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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

October 28, 2011

Air Date: October 28, 2011



No Environmental Laws Near The Border

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House Republicans have proposed a bill that would suspend 36 different environmental laws within 100 miles of the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. UC Hastings College of the Law Professor John Leshy tells host Bruce Gellerman that the proposed bill is politically motivated. (06:50)

Deadly Bat Disease Identified

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The deadly white nose syndrome in bats has been linked to a fungus that most likely came from Europe. Carol Meteyer is a wildlife pathologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. She tells host Bruce Gellerman that the fungus attacks bats while they’re hibernating and erodes layers of skin and hair follicles on their wings. (05:40)

Unusual Tribal Alliance Saves Forest and Tradition / Lisa Morehouse

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In rural northern California landless Mountain Maidu Indians are working closely with the Forest Service. The unusual collaboration gives the Maidu a place to cultivate traditional plants and, at the same time, reduces fire danger. Lisa Morehouse reports. (08:30)

The Hermit Crab Housing Crisis

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Hermit crabs are low-maintenance pets – all you need is a warm tank, table scraps and an assortment of snail shells. As the crabs grow, they inspect abandoned shells to make a new home. But demand for shells in the pet trade could leave wild hermits homeless. Makerbot, the creator of the first 3D printer for consumers, is testing out designs for plastic shells. But will the finicky crabs be impressed? Makerbot CEO Bre Pettis speaks with host Bruce Gellerman. (06:15)

BirdNote® Gull Identification

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It’s migration time for birds, and in the Northwest part of the United States, gulls are on the move. Michael Stein notes that it can be quite difficult to tell gulls apart. (02:05)

A Leafy Green Sea Slug / Ari Daniel Shapiro

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The complex makeup of a small green sea slug may eventually help scientists learn more about human DNA and genetic engineering. Report Ari Daniel Shapiro reveals the life of the bizarre creature known as Elysia chlorotica, or the Eastern Emerald Elysia. (05:15)

Science Note - Cats Illuminate HIV Research

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Feline immunodeficiency virus or FIV affects domestic cats the same way HIV affects humans. Scientists are developing gene therapy treatment that may offer immunity to the virus and that also has glow-in-the-dark results. Living on Earth’s Jack Rodolico reports. (01:35)

Three Strange Tales Of Lake Preservation / Ike Sriskandarajah

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People and things, lost in time, live on in lakes and bogs. The chemical properties of inland waters can prevent decomposition and keep the dead looking young. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah and lake expert John Downing of Iowa State University dredge up Three Strange Tales of Lake Preservation. (09:10)

Earth Ear

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Pipistrelle bats flit over a trout pond in Kent England, catching insects on a summer evening. (01:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: John Leshy, Carol Meteyer, Bre Pettis
REPORTERS: Lisa Morehouse, Ari Daniel Shapiro, Ike Sriskandarajah
NOTES: Michael Stein, Jack Rodolico


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International, it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.

House Republicans want to protect our nation's borders by overriding our environmental laws.

LESHY: Clean air, clean water, the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, the act that governs the National Park Service, the National Forest System. What this would do is take that little, sort of, camel's nose under the tent and put the entire camel inside the tent.

GELLERMAN: Do good border fences make for a bad environment? Also, it’s slow, slimy and very, very strange.

PIERCE: This student walked into my lab with this little green sea slug. And I said, “Where the hell did you get that?” And, she said, “Well, right out here in the mill pond, you know?” And I thought, “Well, that’s weird.”

GELLERMAN: Wait till you hear just how weird! And bodies of water that preserve - bodies - for thousands of years. These spooky stories, and more, this week on Living on Earth. Don’t be scared.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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No Environmental Laws Near The Border

The metal wall straddling parts of the US border with Mexico has been controversial for inhibiting animal migrations. (Photo: Wonderlane)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.

House Republicans have taken the first step to make good on a promise they made last year in their Pledge to America. Voting on strict party lines, the Natural Resources Committee approved a bill Republicans call “The National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act.” It would allow the Border Patrol to ignore three-dozen environmental laws on federal land within 100 miles of U.S. borders. The chief sponsor of the bill is Utah Republican Rob Bishop.

BISHOP: Border Patrol should not be stopped or inhibited in anything they try to do. The environment is being trashed by illegal entry. It's not national security that's threatening our environment. It's the lack of national security that is threatening our environment. Environmental laws and border security are in conflict. What is happening right now is not acceptable and has to change.

GELLERMAN: But John Leshy says nothing needs to change. He was general counsel at the Department of the Interior during the Clinton Administration and testified before the House Committee. Professor Leshy now teaches at UC Hastings College of Law.

Environmental laws would be waived round the Great Lakes under the Republican plan to give the Department of Homeland Security more power. (NASA)

LESHY: It provides a complete exemption for the Department of Homeland Security from all of the major environmental and related natural resource laws. When it operates on federal land within 100 miles of any land border of the United States - that’s basically the Canadian border and the Mexican border. So, all around the Great Lakes, and you know, there’s a lot of federal land - a lot of National Forests, a lot of National Parks, those are all…would be under great threat.

GELLERMAN: So, those would be laws like safe drinking water?

LESHY: Clean air, clean water, the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, the act that governs the National Park Service, the National Forest System, etc., on and on - long list - 30-some laws.

GELLERMAN: Now, can’t the Secretary of Homeland Security, right now, can’t they use their authority that’s been delegated by Congress to waive environmental laws?

LESHY: They have limited authority to do that under some laws passed under the Republican Congress in the Bush Administration. It’s very localized and very limited. What this would do is take that little, sort of, camel's nose under the tent and put the entire camel inside the tent.

GELLERMAN: So, as I understand this bill, it's actually a compromise. It would have originally included private lands.

LESHY: That’s right. In its original proposal, it applied to all private and state land, as well as federal land within 100-miles of the border. It also originally defined the border to include coastlines, so it would have included, you know, California, and Massachusetts and the entire state of Florida and all of that.

So, they have limited it to some extent, but it’s still … on any federal land there, DHS can basically gain access, build roads, build whatever facilities that it decides it needs to secure operational control of the border without complying with any laws.

GELLERMAN: Well, I know back in 2009, under the Bush Administration, that the Department of Homeland Security said they were going to pay up to 50 million dollars for reasonable mitigation measures because of the environmental damage that they did in terms of constructing roads and building the fence.

LESHY: Yeah, there have been, you know, localized problems along the Mexican border with the fence and endangered species and that sort of thing. The agencies - that is the Department of Homeland Security and the land managers in the Interior Department and the Agriculture Department have actually worked these problems out as they’ve arisen. And, in fact, nobody in the federal executive branch now - at DHS or in the Interior or Agriculture Departments - favors this exemption. They say we don’t need it.

A House Republican bill would exempt federal lands within 100 miles of an international border, like Glacier National Park, from protective environmental laws. (National Park Service)

GELLERMAN: Has there, to your mind, Professor, been a case where national security was at risk because of some environmental laws … red tape?

LESHY: You know, it’s interesting. Many of the laws that this proposal would waive actually have national security exemptions in them, like the Clean Water Act. I mean, a number of environmental laws say, "Look, if there is a national security issue with implementing these laws, it'll be worked out between EPA and Homeland Security."

GELLERMAN: Well, I guess I’m going to ask you to speak on behalf of the House Republicans - they passed it out of the Natural Resources Committee. Why do they say they want it?

LESHY: Frankly, in my own judgment, this is all about politics, and not about real policy on the ground. It’s convenient to beat up these days on regulators and on environmental laws as causing all sorts of problems.

And, in the new Tea Party Contract with America, they made securing the borders a big deal and they don’t like things like the Endangered Species Act and the Wilderness Act that try to safeguard some pristine areas of federal land. So they’re seizing this sort of border security mania to try to score some political points.

GELLERMAN: You testified before the House Committee, right?


GELLERMAN: And what was the reception to what you were saying?

LESHY: Oh (LAUGHS), fairly hostile from the Tea Party-types. I mean, some members waived their copy of the Constitution at me and basically said, “Doesn’t the Constitution say that border security trumps everything else?”- which is really not true. So, I would say my testimony, which was, you know, along the lines of what I said here - that this is really not fixing a real problem - was met with a fairly hostile reception.

GELLERMAN: I noticed that among the backers of this bill include some motorcycle rider associations.

LESHY: Yeah, that’s quite interesting, actually. The Motorcycle Riders Association and the Cattlemen’s Association apparently support this. Frankly, if I were them I would be a little troubled by this because if you say DHS has complete exemption from laws to do what it needs on these federal lands, I think that grazers and hunters and miners and other people who use these lands might find themselves crowded out by DHS. Because this says if DHS needs access and needs to occupy these lands, it can without any control. So, I think actually poses a threat to their activities.

GELLERMAN: The bill came out of a committee. What happens now? The full House gets to vote on it?

LESHY: Yeah, I think it has to go through a couple of other committees, then it goes to the floor of the House. I would predict it will probably pass the House. When it gets over to the Senate, I’m not sure what’s going to happen.

GELLERMAN: Professor, thank you very much.

LESHY: Thank you. Glad to have the opportunity to talk.

GELLERMAN: John Leshy is a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law.

Related link:
House Natural Resource Committee

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[MUSIC: Jason Moran “Planet Rock” from Modernistic (Blue Note Records 2002)]

Deadly Bat Disease Identified

White nose syndrome has been identified as a newly arrived fungus that attacks a bat’s nose and wings. (US Fish and Wildlife Service)

GELLERMAN: Scientists report they have definitively identified the cause of a mysterious disease that’s been devastating colonies of bats. The disease was first discovered in upstate New York in 2006, and has spread to 19 Eastern U.S. states and four Canadian Provinces.

The deadly disease has a name - White Nose Syndrome - but the cause has baffled scientists - until now. Turns out, it’s a fungus: Geomyces destructans. It’s a cold loving fungus that can kill up to 90 percent of the bats in a colony while they hang and hibernate during the winter.

Carol Meteyer is a pathologist with the U.S. Geological Survey at the National Wildlife Health Center, and a member of the team that made the breakthrough discovery. We reached Dr. Meteyer at her office in Madison, Wisconsin.

METEYER: The reason it’s called White Nose Syndrome is because the fungus can infect the skin of the muzzle, but it’s actually causing the most major damage of the wing membrane. And that wing membrane is of critical importance to the survival of bats that hibernate.

GELLERMAN: So it’s the bat wings that are being infected, not just the nose.

White nose syndrome has been identified as a newly arrived fungus that attacks a bat’s nose and wings. (US Fish and Wildlife Service)

METEYER: It’s primarily the bat wings. And the bat wings are critical during hibernation. They help maintain hydration or water balance. They help maintain the warmth of the bat - the body temperature of the bat - probably gas exchange, because they have gone from their heart from beating, maybe 1,000 times per minute when they’re flying, to the heart beating three times per minute when they’re hibernating. So they’re not breathing very often, and so there is transpiration or some respiration through that wing membrane as well.

GELLERMAN: How is it killing the bats?

METEYER: Animals that hibernate as part of their survival strategy have their immune system down regulated or their immune system goes into hibernation as well. So the bats, when they’re in hibernation in these caves, have very little immune response to any type of pathogen that might find them.

Usually these pathogens have evolved with the bats and probably also hibernate but Geomyces destructans, White Nose Syndrome, grows at the ideal temperature of the bat’s skin when it’s hibernating and it erodes through their skin without even being recognizing until they come out of hibernation in the spring.

GELLERMAN: It erodes their skin. It’s basically flesh-eating?

METEYER: You could call it that. It produces enzymes. So it colonizes that skin's surface, it begins to erode through that epidermis or the protective upper level of skin and it actually gets down into the connective tissue. And the wing membrane of bats is incredibly delicate. There’s one cell layer on top, there’s one cell layer on the bottom, and then there’s just a fine connective tissue, lace network that has nerves and blood vessels, but you could almost see through it. That’s how delicate those wing membranes are.

GELLERMAN: So where did this Geomyces destructans, this fungus, come from?

METEYER: The evidence that we have points to a new introduction of this organism from Europe. After we had determined and isolated this fungus from White Nose Syndrome, done the genetics, named it - it’s a new fungus - folks in Europe said: "Well, we have been seeing white noses on our bats for a number of years, in many different countries."

GELLERMAN: But those bats haven’t been dying.

The distribution of white nose syndrome in the Northeast US (Photo: Cal Butchkoski, PA Game Commission)

METEYER: They haven’t been dying. That’s the intriguing part of this. You know, we assume that when bats hibernate, they do not have an immune system. That’s probably not any different in Europe than it is here. However, the hibernation period may be shorter in Europe than it is in upstate New York or Canada. So they may not be in those caves with immune suppression long enough to have this fungus really have the devastating effect that it has on our northeastern bats.
So, maybe they get a little bit of an infection, but they arouse, they can feed, you know, spring time comes earlier, and their immune system can clear this fungus from the wing membrane. We did publish a study this summer where we had bats that were severely affected with White Nose Syndrome when they aroused in early May, brought them in to rehabilitation, provided them with food, water and warmth, and they completely recovered.

GELLERMAN: Well, can we spray them with a fungicide or can we inoculate them, or will they just evolve immunity?

METEYER: The question of evolved immunity is a tricky one. Hibernating animals have evolved the strategy to conserve energy and not have a functioning immune system during winter. As far as treating bats, spraying bats - the environment that they’re in, in those caves - is so delicate. If they start spraying the caves to disinfect them, they’ll throw off that ecological balance that's evolved over eons, and one of the problems might be that since Geomyces destructans is the newcomer on the block, it may be the only one to survive. And some of these antibiotics, they are toxic, especially fungicides. You might spray it on the bat but you could kill the bat by spraying it. So it’s something that is being worked on and being investigated, but it’s not going to be a quick fix.

GELLERMAN: We’ve been talking with Dr. Carol Meteyer, she’s a wildlife pathologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, about the mysterious and now known cause of the catastrophic disease known as White Nose Syndrome in bats. Thank you so very much.

METEYER: Oh, you’re welcome. Thanks for inviting me.

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[MUSIC: Stanton Moore “Witch Doctor” from All Kooked Out (Fog City Records 1998)]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead, a 3D printer creates new houses for homeless hermit crabs. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Gary Burton/Keith Jarrett: “The Raven Speaks” from Throb (Atlantic Records 1969)]

Unusual Tribal Alliance Saves Forest and Tradition

Beverly Ogle’s great grandmother (right) raised all her children in Humbug Valley, California. (Photo: Beverly Ogle)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.

For our next story, we head to northeastern California and the high alpine valley where the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains meet. This land was once filled with the villages of native inhabitants: the Mount Maidu. But 49’ers, gold rush prospectors, developers and government agencies all laid claim to the land that the Mount Maidu people called their home.

And over the decades, the population of the Mount Maidu declined, and so did their access to the land that they use for traditional practices. Now the Mount Maidu are working to regain formal stewardship of their homeland and, as Lisa Morehouse reports, they’re doing it through some unique collaborations.


MOREHOUSE: On the edge of a high mountain meadow called Indian Valley, Danny Manning walks up a steep hill on Indian trust land that’s been in his family for generations. To the right, it’s dark - thick with trees and other growth. But the left side is open and clear, with the neat piles of thinned brush which a crew will soon start carefully burning.


MANNING: When we first started this project, you couldn’t even see 20 feet in front of you, but now you can see about 100 yards up the hill - piles all the way up.


MOREHOUSE: Manning’s the Assistant Fire Chief of the Greenville Rancheria, which is like a reservation. He brought in a small fire crew to tend this land in native ways.


MOREHOUSE: They’re taking out sugar pines and brush, providing space for oaks to encourage the growth of acorns, a traditional Maidu food source. All throughout this region, Manning says, are plants for teas and even poison oak remedies.

MANNING: Anybody else would walk through here and say, “Oh, this is beautiful, this is nice land,” and we look around and see stuff we could use, and we still use it.

MOREHOUSE: Caring for and using the land, he says, is essential to Maidu survival. But there is very little land in Mt. Maidu ownership. Many Maidu aren’t part of federally recognized tribes. Plus, there’s a long history of attempts to keep Maidu from their cultural and ecological practices.

Danny Manning, Assistant Fire Chief of Greenville Rancheria. “When we first started this project, you couldn’t see 20 feet in front of you but now you can see 100 yards up the hill.”
(Lisa Morehouse)

MANNING: My grandma’s generation, they weren’t allowed to practice their native ways because they were in boarding schools and stuff. And so, a lot of it was almost lost forever because it really only takes one generation to lose a culture and cultures were lost. But we’re coming back in a big way.

MOREHOUSE: One sign of that comeback is on a much larger project: over 2,000 acres in Plumas and Lassen National Forests. In 1998, Congress awarded a Maidu organization a pilot project to use traditional ecological knowledge here in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. Now they’re co-managing this land. It’s an unusual effort in community forestry that’s received national and even international visitors.

GORBET: These are healthy plants because they're not crowding each other; they're kind of spread out…


MOREHOUSE: Lorena Gorbet climbs up a hill to sit in an abundant field of bear grass, used for Maidu basketmaking. She says there’s a reason the land always provided the Mt. Maidu all the materials they needed for daily living.

GORBET: And it was because we took care of the land and everything on it. And it took care of us.

MOREHOUSE: Gorbet says communicating that with the Forest Service was tough at first.

GORBET: They said, "Well, what are you going to do? When are you going to do it? What’s your time frame? What’s your budget?" And we said, “Well, we won't know what the land needs until we go out and talk to it, and listen to it, and it will tell us what it needs and when it needs it. “

MCMASTER: We are a federal government agency so we do have a lot of policies and direction that we have to follow.

MOREHOUSE: That’s Wade McMaster, Tribal Relations Program Manager for Plumas and Lassen National Forests.

MCMASTER: And if you look at how tribes do things, it’s much more from the heart and from the spirit. And that’s been kind of a learning experience for us to try to get that integration to work.

MOREHOUSE: Maidu planted grey willow, eradicated noxious weeds, cleared the brush, and cut timber. But there’ve been major gaps in the work due to internal arguments among Maidu themselves, and conflicts over the contract with the Forest Service. Now they’ve resolved their differences.

A Maidu crew led by Danny Manning from the Greenville Rancheria resumed thinning and piling this area, just like they did on his family’s trust land. And the Forest Service and Mt. Maidu are working together on a traditional burn to enhance bear grass growth.


MOREHOUSE: Maidu hope to practice native ecology on an even bigger scale in nearby Humbug Valley.

Beverly Ogle, who traces much of her ancestry to Humbug Valley, at a boulder that promises the Mountain Maidu will be connected to the region always. (Lisa Morehouse)

OGLE: This vast valley was plum full of Maidu villages. And there was a time when my grandmother said that at nighttime you could see many flickering fires all around this great valley.

MOREHOUSE: Beverly Ogle says she can trace her Humbug Valley roots back at least five generations. This large mountain meadow east of Greenville is rimmed by forest and contains mineral springs and the lovely Yellow Creek.


MOREHOUSE: Ogle has insisted for years that Humbug’s owners protect sites like burial grounds and the large-scale grinding pits she points out just past the road we’re on.

OGLE: You can almost picture the Maidu people sitting on the ground and working their seeds. People were driving over these pits and destroying them and as you can see, the formation of these pits are very delicate, so it doesn’t take much for these to ruin over time.

MOREHOUSE: For 100 years, power companies have flooded valleys in this part of California for hydropower. But not Humbug. It’s owned by Pacific Gas & Electric but was never flooded and it remains relatively unspoiled. And now, Humbug Valley may be up for grabs.

After the California energy crisis, PG&E filed for bankruptcy in 2001. As part of a huge settlement, thousands of acres of PG&E land, including Humbug Valley, could go to new owners. A non-profit stewardship council is managing the decision making process.

OGLE: I would like to see it fall back in the hands of out Maidu people, so we can once again be stewards of this land. It’ll never be the same, but pretty near.


MOREHOUSE: Ogle’s with the non-profit Maidu Summit Consortium which is vying for Humbug Valley. In their proposal, the group envisions this as a vast park where they can demonstrate and share native ecology and culture with the public, and protect cultural and sacred sites. But the Maidu aren’t only contenders. Bill Somer is with the California Department of Fish and Game.

SOMER: The Department has identified this property as an important value in terms of the fish and wildlife values, and the size of the parcel and how it fits in on the landscape.

MOREHOUSE: Fish and Game, which has worked on the Yellow Creek fishery for decades, hopes to manage Humbug Valley as a wildlife area. Somer says they’re a stable state agency with specialists who manage over a million acres in California. If they become the landowner, they hope to involve Maidu in protecting cultural resources. But the Maidu have lots of supporters in their bid, including the Forest Service. Beverly Ogle:

OGLE: I almost beg for … at least this small part of this world to return it to our Maidu people so we can once again have a land base to practice our culture.


MOREHOUSE: Practice customs like annual Bear Dances, a traditional ceremony and gathering. To do this now, one group of Maidu return to the site of one of their old villages, only now it's a campground and they have to pay to rent it. In June, about 200 Mt. Maidu people and friends met here to eat, tell stories, and make flutes from elderberry branches.


MOREHOUSE: A possible $200,000 grant in the works would allow Maidu to show they can manage a large-scale improvement project. That would give them a better shot at regain the Humbug Valley where Beverly Ogle says she hopes one day to see Bear Dances.

For Living on Earth, I’m Lisa Morehouse in Plumas County, California.


Related links:
- Stewardship Council Formed from the PG&E Bankruptcy
- Maidu Non-profit Stewardship Alliance
- United States Forest Service Work with Tribes

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The Hermit Crab Housing Crisis

Although hermit crabs are finicky, they will move into bottle caps and other trash if they cannot find a suitable snail shell. (Phone: Eric Heupel)

GELLERMAN: Consider the plight of the lowly hermit crab. You’ve seen them crawling around in glass bowls in pet stores and grade school science classes. Well, turns out many hermit crabs are homeless. Typically, the tiny crabs take up residence in the shells of deceased snails. When a snail dies, a hermit crab moves right in.

Problem is: snails die slower than the fast-breeding crabs multiply and grow. So there’s a scarcity of homes for hermits. But now there could be a high-tech solution in sight. Makerbot based in Brooklyn, New York, is the first company to produce a 3D printer for consumers, and now, hermit crabs. Bre Pettis is the CEO of Makerbot, and he joins me on the phone.

Mr. Pettis, thank you. Welcome to Living on Earth.

PETTIS: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

GELLERMAN: So, is there really a shortage of snail shells for hermit crabs to call home?

PETTIS: You know, hermit crabs live in a perpetual housing crisis. Not only are they faced with humans picking up their shells and taking them home but they are growing. So, they’re constantly growing out of their shells. So, if they can’t find a shell, they’re going to desperate measures. They’re sticking their butts into bottles, they’re sticking their butts into shotgun shells, and that’s just not pretty. We can’t have that.

GELLERMAN: (LAUGHS) So, where does Makerbot, your company, come in?

PETTIS: So, we make 3D printers which are machines that can make you almost anything. There’s a couple of approaches to the materials that you can use in 3D printing. You can use plastics, and we use ABS which is the same thing Lego is made out of, and you use a material called PLA which is made from corn so it’s biodegradable. And, as a community, we can actually do some science here, and we can create shells. And we can see if hermit crabs like them and if they do, we can give them a hook up.

Bre Pettis holding a Makerbot machine that "prints" 3D shapes.(Bre Petttis)

GELLERMAN: Your printers actually produce something in 3D? It’s a physical object?

PETTIS: You can create 3D models on your computer and then, just like a regular printer that prints in 2D which prints out a piece of paper, you send the model to the Makerbot and it builds it in 3D. Layer by layer.

GELLERMAN: So, why don’t you just make a lot of snail shells and distribute them to the world’s hermit crabs?

PETTIS: The first step is to create Makerbot-ed 3D printed shells and see if hermit crabs even like them.

GELLERMAN: Why wouldn’t they?

PETTIS: Well, you know, hermit crabs are fussy. So, it turns out in our first week that we found out that hermit crabs traditionally are right handed. That means they like shells that have a spiral that goes to the right. We had been making all left handed shells and they weren’t moving in. So, this week we’re reprinting shells, mirroring them and making them so they go the right direction, and we’ll see what happens.

GELLERMAN: You actually have hermit crabs there? They're kind of doing home inspections?

PETTIS: Yeah, so we set up a crabitat here in Brooklyn and then Miles Lightwood, the artist in residence, is setting one up in LA. And we’ve got hermit crabs moved in and we’re setting up webcams so we can observe what they’re doing.

One of the cool things about this project is we’re doing crowd-sourced science. Normally you think about science being done by people in lab coats in remote locations. We’ve got a crabitat and we’re basically asking the community to come up with shell designs. You know, maybe you have an idea where the shell is longer or shorter or you want to put a shell inside of a skull. Go ahead and design them, upload them to thingiverse.com and we’ll try them.

Plastic “printed” shells are in the crabitat to entice hermits into new homes. No luck so far - this manmade shell twists the wrong way. (Photo: Courtesy of Makerbot)

GELLERMAN: I know that hermit crabs are fairly fastidious. I guess when they find an empty, large snail shell the large hermit crab actually moves in and then they kind of get in line and the next biggest moves into the one that was just abandoned, and so on. It’s like a conga line.

PETTIS: Yeah, it gets … it’s definitely a little shuffle. It’s a communicated social life that they live.

GELLERMAN: So, how do you know that you have a happy crab that likes your shell?

PETTIS: We'll know that they like the hermit crab shells that we make for them when they move in - when they chose one. And, we’re just going to keep trying, keep trying new designs. If we have to, we’ll try new materials to print with. In theory, if we could come up with some sort of cement calcium carbonate shell material that was squeezable and then would harden like cement, we could make shells out of that, but that’s really living on the technological edge right there.

GELLERMAN: So, once you get your fix on a design, you can just, kind of, churn these out by the millions?

PETTIS: There’s kind of two parts to this. One part is: we can replace shells for hermit crabs in captivity, so you don’t have to go out and buy or collect shells from the wild. You know, we don’t want to go and dump a bunch of plastic on the beach and have them not be used. So, we’ll probably explore different options for having shells that are made out of biodegradable material.

I think it will also be interesting because if we do put them in the environment, we’ll be able to mark them and print numbers on them, so we’ll be to track them over time and see how it works.

The “Crabitat.” (Makerbot)

GELLERMAN: Six thousand people who use 3D printers right now, right?

PETTIS: That’s right.

GELLERMAN: How soon before it's coming to a home printer in my house?

PETTIS: So, while I think it would be really cool for you to have a 3D printer in your house, and I think everybody who experiences it has a great time with it, I’m most excited to get 3D printing in the hands of young people, because it’s an innovation machine. It's a machine that lets you to have an idea and make it and then make it again.

And that iteration is the core of invention. And if we can get these into the hands of kids so that they grow up just naturally designing and sharing and publishing and inventing things, then we’ve got a pretty bright future.

GELLERMAN: Well, Bre Pettis, thanks so much.

PETTIS: Hey, it’s my pleasure. My hope is that the listeners here will be inspired, come up with ideas, design shells, we’ll print them out and we'll see if hermit crabs will like them, and boom: we'll help a species.

GELLERMAN: Bre Pettis is CEO of Makerbot Industries, maker of a 3D printer and homemaker for hermit crabs.

Related links:
- Links: Video of a makerbot printing a Darth Vader head
- Check out Thingiverse to see what creative minds have created with 3D printers
- The Makerbot crabitat webcam

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BirdNote® Gull Identification

Herring Gull. (Photo: © Tom Grey)


GELLERMAN: Birders take great pride in their ability to identify our fine-feathered friends by their color, size, and sounds. But when it comes to ID-ing gulls in the Pacific Northwest, well, that can ruffle the feathers of even the most seasoned birdwatcher. BirdNote®’s Michael Stein helps sort things out.


STEIN: Gulls, to be sure, present a kind of Sunday crossword puzzle of bird identification.


This Laughing Gull looks quite serious. (Photo: © Tom Grey)

STEIN: Their similar overall coloration of black, white, and gray – and plumages that change both with the seasons and a bird’s age – can be mind-boggling. Gulls are a year-round fixture of coastal waters and many locales in the interior of the continent.


STEIN: Yet despite what may seem an unchanging picture, major shifts take place each year in local gull concentrations.


A Western Gull in flight. (Photo: © Tom Grey)

STEIN: Relatively few gull species are common nesters in the lower 48. But in October, both the variety and number of gulls increase dramatically. Gulls that nested in Alaska or Canada fly south to spend winter in more temperate climates. Along the West Coast, petite, dove-like Mew Gulls:


STEIN: …which made the Alaskan tundra their summer home, now mix with the locals. In the East, millions of Herring Gulls:


STEIN: And, small numbers of Iceland Gulls spread out along the coast.


STEIN: In fact, 15 or more gull species regularly turn up in total along our coasts, making October and late fall an ideal time to learn to identify gulls.


GELLERMAN: That's BirdNote®’s Michael Stein. For some photos, flap on over to our website - LOE dot ORG.

Related links:
- Gull Identification Tips
- Bird audio provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Glaucous-winged Gull variety of calls recorded by A.A. Allen. Mew Gull calls recorded by W.W.H. Gunn. Herring Gull calls recorded by Martha Fischer.
- BirdNote® Gull Identification was written by Bob Sundstrom.

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[MUSIC: Bird Note: Club D’Elf “Goblin Garden” from Perhapsody]

GELLERMAN: Coming up: what's slow and slimy, emerald green and part plant, part virus and part animal? The answer is just ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change, and the Sierra Club, helping city-bound kids explore and enjoy wild places they'll later strive to protect. Online at sierraclub.org/livingonearth. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Pat Metheny: “So May It Secretly Begin” from Still Life (Talking) (Geffen Records 1997)]

A Leafy Green Sea Slug

Elysia_chlorotica, also known as a sea slug. (Photo: Nicolas Curtis and Ray Martinez)

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.

Sometimes you stumble upon an animal that’s just plain bizarre…so strange it stretches our idea of exactly what an animal is. Reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro considers one curious creature that defies easy definition.

SHAPIRO: There was a moment 30 years ago that changed the direction and focus of Skip Pierce’s career. He’s a biologist at the University of South Florida, and he spends his summers at a lab in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

PIERCE: This student walked into my lab with this little green sea slug. And I said, “Where the hell did you get that?” And she said, “Well, right out here in the mill pond, you know?” And I mean, I’d been working here for 15 years or so, and I’d never seen it at all. Nor had anybody else that’s worked at the lab. And I thought, “Well, that’s weird.”

SHAPIRO: Weird, first of all, because of where it was found.

PIERCE: It lived in a place where sea slugs shouldn’t be – namely, this pond that’s subjected to rain and tides and heat and ice and everything else in the winter – because slugs have no external protection. They’re just sittin’ out there in the environment.

SHAPIRO: And weird, second of all, because…

PIERCE: It was just a bright, deep green color.

SHAPIRO: Make no mistake, these sea slugs, or Elysia chlorotica, they’ve definitely got those basic slug-like characteristics.

PIERCE: You know, it moves slow, doesn’t think much, covered with mucus. A sea slug is a snail without a shell, basically.

SHAPIRO: But I should also mention, they’re stunning. They’re delicate and soft. Their common name is eastern emerald elysia.

PIERCE: Elysia comes from the Elysian fields of Greek mythology, which are sort of green, lovely fields.

SHAPIRO: Their resemblance to little green leaves isn’t just accidental.

PIERCE: The deal is that the animals only eat particular species of algae called Vaucheria litorea.

SHAPIRO: Vaucheria litorea forms a mat of tiny green tubes, or filaments.

Vaucheria Liteorea is an algae commonly found in coastal brackish waters and in salt marshes of the North Atlantic. The Eastern Emerald Elysia sea slugs eat only this particular species of algae. (Sidney Pierce)

PIERCE: A sea slug, it punches a little hole in the side of the algal filament, and then it sucks out the contents exactly as if it was a soda straw.

SHAPIRO: The elysia slurps up the algae’s innards, including its chloroplasts. That’s where photosynthesis takes place, which is how plants, like algae, use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into the food they need to grow.

PIERCE: And those chloroplasts are maintained inside the sea slug for months. And they photosynthesize while they’re in there. So, if you shine light on the sea slug, it makes oxygen, and it fixes carbon dioxide exactly as if it was a plant. After it gets its initial supply of chloroplasts, it can complete its entire life cycle simply on photosynthesis. And that’s … I mean that in itself is sort of surprising, but not nearly as surprising as finding in the slug DNA algal DNA. I mean, that’s the trick to this whole business.

SHAPIRO: The trick, that is, to keeping the algae’s chloroplasts up and running inside the sea slug.

PIERCE: The slug is using those genes to make proteins that the chloroplast needs. I mean, it’s just an astonishing display of biochemistry.

SHAPIRO: So, how did the slug get the algal DNA?

PIERCE: Uh … and that’s the thousand-dollar question, or maybe million-dollar question. (LAUGHS)

SHAPIRO: The elysia are born with the algae DNA. At first, Pierce thought that sometime in the past, the algae DNA got transferred to an ancestral sea slug by a kind of virus called a retrovirus.

PIERCE: Retroviruses are capable of moving small pieces of DNA around from organism to organism.

SHAPIRO: But the virus didn’t just insert algae DNA into the sea slug.

Scientist Sidney Pierce in a marsh on Menemsha, Martha’s Vineyard. (Richard Quinn)

PIERCE: That virus resides in the DNA of the slug.

SHAPIRO: So the sea slug has sea slug DNA, it has algae DNA, and it's got viral DNA.

PIERCE: Exactly. Yep. DNA is very complicated business.

SHAPIRO: The sea slugs live for about 10 months. Then somehow the viral DNA switches on. When the elysia die, their cells are just riddled with retrovirus.

PIERCE: Whether or not those viruses cause the slug’s death, we don’t know, but the slug’s just falling apart right before your eyes over a period of a few days. And they get all ragged on the edges, and I mean – they just look – you think, “Oh, man, the poor thing.”

SHAPIRO: But Pierce came to realize that the viruses couldn’t be responsible for transferring all of the algal DNA into the sea slug.

PIERCE: Initially, I sort of naively thought there was only a couple of genes that were transferred. And that’s, of course, stupid. I mean, a virus could do one or two or three genes, maybe, but not dozens or hundreds.

SHAPIRO: Pierce still doesn’t know how this animal became part plant and part virus factory. It’s just the latest puzzle in a series that began almost three decades ago when his student showed Pierce that sea slug for the first time. But he’s hopeful that the eastern emerald elysia may teach us about our own DNA - about how to do genetic engineering and how to treat human disease with gene therapy - all that, inside this astonishing little leafy creature.

For Living on Earth, I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro.

GELLERMAN: Our sea slug story is part of the series, One Species at a Time. It's produced by Atlantic Public Media with support from the Encyclopedia of Life. For more information, go to our website - LOE-dot-org.

Related links:
- One Species at a Time
- Sidney Pierce's website
- Hear the audio backstory about sea slugs between reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro and scientist Sidney Pierce

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[MUSIC: Captain Beefheart “When I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy from Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros. 1998)]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead: bodies emerging from the deep. But first, this Note on Emerging Science from Jack Rodolico.

Science Note - Cats Illuminate HIV Research

Kitten embryos are genetically modified before being implanted in a surrogate mother. The mother does not glow, but her babies do. (Photo: Courtesy of Mayo Clinic)


RODOLICO: What do you get when you mix the genes of a cat, a monkey and a jellyfish? No, this isn’t a bad joke. Put those genes together and you get glow-in-the-dark kittens that may provide a new treatment for HIV.

Outstretched claws of a newborn kitten. (Photo: Courtesy of Mayo Clinic)

Domestic cats have their own version of HIV - Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, or FIV, is considered an epidemic. It attacks a kitty’s immune system the same way HIV attacks ours. So scientists at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota are studying the virus in cats to look for treatments for humans.

A “normal” cat stands next to a genetically modified cat under blue light. (Photo: Courtesy of Mayo Clinic)

Researchers already knew macaques – a kind of monkey – are immune to FIV, and they wanted to see if they could transfer that immunity to felines. So they put those FIV-resistant monkey genes into kitten embryos.

And if that’s not weird enough, they decided to add jellyfish genes to trace the macaque genes. The jellyfish genes are iridescent, so if the new batch of kittens glow under blue light, that means the scientists successfully implanted the monkey genes.

Now this isn’t the first experiment with jellyfish genes. There’ve been glowing bugs, fish, rabbits and pigs. But this is the first glow-in-the-dark study that could lead to gene therapy treatments for the FIV and HIV epidemics. In the meantime, the neon kitties are frisky, healthy, and not for sale. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Jack Rodolico.

Related link:
Link to article published by Nature Methods

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Three Strange Tales Of Lake Preservation

The remarkably well preserved face of “Tollund Man. ” (Photo from Sven Rosborn from the Museum of Foteviken in Sweeden)


GELLERMAN: Seas have sea monsters. Swamps have swamp thing and lakes have…


GELLERMAN: …mummies. And Living on Earth's Ike Sriskandarajah has three scary but true science stories.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Tales of the dead resurfacing in murky bodies of water are alive and well in Hollywood. Take Friday the 13th: a camper called Jason who drowned in Crystal Lake as a boy has been returning for 30 years as a hockey-masked, man-child, with an axe to grind.

[SOUND FROM MOVIE "JASON": Jason, he came back. Don’t believe me, nobody does. Do you know how many lakes are probably called ‘Crystal Lake?’ The story could’ve happened anywhere dude…]

DOWNING: Every lake has got a monsters legend, right? Or it's bottomless, or it's hanging onto the dead in some sort of way.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Professor John Downing from Iowa State is a limnologist, a man who knows about lakes and their dark secrets.

DOWNING: The wicked limnologist. (LAUGHS) Yeah, right.


SRISKANDARAJAH: But Downing says lakes really do have certain properties that make dead things seem less dead.

Professor John Downing calls himself "the wicked limnologist." (Photo credit Marcia Downing and Katherine Downing Khaled)

DOWNING: From a liminological perspective, I would consider a body tossed into a lake to be what I call particulate organic carbon. It’s a big chunk of organic material…hmm - it may have had thoughts and hopes and dreams and a family and stuff, but it’s particulate organic carbon.

SRISKANDARAJAH: And there are a couple of things that help lakes preserve that lifeless chunk of carbon intact.

DOWNING: Deep waters in lakes often tend to be cooler than the surface, so there’s a refrigeration effect.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Then there are acids that help with preservation - especially tannic acid that leaches from oak trees and turns lakes brown.

DOWNING: Acid tends to decrease the amount of decomposition there is. And will penetrate into the big chunk of organic carbon, essentially tan it, as we tan leather.

SRISKANDARAJAH: On the other end of the pH scale… Base compounds harden a body through a process called saponification.

DOWNING: Saponification means basically making soap. When you make soap you add a base to fat and that fat then turns into a hard, less soluble material.

SRISKANDARAJAH: So, between the cool temperatures, leather making, soap making, and a few other traits - like low oxygen levels that deter hungry bacteria - lakes are very good mummy makers.

DOWNING: And looking into it, we kept finding these references to really interesting decomposition or lack of decomposition stories.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Which brings us to today’s feature: The Wicked Limnologist Presents: Three Strange Tales of Lake Preservation.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Our first story is about an Italian party boat: Too Much of a Wood Thing - sounds not too spooky…

One of Caligula’s ships recovered from Lake Nemi. (From Wikimedia Commons, taken in 1930)

DOWNING: Well, it's not spooky, but it was in fact a party put on by a monster and the monster would be Caligula.

[SFX: "Caligula Caesar, Emperor of Rome. Hail. Hail!" HORNS]

DOWNING: Caligula, Gaius Caesar, loved to have big parties. And Caligula had built two huge party boats that he had stationed on this little lake called Lago di Nemi - these big oak boats and they were somewhere just less than the size of a football field and they had marble floors and lead plumbing.

[SOUND FROM MOVIE: Caligula party post: “As you can see, ladies and gentlemen, we have gone to great expense to bring you the finest flesh of the Roman Empire,” MUSIC: Caligula and Mussolini]

SRISKANDARAJAH: Caligula’s party ended abruptly in 41 AD when he was stabbed in the back by members of the Roman Senate and his own security detail - 30 times. They also sunk his epic party boats to the bottom of Lake Nemi where they remained for 2000 years. Until another Italian dictator came along.

DOWNING: They kept trying to get down there with diving bells or free diving in various ways. But Mussolini’s engineers decided that they’d take the opposite approach, so they used the old aqueducts the Romans had and drained this lake right out, and hauled these perfectly preserved boats right out of the bottom of Lago di Nemi.


Lake Nemi is famous for its sunken Roman ships, including Caligula’s Party Boat. (“Lake Nemi” by George Inness, 1857 via Wikipedia)

DOWNING: Well, even the conservative press of the 1930s were saying that they were basically orgies. I think there’s no doubt that his parties were nothing that we’re likely to see for Halloween this year.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Speak for yourself, Professor…

[FROM MOVIE, FESTIVE MUSIC, MAN'S VOICE: "Most of the women here are respectable married ladies!" HAUNTING MUSIC]

SRISKANDARAJAH: The Wicked Limnologist’s next story is: Just Wait, It Gets Leather. It begins in Tollund, Denmark in 1950.

[MUSIC: String Sonata No 2 is A Major, 2nd movement, Rossini.]

DOWNING: People were digging peat and they found a human down in the peat, and they thought that it was possibly a recent murder. This man was in a fetal position but had a leather rope around his neck and was fully clothed in sort of leather clothing, sheepskin hat and things like that. And they thought, well, he looks a little odd.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The police were called, but they were baffled by the gnarled, leathery corpse. They brought in academics who used carbon dating, and they showed the man - now known as Tollund Man - was killed in 400 B.C. Strangled and dumped in a bog during Europe’s Iron Age, yet you can see the creases on his forehead, the stubble on his chin and his resting eyelids seem as though they still might open.

DOWNING: Oh, certainly! I mean, he’s basically tanned. He’s got very dark brown skin, but his face is perfectly natural. In fact he looks kind of relaxed in spite of the fact that he had been hanged and fed awful food.

[MUSIC: String Sonata No 2 is A Major, 2nd movement, Rossini.]

SRISKANDARAJAH: That’s the other thing: his stomach was so well preserved that we know what the Tollund man ate 2,400 years ago.

DOWNING: Yeah, actually they did some analyses on his last meal and found that it was made out of 18 species of grass and weeds - some kind of gruel. And then they made it up and tried to eat it and they thought that maybe that was worse actually than the hanging.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Come for the soup, stay… FOREVER.

[MUSIC: Rossini, String Sonata N 3 in B flat Major.]

SRISKANDARAJAH: Which brings us to our third story, our wicked limnologist's favorite: Soap … on a Rope.

Dean Mabel Douglass founded the largest private women’s college in the country, then went missing for 30 years. (Image Uncredited)

DOWNING: This concerns Dr. Mabel Douglass who was the dean of a New Jersey college for women.


DOWNING: And in 1933 apparently she went out for a row from her cottage on Lake Placid to collect cedar and pine boughs in a little rowboat and got across Lake Placid, and she was never heard from again.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Her boat was found capsized against the shore, near the deepest part of the lake. Her family searched for her. Police dredged the lake and scoured nearby trails, but the dean went missing for 30 years.

DOWNING: And in 1963 there were some divers who were doing a deep water dive and found a body perfectly preserved down at the bottom of Lake Placid in 105 feet of water, lying on the bottom. And it was Mabel Douglass. I think the death was ruled accidental but she had a 50 pound anchor, apparently, attached to her neck. That was a pretty big accident.

Lake Placid is home to many legends, including the “lady that turned to soap.” (Photo from Wikipedia)

SRISKANDARAJAH: The divers’ report say her skin looked “something very much like soap, only hard.” Today, tour boat captains on Lake Placid scare guests with tales of how Dean Mabel Douglass turned into Dove. She went from missing to mummy to legend.

DOWNING: I believe that her tomb is in New York City and so it’s a popular visiting place on Halloween because although she died, she refused to die completely.

[MUSIC: String Sonata No 2 is A Major, 2nd movement, Rossini.]

SRISKANDARAJAH: You could say she lives in a liminal space.

DOWNING: (LAUGHS) Liminal - subliminal, right? Well, it was a sad, very sad case that she had been lost. But perfectly preserved and, therefore, not only in her academic role as dean did she do some academic good, but also help us to understand carbon preservation in lakes.

SRISKANDARAJAH: For limnologists, even wicked limnologists like Professor John Downing, understanding can turn legends into reality. For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.

Related links:
- “Body in Lake 30 Years That Of Missing Dean” (From The Evening Independent, Sep 26, 1963)
- Most of the time John Downing is a not-so-wicked limnologist.

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[MUSIC: Duke Ellington “Way Early Subtone” from Anatomy Of A Murder (Columbia records 1959)

Earth Ear


GELLERMAN: We leave you this week with Pipistrellus pipistrellus.

[BAT SOUNDS: Richard Ranft “Pipistrelle Bat” from Vanishing Wildlife: A Sound Guide To Britain’s Endangered Species (British Library Sound Archive 2006)]

GELLERMAN: Like all bats, these small fly-by-night mammals use echolocation to navigate and hunt for food. On this summer night, their haunt is a trout pond in Kent, England. Richard Ranft used a bat detector to record these frequent fliers for the British Library CD “Vanishing Wildlife, A Sound Guide to Britain’s Endangered Species.”


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GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Ingrid Lobet, and Helen Palmer, with help from Sarah Calkins, Gabriela Romanow and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Raphaella Bennin and Jack Rodolico. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and while you're online, be sure to check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at my planet harmony dot com. And, don’t forget to check out the Living on Earth Facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And we're on Twitter, @LivingonEarth. Steve Curwood is our Executive Producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER 1: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science. And Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic.com. Support also comes from you, our listeners; the Go Forward Fund; and Pax World Mutual and Exchange-Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social, and governance factors into investment analysis and decision making. On the web at paxworld.com. Pax World, for tomorrow.

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