On March 7th, 2017 we learned about

Life on a Viking-age farm seen through the lens of a lost toy

Normally I’m not too happy about my kids leaving their belongings where they’ll get lost, but a discovery by archaeologists in Norway has made me reconsider the value of lost toys. A toy boat, along with a handful of other discarded or lost objects, was recently found in what had once been a well for a farm. Nobody is reading too much into why a child may have dropped their boat into a well, but the craftsmanship and mere existence of the toy does reveal a number of details about life at the Viking farm 1000 years ago.

Premium plaything

The boat was carved from a single piece of wood, and featured a nicely rendered bough and keel. It also had a hole carved in the center of the deck, presumably for a mast. Between the mast and the materials involved, there’s a decent chance that the toy would have fared well in the water (but probably not in the water in the well…) To the child at the time, the toy was probably rather exciting, representing some of the most advanced technology of that age, like a toy spaceship might today.

Archaeologists are also studying what that boat represents about the child’s life on the farm. The craftsmanship of the carving would have taken some time, indicating that someone had the time in their schedule to make it. Along those lines, the child apparently had time to play with the boat, indicating that they weren’t needed as labor on the farm every day either. Archaeologists believe that trading activity in the local town may have boosted the local economy, allowing farmers to do more than subsist from their crops.

A shoe worth saving

Other objects, namely an old shoe, follow this line of thinking. The shoe would barely rate as a minimal, padded slipper by today’s standards, but it was probably a nice enough item for the farmers 1000 years ago to bother repairing. The leather on the sole shoes signs of being patched, but only to a point. The heal is worn through, which was apparently damage not worth repairing further, at which point it was discarded. Together with the boat, it seems that while these farmers weren’t the richest people in their society, they could be considered comfortable enough to enjoy a few amenities here and there… eventually tossing those items into a well.

Source: Archaeologists excavate 1,000-year-old toy boat in abandoned well by Nancy Bazilchuk, Phys.org

On January 30th, 2017 we learned about

Parasitic fungus fetches increasingly high prices in Chinese markets

Rhinos and elephants have long been targeted by poachers for the keratin and ivory that grows from their heads. Horns and tusks are ground up and sold for imagined medicinal value, primarily in China, often at the cost of the animal’s life. The latest miracle cure to be sold in this way also grows out of an animal’s head, but in this case, it’s the growth itself that causes the animal’s death, not the poaching. That’s because the prize in question is a zombifying fungus that can only be found growing out of the heads of infected, dead caterpillars.

The fungus is known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis, a parasite that can be found on insects in Tibet and the Himalayas. Once a caterpillar is infected, the fungus slowly grows and takes over their body, making it increasingly rigid in the process. After hiding out in a caterpillar like Thitarodes damxungensis for the winter, the fungus will finally kill its host, growing a spore-filled stalk out of the caterpillar’s head. If other caterpillars are nearby, they’ll then be in range for subsequent rounds of infection by the spores.

Finding fewer fungi

However, finding infected caterpillars is becoming increasingly difficult. Rising prices on fungus-carrying caterpillars has been a big motivator for many people, and at this point the caterpillars have been so over-collected that the fungus O. sinensis has been designated an endangered species in China. Once on sale in China, the dead, infected caterpillars can sell for close to $9,000 a pound, although many people will by smaller helpings to cook into a soup or tea. While there are some similarities to other expensive fungi, like truffles, the market for dead caterpillars isn’t looking for a meal as much as a cure for everything from cancer to, of course, erectile dysfunction.

As the caterpillars and fungi continue to be harvested, some people are speculating that the market for these supposedly medicinal corpses may be crashing soon. That may require more enforcement of conservation laws, but it may come about on its own if there just aren’t enough dead caterpillars to sustain interest in misinformed public.

Source: The worms that cost $20,000 a kilo by Veronique Greenwood, BBC Future

On June 6th, 2016 we learned about

Farmers facing increasing number of heists of hired beehives

Many of your favorite foods come from bees. The bees aren’t ground up as an additive, of course, but are the prime pollinator for the plants producing the produce we want to eat. If an apple, almond or pear flower isn’t pollinated, then it won’t be reproducing through delicious fruit, seeds or nuts. This leaves farmers with a huge incentive to keep a healthy population of pollinators like bees around, even if it means paying to truck them in from across the country. Declining bee populations have put more and more pressure on this aspect of agriculture, to the point where bees are now being stolen right out of the orchards they’ve been brought in to pollinate.

Market for itinerant insects

The rent-a-bee concept goes back over 100 years, when beekeeper Nephi Miller thought of moving his bee colonies to warmer climates during the winter to keep their growth and productivity up. Since then, it has become a huge concept in farming, with variable pricing like some kind of agricultural Uber car ride service. If your crop is something less enticing to bees that won’t promote their growth, like pumpkins, you’ll pay more than farmers growing bee-friendly flowers, like apples. What’s more, there’s a surge-pricing aspect to it, raising the price per hive when demand for bees goes up, such as each spring when almond farmers call in 1.7 million hives to pollinate their trees. In recent years, this has raised prices to $200 a hive, a $70/hive increase in the last 6 years alone.

Part of why prices are going up is because bee populations are struggling around the world. From 2007 to 2013, some 10 million beehives in the United States were lost to colony collapse disorder, a strange phenomenon wherein workers abruptly abandon their queen. On top of this yet unexplained problem, bees are also victims to many forms of insecticide intended for other targets. This means that while more people want more food, there aren’t any additional pollinators to help grow it.

Pilfering the pollinators

So with this high-stakes situation, it may not be surprising that a growing number of farmers are complaining about stolen bees. Rented beehives are generally placed in orchards for a few weeks or months, but when it’s time to collect them they can’t be found. In some cases, the entire hive was taken, but marked hives denoting their owners have had only the internal honeycombs taken (along with the attending bees.) The care and skill demonstrated in these thefts indicates that trained beekeepers are involved, heightening suspicions that this is about stealing bees, not honey (which has been less and less profitable in the United States thanks to imports.)

While a few arrests have been made here and there, followed by felony convictions with jail time, beekeepers are now looking into GPS tracking for hives, installing security cameras or even hiring guards to watch the hives at night, when the insects are less active and it’s easier to move them.  On the one hand, it’s nice to know that the stolen bees are valued enough to be cared for by the thieves, since the world needs all the pollinators it can get. On the flip side, it seems that synthetic replacements for our honey-making friends will be in high demand as soon as they’re ready. Assuming they’re not easy to pocket as well.

Source: California Beekeepers Feel The Sting Of Stolen Hives by Jodi Helmer, The California Report

On April 26th, 2016 we learned about

Women of the Black Mamba unit prevent poaching and promote wildlife

A special squad known as the Black Mambas have reported on their first few years of protecting wildlife in South Africa, and they seem to be making inroads where more typical armed guards have sometimes struggled. Being named after venomous snakes might imply that this unit is intended to be more intimidating and dangerous than standard patrols of armed guards, but that’s not actually where they draw their strength. Instead, this unit is comprised of unarmed women, all hired from local communities surrounding the Greater Kruger national park.

The basic mission for the 26 members of the Black Mambas is to protect the wildlife in the park, particularly the endangered and prized rhinoceros population. While a variety of animals used to be poached for meat, rhinos are the most targeted species now, as poachers sell their horns in Asia for such exorbitant sums of money they’re willing to risk being shot by park rangers. Craig Spencer, ecologist and warden of the Balule nature reserve (a private reserve in the Kruger park,) started the Black Mamba unit as an experiment, to try a different approach to keeping poachers at bay.

Patrols and perceptions

After six weeks of training, the members of the unit started rigorous patrols of the park. A typical day might include 12 miles of foot patrols, looking for snares or breaches in fencing, or manning vehicle checkpoints and inspections. At night teams deploy on jeeps with searchlights to keep an eye on the park. While the women work with other armed teams if necessary, they’ve been prepared for potentially dangerous encounters with poachers as well.

The point is that the Black Mambas are visible and well known to the local communities where they’re from. Would-be poachers see them on patrols, knowing that it will be that much harder to get away undetected. The community sees that these women are earning a good living by protecting the park, countering feelings that the reserves were only for the benefits of wealthy foreigners who could afford to visit. As the community sees their stake in their local ecology, it shifts sympathies away from poachers, giving them fewer places to avoid trouble.

Signs of progress

The first couple of years has gone well, garnering international recognition and reducing poaching and snaring incidents by 76 percent. The first twelve months of patrolling saw only three rhino deaths, compared to the 16 lost in the six months before the Mambas went to work. The team members speak highly of their work, not just about the animals saved but also a feeling of empowerment, helping wildlife but also supporting their families. To build on this momentum, they’ve expanded with outreach programs to local schools, teaching that parks and wildlife should be part of people’s lives as a point of pride and economic stability, not just a source of illicit keratin.

Source: The all-female patrol stopping South Africa's rhino poachers by Jessica Aldred, The Guardian

On April 8th, 2015 we learned about

Rhino relocation requires air-support

Relocating animals isn’t easy, especially if they’re as large and potentially dangerous as an adult white rhino. Despite the risk and $45,000 per rhino cost, a group called Rhinos Without Borders has been airlifting rhinos to new homes in Africa, hopefully away from the poachers that are on track to drive the threatened species, like the black rhino, to extinction.

How to ready a rhino for the big trip

Rhinos aren’t the first animal to be airlifted to new homes, but they’re certainly one of the more difficult species to move this way. Before they’re moved, they’re monitored to see if their herd’s growth is being limited by the amount of space and resources currently available, or if they’re in particular danger from poachers. Animals are then selected, sedated, blindfolded then woken up so that they can be walked into a cage. They’re then cared for and kept in quarantine for for six weeks so that disease isn’t accidentally spread to their new home. They’re also implanted with microchips in their body and horns, so that conservationists can be alerted to poaching activity as quickly as possible.

Once the rhinos are prepared and judged fit to move, they’re again sedated then  loaded into commercial cargo planes, ensuring shorter and less vulnerable travel than ground transport. They’re flown to their new home where they will hopefully start staking out their new territory by pooping on it. Conservationists take care to relocate rhinos to areas without other rhino herds to avoid creating conflict with the new neighbors.

Worth more than the weight of their horns

Rhinos Without Borders is ramping up for its biggest airlift yet, aiming to move 100 rhinos as soon as possible. The goal is to get the rhinos away from poachers, who hunt the animals in order to sell their horns in China and Vietnam. Despite bans, no proven medical value, and some preserves with “shoot to kill” orders, poachers are still willing to kill an estimated 1000 rhinos a year for the money horns sell for on the black market.

In addition to a more secure environment for the rhinos, there is hope that their new homes, like preserves in Botswana, will benefit from eco-tourism as well. That way the safety of the rhinos will be woven into the local economy, providing further incentive to keep the rhinos’ horns on their own heads. To help get the rhinos to their new home, you can contribute to Rhinos Without Borders here.


My kindergartner said: When asked what she thought the purpose of a quarantine period might be, she guessed that the rhinos needed time to forget their old herd before moving near a new one. Basically, she looked at it as a time for a social/emotional quarantine, although the pathogen explanation made sense to her too.

Source: Largest Rhino Airlift Ever to Move 100 At-Risk Animals by Brian Clark Howard, National Geographic

On April 8th, 2015 we learned about

When elite European cooking adopted austere seasonings

It’s been said that the key ingredients in European, and especially French, cuisine is butter. And then maybe some salt and pepper. But subtle seasonings paired with fat has been used to make everything from potatoes to snails tasty, which makes sense when your climate makes producing dairy products easier than growing saffron. However, practicality isn’t the only thing that has shaped European cooking, as these trends developed after continental chefs had greater access to the world’s spice rack.

From hard-won to hardly any

Spices and seasonings were once scarce in Europe. Even having a shaker of table salt was a point of envy to be prominently displayed on elite tables in France (see Salt for more on this.) But by the 1600s, after hundreds of years of exploration, trade, enslavement and torture, a stable market for imported seasonings was finally available to middle class Europeans. As with many cultures around the world, all of Europe could enjoy multi-flavored recipes designed around “distinct, disparate flavors and building up layer upon layer of spice and seasoning.” But for the elite classes of Europe, that meant that prominently showing off your spice rack didn’t make you stand out so much anymore, sparking a change.

To strike some contrast with the increasingly available bouquet of flavors, wealthy foodies became advocates of recipes with more complimentary flavors. The idea was that you should taste the flavor of what you were eating, and any seasonings should just be there to enhance that flavor. For example, your meat should taste and be appreciated as meat, so you should then make gravy with a meat-base to further amplify that flavor.

Medical ideas influenced ingredients

At the same time, concepts of physiology were shifting in Europe away from balancing humors to managing “fermentation” in your digestion. So more fresh vegetables were being eaten, in contrast to trying to offset a malady by eating more of a contrasting spice.

Today we seem to have a mix of lots of these ideas. People like mixing flavors with fusion cuisine, but they also extol the virtues of locally farmed produce and meat. But really, as long as you’re adding green chile to your food, you’ll feel like you’re standing with kings.

Source: How Snobbery Helped Take The Spice Out Of European Cooking by Maanvi Singh, The Salt

On March 4th, 2015 we learned about

Some economic irrationality might be inherited

It’s pretty well established that humans make lots of bad, or at least irrational economic choices. We often do a bad job at comparing options, falling back on emotional cues, habits or mental laziness to inform our decisions.

One pattern is that we weigh possible loss much more heavily than possible gain, even if the amount of change in either direction is of equal value. For instance, giving someone a $1, then threatening to take it back if they don’t complete a task will likely be a stronger motivator then offering to pay them $1 for the same task. Once someone has something, it seems to take on greater than face value, and they will make potentially detrimental decisions to preserve it.

But a $1 is a $1, right? Where did we get this bias from? Possibly from deep in our family tree, as it appears that our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, both exhibit the same patterns.

When offered a choice of two pieces of fruit when one might be taken away, or one piece of fruit when one might be added, the apes preferred the chance at the bonus fruit. The outcomes were the same for both choices, a 50/50 chance at two pieces of fruit, but the option that was “framed positively” was strongly preferred.

This supports the notion that these biases are deeply ingrained in our thinking, and thus probably aren’t about to be discarded in the near future. Instead, it’s probably best to figure out how to utilize them for good, whenever possible. It will also be interesting to see just how far back in time this trait developed, as knowing the situations of the first species to develop a fear of loss might help us understand why it popped up in the first place.

Note: For more on irrational economic decisions in humans, check out Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely. It’s very approachable but very interesting to see some of the many factors that shape our decision-making, most of which we don’t recognize.

Source: Like Humans, Apes Make Irrational Economic Decisions by Christopher Krupenye, the Atlantic