X

Japanese Knotweed – An Invasive Plant That Is Proving Impossible to Control

With weedkillers more advanced than we’ve ever had and significant technological progress, it seems unlikely that any plant could cause major socioeconomic problems, at least in developed countries. That’s what makes the Japanese Knotweed so fascinating. Despite humanity’s best efforts to eradicate or at least control this resilient invasive plant, it continues to spread across Europe and North America, causing some serious damage.

When renowned Bavarian plant importer Phillip von Siebold brought a Japanese knotweed plant to the Utrecht plant fair in the Netherlands in the 1840s, no one imagined it would end up becoming a global threat. It was prized for its beautiful flowers and advertised as an ornament, medicine, wind shelter, soil retainer, dune stabilizer, cattle feed, and insect pollinator. Despite records of gardeners expressing their concerns about the plant’s invasiveness, it was sold across Europe for almost a century, and by the time everyone realized the monster we had released, it was too late to do anything about it.

The manner in which Japanese knotweed virtually took over most of the United Kingdom is a testament to its invasive potential. Von Siebold sent a single plant to Kew Gardens in London in 1850, and it was the descendants of that one plant that managed to colonize most of the British Isles. In 2000, tho biologists analyzed 150 samples from across the U.K. and concluded that they were all clones of the same plant Von Siebold sent over a century ago. The DNA was identical, which technically meant that the UK had been conquered not by a species, but by a single plant.

Read More »

Giant Honeybees Use Shimmering “Mexican Waves” to Repel Invaders

The giant honeybees of East Asia can build impressive open nests measuring a few meters across. The fact that they are always exposed makes them vulnerable to predators, particularly large wasps and hornets that love nothing more than invading hives and stealing grubs. Luckily, the bees have a secret weapon that is as visually mesmerizing as it is effective.

Called shimmering, the unique defensive strategy of giant honeybees involves large numbers of workers raising their rear-ends by ninety degrees and shaking them in unison, creating an effect similar to the well-known Mexican waves seen at stadiums across the world. How hundreds of bees are capable of communicating and producing this highly coordinated response to threats remains unknown, but after 15 years of studying the behavior in the wild, scientists are now convinced that shimmering is a defense mechanism.

Read More »

The Brazilian Couple Who Brought a Dead Subtropical Rainforest Back to Life

Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado is a world renowned social documentary photographer and photojournalist from Brazil, but few people know that he is also the mastermind behind one of the most amazing environment restoration projects in history. Together with his wife, Salgado has nearly completed the recovery of a single uninterrupted section of the Atlantic Forest, planting millions of saplings over the last two decades.

The story of Instituto Terra, the non-profit organization founded by Sebastião Salgado and his wife, Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado, began in 1998. The celebrated photographer had recently returned from Rwanda, where he had documented the tragedies of war. The horrors he witnessed during those troubled wars haunted him long after he left Africa, and at one point he completely lost both his faith in humanity and the desire to shoot photos. It was around this time that Sebastião’s parents offered him and Lélia the old farm he had grown up in, and he took the opportunity to return home thinking that the idyllic paradise he remembered would help him heal. However, he found that his home was nothing like he remembered it.

Salgado grew up on a 1,750-acre farm in the state of Minas Gerais 70 miles inland from Brazil’s Atlantic coast. He recalls that, when he was only a boy, the Atlantic Forest covered half his family’s farm and half the Rio Doce Valley, and that the fauna that called it home created a cacophony of sounds every day. But that wasn’t the sight he came home to in the mid 90’s.

Read More »

The Skeleton Flower – The White Flower That Becomes Translucent When It Rains

Diphylleia grayi is not the most striking of flowers, in fact many people pass by it without even noticing its white, rounded petals. But that’s because they don’t know about its most impressive feature, turning translucent in contact with water.

Native to wooded mountainsides in the colder regions of Japan, “skeleton flowers” bloom from mid-spring to early-summer. Their white petals are completely opaque in dry conditions, but as rain begins to fall, they become almost crystal clear, giving the flower an almost ghostly look. When the rain stops and the petals dry, the skeleton flower goes back to its plain white self.

Read More »

Double Amputee Turns Barren Hills into Lush 17,000-Tree Forest

Ma Sanxiao, a 70-year-old double amputee and army veteran from Jingxing, North China’s Hebei province, has pent the last 19 years of his life planting thousands of trees and turning the once barren hills surrounding his village into a small forest.

Ma was diagnosed with blood poisoning in 1974, while serving in the Chinese Army. His condition got worse after he retired, and eventually had both legs amputated because of it – his right leg in 1985, and the left one in 2005. After seven major operations and constant medical treatments, he could barely afford to take care of his family, and ,because of his disability, finding a job proved very difficult. His veteran subsidy was enough to cover his medicine, but he couldn’t remain idle, so in 2000, after getting inspired by another tree-planting story on TV, the double-amputee started planting parasol trees in the barren hills around his remote village, with the intention of selling them for profit.

Read More »

The Elusive “Scorpion Beetle” – The Only Known Insect Capable of Inoculating Toxins Through Its Antennae

Beetles are generally regarded as harmless to humans. Out of the over 350,000 documented species of beetle, only three are actually known to bite people, and only if they feel threatened. However, there is another species that few sources mention. Onychocerus albitarsis, aka Scorpion Beetle, is the only known insect capable of stinging humans with its antennae and delivering a painful toxin.

First described in 1859 by famous English entomologist Francis Polkinghorne Pascoe, the scorpion beetle is considered by many experts a fascinating case of convergent evolution. While all other known insects deliver venom or toxins by biting with fangs or stinging with a structure used exclusively for this purpose, e.g. a bee’s stinger, the scorpion beetle does it through its two long antennae, which research has shown have evolved to closely resemble a scorpion’s segmented tail.

Read More »

Scientists Discover Frightening Species of Wasp That Turns Spiders into Zombies

The Amazon rainforest is home to many frightening creatures, like giant Anacondas, flesh-eating piranhas, just to name a couple, and now you can add a new one to the list, a species of wasp that lays its eggs on the abdomen of spiders and then hijacks their brain, essentially turning them into zombies.

The previously unknown wasp of the Zatypota genus was discovered by researchers with the University of British Columbia (UBC) working in the Ecuadorian Amazon basin. They documented its symbiotic relationship with a species of so called “social spiders” and recently published some truly terrifying findings in the Ecological Entomology scientific journal. This newly discovered wasp is apparently able to hijack the nervous system of its host, forcing it to leave its colony, which it otherwise rarely does, protect the wasps larva and ultimately get eaten alive. It essentially turns the social spider into a zombie-like drone that then does the wasp’s bidding.

Read More »

The Parasitic Fly That Eats Bumble Bees from the Inside and Forces Them to Dig Their Own Graves

As if habitat loss and pesticide exposure weren’t enough to deal with for bumble bees, they also face increasing pressure from a parasitic fly that attacks them midair, injects them with eggs with hatch larvae which proceed to eat the pollinators from the inside before finally forcing them to dig their own graves.

It sounds like something out of a body snatchers horror movie, but the conopid fly is very much a real-life threat for bumble bee colonies already under a lot of pressure from human activities. The conopid fly is classified as a parasitoid, a parasite that not only feeds on its host, but ends up killing it in a gruesome, terrifying way. We’ve featured creepy body snatchers in the past, some that turn their host into zombies, others that simply take control of their bodies but leave their brains intact, but the conopid fly is even worse. It literally eats bumble bees from the inside, before somehow forcing them to land on the ground and dig a whole to die in. The injected parasite grows inside the host and ultimately bursts out of it as a mature conopid fly that attacks other bumble bees and continues this nightmarish cycle.

Read More »

The Mysterious Bent Trees of North America

To the casual observer, the thousands of bent trees scattered throughout the North American continent look like mere freaks of nature, deformed by the elements of disease, but a more careful analysis reveals that these trees bend sharply into right angles, parallel the earth, which suggests that they were intentionally shaped long ago, for an unknown purpose.

Bent, splintered or otherwise deformed trees are not exactly uncommon, but the so called “trail trees” still growing in many US states have a very specific shape. At about four or five feet above the ground, their trunks bend sharply forming right angles, parallel the earth, and then sharply bend upwards once again. Various accidents can cause this shape to occur naturally, but another distinctive trait of these mysterious trees is that they feature no scars in their bent areas. While scientists have yet to agree that this is proof that the trees were purposely bent by humans centuries ago, there are many who believe that the bent trees were once used as markers by hunters and gatherers to help them find their way around the vast wilderness.

Read More »

Europe’s Oldest Tree Is At Least 1,230 Years Old And Still Growing

A team of researchers studying a national park in southern Italy recently discovered the oldest tree in Europe ever to be scientifically dated – a Heldreich’s pine that is at least 1,230 years old and still growing.

Nicknamed “Italus”, the ancient tree was discovered on a steep mountain slope in Italy’s Pollino National Park by a team of researchers from the University of Tuscia, led by Gianluca Povesan. As soon as they saw Italus, researchers knew that they had stumbled upon an ancient specimen, but they didn’t expect it to be the oldest tree ever discovered on the European continent. Even more surprising was the fact that despite its age – a whopping 1,230 years, at least – and an almost non-existent canopy, the tree seemed to be thriving, with heavy ring growth added to its trunk over the last several decades.

Read More »

Video Shows Herds of Arctic Reindeer Walking in Mesmerizing Circular Patterns

A video of several reindeer herds on Russia’s Kola Peninsula, in the Arctic Circle, walking in circular patterns for no apparent reason has been getting a lot of attention on social media lately.

The video was originally posted on the Facebook page of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography Peter the Great, aka Kunstkámera, located in Saint Petersburg, Russia. It was apparently captured during a recent expedition to the Kola Peninsula, in Russia’s Murmansk region. The 30-second clip shows large herds of arctic reindeer walking in circular patterns, both in the wild and in pens, and while several theories have been formulated to explain the animals’ behavior, so far no one has been to confirm if any of them actually make sense.

Read More »

Caterpillars Don’t Have Lungs, But Somehow This One Can Scream to Keep Predators Away

Apart from the sound they make while chewing on leaves, the vast majority of caterpillars are silent creatures. However, the Nessus sphinx hawkmoth caterpillar is able to produce clicking noises that sounds a lot like static, as a self-defense mechanism, and scientists believe they discovered how.

Insects have no lungs, but some of them can be really noisy. While humans and most other vertebrates make noise by forcing air out of their bodies, insects and larvae don’t have that luxury. Some of them have adapted, rubbing, knocking or vibrating parts of their bodies to produce distinctive sounds, the kind you hear when you open a window on a quiet summer night, but the Nessus sphinx hawkmoth caterpillar doesn’t fall into that category. When threatened, it produces a strange sound that resembles a combination of cracking and spitting, by pushing air through a constriction between its two foregut chambers, even though it has no lungs.

Read More »

The Loneliest Tree on Earth – A Fascinating Tale of Survival

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, a Sitka Spruce growing on New Zealand’s southernmost subarctic island, is the loneliest and most remote tree on Earth. Not only is it the only tree on Campbell Island, but the nearest other tree can be found over 200 kilometers away, on the Auckland Islands.

Located about 700 km south of Bluff, Campbell Island is one of the harshest places in the world. With strong winds blowing almost all year round, less than 600 hours of sunshine and only 40 days per year without rain, it’s not exactly an ideal place to live, which is probably why, except for occasional visits by research scientists, it has remained deserted for over half a century. Trees aren’t supposed to be growing here either, a fact made evident by the wind-tolerant shrubs and grasses covering the island, which only makes the thriving “loneliest tree on Earth” so much more impressive.

Read More »

Tiny Birds Build Communal Nests So Large They Can Pull Down Trees

While most songbirds build small, discreet nests designed to shelter one clutch of eggs, the Social Weavers (Philetairus socius) of southern Africa build communal nests so large that they can pull down mature trees. Each structure can weigh over a ton, and range upwards of 20 feet wide and 10 feet tall, with over a hundred separate nesting chambers. Successive generations refurbish and reuse these compartments, often for more than a century.

Social Weavers utilize several different building materials, starting with a basic structure of woven twigs. They then line the interior with grasses and feathers and construct a 10-inch long, one-inch wide private entrance with downward pointing spiky straws to deter snakes. While a breeding pair will have a private apartment, most chambers house three or four of the birds at a time. The benefits of this lifestyle become clear in the context of the desert where temperatures vary dramatically.

Read More »

Giant Fungus Covering Over 2,200 Acres Is the Largest Living Organism Ever Discovered

In the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon lurks one of the strangest and oldest known organisms on planet Earth- a giant fungus that has been around for over 2,400 years. Armillaria ostoyae, also known as the “shoestring fungus” or “honey mushrooms”, covers an area of 2200 acres, or 3 square miles, making it the largest organism ever discovered. It began its life cycle as a single spore, too small to be seen by the naked eye, and is estimated to have been slowly spreading for at least the past two and a half millennia, although some experts estimate that it is around 8000-years-old.

The giant fungus spreads through the root system of the forest under which it resides and slowly kills whatever is in its path, making it not only the largest organism on the planet but also one of the most deadly. For a few weeks each autumn, the honey mushroom erupts in yellowish clusters with caps, gills and spores, but the rest of the year it takes the shape of a thin white layer, similar to latex paint. It is in this less conspicuous form, however, that the fungus is most lethal, as it can spread more easily through the trees.

Read More »