Last year, forests across southern Québec and Ontario and much of New England turned eerily leafless. The air hummed with the sound of munching mandibles and tree trunks were covered with a writhing carpet of caterpillars, while showers of caterpillar poop fell softly on the heads of unsuspecting hikers and campers.
The population of the European spongy moth, which had been gradually increasing since 2019, reached a dramatic peak in 2021 and completely vanished this year.
In 2020, the hungry caterpillar damaged 583,157 hectares of forests in Ontario and this number is bound to go up when the 2021 numbers are revealed.
Insect outbreaks are one of the most important natural disturbances in Canadian forests. As a biologist who has been working on plant-insect interactions for over 20 years, I see that the frequency, intensity and range of insect outbreaks keeps changing. To protect trees in our forests and cities, we need tree diversity.
An insect outbreak can be frightening. In deserts around the world, vast swarms of locusts can blot out the sun for hours as they fly overhead. In the Rocky Mountains, hillsides are covered with dead trees, killed by the inner-bark-eating mountain pine beetle.
However, insect outbreaks are not a new phenomenon. Chinese historical records document locust outbreaks for almost 2,000 years, while paleo-ecological studies show that Québec’s boreal forests have witnessed spruce budworm outbreaks for at least 8,000 years.
Such insect outbreaks are part of how temperate and boreal forests — as well as semi-arid grasslands and deserts — function. Insect outbreaks stimulate nutrient cycling, accelerate forest succession and can renew forests.
Female insects can produce hundreds of offspring and for the population to remain stable, only two of these need to survive. A small increase in survival, due to factors like favorable weather conditions, can lead to a population explosion and an outbreak.
In the case of the mountain pine beetle and the desert locust, warming temperatures, increased cyclone activity and other such effects of climate change are bringing these favorable conditions more frequently to new areas, thus dramatically increasing the extent of outbreaks.
However, these outbreaks always come to an end because of what ecologists call lagged-density dependent population dynamics. Here, density-dependent means that the insects’ mortality rate depends on the density of its population. As the population increases, mortality also increases and survival rate decreases. Meanwhile, lagged means there is a delay in this process — the insect mortality increases more slowly than population growth, causing an outbreak.
The outbreak crashes when the insect mortality eventually catches up with its population size. This usually happens due to a combination of factors including low food supply and increase in predators, parasitoids — insects that lay their eggs inside other insects — and diseases.
Where did the spongy moth go?
Students in my laboratory have been rearing spongy moth caterpillars for the past three years and have found that the mortality of these caterpillars gradually increased as the population grew.
In 2019, one student, Pamela Yataco Marquez reared over 300 caterpillars and observed an 80 per cent survival rate. However, this year, despite an extensive search, Marie-Eve Jarry, Geovana Demarchi and Victoria Yip were able to find and rear only 97 caterpillars and only six survived to adult.
Several mortality agents including a virus Lymantria dispar multiple nucleopolyhedrovirus, the fungal disease Entomophaga maimaiga and two tiny parasitoid wasps called Cotesia melanoscela and Ooencyrtus kuvanae finally caught up with the insect population.
When parasitoids eggs — laid inside either the eggs or the bodies of other insects — hatch, they devour their host from the inside and eventually emerge from the dead host, ready to start the life-cycle anew.
They are more like predators than parasites because they kill their host, and are efficient biocontrol agents that decrease pest insect populations.
Creeping across borders
While the spongy moth is native to Europe, it has been in eastern North America since the 1860s and is part of our fauna now.
It has not reached the western part of the continent yet and the best way to stop this is to inspect outdoor gear for caterpillars or egg masses before travelling and not to move firewood.
The Asian spongy moth population has not spread in North America yet, and entomologists are working hard to keep it out.
In the past 150 years, many of the European spongy moth’s natural enemies, including the fungal disease mentioned above and several parasitoids, have also been introduced, either inadvertently or deliberately. Our findings show that these natural enemies are well established in our region and have been effective in collapsing the outbreak.
The current range of the spongy moth distribution in North America extends up to southern Canada. Here, the eggs that spend the winter on tree trunks suffer high mortality due to cold, knocking down the survival rate irrespective of population size.
Forest managers in Québec and Ontario are on the alert for increases in spongy moth outbreaks — including both more severe and longer duration outbreaks similar to those seen in the U.S. — and a possible northward shift of the distribution range.
While a tree that is leafless in July may appear dead, many trees can survive a few years of defoliation, drawing on stored reserves to flush out new leaves.
The spongy moth outbreak in the Montréal area in the late 1970s slowed tree growth, but did not cause the widespread death of forest trees. However, tree mortality does occur further south in the U.S. and depends on the diversity of trees in the forest area. The death of tree species preferred by the caterpillar is lower in diverse forests that mix in less-vulnerable species.
Diverse forests are more resilient under various stresses than more homogeneous ones. We need to create and preserve such diverse forests to help prepare for new types of insect outbreaks in our changing world.
NASA capsule flies over Apollo landing sites, heads home – World News – Castanet.net
NASA’s Orion capsule and its test dummies swooped one last time around the moon Monday, flying over a couple Apollo landing sites before heading home.
Orion will aim for a Pacific splashdown Sunday off San Diego, setting the stage for astronauts on the next flight in a couple years.
The capsule passed within 80 miles (130 kilometers) of the far side of the moon, using the lunar gravity as a slingshot for the 237,000-mile (380,000-kilometer) ride back to Earth. It spent a week in a wide, sweeping lunar orbit.
Once emerging from behind the moon and regaining communication with flight controllers in Houston, Orion beamed back photos of a close-up moon and a crescent Earth — Earthrise — in the distance.
“Orion now has its sights set on home,” said Mission Control commentator Sandra Jones.
The capsule also passed over the landing sites of Apollo 12 and 14. But at 6,000 miles (9,600 kilometers) up, it was too high to make out the descent stages of the lunar landers or anything else left behind by astronauts more than a half-century ago. During a similar flyover two weeks ago, it was too dark for pictures. This time, it was daylight.
Deputy chief flight director Zebulon Scoville said nearby craters and other geologic features would be visible in any pictures, but little else.
“It will be more of a tip of the hat and a historical nod to the past,” Scoville told reporters last week.
The three-week test flight has exceeded expectations so far, according to officials. But the biggest challenge still lies ahead: hitting the atmosphere at more than 30 times the speed of sound and surviving the fiery reentry.
Orion blasted off Nov. 16 on the debut flight of NASA’s most powerful rocket ever, the Space Launch System or SLS.
The next flight — as early as 2024 — will attempt to carry four astronauts around the moon. The third mission, targeted for 2025, will feature the first lunar landing by astronauts since the Apollo moon program ended 50 years ago this month.
Apollo 17 rocketed away Dec. 7, 1972, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, carrying Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt and Ron Evans. Cernan and Schmitt spent three days on the lunar surface, the longest stay of the Apollo era, while Evans orbited the moon. Only Schmitt is still alive.
By Looking Back Through Hubble Data, Astronomers Have Identified six Massive Stars Before They Exploded as Core-Collapse Supernovae – Universe Today
The venerable Hubble Space Telescope has given us so much during the history of its service (32 years, 7 months, 6 days, and counting!) Even after all these years, the versatile and sophisticated observatory is still pulling its weight alongside more recent addition, like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and other members of NASA’s Great Observatories family. In addition to how it is still conducting observation campaigns, astronomers and astrophysicists are combing through the volumes of data Hubble accumulated over the years to find even more hidden gems.
A team led by Caltech’s recently made some very interesting finds in the Hubble archives, where they observed the sites of six supernovae to learn more about their progenitor stars. Their observations were part of the Hubble Space Telescope Snapshot program, where astronomers use HST images to chart the life cycle and evolution of stars, galaxies, and other celestial objects. From this, they were able to place constraints on the size, mass, and other key characteristics of the progenitor stars and what they experienced before experiencing core collapse.
The team was led by Dr. Schuyler D. Van Dyk, a senior research scientist with Caltech’s Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC). His teammates included researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, the Space Telescope Science Institute, the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, the University of Hawai’i’s Institute for Astronomy, and the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota. Their findings were published in a paper titled “The disappearance of six supernova progenitors” that will appear in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
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As they indicate in their paper, the targets of their study were all nearby core-collapse supernovae (SNe) that Hubble imaged at high spatial resolutions. The images were part of the Hubble Snapshot program, created by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) to provide a large sample of images for various targets. Every target is observed in a single orbit of Hubble around the Earth between other observation programs, allowing a degree of flexibility that is not possible with other observatories.
For their study, Van Dyk and his colleagues examined images of six extragalactic supernovae before and after they exploded – designated SN 2012A, SN 2013ej, SN 2016gkg, SN 2017eaw, SN 2018zd, and SN 2018aoq. With extragalactic targets, astronomers have difficulty knowing if the stars they identified were progenitors to the supernova, given the distance involved. As Van Dyk to Universe Today via email, the only way to be sure is to wait for the supernova to dim, then confirm that the progenitor star has disappeared:
“Since the supernova explosion is so luminous, we have to wait a number of years until it has faded enough that it is less luminous than was the progenitor. In a few of the cases we show in our paper, there is little question that the star that was there pre-explosion is now gone. In the other cases, we’re reasonably sure, but the supernova is still detectable and is just faint enough for us to infer that the progenitor has vanished. “
In a previous study, Van Dyk and several colleagues who were co-authors of this study investigated another supernova (iPTF13bvn) whose progenitor star disappeared. In this case, the research team relied on data obtained by Hubble of the SN site – as part of the Ultraviolet Ultra Deep Field (UVUDF) campaign – roughly 740 days after the star exploded. In 2013, Van Dyk led a study that used images from an earlier Snapshot program to confirm that the progenitor of SN 2011dh in the Whirlpool Galaxy (Messier 51) had disappeared.
These and other papers over the years have shown that progenitor candidates can be directly identified from pre-explosion images. In this most recent study, Van Dyk and his colleagues observed supernovae in the later stages of their evolution to learn what mechanisms are powering them. In many cases, the mechanism is the decay of radioactive nuclei (in particular, radioactive nickel, cobalt, and iron) that were synthesized by the enormous energy of the explosion. But as he explained, they suspected that other mechanisms might be involved:
“However, we have indications that some supernovae inevitably have additional power sources — one possibility is that the light of the supernova has been scattered by interstellar dust immediate to the explosion, in the form of a ‘light echo’; another more likely possibility is that the shockwave associated with the explosion is interacting with gas that was deposited around the progenitor star by the star itself during the course of the star’s life, in the form of wind or outburst, that is, circumstellar matter. The ejecta from the explosion moving through and interacting with this circumstellar matter can result in luminous energy that can persist for years, even for decades.”
In short, the team was trying to estimate how many of the supernovae they observed evolved through radioactive decay versus more exotic powering mechanisms. Their results showed that SN 2012A, SN 2018zd, and SN 2018aoq had faded to the point where they were no longer detectable in the Hubble Snapshot images, whereas SN 2013ej, SN 2016gkg, and SN 2017eaw had faded just enough. Therefore, they could infer in all six cases that the progenitors had disappeared. However, not all were the result of a single massive star undergoing core collapse.
In the case of SN 2016gkg, the images acquired by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) were of much higher spatial resolution and sensitivity than the images of the host galaxy, previously taken by the now-retired WFC2. This allowed them to theorize that SN 2016gkg was not the result of a single core-collapse supernova but a progenitor star interacting with a neighboring star. Said Van Dyk:
“So, in the old image, the progenitor looked like one “star,” whereas in the new images, we could see that the progenitor had to have been spatially distinct from the neighboring star. Therefore, we were able to obtain a better estimate of the progenitor’s luminosity and color, now uncontaminated by the neighbor, and from that, we were able to make some new inferences about the overall properties of the progenitor, or, in this case, progenitor system, since we characterized the new results using existing models of binary star systems.”
Specifically, they determined that the progenitor belonged to the class of “stripped-envelope” supernovae (SESNe), in which the outer hydrogen H-rich envelope of the progenitor star has been significantly or entirely removed. They further estimated that the progenitor was the primary and its companion was likely a main sequence star. They even placed constraints on their respective masses before the explosion (4.6 and 17–20.5 solar masses, respectively).
After consulting images taken around the same time by another Snapshot program, they also noticed something interesting about SN 2017eaw. These images indicated that this supernova was especially luminous in the UV band (an “ultraviolet excess”). By combining these images with their data, Va Dyk and his team speculated that SN 2017eaw had an excess of light in the UV at the time it was observed, which was likely caused by interaction between the supernova shock and the circumstellar medium around that progenitor.
The team also noted that the dust created by a supernova explosion is a complicating factor due to how it cools as it expands outward. This dust, said Van Dyk, can obscure light from distant sources and lead to complications with the observations:
“The caveat here, then, is that the star that we saw pre-explosion might not be the progenitor at all, for instance and — again, because of the distances to the host galaxies — that star is within fractions of a pixel of the actual progenitor (physically, in the immediate neighborhood of the progenitor), such that, if the supernova has made dust, that dust is effectively blanketing both the supernova and that neighboring star. This is possible, but not inordinately likely. And it becomes a harder argument to make in those few cases where nothing is seen at the supernova position years later — as we point out in the paper, that would require enormous amounts of dust, which is likely physically not possible.”
Tracing the origins of supernovae is one of the many ways astronomers can learn more about the life cycle of stars. With improved instruments, data collection, and flexibility, they are able to reveal more about how our Universe evolved and will continue to change over time.
Further Reading: arXiv
Clamshells Face the Acid Test
It’s low tide in Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, California, and Hannah Hensel is squishing through thick mud, on the hunt for clams. The hinged mollusks are everywhere, burrowed into the sediment, filtering seawater to feed on plankton. But Hensel isn’t looking for living bivalves—she’s searching the mudflat for the shells of dead clams.
“I did lose a boot or two,” she recalls. “You can get sunk into it pretty deep.”
Hensel, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Davis, is studying shells, which are composed of acid-buffering calcium carbonate, as a tool that could one day help shelled species survive in the world’s rapidly acidifying oceans.
The inspiration for Hensel’s research comes from Indigenous sea gardening practices. On beaches from Alaska to Washington State, First Nations and tribal communities built rock-walled terraces in the intertidal zone to bolster populations of shellfish and other invertebrates. Although these sea gardens have not been documented farther south, clams were also vital sustenance in central California. Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo people harvested clams for food and shaped shells into bead money, says Tsim Schneider, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a member of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. “So taking care of your clam beds was actually kind of protecting your vault, your bank,” says Schneider.
In the sea gardens of the Pacific Northwest, caretakers crushed the shells of harvested clams and mixed the fragments back into the beach. Recent research has shown multiple positive effects of this broken shell “hash,” from opening spaces in the sediment so young clams can more easily burrow and grow, to releasing chemical cues that encourage larval clams to settle nearby.
This millennia-old practice may hold the key to addressing a new crisis. As humans burn fossil fuels, oceans are absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making seawater more acidic. At lower pH levels, clams and other shellfish struggle to build shells. As their protective structures weaken and dissolve, the animals become vulnerable to damage and predation. But studies suggest that adding shell fragments to clam beds could release carbonate into the water, potentially neutralizing acidity caused by the greenhouse gas.
To find out whether shell hash could help California’s clams survive increasingly acidic conditions, Hensel brought shells from the tidal flat back to the lab, where she crushed them with a mortar and pestle and mixed the fragments into four plastic buckets of sand. Hensel filled these buckets, and four others containing sand alone, with local seawater and added the pinky nail–sized progeny of Pacific littleneck clams collected from Bodega Bay. She bubbled carbon dioxide through the seawater in half of the buckets to increase acidity. With their delicate shells, young clams are thought to be especially vulnerable to acidification.
After 90 days, Hensel dug up all the clams. Comparing the buckets containing more acidic seawater, she observed that the bivalves burrowed in shell hash had grown bigger than the clams in sand alone. Strangely, though, the larger clams were not heavier, and Hensel plans to cross-section the shells to assess whether the new growth was thinner or less dense.
The results inform researchers that shell hash does have a buffering effect under certain conditions, says Leah Bendell, a marine ecologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, who was not involved in the study. “It was a well-done lab experiment.”
Bendell also studies the buffering power of shell hash. Working with the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, Bendell and graduate student Bridget Doyle added shell fragments to clam beds in Burrard Inlet, near Vancouver, British Columbia. In that study, hash reduced pH fluctuations in seawater seeping through the sediment, which can vary markedly with rising and falling tides. Although the reduction was limited to areas with coarse sediments, and the hash did not reduce the overall pH, Bendell sees the results as a hint of something promising. Given a longer period of time, shell hash could have a greater effect on pH in certain clam beds, she says.
Shell hash may not be a panacea for ocean acidification everywhere, but Bendell and Hensel are slowly piecing together how carbonate might help individual beaches weather caustic conditions. Next summer, when Hensel begins adding shell hash to Bodega Bay’s clam beds, she will incorporate another element of traditional sea gardening. Indigenous caretakers regularly tilled clam beds, loosening the sediment and mixing in shell fragments. This repeated digging could bring oxygen to burrowed clams, open more space in the sediments, and alter seawater chemistry, Hensel says, and she plans to measure how the physical process affects both seawater chemistry and clam growth.
Schneider is hopeful that Hensel’s work will improve the health of his community’s clam beds, and the two researchers are discussing ways to involve the Indigenous communities around Bodega Bay. “I think it would just be really rewarding to see community members from my tribe having opportunities to be back out on the landscape to interact with traditional resources in the ways that our ancestors did,” Schneider says.
Most B.C. residents under 60 have been infected with COVID-19 or vaccinated: study – Prince Rupert Northern View – The Northern View
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