Tag Archives: ecology

Maize that fixes it’s own Nitrogen

For thousands of years, people from Sierra Mixe, a mountainous region in southern Mexico, have been cultivating an unusual variety of giant corn. They grow the crop on soils that are poor in nitrogen—an essential nutrient—and they barely use any additional fertilizer. And yet, their corn towers over conventional varieties, reaching heights of more than 16 feet.

A team of researchers led by Alan Bennett from UC Davis has shown that the secret of the corn’s success lies in its aerial roots—necklaces of finger-sized, rhubarb-red tubes that encircle the stem. These roots drip with a thick, clear, glistening mucus that’s loaded with bacteria. Thanks to these microbes, the corn can fertilize itself by pulling nitrogen directly from the surrounding air.

Source: The Indigenous Mexican Corn That Uses Air as Fertilizer – The Atlantic

Take 1: Holy crap this is cool. Corn is a huge staple grain, and requires a lot of off farm inputs to grow because it takes a lot of nutrients out of the ground.

Take 2: This maize matures in 8 months instead of 3 months for commercial corn. Interesting. Dr Sarah Taber pointed out on twitter that this is a really critical point. Nitrogen fixation takes a lot of energy, that has to come from somewhere. Modern varieties of maize might have had this bred out of them for a reason, so they put their energy into sugar and maturation instead of the ground. It may not be possible to keep this trait, and have the maize mature any faster.

This is important. Because the headlines for most articles on this make it sound like we’ve solved a hard problem in farm science and corn won’t need fertilizer in the future. That’s definitely not what the science says.

Take 3: The science behind verifying this is kind of amazing. You can’t tag nitrogen atoms to prove where they are coming from. So they did 5 different independent ways that each provide circumstantial evidence that the maize is actually doing this.

Take 4: The IP generated by this goes into the public trust. This is done under the Nagoya Protocol to address the very real concerns of bio-piracy by indigenous peoples. Good on them!

Take 5: The url of the Altantic piece is https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/08/amaizeballs/567140/. Yes, they really did go there.

Open Source Tractor

NPR did a piece this morning on the Open Source Ecology project:

Jakubowski moved to Missouri, where he eventually bought 30 acres in the town of Maysville. He grew wheat, raised goats and tended a fruit orchard. But then one day, his tractor broke.

“I came from an institution of higher learning, so I had no practical skills,” he says. “I picked up a welder and a torch and started using it.”

Jakubowski actually made a tractor from scratch, using square steel tubing that he bolted together.

“A tractor is basically a solid box with wheels, each with a hydraulic motor,” he says. “So, conceptually, it’s actually very simple. And when I first did it, it was like, ‘Wow, a tractor’ … I was amazed to find this actually works.”

It’s a pretty amazing effort to identify the 50 most critical machines to modern existence, and create open source versions of them that can be built from raw materials.

Observe the Moon at Vassar Farm

It turns out that while I was coming up with the idea of figuring out if we could do an astronomy outreach event at the Vassar Farm, Keri VanCamp (the Vassar Farm & Ecological Preserve manager) was developing a program of outings at the preserve to get more people out experiencing it.  It worked out perfectly, so now we’ll be celebrating International Observe the Moon Night as an event on Vassar’s “Exploring a Sense of Space” at the farm.

Our event will take place on Saturday, September 18th at 7:30pm.  I’m hoping for a clear night, because if it’s fully cloudy there won’t be much to see, so we’ll have to cancel.  Here is the flyer I managed to come up with (based on the template from the observe the moon team):

It’s also available as a PDF for printing.

The overall list of topics going on at the Farm in their series is pretty interesting stuff.  As I’ve not seen it online yet, I’ll duplicate it here for anyone interested:

Exploring a Sense of Place

A series of guided walks and events on the Vassar Farm & Ecological Preserve

Wednesday September 8th at 3:30 PM: Walk led by Dr. Mark Schlessman and Keri VanCamp

Topic: Wildflower Walk *

Saturday September 18th at 7:30 PM: Program led by Mid-Hudson Astronomy Club

Topic: Astronomy:  International Observe the Moon Night

Wednesday September 22nd at 3:30 PM
: Walk led by Dr. Lucy Johnson

Topic: Native American Usage of the Preserve and Valley*

Saturday September 25th at 9 AM
:  Walk led by the RT Waterman Bird Club

Topic:  Bird Watching

Wednesday September 29th at 3:30 PM:  Walk led by Dr. Kirsten Menking

Topic: Glacial History of the Preserve*

Wednesday October 6th at 3:30 PM
: Walk led by Hannah Clark and Jason Carter

Topic:  Forest Ecology and Invasive Insects*

Wednesday October 13th at 3:30 PM: Walk led by Dr. Meg Ronsheim, Abby Falk-Rood, & Keri VanCamp

Event:  Mushroom Foray and Basic ID*

Wednesday October 20th at 1:30 PM: Program led by Keri VanCamp & Emily Vail

Event:  Wetland Buffer Planting*

Wednesday October 27th at 6:30 and 8 PM (Rain date October 29th):  Program led by Hannah Clark, Jason Carter, & Dr. Glenn Proudfoot

Topic:  Northern Saw Whet Owl**

All events could be canceled due to adverse weather.  Please contact us if the weather forecast is questionable.  Participants should meet in the parking area near the large red barn across from the community gardens at the Vassar Farm.

*A van will also bring people from campus to the farm.  It will depart from the main circle 15 minutes before the program begins.

** Space for this event is limited. People must RSVP to Hannah or Keri. This event will be held at the Collin’s Field Station.

To RSVP or for additional information contact:  Hannah Clark at hannah3890@yahoo.com or Keri VanCamp at (845) 437-7414.

The probable regional extinction of the little brown bat

From Ars Technica:

White Nose Syndrome, a fungal infection that kills bats by interfering with their hibernation cycle, was first spotted in a cave in New York in 2006. In just four years, it has spread over 1,200 km through the US and Canada, reaching from Quebec to Missouri, and killing off as many as 90 percent of the bats in infected areas. Those precipitous declines would seem to be unsustainable, and a new study in Science indicates that they are indeed: even in many scenarios where the virulence of the disease tails off, a common species of bat appears headed for regional extinction, perhaps in as little as 15 years.

This has even managed to get a decent amount of mainstream reporting over the last 2 years.  The focus has been on the little brown bat, because we’ve got population numbers going back 30 years, so you can chart trends.  Other species of bat also appear to be affected, though there isn’t enough historical data to show exactly what’s happening there.

White Nose Syndrome is not really understood, so it’s still not clear what is actually killing off the bats.