Harnessing Earth’s Energy in Iceland

Iceland geothermal plant

Geothermal energy is a significant part of Iceland’s renewable energy program. (Photo credit: naten/Shutterstock)

Iceland is known for its dramatic fire and ice landscape. Visitors come from all over the world to soak in the island nation’s thermal pools, which are heated naturally by underground plumes of magma. However, this geothermal energy is harnessed for more than just recreational purposes – it is also used as an important source of renewable energy in the country and even beyond its borders.   [Read more…]

The Rise of the Local Food Movement

farmer

Small-scale farmers are the backbone of the local food movement. (Photo credit: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

Eating locally is growing in popularity across the United States. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the growth in popularity resulted in profits of $4.8 billion for the local food industry in 2008. These profits include both direct-to-consumer and intermediated sales, such as through a restaurant or grocery store. Small farms accounted for 81 percent of these sales. A farm is considered “small” if it grosses less than $50,000 annually in sales. [Read more…]

Gwynt y Môr Wind Farm

wind turbines

Gwynt y Môr is the second largest offshore windfarm in the world. (Photo credit: philipbird123/Fotolia)

Gwynt y Môr (which translates to “wind of the sea” in English) is the second largest offshore wind farm in the world. It is located about 13 kilometers (8 miles) off the coast of north Wales near Colwyn Bay and covers an area of 80 square kilometers (about 30 square miles). [Read more…]

Wax Worm Caterpillars Have a Taste for Plastic

wax worm

Scientists have discovered that wax worms (Galleria mellonella) can digest plastic. (Photo credit: Kuttelvaserova Stuchelova/Shutterstock)

Federica Bertocchini’s discovery that wax worms can eat through plastic happened completely by accident. Bertocchini, an amateur beekeeper, was dismayed to find that her beehives were infested by wax worm caterpillars. After cleaning out the hive, she went to pick up the plastic bags she had placed the pests in, only to find the bags riddled with holes.   [Read more…]

The Sloths of Costa Rica

Costa Rica sloth

Sloths are found throughout Costa Rica’s tropical forests. (Photo credit: Kjersti Joergensen/Shutterstock)

With their shy, seemingly secret-hiding smiles, languid movements, and unique habits, the sloth fits the basic description of a charismatic animal to a T.

These unusual animals can be found in the tropical forests of Central and South America. Their populations are flourishing in their Costa Rican habitat. Sloths can be found in ecosystems throughout this Central American country, except at the highest elevations.

There are two species of sloth found in Costa Rica: Bradypus variegatus, commonly known as the three-toed sloth, and Choleopus hoffmanni, commonly known as the two-toed sloth. Both of their scientific names reflect their slow movement, as Bradypus means “slowness of foot,” and Choleopus means “lameness of foot.” Though they look similar to primates, sloths are actually more closely related to anteaters and armadillos.

Though it was commonly thought that sloths spent most of their time sleeping–previous estimates had sloths spending upwards of 14 hours asleep per day–research from 2008 indicates that these animals actually only sleep 9 to 10 years a day. Scientists think the previous estimates, based on captive populations, overestimated the sloths’ sleep patterns as those sloths lacked the need to be vigilant against predators. In the wild, three-toed sloths are active both day and night, while two-toed sloths are nocturnal.

These animals spend the majority of their lifetimes in the tops of trees. Their slow movement is likely a result of their need to conserve energy due to their extremely slow metabolism. It takes a sloth up to four weeks just to digest a single leaf. Contrast that with humans, who completely digest a meal within a period of 24-44 hours. One of a sloth’s more unique habits is a result of its slow digestion–sloths only relieve themselves once a week. To do so, they climb down to the bottom of the tree where they do their business, losing about 1/3 of their body weight in the process.

One thing that helps sloths avoid predators and blend in with their leafy habitat is the algae that grows on their fur. The species of algae that lives within sloth fur is Trichophilus welckeri, which is found nowhere else. Research indicates that the algae is passed from mother to offspring within a few weeks of its birth. However, a sloth’s fur isn’t just a habitat for algae. It also houses a variety of other insects and fungi. One of the more interesting examples is the pyralid moth (Cryptoses spp.), which relies on the sloth for its entire lifecycle. A sloth’s body could be home to more than 100 moths. The moth spends the majority of its lifetime burrowed deep within the sloth’s fur. The real magic happens when the sloth descends to the base of its tree to do its weekly business. The moths are coprophagous, meaning they eat excrement. Female moths lay their eggs in the sloth’s excrement, and the larvae grow to maturity within the dung before hatching and flying up the tree to find another sloth’s furry back to inhabit.

According to reporting in The New York Times about this phenomenon, “After [the moths] die, their bodies are decomposed by the host of fungi and bacteria in the sloth’s fur. The metabolic products of this decay, especially nitrogen, are the feedstock for the specialist algae that grow in the sloth’s hair shafts. The researchers guessed that the sloths might be eating the algae from their own fur, and that this could be the purpose of the whole system.”

In addition to being unique animals, it appears that the sloth itself is home to a unique ecosystem as well.

More to Explore
Sloth Facts: Habits, Habitat & Diet
National Geographic: Sloth
7 Surprising Sloth Facts
The Sloth’s Busy Inner Life

 

Country: Costa Rica
Location: Costa Rica is located in Central America. It is bordered by both the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean and is located between Nicaragua and Panama.
Area: 51,100 sq km (land and water) (slightly smaller than West Virginia)
Climate: The climate of Costa Rica is tropical and sub-tropical. It has a specific rainy season (May to November) and dry season (December to April).
Terrain: The terrain of Costa Rica features coastal plains separated by rugged mountains, which include over 100 volcanic cones, of which several are major active volcanoes.
Natural Resources: Hydropower
Economics: $57.69 billion (est. 2015)
Environmental Issues: Air pollution, coastal marine pollution, deforestation and land use change, fisheries protection, soil erosion, soil erosion, solid waste management
Source: CIA – The World Factbook

22 Environmental Things to Do for Earth Day (and Every Day)

Earth

Earth Day was founded in 1970 by Senator Gaylord Nelson.  (Photo credit: Loskutnikov/Shutterstock)

April 22 marks the 47th annual celebration of Earth Day. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin founded Earth Day in 1970 to bring environmental issues to the top of the national agenda. Until then, there were little to no legal or regulatory mechanisms to protect the environment. [Read more…]

Let’s Talk About Climate Change

climate change

Many questions surround climate change and its effects. One question that has a clear answer: climate change is real. (Photo credit: ALAN DAWSON PHOTOGRAPHY/Alamy Images)

What is climate change? What evidence supports climate change? What role do humans play in climate change? Read on to find the answers to these questions and a few other frequently-asked questions about this topic. [Read more…]

Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Wintering Grounds

monarch butterflies

Monarch butterflies cluster tightly together in pine and fir trees in their Mexican habitat. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

The number of monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico dropped by 27 percent in 2017, according to experts. This decline is a reversal in last year’s numbers, which appeared to show a recovery in the monarch butterfly population. [Read more…]

Dealing with Waste in Antarctica

Antarctic penguins

Though it is the most pristine continent on Earth, human activities are polluting Antarctica. (Photo credit: ©Photodynamic/Shutterstock)

Given Antarctica’s geographic isolation and extreme climate conditions, is has long been an area of interest to scientists. But what happens to all the waste generated by the annual influx of scientists and their support staff? [Read more…]

The Plight of the Tasmanian Devil

Tasmanian devil

Tasmanian devils are currently threatened by a cancerous facial disease. (Photo credit: ©FiledIMAGE/Shutterstock)

Tasmania, an island located off the southeastern coast of Australia, is home to the Tasmanian devil. Unlike the human adult sized cartoon version, the real Tasmanian devil is only 20-31 inches (51-79 cm) tall and weighs between 9 and 26 pounds (4-12 kg).

While fossil evidence indicates that Tasmanian devils were once found on the Australian mainland, research indicates that the animals went extinct there 400 years ago due to increasingly arid conditions and the spread of the dingo, a type of wild dog. Tasmanian devils were nearly hunted to extinction on Tasmania during the late 1800s and early 1900s as they were considered to be pests by early settlers. The animals were placed under formal legislative protection in June 1941.

Though the Tasmanian devil bears no resemblance to its cartoon counterpart, it does share its terrible disposition. When the animal feels threatened, its puts on an aggressive display of growling, lunging, and baring its teeth. It earned its “devil” name from early settlers after hearing its “otherworldly” scream. However, while it may be aggressive to potential predators, Tasmanian devils tend to be fairly timid and are typically not a threat to people.

Tasmanian devils are nocturnal animals, which means they are active at night. They are carnivorous and generally feed on birds, snakes, fish, insects, and the remains of dead animals. They do not let any food go to waste – they eat the bones, tissue, muscles, and organs of their prey.

Like kangaroos and wombats, Tasmanian devils are marsupials. The animals breed once a year in March. After a three-week gestation period, between 20 and 30 rice-sized young are born. The young, called imps, must race to their mother’s pouch to claim one of her four teats; the majority are too slow and do not survive. The young devils stay in their mother’s pouch for four months, after which they are carried on their mother’s back. The young are fully grown after about nine months.

While in the mid 1990s, there was a surge in the Tasmanian devil population, that time period also coincided with the appearance of a disease called devil facial tumor disease (DFTD). This cancerous disease causes tumors to form on the animal’s face, which makes it difficult for it to eat, leading to starvation. Since 2001, the Tasmanian devil population has declined 60 percent.

Scientists are working to save the species from extinction. To do so, they are sequestering healthy populations to prevent the spread of disease. They are also focusing on captive-breeding programs. Currently, over 20 Australian organizations are involved in captive-breeding efforts and more than 600 Tasmanian devils have been bred in captivity.

More to Explore
Tasmanian Devil Natural History
Tasmanian Devil FAQs
Save the Tasmanian Devil
National Geographic: Tasmanian Devil

Country: Australia
Location: Australia is located on the Oceania continent, which is found between the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean.
Area: 7,741,220 sq km (land and water) (slightly smaller than the 48 contiguous United States)
Climate: Arid to semi-arid; temperate in the southern and eastern portions of the country and tropical in the northern portions of the country
Terrain: Mainly low desert plateaus; fertile plains in the southeast
Natural Resources: bauxite, coal, copper, diamonds, gold, iron ore, lead, natural gas, nickel, silver, tungsten, uranium, petroleum
Economics: $998.3 billion (est. 2013)
Environmental Issues: Soil erosion, urbanization, desertification, habitat destruction (land and marine)
Source:
CIA – The World Factbook