Category Archives: STUDIES REPORTS PAPERS

The Pisonia Tree Lures and Murders Birds for No Apparent Good Reason

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Someone should tell that to the Pisonia tree, a ruthless plant that kills birds just for the heck of it. You may be asking, “Why?” Well, the tree should respond, “Why not?”

Oh Murder Tree, Oh Murder Tree!

If you didn’t think a plant — a tree, no less — could be a jerk, think again. Found in the tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans, the Pisonia tree fits the bill as one of the most unnecessarily cruel plants in the planet. While it’s not uncommon for plants to have built-in defense mechanisms, those things are usually there to keep the plant safe from preditors. But scientists have yet to uncover any benefit the Pisonia tree could possibly receive for luring birds in only just to murder them.

Here’s what happens at the crime scene: the Pisonia tree produces sticky seedpods that trap insects, luring in hungry birds with the promise of an easy lunch. These seedpods are so sticky that they’ll latch onto any bird that flies into them, either trapping it in the tree’s branches or weighing the bird down stosuch a extent that it’s completely unable to fly. As a result, you’ll see a blanket of bird carcasses littering the roots of the Pisonia tree. There are sometimes even mummified bird corpses up in the branches that look like, as Washington Post describes them, “macabre Christmas tree ornaments.”

Ecologist Alan Burger at the University of Victoria first heard of the Pisonia in the 1990s and went to the archipelago of Seychelles in the Indian Ocean to work out why these slaughterous trees seemed to kill just for the hell of it. Until then, no one had looked too hard into the Pisonia tree, but there were two main theories as to why they were bird-tormentors: either the tree’s roots got a nutrient bump from the dead birds, or the seeds attached to the dead birds because they required the corpse as fertilizer in order to grow. After 10 months of research with the Pisonia seeds, Burger published his findings in 2005.

The conclusion? Pisonia trees are just out & out ruthless. “The results from my experiments showed quite convincingly that the Pisonia derived no obvious benefit from fatally entangling birds,” writes Burger. But not only did dead birds not benefit the tree in any way, but the droppings of living birds would also help the trees survive by enriching the soil. It turns out, then, that killing birds isn’t necessarily the goal. Birds flying away from the tree with sticky seeds attached helps keep the tree species alive by spreading the seeds far and wide. It’s just one of those evolutionary whoopsies that the seeds sprout in clusters — heavy, self-sabotaging, bird-murdering clusters.

Curious for more of nature’s killers? Check out “Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities.” The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible.

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Henry Sapiecha

 

How Titanoboa, the 40-Foot-Long Prehistoric Snake, Was Found

Titanoboa-Monster-snake dinosaurs-image www.pythonjungle.com

In the lowland tropics of northern Colombia, 60 miles from the Caribbean coast, Cerrejón is an empty, forbidding, seemingly endless horizon of dusty outback, stripped of vegetation and crisscrossed with dirt roads that lead to enormous pits 15 miles in circumference. It is one of the world’s largest coal operations, covering an area larger than Washington, D.C. and employing some 10,000 workers. The multinational corporation that runs the mine, Carbones del Cerrejón Limited, extracted 31.5 million tons of coal last year alone.

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Cerrejón also happens to be one of the world’s richest, most important fossil deposits, providing scientists with a unique snapshot of the geological moment when the dinosaurs had just disappeared and a new environment was emerging. “Cerrejón is the best, and probably the only, window on a complete ancient tropical ecosystem anywhere in the world,” said Carlos Jaramillo, a paleontologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “The plants, the animals, everything. We have it all, and you can’t find it anywhere else in the tropics.”

Fifty-eight million years ago, a few million years after the fall of the dinosaurs, Cerrejón was an immense, swampy jungle where everything was hotter, wetter and bigger than it is today. The trees had wider leaves, indicating greater precipitation—more than 150 inches of rain per year, compared with 80 inches for the Amazon now. Mean temperatures may have hovered in the mid- to high-80s Fahrenheit or higher. Deep water from north-flowing rivers swirled around stands of palm trees, hardwoods, occasional hummocks of earth and decaying vegetation. Mud from the flood plain periodically coated, covered and compressed the dead leaves, branches and animal carcasses in steaming layers of decomposing muck dozens of feet thick.

The river basin held turtles with shells twice the size of manhole covers and crocodile kin—at least three different species—more than a dozen feet long. And there were seven-foot-long lungfish, two to three times the size of their modern Amazon cousins.

The lord of this jungle was a truly spectacular creature—a snake more than 40 feet long and weighing more than a ton. This giant serpent looked something like a modern-day boa constrictor, but behaved more like today’s water-dwelling anaconda. It was a swamp denizen and a fearsome predator, able to eat any animal that caught its eye. The thickest part of its body would be nearly as high as a man’s waist. Scientists call it Titanoboa cerrejonensis.

It was the largest snake ever, and if its astounding size alone wasn’t enough to dazzle the most sunburned fossil hunter, the fact of its existence may have implications for understanding the history of life on earth and possibly even for anticipating the future.

Titanoboa is now the star of “Titanoboa: Monster Snake,” premiering April 1 on the Smithsonian Channel. Research on the snake and its environment continues, and I caught up with the Titanoboa team during the 2011 field season.

Jonathan Bloch, a University of Florida paleontologist, and Jason Head, a paleontologist at the University of Nebraska, were crouched beneath a relentless tropical sun examining a set of Titanoboa remains with a Smithsonian Institution intern named Jorge Moreno-Bernal, who had discovered the fossil a few weeks earlier. All three were slathered with sunblock and carried heavy water bottles. They wore long-sleeved shirts and tramped around in heavy hiking boots on the shadeless moonscape whose ground cover was shaved away years ago by machinery.

“It’s probably an animal in the 30- to 35-foot range,” Bloch said of the new find, but size was not what he was thinking about. What had Bloch’s stomach aflutter on this brilliant Caribbean forenoon was lying in the shale five feet away.

“You just never find a snake skull, and we have one,” Bloch said. Snake skulls are made of several delicate bones that are not very well fused together. “When the animal dies, the skull falls apart,” Bloch explained. “The bones get lost.”

The snake skull embraced by the Cerrejón shale mudstone was a piece of Titanoboa that Bloch, Head and their colleagues had been hoping to find for years. “It offers a whole new set of characteristics,” Bloch said. The skull will enhance researchers’ ability to compare Titanoboa to other snakes and figure out where it sits on the evolutionary tree. It will provide further information about its size and what it ate.

Even better, added Head, gesturing at the skeleton lying at his feet, “our hypothesis is that the skull matches the skeleton. We think it’s one animal.”

Looking around the colossal mine, evidence of an ancient wilderness can be seen everywhere. Every time another feet-thick vein of coal is trucked away, an underlayer of mudstone is left behind, rich in the fossils of exotic leaves and plants and in the bones of fabulous creatures.

“When I find something good, it’s a biological reaction,” said Bloch. “It starts in my stomach.”

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Henry Sapiecha

The Evolution of Venom – Which is The Most Poisonous? [Full Video Documentary]

Henry Sapiecha