everyone who lives in Nairobi.

Key findings

The data showed that water sufficiency in Nairobi differs according to several factors. These include the age of a neighborhood, income level, type of water access and the size of the population per itinerary.

The World Health Organisation recommends at least 1500 liters of water per individual per month for domestic use. We found that residents in high- and middle- income areas were six and four times more likely to receive 1500 liters. Less densely populated areas were more likely to receive higher volumes of water.

The manner in which people access water differs according to income, too. People in high- and middle- income areas tend to have piped connections in their homes. Those in middle to low and low-income areas were more often getting water from communal taps or water kiosks (water vendors who sell water purchased from the utility company).

We also found that a great deal of water—an average of 3.5 billion liters per month—is being wasted either through burst pipes, theft or irregular meters. This is more than twice the amount of water needed for every one of the city’s residents, across all areas, to access the recommended 1500 liters a month.

Tackling the problem

There are three ways to address the spatial inequality of water access in Nairobi: good data to plan water services and tariffs, investing in infrastructure, and governance.

Data on water supply and consumption is key in assessing the gaps in the water distribution process. It can also help to ensure better management of sometimes scarce or limited water supplies. Historically, government data has been poorly stored.

However, there have been positive improvements in this regard as governments increasingly ensure that their data is accessible, electronically stored, complete and consistent. This enables research and future planning. Kenya has digitized the water consumption data and made the water tariff structure publicly available.

Improving water sufficiency will also require the right investments from the government. Growth in city population should be accompanied by investments in infrastructure to support provision of safe water to the population—including proper funding of water utility companies to enhance their performance. Investments should be organized based on residential category and neighborhood age, with a focus on the groups the data shows are not being well serviced.

Finally, good governance is required to minimize both water losses and social inequalities. There should be a deliberate prioritization of water supply and infrastructure development in low-income areas, both in newer and older neighborhoods, and in densely populated areas. This is critical if Kenya is to achieve the water targets outlined in the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the 2030 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Hexbyte Glen Cove Study reveals more hostile conditions on Earth as life evolved 

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Graphic showing how UV radiation on Earth has changed over the last 2.4 billion years. Credit: Please credit: Gregory Cooke/ Royal Society Open Science

During long portions of the past 2.4 billion years, the Earth may have been more  inhospitable to life than scientists previously thought, according to new computer simulations.

Using a state-of-the-art climate model, researchers now believe the level of ultraviolet (UV) reaching the Earth’s surface could have been underestimated, with UV levels being up to ten times higher.

UV radiation is emitted by the sun and can damage and destroy biologically important molecules such as proteins.

The last 2.4 billion years represents an important chapter in the development of the biosphere. Oxygen levels rose from almost zero to significant amounts in the atmosphere, with concentrations fluctuating but eventually reaching modern day concentrations approximately 400 million years ago.

During this time, more complex multicellular organisms and animals began to colonize land.

Gregory Cooke, a Ph.D. researcher at the University of Leeds who led the study, said the findings raise new questions about the evolutionary impact of UV radiation as many forms of life are known to be negatively affected by intense doses of UV radiation.

He said: “We know that UV radiation can have disastrous effects if life is exposed to too much. For example, it can cause skin cancer in humans. Some organisms have effective defense mechanisms, and many can repair some of the damage UV radiation causes.

“Whilst elevated amounts of UV radiation would not prevent life’s emergence or evolution, it could have acted as a selection pressure, with organisms better able to cope with greater amounts of UV radiation receiving an advantage.”

The research “A revised lower estimate of ozone columns during Earth’s oxygenated history” is published today in the scientific journal Royal Society Open Science.

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Hexbyte Glen Cove New research reveals a hidden obstacle for women in academia

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

For more than a decade, women have earned more doctoral degrees than men in the United States. Despite that, women still lag behind men in getting tenure, getting published and reaching leadership positions in academia.

Much of the into why that might be focuses on structural barriers and explicit prejudice. But a new study by a team of researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) finds a widespread implicit bias against academic work that simply seems feminine—even if it’s not about or gender specifically.

Analyzing nearly 1 million doctoral dissertations from U.S. universities over a recent 40-year period, the researchers found that scholars who wrote about topics associated with women, or used methodologies associated with women, were less likely to go on to get senior faculty positions than those who did not.

The issue wasn’t so much a prejudice against feminist studies or gender studies, which have expanded considerably since the 1970s. In fact, people who wrote their dissertations explicitly about women had slightly better career prospects than those who wrote explicitly about men.

The real problem was a more subtle bias against topics and research designs that were “feminized,” meaning they were more associated with traditions of women’s work. Scholars whose dissertation abstracts had words like parenting, children or relationship, for example, had slimmer career prospects than people who used words like algorithm, efficiency or war.

Even within a particular field, whether sociology or computer science, scholars whose dissertations were associated with women’s traditions in research had poorer prospects than those who wrote more “masculinized” dissertations in their respective fields. Despite changes in social norms and a growing number of women scholars over time, the researchers found the devaluation of women’s research was more or less consistent throughout the 40-year period.

“Everyone emphasizes that is based on meritocracy, that everything is neutral and based on the scientific value of research,” said the study’s lead author, Lanu Kim, who led the research team as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford GSE and is now an assistant professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. “It’s somewhat fake, and it’s somewhat impossible. There can be differences in men’s and women’s research interests, and some topics are already associated with women rather than men. The process cannot really be neutral.”

The study was recently released online in advance of its publication in the January 2022 issue of Research Policy.

Uncovering patterns through AI

The researchers used natural language processing, a type of artificial intelligence used to study patterns in text, to analyze the abstracts of dissertations in every field from universities throughout the United States between 1980 and 2010.

To measure how “feminized” or “masculinized” a dissertation might be, the researchers tallied the concentration of words that had been used disproportionately by male or female doctoral candidates in previous years. This included words explicitly referencing gender, such as woman, man, her or him.

Beyond that, however, the researchers looked for words associated with women’s or men’s interests, even if the words in themselves had nothing to do with gender.

Among the terms with a strong association to women: School, teacher, child, parent, culture and participation. Terms strongly associated with men, by contrast, ranged from algorithm and efficiency to words connected with energy and electronics.

The researchers then measured academic prospects by looking at which of the scholars went on to hold senior faculty positions. Specifically, they looked at whether a scholar was later named as the primary faculty advisor on someone else’s doctoral thesis, which is a strong indicator of an emerging scholar’s long-run success as an academic.

Though there are many other measures of success, Kim and her colleagues wanted to know whether academic institutions implicitly penalize scholars for certain types of research.

Overall, only 6.3 percent of those who received Ph.D.s went on to become faculty advisors, but women were about 20 percent less likely than men to reach that mark.

Notably, scholars who wrote dissertations explicitly about women had a slight advantage over those who wrote explicitly about issues for men. That reflected efforts by many universities to make up for lost ground after years of giving short shrift to women’s issues.

Scholars who pursued topics and research designs more implicitly associated with women, however, had poorer prospects: Their chances of becoming a faculty advisor were 12 percent lower than average. Perhaps even more startling, the implicit bias was actually greater in fields that had strong traditions of research associated with women’s work in academia, such as sociology, than in fields dominated by men, like mechanical engineering.

For scholars working in fields with a preponderance of research traditionally associated with women, female Ph.D.s are more likely to suffer a triple disadvantage on the job market, the authors wrote. “They are penalized for being women, [for] not doing a Ph.D. in a masculinized field and [for] not adopting man-type research practices.”

“The troubling inequity we identified is one that women faculty have likely long suspected but continue to experience,” said Daniel McFarland, a professor at Stanford GSE and one of the study’s co-authors.

Kim and her colleagues confirmed that women are now modestly rewarded for research on women’s issues. But that progress, they concluded, is being overwhelmed by implicit biases.

“As a society, we’ve made outstanding progress over the last century in transforming higher education and science institutions,” said Daniel Scott Smith, a doctoral candidate at Stanford GSE and co-author of the study. “But implicit biases against certain kinds of research undermines our current efforts to make the academy more diverse—in terms of who becomes professors but also in terms of what’s considered valuable academic knowledge.”

More information:
Lanu Kim et al, Gendered knowledge in fields and ac

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Hexbyte Glen Cove Rare fossil reveals prehistoric Melbourne was once a paradise for tropical pig-nosed turtles

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Credit: Hany Mahmoud, Author provided

The pig-nosed turtle, an endangered freshwater turtle native to the Northern Territory and southern New Guinea, is unique in many respects. Unlike most freshwater turtles, it is almost completely adapted to life in water. It has paddle-like flippers similar to sea turtles, a snorkel-like “pig-nose” to help it breathe while staying submerged, and eggs that will only hatch when exposed to the waters of the wet season.

It is also the last surviving species of a group of tropical turtles called the carettochelyids, which once lived throughout the northern hemisphere. Scientists thought pig-nosed turtles only arrived at Australia within the past few millennia, as no pig-nosed turtle fossils had ever been found here—or so we thought.

A 5-million-year-old fossil from Museums Victoria’s collections has now completely rewritten this story. Discovered at Beaumaris, 20km southeast of Melbourne, this fossil lay unidentified in Melbourne Museum’s collection for almost 100 years until our team came across it.

We identified the fossil as a small section of the front of a pig-nosed turtle’s shell, as we report today in the journal Papers in Palaeontology. Although the fossil is just a fragment, we were lucky that it was from a very diagnostic area of the shell.

The fossil shows that carettochelyid turtles have been living in Australia for millions of years. But what was a pig-nosed turtle doing in Beaumaris 5 million years ago, thousands of kilometers from their modern range?

Artist’s impression of the pig-nosed turtle swimming in an ancient river. Credit: Jaime Bran

Well, in the past, Melbourne’s weather was a lot warmer and wetter that it is now. It was more akin to the in which these turtles live today.

In fact, this isn’t the first prehistoric tropical species discovered here: monk seals, which today live in Hawaii and the Mediterranean, and dugongs also once lived in what is now Beaumaris.

A tropical Melbourne?

Millions of years ago, Australia’s eastern seaboard was a tropical turtle hotspot. The warmer and wetter environment would have been perfect for supporting a greater diversity of turtles in the past. This is in stark contrast to modern times; today, Australia is mostly home to the side-necked turtles.

Tropical turtles would have had to cross thousands of kilometers of ocean to get here. But this is not unusual—small animals often cross the sea by hitching a ride on vegetation rafts.

So where are these turtles now? Why is the modern pig-nosed turtle the last remaining species of the carettochelyids? Well, just like today, animals in the past were threatened by . When Australasia’s climate became cooler and drier after the ice ages, all the tropical turtles went extinct, except for the pig-nosed turtle in the Northern Territory and New Guinea.

This also suggests that the modern pig-nosed turtle, already endangered, is under threat from human-driven climate change. These turtles are very sensitive to their environment, and without rain their eggs cannot hatch.

This is true of a lot of Australia’s native animals and plants. In reptile species such as and crocodiles, sex can be determined by the temperature at which eggs are incubated. This is yet another factor that could put these species at risk as the climate changes.

The treasure trove of fossils from Beaumaris shows just how important Australia’s previously tropical environment was for ancient animals. Southern Australia used to be home to many tropical that now have much more restricted ranges.

Just last year, the discovery of tropical monk seals fossils from Beaumaris completely changed how scientists thought seals evolved. This shows just how much we still have to learn about Australia’s prehistoric past, when it was so different from the sunburnt country we know today.

More information:
James P. Rule et al, Turtles all the way down: Neogene pig‐nosed turtle fossil from southern Australia reveals cryptic freshwater turtle invasions and extinctions, Papers in Palaeontology (2021). DOI: 10.1002/spp2.1414

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Rare fossil reveals prehistoric Melbourne was once a paradise for tropical pig-nosed turtles (2021, December 11)
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Hexbyte Glen Cove Study reveals gophers' biofluorescence thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove Study reveals gophers’ biofluorescence

Hexbyte Glen Cove

A pocket gopher illuminated with UV light. Credit: University of Georgia

You can learn a lot about animals by simply watching them. But some secrets can only be revealed in the dark … with an ultraviolet flashlight.

This happens to be the case for pocket gophers, small rodents that live underground in sandy soil. A new paper by University of Georgia researchers found that these feisty, solitary, round-cheeked animals have a special skill that’s only revealed under ultraviolet light: They are biofluorescent, giving off a colored glow when illuminated with UV light.

Published in The American Midland Naturalist, this is the first time biofluorescence has been documented in pocket gophers. J.T. Pynne, a recent Ph.D. graduate of the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and lead author of the study, said he was inspired to shine a light on the possibility a few years ago, after reading similar studies documenting the phenomenon in flying squirrels and opossums.

“A bunch of people, myself included, were curious about other animals,” said Pynne, now a private lands wildlife biologist with the Georgia Wildlife Federation. So, he turned to Warnell’s collection of animal specimens.

“We tested it on the flying squirrels we had, and sure enough, it worked. So, I said, ‘Well, what else do we have?'” During his time at Warnell, Pynne focused his research on pocket gophers, which are short-tempered and live in underground tunnels. So, he turned his UV flashlight toward those he had on hand. “And it turned out, pocket gophers, flying squirrels and opossums were the only animal specimens that fluoresced. And I’m thinking, of course my strange little animals do this.”

This was in 2019. At the time, identifying organisms that glowed purple, orange or pink under a black light was a bit of a thing in certain scientific circles. What started with the revelation of the flying squirrel snowballed into several other fluorescent discoveries, such as the nocturnal springhare and the platypus. Biofluorescence has also been documented in birds, salamanders, spiders and scorpions, among other organisms, said Warnell professor Steven Castleberry.

A UV light is required for humans to see biofluorescence.

“Just in the past few years, there’s been this uptick of people shining UV light on mammals to see if they glow. So now people have started to ask, why do they fluoresce?” added Castleberry. Whether the fluorescence is a defense mechanism, a communication method, camouflage or simply a trait from earlier eras is anyone’s guess at this point. “There’s some speculation and hypotheses, but nobody really knows the truth.”

Pynne also documented biofluorescence in pocket gophers in the wild, which emit a more intense orange-pink glow. He also tested specimens of other pocket gopher species archived at the Georgia Museum of Natural History, all of which emitted biofluorescence.

While the reason for pocket gophers’ and other animals’ ability to glow under is still up for debate, Pynne said it can serve as a unique introduction to the animals’ world. With UV flashlights readily available, most anyone can highlight a foraging opossum in their backyard, for example, or watch how different insects light up at night.

“We have known for a long time that arthropods fluoresced. Any time I catch a scorpion or a spider or a millipede and I have my black light, they’re bright blue,” said Pynne, who keeps an ultraviolet flashlight in his backpack whenever he’s exploring new places. “It’s probably more of a cool teaching thing than anything.”

Although pocket gophers, with their long, curved teeth and penchant for burrowing, would rather be left alone, thank you very much.

More information:
J. T. Pynne et al, Ultraviolet Biofluorescence in Pocket Gophers, The American Midland Naturalist (2021). DOI: 10.1674/0003-0031-186.1.150

Study reveals gophers’ biofluorescence (2021, Septembe

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Hexbyte Glen Cove Study reveals extreme winter weather is related to Arctic change thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove Study reveals extreme winter weather is related to Arctic change

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

A new study shows that the frequency of polar vortex disruptions that is most favorable for extreme winter weather in the United States is increasing, and that Arctic change is likely contributing to the increasing trend. Led by Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER), University Massachusetts Lowell and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the study is published in the September 3 issue of Science.

The analysis demonstrates that a relatively obscure weak or disrupted state of the stratospheric polar , where it takes on a stretched appearance rather than the more typical circular appearance, has been increasing over the satellite era (post 1979). Extreme weather in the US is more common when the polar vortex is stretched. Both observational analysis and numerical modeling experiments demonstrate that changes in the Arctic, including accelerated warming, melting sea ice and increasing Siberian snowfall, are favorable for stretching the polar vortex followed by extreme winter weather in North America east of the Rockies. Such a chain of events occurred in February 2021, when a stretched polar vortex preceded the destructive and deadly Texas cold wave.

During the past three decades, the Arctic has experienced the greatest climate change of anywhere on Earth, including rapidly rising temperatures, melting sea ice, diminishing spring snow cover, and increasing autumn snow cover. Rapid Arctic warming relative to the rest of the globe is referred to as Arctic amplification. The extent to which these rapid changes in the Arctic are influencing midlatitude weather has become a topic of vigorous debate by climate scientists and popular in the press.

“The publication of the paper is especially timely given the extreme winter of 2020/21: record warm Arctic, low Arctic sea ice, deep Siberian snows, a protracted and complex polar vortex disruption, record-breaking cold in the US, Europe and Asia, disruptive snowfalls in Europe and the US and most notably the record breaking and possibly unprecedented combination of cold and snow in Texas,” said Dr. Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at AER and lead author of the study.

Cohen adds that “last winter the severe cold wave across Texas heated up the debate as to whether climate change can contribute to more severe winter weather with those arguing for and against. However, studies supporting or refuting the physical connection between climate change and the Texas cold wave and other recent US severe winter weather events don’t exist, until now. The study also provides cautionary evidence that a warming planet will not necessarily protect us from the devastating impacts of severe winter weather.”

The paper presents a physical mechanism of how climate change in general and Arctic change in particular are contributing to more severe winter weather despite an overall warming climate that has not been previously considered. Most theories on the connection between Arctic amplification and mid-latitude winter weather argue that the pathway is either through a wavier Jet Stream or sudden stratospheric warmings, which are the largest and most often studied disruptions to the polar vortex. This study provides compelling evidence that the strongest connection between the Arctic and mid-latitude weather, at least in the US, may be through this lesser known and weaker “stretched” disruption of the polar vortex.

These extreme winter weather events begin when a wave of high pressure between Northern Europe and the Urals and low pressure over East Asia undergoes amplification. Such an amplification can be forced by observed Arctic change during the fall season, and specifically by melting sea ice in the Barents-Kara Seas and heavier snowfall across Siberia. The from the Eurasian wave bounces or reflects off the polar vortex and is absorbed in a similar North American wave with high pressure over Alaska and the North Pacific and low pressure over eastern North America, causing rapid wave amplification. When atmospheric waves amplify, extreme is more likely.

UMass Lowell Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Prof. Mathew Barlow, a co-author on the study, added that “the synthesis of both observational analysis and computer model experiments is a particular strength of this study and greatly increases our confidence in the results. The dynamical pathway explored here—from surface climate change in the Arctic up to the polar stratosphere and then back down to the surface in the US—highlights one example of the wide range of impacts that change can have.”

Israeli collaborator Prof. Chaim Garfinkel, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, concludes “There has been a long-standing contradiction between an apparent increase in cold extremes in winter in midlatitudes even as temperatures globally are warming. This study helps resolve this contradiction and highlights that an apparent increase in such midlatitude cold extremes in winter should not be used as an excuse to delay taking urgently needed action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

More information:
Judah Cohen et al, Linking Arctic variability and change with extreme winter weather in the United States, Science (2021). DOI: 10.1126/science.abi9167

Provided by
Atmospheric and Environmental Research

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