Perrin's Awesome Science Week

When cow pee particles take to the wind, lakes turn green

A weekly roundup of the best in science journalism, doodled.

Big bad wolf? Nah, don’t mind him.

Photo: Laika ac/Flickr

A wolf walks among them, but that doesn’t faze gelada baboons. Scientists from Dartmouth College have found that when a solitary Ethiopian wolf, the planet’s most endangered canid, strolls real slow and cool through a troop of grazing geladas, not only do the baboons barely bat an eye, but the wolf catches more mole rats.

You wouldn’t expect geladas to be OK with wolves lurking around—especially since cute little baby geladas are potential prey. But the researchers think the wolves might pass on the occasional baby gelada snack in favor of more consistent success catching rodents, which make up 80 percent of their meals. The noisy, stinky geladas could give wolves cover while they hunt, or perhaps the grazing primates flush rodents out of their hiding places. 

Scientists aren’t sure what the geladas get out of this peace accord, but bravery doesn’t explain it. When other potential threats like humans or domestic dogs approached them, the baboons fled to nearby cliffs. The wolves, however, appear to make themselves as nonthreatening as possible around geladas to put the troop at ease.

One factor working for the relationship, the scientists think, is similar body size between adult male geladas and the wolves. This may make the predators blend in better—and perhaps even give the baboon troop a fighting chance if things go awry. In the one instance where scientists saw a wolf grab a baby gelada, dozens of mostly male gelada adults attacked. The wolf dropped the baby and bounced. 

However one-sided (and temptation-filled) this relationship may be, the authors point out that it might not be around much longer. The Ethiopian highlands is a threatened landscape. Shedding light on these amazing interactions will hopefully give a boost to conservation efforts in the area—and that could be good for the baboons, wolves, rats, and humans alike.

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What’s smaller than a bumblebee and lives among the clouds? Frogs!

Ribeiro et al/PeerJ 3:e1011Photo: Ribeiro et al/PeerJ 3:e1011

Researchers have discovered seven new species of frogs less than a centimeter long in Brazil. These frogs are so tiny, they don’t go through a tadpole stage but, instead, emerge from their mother’s eggs as fully formed, miniature adults. They hang out on isolated mountaintops in Brazil’s cloud forest—so isolated, in fact, that scientists found it exhausting just getting to the field sites.

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The climb to the top was worth it, though, because these small-fries are special. They’re among the smallest vertebrates on land and have fewer fingers and toes than your average frog, an adaptation to their tiny stature. Some are brightly colored, which warns predators that they contain potent neurotoxins. Their skin also absorbs moisture so darn well that the frogs don’t even need to mess with being near water. These animals are almost too special: Some of the species have evolved to exist only on their one lone mountaintop.

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But wait, you ask yourself, if they’re so perfectly adapted to this one ecological niche, doesn’t that make them super duper vulnerable to logging, cattle farming, human development, and climate change?

Yes, concerned friend, it does. And their discovery comes amid mass amphibian die offs—around 200 species have gone extinct recently because of the deadly chytrid fungus that is wreaking havoc on amphibians all over the world. 

The silver lining in this froggy cloud forest is that the researchers who found them think these frogs might be dodging chytrid because that particular fungus loves water, and these frogs don’t. 

Photo: Ribeiro et al/PeerJ 3:e1011

Even so, none of the frogs live on protected land, and warming temperatures threaten their lofty habitats. So, let’s deal with climate change real quick—we don’t want to lose these little cuties so soon after finding them.

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Researchers tap into “Beach Bum” science to get to the bottom of the superbug problem.

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Surfers have really been having their day in the sun as citizen scientists lately, from water-quality sensors on their boards to cotton swabs up their bums. You read that right—in a new project that pairs scientists at the University of Exeter with the water-pollution activist group Surfers Against Sewage, surfers will get their rectums swabbed to help evaluate the health risks of a new form of marine pollution: antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 

Drug-resistant bacteria, a.k.a. superbugs, are on the rise due to the overuse of antibiotics in human medicine and agriculture.  

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Tests indicate that superbugs are present in coastal waters. Enter surfers, who swallow a lot more water than your average swimmer—almost six ounces a session. This study aims to find out whether any nasty little critters are colonizing their guts, and, um, butts. The findings will give scientists a better understanding of how superbugs in the environment might impact human health.

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Cow pee and toxic algal blooms—yes, they are connected.

Biologists at Rocky Mountain National Park are connecting the dots between nitrogen pollution and unprecedented algal blooms in the park’s lakes. Here’s how it works. 

1. Cows eat greens in pastures, which are grown using LOTS of fertilizer.

2. They pee and poop, as animals are inclined to do. The nitrogen-containing ammonia in their urine, however, can transform into an airborne particulate, ammonium nitrate. 

3. This little particle floats along in the air, and under certain wind conditions gets carried north, over the park. When it rains or snows, the ammonium nitrate falls back to earth.

4. This has led to excess nitrogen in the park’s ecosystem, which can harm native trees, cause invasive plants to thrive, and acidify rivers and lakes. 

Photo: Jim Liestman/Flickr

The wind systems that bring the cow-pee particulates into the park only happen a dozen or so times a year. So some farmers in the region have signed up for a program that warns them when such winds are blowing in. This gives them a chance to temporarily change up some of their farming practices that contribute to nitrogen pollution, such as waiting to turn their compost, or doing it a day early. According to park scientists, there hasn’t been a decrease in nitrogen levels in the park since the program started—but there hasn’t been an increase either, and that’s progress.  

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 Forrest Samuels/USFWS