Nature’s surprises

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(Host) Think little things don’t matter? Ruth Page has gathered a few unlikely ones that make a difference in the natural environment, from the air around us to Nature’s flora and fauna.

(Page) When I was a kid and heard something new, I’d exclaim (after having lived all of eight or nine years), “Gosh, I didn’t know that!” My father would always grin and say, “My dear, there’s so MUCH you don’t know.”

Now, many decades later, that’s still true and I’m delighted. What could be duller than to be blase about the new knowledge humans are accumulating day by day and year by year. Here are a few of my latest “Gosh, I didn’t know that!” surprises.

There’s a Swiss car that gets its gas from rotten vegetables. Dubbed Rinspeed, it’s fed by methane that’s fermented from people’s kitchen garbage and gardens. Rinspeed will go 60 miles on 220 pounds of rotting carrots, tomatoes and other veggies, and produce less carbon dioxide than gasoline. Will moms someday say, “No need to completely clean your plates, kids, we’ll use the leftovers to run the car?”

Here’s one that shocked me: microchips damage the environment. They certainly sometimes damage mine, causing me to jump up from an infuriating computer and look around for something to hit, but I didn’t realize they’re serious consumers. Creating one tiny two-gram chip uses 72 grams of chemicals, 1.6 kilograms of fossil fuel, and 32 kilos of water. The scientific analysts report that those numbers are conservative, maybe half the actual consumption. They add that some of the chemicals, including arsine gas, are deadly; and the fossil fuels used contribute to global warming. When you think how often we get updated computers, you begin to see that the millions of computers worldwide are having a terrific impact, though invisible to us laypeople.

I love Nature’s little tricks and stratagems. One I recently learned is that box turtles act as silent dispersers of plant seeds. In the pine rocklands of south Florida, at least nine plant species locate new neighborhoods by hitching rides in turtle guts. Researchers at the University of Miami wondered how the plants managed to spread in their rocky habitat with little soil, and studied the numerous box turtles to see if they helped. They sure do. The students gathered a group of turtles for just a day, and examined their feces. They found undamaged seeds of the endangered locustberry, saw palmetto, and several others.

Little mammals called Hector’s dolphins are the rarest dolphins in the world. They swim only near the shores of New Zealand’s North and South Islands, and drown when caught in the gill nets fishermen use to catch small sharks. Courts overturned a decision to stop use of gill nets, but with only a hundred individuals of one Hector’s dolphin species left, those interested are negotiating to find a way to stop the unplanned slaughter.

This is Ruth Page, offering a few not trivial facts I’ve run across in recent months, all showing some invisible workings of our environment.

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