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Photo: Guangxi speleology research team 702 via the Guardian.
Cave explorers have come across a sinkhole, or karst, in a semi-autonomous region of southern China. Previously known only to locals, it is 306 metres (335 yards) in length, 150 metres (164 yards) wide and 192 metres (210 yards) deep. It has a forest at the bottom.

When I was a kid spending summers on Fire Island, we all thought the Sunken Forest the most magical place ever. But just imagine if a forest were so removed from the world that it harbored previously unknown species! Scientists in China are beginning to study a forest of tantalizing possibilities at the bottom of a huge sinkhole.

Stephanie Pappas reports at Live Science, “A team of Chinese scientists has discovered a giant new sinkhole with a forest at its bottom. 

“The sinkhole is 630 feet (192 meters) deep, according to the Xinhua news agency, deep enough to just swallow St. Louis’ Gateway Arch. A team of speleologists and spelunkers rappelled into the sinkhole on Friday (May 6), discovering that there are three cave entrances in the chasm, as well as ancient trees 131 feet (40 m) tall, stretching their branches toward the sunlight that filters through the sinkhole entrance. 

” ‘This is cool news,’ said George Veni, the executive director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI) in the U.S., and an international expert on caves. Veni was not involved in the exploration of the cave, but the organization that was, the Institute of Karst Geology of the China Geological Survey, is NCKRI’s sister institute. …

“Veni told Live Science, [that] southern China is home to karst topography, a landscape prone to dramatic sinkholes and otherworldly caves. Karst landscapes are formed primarily by the dissolution of bedrock, Veni said. Rainwater, which is slightly acidic, picks up carbon dioxide as it runs through the soil, becoming more acidic. It then trickles, rushes and flows through cracks in the bedrock, slowly widening them into tunnels and voids. Over time, if a cave chamber gets large enough, the ceiling can gradually collapse, opening up huge sinkholes. 

” ‘Because of local differences in geology, climate and other factors, the way karst appears at the surface can be dramatically different,’ he said. ‘So in China you have this incredibly visually spectacular karst with enormous sinkholes and giant cave entrances and so forth. In other parts of the world you walk out on the karst and you really don’t notice anything. Sinkholes might be quite subdued. … Cave entrances might be very small, so you have to squeeze your way into them.’ 

“In fact, 25% of the United States is karst or pseudokarst, which features caves carved by factors other than dissolution, such as volcanics or wind, Veni said. About 20% of the world’s landmass is made of one of these two cave-rich landscapes. 

“The new discovery took place in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, near Ping’e village in the county of Leye, according to Xinhua. Guangxi is known for its fabulous karst formations, which range from sinkholes to rock pillars to natural bridges and have earned the region UNESCO world heritage site designation.

“The sinkhole’s interior is 1,004 feet (306 m) long and 492 feet (150 m) wide, Zhang Yuanhai, a senior engineer with the Institute of Karst Geology, told Xinhua. … Chen Lixin, who led the cave expedition team, told Xinhua that the dense undergrowth on the sinkhole floor was as high as a person’s shoulders. Karst caves and sinkholes can provide an oasis for life, Veni said.

‘I wouldn’t be surprised to know that there are species found in these caves that have never been reported or described by science until now,’ [team leader] Lixin said.

“In one West Texas cave, Veni said, tropical ferns grow abundantly; the spores of the ferns were apparently carried to the sheltered spot by bats that migrate to South and Central America.

“Not only do sinkholes and caves offer refuge for life, they are also a conduit to aquifers, or deep stores of underground water. Karst aquifers provide the sole or primary water source for 700 million people worldwide, Veni said. But they’re easily accessed and drained — or polluted.” More at Live Science, here. No firewall.

The Washington Post offers more on the forest. Reporter Marisa Iati writes, “Large sinkholes are known in Chinese as ‘tiankeng,’ or ‘heavenly pits.’

“The sinkhole near Ping’e village is known to local residents as Shenying Tiankeng, or ‘the bottomless pit.’ From a distance, the cliff looks like a pair of soaring wings, the Guangxi Daily newspaper reported.

“The researchers arrived at the sinkhole May 6 and saw dense trees blocking the bottom of the pit, the newspaper reported. They used drones to explore the area and then rappelled and hiked to the bottom for several hours, passing dense thorns and fig plants. They found three caves in the wall that may have formed early in the sinkhole’s evolution, Zhang Yuanhai, senior engineer at the Institute of Karst Geology of China Geological Survey, told Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua.

“While trees exist in other sinkholes, Veni said they can only grow if the hole is shallow enough and has a big enough opening to let in sunlight. The newly explored sinkhole is almost definitely home to small animals, such as insects, that are currently unknown to scientists, he said.”

More at the Post, here.

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Photo: Natasha de Vere & Col Ford, Barcode Wales, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
Samples of an organism’s genome are obtained in the field, before being brought back to the lab for the barcoding process.

Some years ago, I learned that students at High Tech High, which involves kids in real-world projects (click here), were helping rangers in Africa to identify poached meat with a DNA test they had developed. Turns out, using DNA that way was just the beginning of its possibilities for the environment.

According to the radio show Living on Earth, the 1.3 million species that have been identified and recorded on Planet Earth are just a small fraction of what exists. So host Steve Curwood decided to look at how DNA is helping to catalog many more.

“CURWOOD: To make it easier to identify species, the International Barcode of Life Consortium is using a technique known as DNA barcoding. It can give a quick readout that tells whether a sampled organism is known to modern science, and if not, provide a marker to register it as a newly discovered life form. Paul Hebert is the molecular biologist who developed DNA barcoding.

“Paul, welcome to Living on Earth. Take us through the process of DNA barcoding. You find an organism you want to identify, and then?

Photo: LarissaFruehe, Wikimedia Commons.

“HEBERT: [You] might just touch it … and pick up enough of its DNA. [But] in the case of smaller organisms, where we may be prepared to sacrifice them, and where we want to have a voucher specimen in a collection that we can look at and photograph and analyze in other ways, we might remove a tiny piece of tissue. If it were an insect, six legs, remove one of those legs and extract the DNA from that. That’s a fairly simple process. When you do that DNA extraction, of course, you get all of the DNA in the genome. … In the case of an insect, it might be 500 million base pairs. And we just want to read 500 of them. And you can think of the whole genome as sort of a book of life. And we want to read just one of those pages. So to do that, we use the polymerase chain reaction, which basically Xerox copies a selected page in that much larger book of life. And that prepares [for] sequencing the DNA. …

“CURWOOD: Where can that information go from there? And what can it do? …

“HEBERT: It was important to develop an informatics platform that’s now been adopted by the global community. It’s a platform called the Barcode of Life Data System, acronym ‘BOLD’. And basically, all of the data from each individual specimen go into that database, together with an image of the specimen and where it was collected, and by whom; all of the details. And so, let’s say you begin by sequencing an American Robin, next time you were to encounter a feather on your lawn that happened to derive from that bird species, you would get a connection to that reference sequence in the bar code library, in BOLD. …

The idea is to build up this reference library, so it has representative sequences for every species on our planet. And that’s what we’re in the process of doing now.

“CURWOOD: Now, of course, this is a very handy approach in academia with nice big laboratories. What about somebody who’s in the field? How useful is this? …

“HEBERT: In Kruger National Park, [the rangers who] normally are involved in suppressing poaching of rhinoceroses joined in a massive collection program that gathered up about a million specimens from that largest national park in South Africa … and we then translated those specimens into barcode records and built a DNA barcode reference library for Kruger National Park. … In the future, [you’re] going to be able to take a walk through the woods with your kids or your grandkids and see an organism and simply touch it and from its DNA barcode sequence, gain its identity. …

“CURWOOD: What’s your biggest surprise now, in this project? …

“HEBERT: For a very long time, it has been argued that beetles were the most diverse group of insects, the most diverse order of insects. … But it turns out that’s wrong. Barcoding revealed that flies are by far the most diverse group of insects. And [one] particular group of flies, gall midges, are hugely diverse, more diverse than all of the beetles on our planet. [And] one of the earliest studies that we did in Costa Rica involved a beautiful iridescent blue butterfly that for the last 200 years has been regarded as a single species. [When] we barcoded that species, we found that in fact, it was 10 species, not one. There’s a lot of hidden diversity, even within the large species that we share on this planet, when you move down to the small stuff, it’s massive discovery.

“CURWOOD: Now, the International Barcode of Life Consortium has this mission of identifying each and every species on Earth using barcoding. What is the ultimate goal of the project? …

“HEBERT: Creating that reference sequence library for all species on the planet is going to place us in a position where it’s going to be possible for us to set up global bio surveillance system. So we can track what humanity is doing to the other life forms. … I see detailed information on the shifts in biodiversity that are happening on our planet motivating humanity to take the action needed to do better. …

“CURWOOD: Paul Hebert is a molecular biologist at the University of Guelph in Canada, and science director of the International Barcode of Life Consortium. Thank you so much, Paul, for taking the time with us today.”

More at Living on Earth, here.

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Photos: Recycled Island Foundation
This prototype for a floating park in Rotterdam is open to the public. It’s made of recycled plastic and is welcoming to many species, including homo sapiens (who is less than sapiens, it would seem, considering ongoing planet damage).

With the activities of humankind causing animal populations to decline 60 percent since 1970 and massive loss of essential insect species, I’m looking everywhere for more leadership in the environmental arena. So far, what I find are relatively small activities of isolated groups. But thank goodness for that! Small activities add up.

Jeremy Berke writes at Business Insider, “Rotterdam’s Floating Park — which is now open to visitors, though the park is just a prototype of what may become a much larger installation — is made out of plastic recycled from Rotterdam’s waterways.

“The recycled plastic is constructed into hexagonal pods, which mimic the landscape of Rotterdam’s Maas River before humans altered the landscape, according to the Recycled Island Foundation, the group behind the park.

“The pods can be used to create gardens, as habitat for wildlife, or for chilling out, and they can be molded into different seating arrangements.

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The Recycled Island Foundation says the park’s plastic hexagons were designed to provide habitat for native waterbirds, plants, fish, and even algae.

“On top of that, plastic dumped into the city’s canals is collected by ‘litter traps,’ which prevent plastic from flowing into the ocean.”

Pretty sure that dynamic and broadly effective leadership in the global-warming arena is going to come from people who are now only teenagers or even in middle school. Kids know what’s what.

More at Business Insider, here.

A litter trap in Rotterdam collects plastic waste, which can be recycled to make a floating park.

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Here’s a new one. Certain rats, with their renowned sense of smell, are being used in the fight against traffickers of endangered species.

The unusual rats had previously been tapped for tasks such as identifying who has tuberculosis and needs treatment. And as I noted a year ago, they have also been successful at sniffing out land mines.

Now, according to Oliver Milman the Guardian, “An elite group of African giant pouched rats will be used at ports, initially in Tanzania, to detect illegal shipments of pangolins – the world’s most trafficked animal, which has been pushed towards extinction due to the trade in its scales and skins …

“The US Fish & Wildlife Service is spending $100,000 on a pilot project that will train rats to detect the illegal items and learn to communicate this to their human handlers. The rats, which can grow up to 3ft long, have poor eyesight but an excellent sense of smell. …

“The Fish & Wildlife Service said it hoped that the foray into the investigation of wildlife smuggling would be the first stage of a ‘much larger project to mainstream rats as an innovative tool in combating illegal wildlife trade.’ …

“The money for rat training is part of a larger $1.2m package that will provide funding for law enforcement in Cambodia, forest patrols to reduce tiger poaching in Indonesia and sniffer dogs to unearth illegal shipments of saiga antelope horn.”

More here.

Photo: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images
African giant pouched rats like the one seen here are being trained to investigate illegal wildlife trafficking.

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The radio show Living on Earth is a source of information that I find delightful — not only because the topics are about nature but because they are sometimes so offbeat.

Recently the focus was on a new species in the ocean under the ice.

“Under the Antarctic ice lurk newly discovered sea anemones. Frank Rack, Executive Director of the U.S. Antarctic Geological Drilling team, tells host by Steve Curwood about how the team discovered this new species that hangs upside down from the Ross Ice Shelf. …

CURWOOD: “A team from ANDRILL, that’s the Antarctic Geological Drilling, has discovered a new type of sea anemone, while testing a remotely operated vehicle under the Ross Ice Shelf off Antarctica. The researchers are geologists and sedimentologists. The director of the team is Frank Rack from University of Nebraska.

RACK: “We were melting holes through the 270 meters of ice. We were deploying oceanographic sensors to measure current speed and direction. …

CURWOOD: “How long did it take you to find sea anemones down there?

RACK: “It was a total surprise. We melted a hole through the ice, and we had been running a camera down to the sea floor and back up. And in those observations, the ice shelf looked plain and featureless, but when we put down the robot and had more sensitive camera systems and could get very close to the bottom of the ice, that’s where the anemones appeared. They were quite numerous and widespread, and they were living in burrows in the bottom of the ice shelf, hanging upside down into the water column. …

CURWOOD: “So if they’re on the bottom of the ice, way down under the sea, they’re upside down, they’re hanging down like bats, huh?

RACK: “They are. They’re at about 230 meters below the sea level, and then there’s another 650 to 680 meters of water below. So the currents are circulating water across the continental shelf and up underneath the floating ice shelf, and the anemones are feeding and surviving in that environment.”

Read the whole transcript here.

Photo: Frank R. Rack, ANDRILL Science Management Office, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
An underwater picture of the sea anemones.

 

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