Thirty years ago Japanese trains had a problem. They could travel fast but they caused sonic booms.
The answer was the bullet train. How did Japanese engineers develop it? They learned from birds.
Watch this 6+ minute video from Vox + 99% Invisible to learn how birds showed the way and follow one woman's quest to teach engineers that Nature has the answers. Our world can benefit from biomimicry.
For best results, copy birds.
Thank you to Holly Hickling for sharing this. For more cool videos, follow Vox (news site) or 99% Invisible (city design updates) on Facebook.
Masked ducks (Nomonyx dominicus) are found at ponds and small lakes from Mexico to South America and in the Caribbean. These elusive birds are sometimes in south Texas where I missed my chance to see one.
Male common yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas) are easy to identify by their masks but the females and juveniles don't wear one. The unmasked birds are so confusing.
In late October cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are still here in Pittsburgh though in smaller numbers. Their faces are ready for the masquerade ball.
Can you think of other masked birds?
(photo credits: Masked boobies and masked duck from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals. Laughing falcon by Bert Dudley. Common yellowthroat by Steve Gosser. Cedar waxwing by Cris Hamilton.)
Here's a surprising thing: The ancestors of whales were land-based walking animals that fell in love with water. In the ensuing 50 million years successive species spent more and more time at sea, eventually lost their legs, and now resemble fish. (No, they aren't fish. They just resemble them.)
How did they change from land to sea? To solve the mystery, paleontologists closely examined the fossil record looking for the one trait that only whales have: the unique bony structure of the whale's inner ear. A fossil found in 1981 provided the missing link.
Shown below are two of the whale's ancestral relatives. Not direct ancestors, the diagram shows where those two fit on the family tree. Whales are labelled #1. Animal #2 looks like a dog. #3 looks like a whale.
The change from species to species was incredibly slow.
If we could go back in time 50 million years to the Early Eocene we'd meet Pakicetus inachus (#2), below. First discovered in Pakistan in 1981, he looks like a long-headed dog but he has the whale's special inner ear. Scientists hypothesize that he lived on land but spent time up to his eyes in water hiding from predators.
Fast forward 10 million years to the Late Eocene to see Dorudon atrax (#3), an ancestral whale that spent his entire life in water. His body was fish-shaped, his tail had flukes, and since he never walked his hind legs were small, almost an afterthought.
From "the fish walked" to the walker that became fish-like, whales turn our misconceptions about evolution on their head. Evolution doesn't "make progress" from simple water-based organisms to us land-based humans at the pinnacle of development. It's just any change over time.
At low tide we visited the salt marsh and bay shore to look for shorebirds. On our way there, Joel pointed out the Average High Tide markers with dates of future tides. I was astonished to see that in only eight years the average high tide will move up from that distant 2017 marker to this one.
It's even worse in the decades ahead. This photo shows the 2075 marker with the earlier years in the distance. The 2025 marker is so far away that it's out of sight. The trees in this photo will die when salt water reaches them.
Since I bird watch every day people sometimes ask me, "Which binoculars should I buy?"
Buying binoculars is a very individual decision. Everyone's needs and eyes are different so I can't answer the question for you but here are some decisions to make and links to resources that will help you answer the question for yourself.
Decisions to make before you buy binoculars:
How much money do you want to spend?
What viewing quality and size/weight do you have in mind?
Find out which binoculars work for you by looking through as many models as you can, ideally outdoors. This step is really important!
Why? Here's an example: I love the binoculars you see me using above, but many people can't see through them because of the long eye relief.
Where? You can look through many models at the optics vendors at a birding conference or on outings with friends (hawk watches or other bird walks), just ask.
Repeat the steps above if Step #3 stretched your budget or changed your quality/size expectations.
Tips: "You Get What You Pay For" is especially true of binoculars. Better quality means better optics (clearer view), truly waterproof (they don't fog inside), lighter weight, better balance. Quality costs money.
You will want better binoculars as your eyes get older (i.e. worse).
Links to Binocular Resources: These websites will get you started. Follow the links they recommend to find out more. Once you know what you want you can buy in person or online.
In the five decades I've been birding I've owned at least a dozen binoculars. Every time I buy new ones I buy better quality.
I had a cheap set of binoculars in the early 1990's which were fine until I looked through someone's better binoculars. My next set cost twice as much but was still inexpensive. I dropped them on a rock and they went hopelessly out of alignment. The fix was more expensive than new binoculars. Tip: Wear binoculars on a comfortable strap.
Birding where it's damp? I had a nice mid-range "water resistant" set but they fogged up internally in humid weather in Maine. Internal fog cannot be removed. I just had to wait until they cleared on their own, leaving dust-drops inside. It was time for truly waterproof binoculars.
A decade ago I admitted my passion for birds and made the investment in really good binoculars: first buying Leica 8-power, then Swarovski 10-power. I use them both. Yes they're expensive, but I haven't needed new binoculars since then.
p.s. Eagle Optics, an online retailer where I bought most of my gear, is going out of business on Dec 31, 2017. They are offering discounts. All sales are final.
You may not have noticed but the blog underwent a subtle change yesterday. My address now uses https instead of plain http.
The S means that browsers now show my website with a green lock icon and the word "Secure." What does this mean?
https uses SSL security to encrypt data transmission so the Internet can't intercept site logins and passwords. SSL doesn't mean the website can't be hacked. It just means that hackers can't read logins and passwords as they pass through the wires. Your email, Facebook, Twitter, and bank accounts all use SSL because people login there.
This change doesn't make your access to my blog more secure because you never login to see it. I'm the only person who logs in so I'm the only one who has gained more security out of this. Unfortunately you may notice that SSL is slower so my blog may pause longer before you see it in your browser.
Today's important message is late for this year's growing season but we can always take action right now.
I'm sure you've heard about the dangers to honeybees from neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides used heavily in agriculture since 2008. What you might not realize is that this pesticide may be in your garden whether you put it there or not. Here's why.
What are neonicotinoids?
Nicotine kills insects but it breaks down too quickly for modern agricultural use. Neonicotinoids ("neonics") are chemicals similar to nicotine specially formulated to last a long time.
Neonics are nervous system disrupters that, depending on dose and exposure, cause confusion, hyperactive behavior, severe tremors or death in insects. Low doses kill slowly through chronic exposure because the chemical lasts so long (5 months to years).
Neonics are "systemic" poisons because they are water soluble. Plants suck up neonic-laden water and distribute it into roots, leaves, pollen, nectar, everywhere. The entire plant is poisonous to a wide range of insects including "bad" insects that suck juices and eat leaves (aphids, stinkbugs and Japanese beetles) and "good" insects that collect pollen and nectar (bees and butterflies). Bees and butterflies visit poisoned flowers and die elsewhere.
How do neonicotinoids get into your garden?
Neonicotinoids are primarily delivered via soil treatments and seed coatings. Garden treatments contain doses 40 times higher than agricultural products. These pathways may surprise you.
Pesticides you bought to kill bad insects, especially soil treatments. Check the label!
Potting soil: If treated with neonics, the plants grown in the soil are poisonous. Check the label!
Plants or seedlings you bought at the store: They're already grown, but how? If their seeds were coated with neonics or the soil was treated, the plants you bought are poisonous.
We've all seen fish jump to catch flying insects above the water but African tigerfish do much more than that.
Back in 2011, scientists conducting a telemetry study of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) in South Africa were surprised to find that their subjects were being eaten by fish!
African tigerfish (Hydrocynus vittatus) are aggressive animals up to 3.5 feet long with very sharp teeth. During the study at Schroda Dam, the fish jumped out of the water and ate low-flying birds. In 15 days they ate 300 barn swallows!
In 2014 scientists used high definition video to record the fish in action. Click here to see.
Fortunately, there's someone on hand to eat the tigerfish.
Watch out, barn swallows! Don't fly too low!
(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)