Nepal’s Fragile Himalayan Ecosystem

Gokyo Lake, Nepal

The Himalayan mountains are an impressive part of the Nepal landscape. (Photo credit: Craig Kassover/National Geographic Society/Corbis)

Nepal is a top destination for trekking – nearly 43 percent of visitors to the country plan to partake in trekking activities. But what impact does trekking have on the country’s fragile Himalayan ecosystem? [Read more…]

Not So Rosy: The Environmental Cost of Flowers

flowers for sale

Have you ever considered the environmental cost of a bouquet of flowers? (Photo credit: Creatas/Jupiterimages/Getty Images)

Flowers are an important part of many cultures. They are used at ceremonies and holidays, and given to honor someone for a significant achievement or for his or her special day. Many people buy flowers to mark an occasion or simply to decorate their homes without giving a thought about where the blooms came from. What is the environmental cost of flowers?

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The Revitalization of Monterey Bay

sea otter

Monterey Bay is well-known for its sea otter population. (Photo credit: worldswildlifewonders/Shutterstock)

It wasn’t all that long ago that the Monterey Bay was a gloopy mess and one of the most polluted places on the Pacific Coast. Today it is considered to be one of the most productive marine ecosystems on the planet. What changed? How did a once-neglected and degraded region become one of the most revered and studied ecosystems on Earth? [Read more…]

Waste Not, Want Not — Reducing Food Waste in America

food waste

Food waste is a major component of solid waste in landfills. Decomposing food creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. (Photo credit: g215/Shutterstock)

In the United States, 40 percent of all food produced remains uneaten. Some of this food has spoiled, some of it was left in the fields to rot, and some of it never made it to market after being harvested. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Americans routinely throw away about 20 pounds of food per month, which equates to about $28-43 worth of food. In all, it is estimated that $165 billion are squandered each year when perfectly edible food goes uneaten. Why is there so much food waste? And what can you do about it?

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The Reindeer of Finland

reindeer

Reindeer refers to domesticated populations of caribou. (Photo credit: JellisV/istock Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

You know Dasher and Dancer, and Prancer and Vixen … but what do you really know about reindeer?

[Read more…]

The Environmental Impact of Plastic Bags

plastic bags in trees

A huge number of plastic bags are used each year. A large proportion of them end up as litter. (Photo credit: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock)

“Paper or plastic?” is a common question heard at the checkout line. Though the environmental impact of paper versus plastic bags continues to be debated, perhaps the best answer is “I’ve brought my own.” [Read more…]

The Tree Goats of Morocco

goats in argan tree

These Moroccan goats have an important role in the extraction of argan oil, a precious commodity. (Photo credit: Yavuz Sariyildiz/Alamy)

While goats are well-known for their ability to jump over fences and scale great heights, a certain population of goats in southwestern Morocco takes their climbing skills to a whole new level. [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…]

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

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…]