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Week of April 19, 2019
Here at the California Science Weekly, we are working hard to bring you the most interesting, informative and entertaining stories about science in the state of California. Every week, we pore through hundreds of articles and Web sites to find the top stories that we believe are worthy of your time. We hope you’ll stay with us and share our work with others via Twitter and Facebook. If there is anything you’d be interested in learning more about, send us a note, and let us know.
Something’s happening here. Sea life around California is changing.
This time of year, it is normal to see whales – grays and humpbacks among them – migrating north to cooler climes and nutrient-rich waters in Alaska. But it’s not normal for them to hang around for a long time, nor is it normal to see them frolicking together in San Francisco Bay.
“This was like opening a door temporarily for southern species to move northward,” Eric Sanford, a professor of biological sciences at the University of California at Davis’s Bodega Marine Laboratory told the Washington Post.
Welcome to the new normal. The new hotter normal. As climate change brings floods, higher sea levels, drought and more severe storms, it is also leading to strange behavior in the animal world. Species that once lived much further south around Mexico are now finding their way into California waters, surprising and also concerning scientists who say that these migrations are a sign of bad things to come.
The whales are likely hanging around, say scientists, because they are hungry, meaning that something is happening to their food supplies.
But we’ve also witnessed other species on the coast that are rarely or never before seen. A yellow-bellied sea snake washed up on Newport Beach. A very rare olive Ridley sea turtle was seen near Capistrano Beach. And who can forget the huge hoodwinker sunfish that made headlines last month.
It is likely just the beginning of a massive change in our local ecosystems, and the consequences could be especially severe for the species that already live here, whose habitats are changing. Case in point, the massive die off of starfish caused by an infectious wasting disease that reduces these beautiful creatures to mush. A new report published in the journal Science Advances lays much of the blame on the changing climate. Check out the video by Hakai Magazine.
Animals / History of Science
Behold the magnificent murre
During the California gold rush, the rocky volcanic Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco became a kind of war zone, as groups of men battled over a precious resource: birds eggs. In particular, the eggs of the common murre, a sharp-beaked black and white bird whose eggs are curiously conical. Scientists speculate the reason for the rather odd shape is that evolution designed them to roll in circles, instead of tumbling into the sea.
The marine science magazine Hakai has a great piece on the common murre and the work being done to better understand their biology and evolutionary history. One recently discovered fact is that common murre females lay eggs with different colors and reflectance, allowing the parent murres to specifically identify it as their own offspring. Wow! Johnny, that IS you!
But back to the so-called eggs wars of the late 1850s. Smithsonian magazine has a wonderful story by Paige Blankenbuehler about the conflict, which arose because so many people had come to California in search of gold, and of course they had to eat. Food production, in some cases, could not keep up with demand. Certain foods, in particular, chicken eggs, became so scarce that enterprising poachers went to the Farallones to collect the eggs for sale to hungry 49ers. The competition to collect them became so fierce that “brawls broke out constantly between rival gangs, ranging in brutality from threats and shell-throwing to stabbings and shootouts.”
Yikes. All over some colorful, conical eggs.
Big Bear Lake’s adorable new Eaglets
Though indigenous to California, bald eagles are not often seen around the state, at least near our big cities. It used to be common to see them, but in the early 1970s, after the bald eagle numbers declined dramatically due to impacts from insecticides, the bird was listed as an endangered species. In fact, in the 80s, there were fewer than 30 nesting pairs in the state. Today, they’ve recovered somewhat and can occasionally be seen at lakes, reservoirs, rivers, and some rangelands and coastal wetlands.
But now, you can see two baby bald eagles that just hatched at Big Bear Lake. A live cam put up by Friends of Big Bear Valley allows you to ogle them live from the comfort of your computer screen or device.
Going to prison for killing a rare fish
In April 2016, three drunk men broke into a fenced-in limestone cavern at Death Valley National Park, home of the endangered Devils Hole pupfish, one of the rarest fish in the world. The fish has evolved in extreme desert conditions and has been isolated for tens of thousands of years, and this is one of the only places they live. Thinking it was a nice night for a swim, one of the men plunged into the warm pool where, it so happened, the pupfish were breeding. One of the fish died.
The men were caught (an excellent tale told by High Country News), and Trenton Sargent, the guy who jumped into the pool, pleaded guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act, destruction of federal property, and possessing a firearm while a felon. He was sentenced to a year in prison.
Folks, leave endangered species alone. And don’t trespass on or destroy federal property.
Space / History of Science
An oral history of the Keck Observatory
Since 1978, the esteemed scientific school has been collecting the stories of some of its most distinguished names, many of them Nobel Prize winners. Others, hardly known at all, have made huge contributions to human health and they deserve greater attention.
A recent oral history from the archive is actually an edited compendium of interviews that tells the story of the Keck Observatory. The Keck Observatory near the summit of Mauna Kea Hawaii consists of two telescopes peering into the heavens from 13,600 ft. above sea level. A major advance of the telescope (and some of the details of how are covered in the oral history) was the ability to operate using 36 hexagonal segments as a single, contiguous mirror. Each telescope weighs 300 tons and operates with nanometer precision. Scientists using the Keck have made major discoveries about exoplanets, star formation, and dark matter.
There’s a ton of great information about the telescope and the discoveries being made at the Keck site.
Keep Fluffy indoors! Growing urban coyote populations are feasting on pets, especially in LA County.
The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s bassist is a bee keeper. Go, Flea, go!
Sand artist makes amazing art. Then it washes away.
Beautiful posters of the Most Endangered Wildlife in Every US State. California? The Point Arena Mountain Beaver.
More on the Lassen County raptor poacher.