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'Glacier Mice' Are Scampering Balls of Moss

It’s midday on Iceland’s Falljökull glacier, and all is still. The landscape is impressive, but simple: broad brushstrokes of ice, rock, and sky.

The wind picks up. But there are no trees with rustling leaves here, no bird to catch an updraft. Not a creature is stirring—except for a mouse. Propelled by a blast of wind, a baseball-sized ball of moss called a glacier mouse scoots across the ice.

From a distance, the glacier mouse brings to mind a fuzzy, dense tumbleweed. But, scientists have learned, it’s really more like a mobile home: Each glacier mouse provides lodging, food, and transportation for hundreds of tiny organisms.

Nothing happens quickly around here, and the birth of a glacier mouse is no exception. It begins with a small pebble, furred with a moustache of moss. As the moss spreads, it insulates the pebble against the cold. The ice beneath it begins to melt. Eventually, the now moss-covered pebble balances on a spire of ice. A gust of wind knocks the newly minted glacier mouse off its pedestal and into motion for the first time.

It was the glacier mouse’s impressive powers of insulation that first led scientists to suspect its busy inner life. Biologist Steve Coulson, of the University Center in Svalbard, and his colleague Nicholas Midgley, of Nottingham Trent University, knew that the Racomitrium moss could absorb water and keep out the cold. Did other organisms know this? There was only one way to find out.

The scientists stuck thermometers in five glacier mice to monitor their internal temperatures and brought 10 others back to the lab. Coulson pulled the moss balls apart, hoping to find a few inhabitants. He found more than a few.

The tally, as Coulson and Midgley reported in the journal Polar Biology, was impressive: 73 bug-like animals called springtails, 200 tardigrades, and 1000 nematode worms—all in a single mouse.

Not only did the researchers find these critters, but they found them at all stages of development, which suggests they’re breeding within. And why wouldn’t they? They’ve managed to find a cozy, well-stocked den. The average temperature on the glacier was about 32°F. But inside the mouse, temperatures stayed toasty, between 36°F and 50°F.

There’s another advantage to life inside the glacier-mouse Catbus: travel. The glacier-hopping moss balls carry their passengers to exciting new locations (which, to a springtail, might mean that lump of ice over there).

Herds of glacier mice are best known in Iceland, but they’ve been spotted on the glaciers of several countries. The next time you find yourself trekking across a vast glacial expanse (you know, whenever), take a look at the scenery around you. If the glacier mice can teach us anything, it’s that even the humblest among us contains multitudes.

Photographs of glacier mouse herds courtesy of Darrel A. Swift, University of Sheffield.

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5 Trouble-Shooting Tips to Keep Your House Plant Alive
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Maybe you’ve heard that houseplants can help improve indoor air quality. Perhaps you’ve read that looking at plants can help you focus. Or maybe you just really like how that ficus looks in your living room. But buying a plant and keeping it alive are two different things, and the answer to your botanical woes isn’t always “don't forget to water it.”

Here are five green-thumb tips to make sure your plant stays as leafy green as it was the day you bought it.

1. DON’T OVER-WATER.

You don’t want to neglect your plant, but it’s easy to go overboard with the watering can, and that can be just as harmful as forgetting to water your plant for weeks. A watering schedule can help you keep track of whether or not your plants need attention, but you shouldn’t water just because it’s Sunday and that’s when you usually do it. Before you go to water your plant baby, make sure it actually needs it.

Your plant’s water needs will vary based on the type of plant, its location, how old it is, and plenty of other factors, but there are a few rules of thumb that can put you on the right track. Lift the pot. If it’s heavy, that means that the soil is full of water. If it’s light, it’s dry. Dig a finger into the soil around its roots, making sure to feel beneath the surface. Still damp? Hold off. Dry? Grab the H2O.

If you really struggle to strike the right balance between too much and too little water, consider a smart plant system. And regardless of how often you water, make sure to use a pot with good drainage to prevent root rot.

2. WATCH THE TEMPERATURE.

Be aware of where your plant is situated in the room, and whether there might be any temperature extremes there. Is your fern sitting right above the radiator? Is your peony subject to a cold draft? Is your rosemary plant stuck leaning against a window during a snowstorm?

As a rule, most houseplants can handle temperatures between 58°F and 86°F, according to a bulletin from the University of Georgia. The ideal range is between 70°F and 80°F during the day, and between 65°F and 70°F at night. Below 50°F, sensitive plants can suffer damage to their leaves. However, as with most plant advice, it depends on the species—tropical plants usually do well in higher temperatures, and some other plants are happier in colder rooms.

If your sad-looking plant is sitting in the middle of a cold draft or right next to the heater, consider moving it to a different spot, or at least a few inches away. If it’s near the window, you can also draft-proof the window.

3. MAINTAIN HUMIDITY.

Be mindful of the kind of ecosystem that your plant comes from, and know that keeping it happy means more than just finding the right amount of sun. A tropical plant like an orchid won’t thrive in dry desert air. According to the Biology Department at Kenyon College in Ohio, a dried-out plant will look faded and wilting. You can immerse it in water to help it bounce back quickly. (Warning, though: A plant that’s getting too much moisture can look that way, too.)

If your home gets dry—say, when you have the heater on full blast in the winter or the AC on constantly during the summer—you’ll need to find a way to keep your plant refreshed. Your can buy a humidifier, or create a humidity tray by placing the pot on a tray of pebbles soaked in water. The plant will soak up the humidity as the water under the pebbles evaporates. You can also get a spray bottle and mist your tropical plants periodically with water. (But don't mist your fuzzy-leafed plants.)

Not sure how humid your house is? You can get a humidity gauge (known as a hydrometer) for less than $10 on Amazon.

4. LOOK OUT FOR BUGS.

Even if you do all of the above correctly, you can still struggle to keep a plant healthy due to infestations. Keep an eye out for common pests like spider mites, which will leave brown or yellow spots on leaves or make the plant’s color dull. If you discover these tiny mites (you may need to use a magnifying glass), wash your plant immediately with water to knock off as many mites as possible. Wash the plant with an insecticidal soap, too, but make sure the label says it’s effective for mites.

5. DON’T DISCOUNT THE POT.

Healthy plants often outgrow their homes. if you notice that there are roots coming out the drainage holes at the bottom of your pot, or that water sits on the surface of the soil for a long time before draining down, or that your plant’s roots are coming up out of the soil, it’s time to upgrade to a bigger pot. Signs of a “root bound” plant whose root system is too big for its container can also include wilting, yellowed leaves, and stunted plant growth.

No matter what the size of your plant, it’s good to repot it once in a while, since the nutrients in the soil deplete over time. Repotting creates a fresh nutritional start and can help perk up unhappy plants.

If your plant looks unhealthy and you're still stumped, try consulting the website of a university horticulture department for other signs of plant distress and potential solutions.

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Rosimar Rivera Colón
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Scientists Find Two New Species of Deadly 'Bird-Catcher' Trees
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Rosimar Rivera Colón

From car windshields to cats, birds around the world face plenty of mortal threats. But as IFLScience reports, avians in Puerto Rico have particularly unique forest foes that until recently were unknown to science. Deep in the island's jungles, researchers have discovered two new species of "bird-catcher" trees, bearing ripe, sticky fruits that—yes—can quite literally trap and kill birds.

As recently described in the journal Phytokeys, the trees—which are members of the genus Pisonia—produce fruits with viscous skins covered in tiny hooks. If a bird perches on the tree, a piece of fruit can stick to its body; when the bird flies off, it takes the fruit with it, potentially dispersing it somewhere else on the island. But if the fruits become too tightly affixed to birds, they can trap and kill their tiny transporters. Their tiny bones sometimes litter the trees' swollen roots, which wrap over rocks and are said to look like elephant feet. 

The trees' discovery has resulted in the long-due recognition of two overlooked female figures in Puerto Rico. The trees were given the names Pisonia horneae and Pisonia roqueae to celebrate the scientific contributions of Frances W. Horne (1873–1967), an American illustrator whose vibrant watercolors depicted hundreds of Puerto Rican plants; and Ana Roqué de Duprey (1853–1933), a Puerto Rican academic, writer, suffragist, and amateur ethnobotanist.

"It only seemed natural to name the two new species after these two extraordinary women who spent decades on large educational projects aimed to divulge botanical knowledge in Puerto Rico," study co-author Jorge C. Trejo-Torres said in a statement. "Just like the two large trees remained unrecognized by science until now, the enormous efforts of these two women, who dedicated part of their lives to botanical work, remained largely unrecognized by the community."

The infructescences of Pisonia roqueae

Jorge C. Trejo-Torres

The 'elephant foot' trunk of Pisonia roqueae

The 'elephant foot' trunk of Pisonia roqueae.

Jorge C. Trejo-Torres

[h/t IFLScience]

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