Dolphin deaths, tiny plastic pollutants, and a predator for the emerald ash borer: this week in environmental news

Each Friday, MNA rounds up news stories focused on nature and the environment. Here is what happened this week in environmental news:

The BP oil spill as seen from space by NASA’s Terra satellite in May 2010. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Study links BP oil spill to dolphin deaths (The Guardian):  A study led by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found lung disease, hormonal abnormalities and other health effects among dolphins at Barataria Bay in Louisiana, an area heavily oiled during the April 2010 BP spill. The diseases and elevated mortality rates have raised concerns about the short-term and long-term impacts on the Barataria Bay dolphin population.

Emerald ash border may have met its match (Science Daily): A study has found a native predator that is able to detect and respond to the invasive emerald ash border. Bark-foraging birds, including woodpeckers and nuthatches, were found to be feeding on the emerald ash borer, an invader responsible for the death of 30 million trees in the U.S. and Canada. The native birds are more efficient than other methods to slow the spread of the invasive.

Scientists turn their gaze toward tiny threats to Great Lakes (The New York Times): Tiny plastic beads used in facial scrubs and toothpastes are turning up by the tens of millions in the Great Lakes, where fish and other aquatic life eat them and the pollutants they carry. Scientists fear that the pollutants may be working their way back up the food chains to humans. Recent studies have found that there may be greater concentrations of plastic particles in the Great Lakes than in the oceans.

Chemistry getting greener at Michigan companies, universities (Great Lakes Echo):  Michigan companies are leading the way in a movement to make chemical manufacturing more environmentally friendly. Created under Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s executive order in 2006, the Green Chemistry Program has brought together government agencies and businesses. Companies involved are making strides in using chemistry that is benign toward people and the environment.

As wolves die out on remote national park in Michigan, debate brews over whether to intervene (The Republic):  The gray wolf population on Isle Royale National Park has dropped steadily in recent years. Eight wolves remained last winter, the lowest rate since the 1950s. Park managers are now trying to determine whether they should intervene to preserve the wolf population in the park. The situation could set a precedent for other parks and wilderness areas dealing with threats to species as climate change alters the environment.


Do Woodpeckers Get Brain Damage?

By Chelsea Richardson

Woodpeckers hit their heads at a speed of six or seven meters per second, which is about 20 times per second, about 12,000 times a day. This is the equivalent of striking a wall at 16 mph headfirst every time.

Woodpeckers do this in order to find bugs in the wood when foods like fruit and nuts can’t be found. They also make their nests in trees by creating a hole

Pileated Woodpecker

A pileated woodpecker. Photo by Rick Baetsen

about eight inches wide and two feet deep. There are several factors and anatomical features that all come together to create a shock absorbent system for a woodpecker’s head.

Woodpeckers’ brains are fairly small and packed tightly in their skull, which helps prevent excessive movement of the brain. Their skull is also built to absorb shock and minimize damage with a bone that surrounds the brain that is thick and spongy. This thick, spongy material, called trabecula, is made of microscopic beam-like bits of tissue that give the bone a tightly woven “mesh” for support and protection. Researchers found that this “mesh” is located in greater amounts on the woodpecker’s forehead and at the back of the skull where it could act as a shock absorber. Their long tongue called the hyoid bone originates from the back of the jaw, passes through the right nostril, divides into two parts between the eyes, then arch over the upper portion of the skull and around the back of the head by passing on either side of the neck, coming forward through the lower jaw, and uniting into one again below the forehead.  This bizarre looking bone, researchers think, acts like a safety harness for the skull and brain, absorbing shock and stress as they peck. Continue reading