OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

scientific research and advances

Acidified ocean water widespread along North American West Coast

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A three-year survey of the California Current System along the West Coast of the United States found persistent, highly acidified water throughout this ecologically critical nearshore habitat, with “hotspots” of pH measurements as low as any oceanic surface waters in the world.

The researchers say that conditions will continue to worsen because the atmospheric carbon dioxide primarily to blame for this increase in acidification has been rising substantially in recent years.

One piece of good news came out of the study, which was published this week in Nature Scientific Reports. There are “refuges” of more moderate pH environments that could become havens for some marine organisms to escape more highly acidified waters, and which could be used as a resource for ecosystem management.

“The threat of ocean acidification is global and though it sometimes seems far away, it is happening here right now on the West Coast of the United States and those waters are already hitting our beaches,” said Francis Chan, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University and lead author on the study.

“The West Coast is very vulnerable. Ten years ago, we were focusing on the tropics with their coral reefs as the place most likely affected by ocean acidification. But the California Current System is getting hit with acidification earlier and more drastically than other locations around the world.”

A team of researchers developed a network of sensors to measure ocean acidification over a three-year period along more than 600 miles of the West Coast. The team observed near-shore pH levels that fell well below the global mean pH of 8.1 for the surface ocean, and reached as low as 7.4 at the most acidified sites, which is among the lowest recorded values ever observed in surface waters.

The lower the pH level, the higher the acidity. Previous studies have documented a global decrease of 0.11 pH units in surface ocean waters since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Like the Richter scale, the pH scale in logarithmic, so that a 0.11 pH unit decrease represents an increase in acidity of approximately 30 percent.

Highly acidified ocean water is potentially dangerous because many organisms are very sensitive to changes in pH. Chan said negative impacts already are occurring in the California Current System, where planktonic pteropods – or small swimming snails – were documented with severe shell dissolution.

“This is about more than the loss of small snails,” said Richard Feely, senior scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. “These pteropods are an important food source for herring, salmon and black cod, among other fish. They also may be the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine’ signifying potential risk for other species, including Dungeness crabs, oysters, mussels, and many organisms that live in tidepools or other near-shore habitats.”

Previous studies at OSU have chronicled the impact of acidified water on the Northwest oyster industry.

Chan said the team’s observations, which included a broad-scale ocean acidification survey via ship by NOAA, did not vary significantly over the three years – even with different conditions, including a moderate El Niño event.

“The highly acidified water was remarkably persistent over the three years,” Chan said. “Hotspots stayed as hotspots, and refuges stayed as refuges. This highly acidified water is not in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; it is right off our shore. Fortunately, there are swaths of water that are more moderate in acidity and those should be our focus for developing adaptation strategies.”

The researchers say there needs to be a focus on lowering stressors to the environment, such as maintaining healthy kelp beds and sea grasses, which many believe can partially mitigate the effects of increasing acidity.

Further, the moderately acidified refuge areas can be strategically used and managed, Chan pointed out.

“We probably have a hundred or more areas along the West Coast that are protected in one way or another, and we need to examine them more closely,” he said. “If we know how many of them are in highly acidified areas and how many are in refuge sites, we can use that information to better manage the risks that ocean acidification poses.”

Managing for resilience is a key, the researchers conclude.

“Even though we are seeing compromised chemistry in our ocean waters, we still have a comparably vibrant ecosystem,” Chan said. “Our first goal should be to not make things worse. No new stresses. Then we need to safeguard and promote resilience. How do we do that? One way is to manage for diversity, from ensuring multiple-age populations to maintaining deep gene pools.

“The greater the diversity, the better chance of improving the adaptability of our marine species.”

Chan, a faculty member in the College of Science at Oregon State University, was a member of the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Panel appointed by the governments of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

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Francis Chan, 541-737-9131, chanft@science.oregonstate.edu

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Acidification is threatening tidepool organisms

ocean sensors 2

A sensor at the Oregon coast.

Sediment from Himalayas may have made 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake more severe

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Sediment that eroded from the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau over millions of years was transported thousands of kilometers by rivers and in the Indian Ocean – and became sufficiently thick over time to generate temperatures warm enough to strengthen the sediment and increase the severity of the catastrophic 2004 Sumatra earthquake.

The magnitude 9.2 earthquake on Dec. 26, 2004, generated a massive tsunami that devastated coastal regions of the Indian Ocean. The earthquake and tsunami together killed more than 250,000 people making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in history.

An international team of scientists that outlined the process of sediment warming says the same mechanism could be in place in the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Pacific Northwest coast of North America, as well as off Iran, Pakistan and in the Caribbean.

Results of the research, which was conducted as part of the International Ocean Discovery Program, are being published this week in the journal Science.

“The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was triggered by an unusually strong earthquake with an extensive rupture area,” said expedition co-leader Lisa McNeill, an Oregon State University graduate now at the University of Southampton. “We wanted to find out what caused such a large earthquake and tsunami, and what it might mean for other regions with similar geological properties.”

The research team sampled for the first time sediment and rocks from the tectonic plate that feeds the Sumatra subduction zone. From the research vessel JOIDES Resolution, the team drilled down 1.5 kilometers below the seabed, measured different properties of the sediments, and ran simulations to calculate how the sediment and rock behaves as it piles up and travels eastward 250 kilometers toward the subduction zone.

“We discovered that in some areas where the sediments are especially thick, dehydration of the sediments occurred before they were subducted,” noted Marta Torres, an Oregon State University geochemist and co-author on the study. “Previous earthquake models assumed that dehydration occurred after the material was subducted, but we had suspected that it might be happening earlier in some margins.

“The earlier dehydration creates stronger, more rigid material prior to subduction, resulting in a very large fault area that is prone to rupture and can lead to a bigger and more dangerous earthquake.”

Torres explained that when the scientists examined the sediments, they found water between the sediment grains that was less salty than seawater only within a zone where the plate boundary fault develops, some 1.2 to 1.4 kilometers below the seafloor.

“This along with some other chemical changes are clear signals that it was an increase in temperature from the thick accumulation of sediment that was dehydrating the minerals,” Torres said.

Lead author Andre Hüpers of the University of Bremen in Germany said that the discovery will generate new interest in other subduction zone sites that also have thick, hot sediment and rock, especially those areas where the hazard potential is unknown.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone is one of the most widely studied sites in the world and experts say it may have experienced as many as two dozen major earthquakes over the past 10,000 years.

The sediment at the Cascadia deformation front is between 2.5 and 4.0 kilometers thick, which is somewhat less than the 4-5 kilometer thickness of the Sumatra region. However, because the subducting plate at Cascadia is younger when the plate arrives at the subduction zone, the estimated temperatures at the fault surface are about the same in both regions.

Torres is a professor in Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

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Marta Torres, 541-737-2902, mtorres@coas.oregonstate.edu

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Sediment cores

Sediment cores

New modified toy car designs offer children with disabilities more options

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have developed two new modified toy car designs for children with disabilities in an effort to encourage them to further explore, play, and engage in physical and social activities.

The new cars were developed under the umbrella of the “Go Baby Go” program at OSU, which provides modified, ride-on toy cars to young children with disabilities so they can move around independently. Independent movement has been linked to a wide range of developmental benefits in young children. 

The sit-to-stand car is a modified version of the original Go Baby Go car, but encourages the child to stand up in order to activate the switch that makes the car move. The goal is to encourage the physical skills of pulling up to stand, bear weight and balance, while also fostering more interaction with peers.

The “Throw Baby Throw” car is a modified toy car that uses a toy pitching machine to throw foam balls. The goal is to provide a way for children who have upper extremity limits to participate in throwing, a fundamental motor skill, while also facilitating socialization. 

“Both of these devices are designed to encourage movement and social interaction, which are critical developmental skills for all young children,” said Sam Logan, an assistant professor of kinesiology in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at OSU and leader of the university’s Go Baby Go program.

“Movement and socialization are very often combined early and continually as children develop.” 

The two new car designs were featured in a technical report published recently in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI. A study of a child using the sit-to-stand car also was recently published in the journal Pediatric Physical Therapy; researchers found the child was more engaged with peers when using the sit-to-stand car.

Modified toy cars are an inexpensive way to help toddlers with mobility issues get around, experts say. Power wheelchairs can be costly and typically aren’t available for children until they are older, and may not always be an option for children who are expected to eventually be able to walk. Toy cars and their modifications start at about $200, while motorized wheelchairs can run thousands of dollars. 

The sit-to-stand car was designed for children who may or are expected to walk eventually but their walking is delayed. In the study of the sit-to-stand car in use, researchers found that a child with disabilities spent about 10 percent more time engaging with his peers on the playground or in the gym at school when he used the sit-to-stand car, compared to using his forearm crutches.

“That’s exactly what you want to see,” Logan said. “This car gets you up and gets you moving. It’s also a way to introduce some fun around the practice of these skills that will help a child stand and walk on their own.” 

In developing the new car, researchers found the process takes just a few different steps than the original car. The “go” switch is located under the car’s seat, rather than on the steering wheel or elsewhere. Training others to modify cars for sit-to-stand would be fairly simple and could be done in a few hours in a workshop, Logan said.

The Throw Baby Throw car uses the same “go” technology as the original car, with the added element of the pitching machine, which is also activated by a switch that a child could press. 

“With the switch, kids with upper-extremity limits can throw the same as other kids,” Logan said. “The design is really about facilitating this interaction with other kids. You also need someone to catch, retrieve or dodge the balls being thrown.”

The engineering behind the throwing car is more complex and needs more refinement before the design could be shared more widely across the Go Baby Go network, Logan said. The throwing car also has not been studied in action. There is one car in use by clinicians in Portland now but the design is still considered a prototype, he said. 

The overarching goal of the new car designs is to find more ways to encourage children with disabilities to move, play and engage with their peers from a young age, Logan said.

“We encourage families, clinicians and teachers to embrace a ‘right device, right time, right place’ approach that takes into account each child’s specific needs and abilities,” he said. “Whatever typically-developing kids do should be the gold standard for all children, including those with disabilities.”

Co-authors of the technical report include Kathleen Bogart, William D. Smart, Brianna Goodwin, Samantha M. Ross, Michele Ann Catena, Austin A. Whitesell and Zachary J. Sefton of OSU; Heather Feldner of the University of Washington and Cole Galloway of the University of Delaware. The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Co-authors of the study of the sit-to-stand car include Megan MacDonald and Haylee Winden of OSU; Feldner of UW; Galloway, Michele Lobo and Tracy Stoner of University of Delaware; and Melynda Schreiber of the University of Utah. The research was supported by the Unidel Foundation.

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Sam Logan, 541-737-3437, sam.logan@oregonstate.edu

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Child in a Go Baby Go car

GoBabyGo at Oregon State

Throw Baby Throw car

Throw baby throw

Researcher Sam Logan

Sam Logan

New study documents aftermath of a supereruption, and expands size of Toba magma system

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The rare but spectacular eruptions of supervolcanoes can cause massive destruction and affect climate patterns on a global scale for decades – and a new study has found that these sites also may experience ongoing, albeit smaller eruptions for tens of thousands of years after.

In fact, Oregon State University researchers were able to link recent eruptions at Mt. Sinabung in northern Sumatra to the last eruption on Earth of a supervolcano 74,000 years ago at the Toba Caldera some 25 miles away.

The findings are being reported this week in the journal Nature Communications.

“The recovery from a supervolcanic eruption is a long process, as the volcano and the magmatic system try to re-establish equilibrium – like a body of water that has been disrupted by a rock being dropped into it,” said Adonara Mucek, an Oregon State doctoral candidate and lead author on the study.

“At Toba, it appears that the eruptions continued for at least 15,000 to 20,000 years after the supereruption and the structural adjustment continued at least until a few centuries ago – and probably is continuing today. It is the magmatic equivalent to aftershocks following an earthquake.”

This is the first time that scientists have been able to pinpoint what happens following the eruption of a supervolcano. To qualify as a supervolcano, the eruption must reach at least magnitude 8 on the Volcano Explosivity Index, which means the measured deposits for that eruption are greater than 1,000 cubic kilometers, or 240 cubic miles.

When Toba erupted, it emitted a volume of magma 28,000 times greater than that of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state. It was so massive, it is thought to have created a volcanic winter on Earth lasting years, and possibly triggering a bottleneck in human evolution.

Other well-known supervolcano sites include Yellowstone Park in the United States, Taupo Caldera in New Zealand, and Campi Flegrei in Italy.

“Supervolcanoes have lifetimes of millions of years during which there can be several supereruptions,” said Shanaka “Shan” de Silva, an Oregon State University volcanologist and co-author on the study. “Between those eruptions, they don’t die. Scientists have long suspected that eruptions continue after the initial eruption, but this is the first time we’ve been able to put accurate ages with those eruptions.”

Previous argon dating studies had provided rough ages of eruptions at Toba, but those eruption dates had too much range of error, the researchers say. In their study, the OSU researchers and their colleagues from Australia, Germany, the United States and Indonesia were able to decipher the most recent volcanic history of Toba by measuring the amount of helium remaining in zircon crystals in erupted pumice and lava.

The helium remaining in the crystals is a remnant of the decaying process of uranium, which has a well-understood radioactive decay path and half-life.

“Toba is at least 1.3 million years old, its supereruption took place about 74,000 years ago, and it had at least six definitive eruptions after that – and probably several more,” Mucek said. “The last eruption we have detected occurred about 56,000 years ago, but there are other eruptions that remain to be studied.”

The researchers also managed to estimate the history of structural adjustment at Toba using carbon-14 dating of lake sediment that has been uplifted up to 600 meters above the lake in which they formed. These data show that structural adjustment continued from at least 30,000 years ago until 2,000 years ago – and may be continuing today.

The study also found that the magma in Toba’s system has an identical chemical fingerprint and zircon crystallization history to Mt. Sinabung, which is currently erupting and is distinct from other volcanoes in Sumatra. This suggests that the Toba system may be larger and more widespread than previously thought, de Silva noted.

“Our data suggest that the recent and ongoing eruptions of Mt. Sinabung are part of the Toba system’s recovery process from the supereruption,” he said.

The discovery of the connection does not suggest that the Toba Caldera is in danger of erupting on a catastrophic scale any time soon, the researchers emphasized. “This is probably ‘business as usual’ for a recovering supervolcano,” de Silva said. It does emphasize the importance of having more sophisticated and frequent monitoring of the site to measure the uplift of the ground and image the magma system, the researchers note.

“The hazards from a supervolcano don’t stop after the initial eruption,” de Silva said. “They change to more local and regional hazards from eruptions, earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis that may continue regularly for several tens of thousands of years.

“Toba remains alive and active today.”

As large as the Toba eruption was, the reservoir of magma below the caldera is much, much greater, the researchers say. Studies at other calderas around Earth, such as Yellowstone, have estimated that there is between 10 and 50 times as much magma than is erupted during a supereruption.

Mucek and de Silva are affiliated with OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. The study was supported by the National Science Foundation. A video of them explaining their research is available at: http://bit.ly/2raULAx

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Adonara “Ado” Mucek, 541-908-1437, muceka@geo.oregonstate.edu;

Shanaka “Shan” de Silva, 541-737-1212, desilvas@geo.oregonstate.edu;

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Southward view of the northern third of the Lake Toba depression produced by the supereruption 74,000 years ago.

“Narco-deforestation” study links loss of Central American tropical forests to cocaine

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Central American tropical forests are beginning to disappear at an alarming rate, threatening the livelihood of indigenous peoples there and endangering some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in North America.

The culprit? Cocaine.

The problem is not the cultivation of the coca plant – which is processed into cocaine – that is causing this “narco-deforestation.” It results from people throughout the spectrum of the drug trade purchasing enormous amounts of land to launder their illegal profits, researchers say.

Results of the study, which was funded by the Open Society Foundations and supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, have just been published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

“Starting in the early 2000s, the United States-led drug enforcement in the Caribbean and Mexico pushed drug traffickers into places that were harder to patrol, like the large, forested areas of central America,” said David Wrathall, an Oregon State University geographer and co-author on the study. “A flood of illegal drug money entered these places and these drug traffickers needed a way that they could spend it.

“It turns out that one of the best ways to launder illegal drug money is to fence off huge parcels of forest, cut down the trees, and build yourself a cattle ranch. It is a major, unrecognized driver of tropical deforestation in Central America.”

Using data from the Global Forest Change program estimating deforestation, the research team identified irregular or abnormal deforestation from 2001-2014 that did not fit previously identified spatial or temporal patterns caused by more typical forms of land settlement or frontier colonization. The team then estimated the degree to which narcotics trafficking contributes to forest loss, using a set of 15 metrics developed from the data to determine the rate, timing and extent of deforestation.

Strongly outlying or anomalous patches and deforestation rates were then compared to data from the Office of National Drug Control Policy – considered the best source for estimating cocaine flow through the Central American corridor, Wrathall pointed out.

“The comparisons helped confirm relationships between deforestation and activities including cattle ranching, illegal logging, and land speculation, which traffickers use to launder drug trafficking profits in remote forest areas of Central America,” Wrathall said.

They estimate that cocaine trafficking may account for up to 30 percent of the total forest loss in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua over the past decade. A total of 30 to 60 percent of the forest losses occurred within nationally and internationally designated protected areas, threatening conservation efforts to maintain forest carbon sinks, ecological services, and rural and indigenous livelihoods.

“Imagine the cloud of carbon dioxide from all of that burning forest,” Wrathall said. “The most explosive change in land use happened in areas where land ownership isn’t clear – in forested, remote areas of Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, where the question of who owns the land is murky.”

“In Panama, the financial system is built to launder cocaine money so they don’t need to cut down trees to build ranches for money laundering. In Honduras, land is the bank.”

Farming and cattle ranching aren’t the only money laundering methods threatening tropical forests, the researchers say. Mining, tourism ventures and industrial agriculture are other ways drug money is funneled into legitimate businesses.

Wrathall said the impact affects both people and ecosystems.

“The indigenous people who have lived sustainably in these environments are being displaced as the stewards of the land,” he said. “These are very important ecological areas with tremendous biodiversity that may be lost.”

The authors says the solutions include de-escalating and demilitarizing the war on drugs; strengthening the position of indigenous peoples and traditional forest communities to be stewards of the remaining forest lands; and developing regional awareness of the issue.

“We are cruising through the last of our wild spaces in Central America,” Wrathall said. “Obviously, ending the illegal drug trade would be the best solution, but that isn’t going to happen. In fact, when drug enforcement efforts are successful, they often push the activity into remote areas that haven’t had issues before, such as remote biodiversity hotspots.”

Wrathall is an assistant professor in Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. He specializes in the impact of climate change on the distribution of the human population and other factors that affect human migration.

“The surge of violence in Central America that has accompanied drug trafficking is recognized as a major driver of migration in the region.”

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David Wrathall, 541-737-8051, david.wrathall@coas.oregonstate.edu

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Central American forests are giving way to pasture land for cattle ranches.

Magnesium within plankton provides tool for taking the temperatures of past oceans

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scientists cannot travel into the past to take the Earth’s temperature so they use proxies to discern past climates, and one of the most common methods for obtaining such data is derived from the remains of tiny marine organisms called foraminifera found in oceanic sediment cores.

These “forams,” as they are called, are sand-grained-sized marine protists that make shells composed of calcite. When they grow, they incorporate magnesium from seawater into their shells. When ocean temperatures are warmer, forams incorporate more magnesium; less when the temperatures are cooler. As a result, scientists can tell from the amount of magnesium what the temperature of the seawater was thousands, even millions of years ago. These proxies are important tools for understanding past climate.

However, studies of live forams reveal that shell magnesium can vary, even when seawater temperature is constant. A new study published this week in the journal Nature Communications affirms that magnesium variability is linked to the day/night (light/dark) cycle in simple, single-celled forams and extends the findings to more complex multi-chambered foraminifera.

To understand how forams develop and what causes magnesium variability, the team of scientists from Oregon State, University of California, Davis, University of Washington and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory grew the multi-chambered species, Neogloboquadrina dutertrei, in a laboratory under highly controlled conditions. They used high-resolution imaging techniques to “map” the composition of these lab-grown specimens.

“We found that high-magnesium is precipitated at night, and low-magnesium is added to the shells during the day, similar to the growth patterns of the single-chambered species,” said Jennifer S. Fehrenbacher, an ocean biogeochemist and paleoceanographer at Oregon State University and lead author on the study. “This confirms that magnesium variability is driven by the same mechanism in two species with two different ecological niches. We can now say with some level of confidence that magnesium-banding is intrinsically linked to shell formation processes as opposed to other environmental factors.

“The variability in magnesium content of the shells doesn’t change the utility of forams as a proxy for temperature. Rather, our results give us new insights into how these organisms build their shells and lends confidence to their utility as tools for reconstructing temperatures.”

Other co-authors on this study are Ann Russell, Catherine Davis, and Howard Spero at the University of California, Davis; Alex Gagnon at the University of Washington, Zihua Zhu and John Cliff at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Pamela Martin.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. Fehrenbacher is an assistant professor in Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

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 Jennifer Fehrenbacher, 541-737-6285, fehrenje@coas.oregonstate.edu

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N. dutertrei

N. dutertrei grown in a laboratory

Study provides detailed glimpse of predators’ effects on complex, subtidal food web

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Research using time-lapse photography in the Galapagos Marine Reserve suggests the presence of a key multilevel “trophic cascade” involving top- and mid-level predators as well as urchins and algae.

The findings are important because they include detailed information about interactions in a complex food web. Such information is crucial to knowing how to cause, prevent or reverse population changes within the web.

In the rocky, species-rich subtidal area off the Galapagos Islands, scientists from Oregon State University and Brown University examined the relationships among predatory fishes, urchins, the algae that the urchins graze on, and how the interactions among them were influenced by sea lions and sharks at the top of the food chain.

The key question: Do predators high up in the chain affect the abundance of the “primary producers” at the bottom – in this case algae – thus causing a trophic cascade?

Trophic level refers to a species’ position in the chain, and the cascade describes the series of effects that can occur.

Using GoPro cameras, the researchers made a number of key findings regarding triggerfish, Spanish hogfish, pencil urchins, the larger green urchins and algae, including:

  • Among a diverse guild of predatory fishes, triggerfish can control the abundance of pencil urchins and thus also the abundance of algae the urchins eat; the experiments showed grazing on algae was eliminated when the pencil urchins were exposed to triggerfish predation, meaning triggerfish are a candidate for protection because of their strong effects on ecosystem function.
  • Green urchins eat more algae than pencil urchins yet are not the urchin prey of choice for predatory fish. That suggests those fish aren’t controlling green urchin populations and thus that green-urchin barrens in the Galapagos – areas where the urchins have stripped the sea floor of algae – are not the result of the overfishing of predatory fish.
  • Spanish hogfish are not major predators of urchins as earlier, survey-based research had suggested. Hogfish mainly eat the smaller pencil urchins and also interfere with triggerfish feeding on large pencil urchins; the hassling hogfish cause triggerfish to spend more time to eat an urchin and in some cases force a fumble.
  • Statistical modeling of predation on pencil urchins indicates that two types of interference behavior – the hogfish harassing the triggerfish, and sea lions and sharks startling the triggerfish – could slow the rate of triggerfish predation on pencil urchins.

The researcher who did the modeling, Mark Novak of the College of Science at Oregon State, noted that historically, ecologists believed complex food webs typical of the tropics were more immune to trophic cascades than the simpler food webs of higher latitudes; the Galapagos straddle the equator.

Studies such as this one now suggest that is not the case, and that the dynamics of complex food webs can be as predictable as simpler ones provided you understand who the relevant players are.

“When the backbone of the system is strong, you can connect the top of the food chain to the bottom despite all of the indirect effects and the complexities of the system,” said Novak, assistant professor of integrative biology.

“It’s important to know individual species identity when you’ve got a suite of consumers,” Novak said. “The hogfish, the triggerfish, they all feed on very similar things, yet one of the two is most important, the one that drove that first link. And an urchin isn’t just an urchin – one was more immune to consumption from triggerfish, the other more susceptible. And one urchin was important for grazing, and another was not.”

Merely lumping species together at trophic levels would have caused researchers to miss a lot of the subtleties that the photographic study uncovered.

“If you just put urchins out and see how quickly they disappear, you can’t attribute that to any given predator,” Novak said. “We were able to identify those species that were responsible for transmitting the cascade.”

Findings were recently published in PLOS One. The National Science Foundation supported this research.

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Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

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Galapagos fish

Triggerfish, top, and hogfish

Pigment discovered at Oregon State University inspires new Crayola crayon color

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A blue pigment discovered at Oregon State University is the inspiration for Crayola’s new crayon color.

The Easton, Pennsylvania-based company announced today that a recently retired yellow crayon known as Dandelion would be replaced by a color inspired by the YInMn pigment developed in the laboratory of OSU chemistry professor Mas Subramanian.

YInMn refers to the elements yttrium, indium and manganese, which along with oxygen comprise the vibrant pigment.

Crayola made the announcement at The Colorful World of Pigments, an OSU-hosted celebration of YInMn blue and its impact on art, culture and industry.

Subramanian, noting that people love the color blue for a wide variety of reasons, called it “truly an honor” that his discovery has led to a new crayon color.

“Blue is associated with open spaces, freedom, intuition, imagination, expansiveness, inspiration and sensitivity,” said Subramanian, the Milton Harris Chair of Materials Science. “Blue also represents meanings of depth, trust, loyalty, sincerity, wisdom, confidence, stability, faith, heaven and intelligence. We could not imagine a better partner than Crayola, a brand synonymous with color and creativity, to help us share this discovery with the world.”

Crayola is inviting the public to help name the color of its new blue with a contest that kicks off today at Crayola.com/NewColor and runs through June 2. Those who submit name ideas will be entered for a chance to win one of four weekly prizes. 

Crayola will unveil the new name and announce six grand prize winners in early September, and the new blue crayon will begin appearing in Crayola products in late 2017.

“We are a company all about kids, creativity and color, so we strive to keep our color palette innovative and on trend, which is why we’re excited to introduce a new blue crayon color inspired by the YInMn pigment,” said Smith Holland, CEO and president of Crayola. “The new blue crayon color will help Crayola to continue to inspire kids and kids at heart, to create everything imaginable.”

YInMn blue was discovered by accident in 2009 when Subramanian and his team were experimenting with new materials that could be used in electronics applications.

The researchers mixed manganese oxide – which is black in color – with other chemicals and heated them in a furnace to nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. One of their samples turned out to be a vivid blue. Oregon State graduate student Andrew Smith initially made these samples to study their electrical properties.

“This was a serendipitous discovery, a happy accident,” Subramanian said. “But in fact, many breakthrough discoveries in science happen when one is not looking for it. As Louis Pasteur famously said, ‘In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.’

“Most pigments are discovered by chance,” Subramanian added. “The reason is because the origin of the color of a material depends not only on the chemical composition, but also on the intricate arrangement of atoms in the crystal structure. So someone has to make the material first, then study its crystal structure thoroughly to explain the color.”   

YInMn blue features a unique structure that allows the manganese ions to absorb red and green wavelengths of light while only reflecting blue. The vibrant blue is so durable, and its compounds are so stable – even in oil and water – that the color does not fade.

These characteristics, as well as its non-toxicity, make the new pigment versatile for a variety of commercial products. Used in paints, for example, they can help keep buildings cool by reflecting infrared light.

“What is amazing is that through much of human history, civilizations around the world have sought inorganic compounds that could be used to paint things blue but often had limited success,” Subramanian said. “Most had environmental and/or durability issues. The YInMn blue pigment is very stable/durable. There is no change in the color when exposed to high temperatures, water, and mildly acidic and alkali conditions.”

The Colorful World of Pigments event is part of a series known as SPARK: The Year of Arts and Science at OSU. The series explores the places where art and science intersect.

Hosted by the College of Science, the event included a discussion of color by a panel that included Subramanian; Holland; Christopher Manning of the Shepherd Color Company, OSU’s licensing partner for the pigment; and the curator of Harvard University’s 2,500-specimen Forbes Pigment Collection, a scientific catalog of color that includes YInMn blue.

“We are very excited about our part in bringing YInMn blue to market for this and other industries,” Manning said. “We pride ourselves on being at the leading edge of inorganic color and pigment technology.”

Also at the event, Subramanian led tours of the lab where YInMn blue was discovered, and demonstrated how it was discovered.

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Researchers identify evidence of oldest orchid fossil on record

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The orchid family has some 28,000 species – more than double the number of bird species and quadruple the mammal species. As it turns out, they’ve also been around for a while.

A newly published study documents evidence of an orchid fossil trapped in Baltic amber that dates back some 45 million years to 55 million years ago, shattering the previous record for an orchid fossil found in Dominican amber some 20-30 million years old.

Results of the discovery have just been published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.

“It wasn’t until a few years ago that we even had evidence of ancient orchids because there wasn’t anything preserved in the fossil record,” said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus of entomology in the College of Science at Oregon State University and lead author on the study. “But now we’re beginning to locate pollen evidence associated with insects trapped in amber, opening the door to some new discoveries.”

Orchids have their pollen in small sac-like structures called pollinia, which are attached by supports to viscidia, or adhesive pads, that can stick to the various body parts of pollinating insects, including bees, beetles, flies and gnats. The entire pollination unit is known as a pollinarium.

In this study, a small female fungus gnat was carrying the pollinaria of an extinct species of orchid when it became trapped in amber more than 45 million years ago. The pollinaria was attached to the base of the gnat’s hind leg. Amber preserves fossils so well that the researchers could identify a droplet of congealed blood at the tip of the gnat’s leg, which had been broken off shortly before it was entombed in amber.

At the time, all of the continents hadn’t even yet drifted apart.

The fossil shows that orchids were well-established in the Eocene and it is likely that lineages extended back into the Cretaceous period. Until such forms are discovered, the present specimen provides a minimum date that can be used in future studies determining the evolutionary history and phylogeny of the orchids.

How the orchid pollen in this study ended up attached to the fungus gnat and eventually entombed in amber from near the Baltic Sea in northern Europe is a matter of speculation. But, Poinar says, orchids have evolved a surprisingly sophisticated system to draw in pollinating insects, which may have led to the gnat’s demise.

“We probably shouldn’t say this about a plant,” Poinar said with a laugh, “but orchids are very smart. They’ve developed ways to attract little flies and most of the rewards they offer are based on deception.”

Orchids use color, odor and the allure of nectar to draw in potential pollinating insects. Orchids will emit a scent that suggests to hungry insects the promise of food, but after entering the flower they will learn that the promise of nourishment was false.

Likewise, female gnats may pick up a mushroom-like odor from many orchids, which attracts them as a place to lay their eggs because the decaying fungal tissue is a source of future nutrition. Alas, again it is a ruse. In frustration, they may go ahead and lay their eggs, dooming their offspring to a likely death from a lack of food.

Finally, male insects are attracted by the ersatz scent of female flies and they actually will attempt to copulate with a part of the orchid they think is a potential mate.

All three of these processes are based on deception, Poinar said, and they all have the same end result.

“Though the deception works in different ways, the bottom line is that the orchid is able to draw in pollinating insects, which unwittingly gather pollen that becomes attached to their legs and other body parts, and then pass it on to the next orchid flowers that lure them in,” he said.

“Orchids are, indeed, pretty smart.”

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George Poinar, Jr., poinarg@science.oregonstate.edu

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Fig. 1

A fungus gnat trapped in amber some 45-55 million years ago is carrying on the upper portion of its severed leg a pollen sac from an orchid – the oldest evidence of the flower ever discovered.


Fig. 4 insert

This microscopic view shows pollinarium – a cluster of pollen found in orchids – that will stick to the legs and body of pollinating insects.

Research aims to protect eagles from wind turbines

CORVALLIS, Ore. – New research from Oregon State University will aim to make eagles less likely to collide with wind-turbine blades.

The U.S. Department of Energy Wind Technology Office has awarded Roberto Albertani of the OSU College of Engineering a 27-month, $625,000 grant to develop technology for detecting and deterring approaching eagles and for determining if a blade strike has occurred.

A growing energy source in the U.S., wind power uses towers up to 300 feet tall typically equipped with three blades with wingspans double that of a Boeing 747. At their tips, the blades are moving close to 200 miles per hour.

Wind power is generally regarded as green energy, but danger to birds – particularly bald eagles and golden eagles – is a concern.

Albertani’s team will work on a three-part system for protecting the eagles. “We’re the only team in the world doing this kind of work,” said Albertani, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.

The team includes Sinisa Todorovic, associate professor of computer science, and Matthew Johnston, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.

If successful, Albertani said, the system that he and his colleagues develop will be a major breakthrough in a safer-for-wildlife expansion of wind energy worldwide.

The system will feature a tower-mounted, computer-connected camera able to determine if an approaching bird is an eagle and whether it’s flying toward the blades. If both those answers are yes, the computer triggers a ground-level deterrent: randomly moving, brightly colored facsimiles of people, designed to play into eagles’ apparent aversion to humans.

“There’s no research available, but hopefully those will deter the eagles from coming closer to the turbines,” Albertani said. “We want the deterrent to be simple and affordable.”

At the root of each turbine blade will be a vibration sensor able to detect the kind of thump produced by a bird hitting a blade. Whenever such a thump is detected, recorded video data from a blade-mounted micro-camera can be examined to tell if the impact was caused by an eagle or something else.

“If we strike a generic bird, sad as that is, it’s not as critical as striking a protected golden eagle, which would cause the shutdown of a wind farm for a period of time, a fine to the operator, big losses in revenue, and most important the loss of a member of a protected species,” Albertani said.

Albertani’s team includes two collaborators from the U.S. Geological Survey, biological statistician Manuela Huso and wildlife biologist and eagle expert Todd Katzner. An external advisory board includes Siemens Wind Power and Avangrid Renewables.

Primary field testing will take place at the North American Wind Research and Training Center in Tucumcari, N.M., and the NREL National Wind Technology Center in Boulder, Colo. Field work will also be done in Oregon and California.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are roughly 143,000 bald eagles and 40,000 golden eagles in the United States.

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Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

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