YouTube / The Good Stuff
YouTube / The Good Stuff

A Guided Tour of Biosphere 2, the Giant Science Experiment

YouTube / The Good Stuff
YouTube / The Good Stuff

Biosphere 2 is located in the Arizona desert near Tucson. I've been there, and it's a fascinating place—a massive research facility initially designed to model a closed habitat (of great interest if we plan to colonize Mars or the moon), that is now given over to all kinds of research projects (some of them even space-related).

Although the initial Biosphere 2 experiments ended in very public mishaps, the ambition and scale of the place is still stunning. It's still standing, now owned and maintained by the University of Arizona. You can take a tour...or you can watch the video below, in which Craig Benzine gets an excellent tour of the facility, even getting to stand on the beach. (Public tours typically just walk past it on a walkway.) Yes, there's a beach, and a mini-ocean. That's just one of the various biomes within the enclosed biosphere.

When I visited circa 2008, the most fascinating part of the tour was the so-called "technosphere," the area below ground housing machinery that maintains the system—it's a giant basement crammed with enormous HVAC units, water management tech, and other gear. Within the technosphere, the freakiest part is The Lung. Without ruining it, let's just say that Benzine does get to visit and interact with The Lung in the video below. That thing is 25-ish years old, and it's still "breathing."

If you've ever wondered what Biosphere 2 is, what it's doing lately, or the kinds of research scientists can do with a giant enclosed system, this is the best it gets. Enjoy:

See also: Two Years in Biosphere 2.

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Animals
The Surprising Role Bats Play in Making Your Margarita
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iStock

The next time you have a margarita, raise your glass to the humble bat. Long-nosed bats are the main pollinators of agave, the plant used to make both tequila and mezcal. (Tequila is specifically made from blue agave, or Agave tequilana, while mezcal can be made from any species of the plant.) These agave plants open their flowers at night, attracting bats with their sugary nectar, and in turn, the bats help spread their pollen.

One of those bats, the lesser long-nosed bat, just got off the endangered species list in April 2018, as The Washington Post reported. It's the first bat species ever to recover its population enough to be taken off the Endangered Species List. Its revival is due, in part, to tequila producers along the bat's migration route between Mexico and the southwestern U.S. making their growing methods a little more bat-friendly.

While the relationship between bats and agave might be mutualistic, the one between bats and booze isn't necessarily so. Typical agave production for tequila and mezcal involves harvesting the plant right before it reaches sexual maturity—the flowering stage—because that's when its sugar content peaks, and because after the plant flowers, it dies. Instead of letting the plants reproduce naturally through pollination, farmers plant the clones that grow at the agave plant's base, known as hijuelos. That means fields of agave get razed before bats get the chance to feed off those plants. This method is bad for bats, but it's not great for agave, either; over time, it leads to inbred plants that have lower genetic diversity than their cross-pollinated cousins, ones that require more and more pesticides to keep them healthy.

Rodrigo Medellín, an ecologist who has been nicknamed the "Bat Man of Mexico," has been leading the crusade for bat-friendly tequila for decades, trying to convince tequila producers to let some of just 5 percent of their plants flower. The Tequila Interchange Project—a nonprofit organization made up of tequila producers, scientists, and tequila enthusiasts—led to the release of three bat-friendly agave liquors in the U.S. in 2016: two tequilas, Siembra Valles Ancestral and Tequila Ocho, and a mezcal, Don Mateo de la Sierra.

In 2017, when Medellín and his team visited the agave fields of Don Mateo de la Sierra to gather data, they discovered that the project was even more bat-friendly than they thought. The Mexican long-nosed bat, another endangered species, was also taking its meals at the field's flowering plants.

This weekend, raise a glass of tequila to all the bats out there—just make sure it's a bat-friendly brand.

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Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University
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Poop Visible From Space Helped Scientists Find a Remote 'Supercolony' of Penguins
Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University
Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University

Penguin poop visible from space just helped scientists discover a previously unknown, massive colony of Adélie penguins on a chain of remote Antarctic islands, according to a new study published in Scientific Reports.

In 2014, Stony Brook University's Heather Lynch and NASA's Mathew Schwaller identified guano stains in satellite images of the Danger Islands, a rocky archipelago off the Antarctic Peninsula. The visible guano marks signaled that a large population of penguins was living there. When the scientists launched an expedition to the islands to learn more, and counted birds by hand and with a camera-equipped drone, they discovered a "supercolony" of more than 1.5 million Adélies.

"Until recently, the Danger Islands weren't known to be an important penguin habitat," Lynch said in a press release. By this count, the islands are actually home to the largest population of the species on the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Danger Islands were discovered by British explorer James Clark Ross in 1842, and got their name from the fact that they are often hidden under ice. Ross and his crew almost crashed their ships on them—"appearing among heavy fragments of ice, they were almost completely concealed until the ship was nearly upon them," as the USGS's Geographic Names Information System explains. They're still hard to access and dangerous to visit because of the thick ice that surrounds them. And that makes them perfect for penguins.

Aerial shot from a quadcopter of penguin populations on Heroina Island.
Thomas Sayre McChord, Hanumant Singh, Northeastern University, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Penguins depend on sea ice for survival, and in places where sea ice is disappearing, their populations are declining. The western Antarctic Peninsula has seen huge declines in Adélie penguin populations as the ice has melted—up to 80 percent in some colonies since 1981, by one estimate. But because of the geographic variation in how climate change has affected temperatures, the population decline hasn't been the same everywhere, and other colonies have even grown. This new discovery tracks with Lynch's previous research, which has found that the impact of climate change on Antarctic penguins will be highly variable depending on the location.

“Just because a huge colony was just found doesn't mean that colonies in areas where sea ice isn't great aren't declining," University of Minnesota ecologist Michelle LaRue wrote in an email to Mental Floss. “If the sea ice conditions at the Danger Islands colony all of a sudden saw similar trends in sea ice decline, I would still expect that colony to decline, too." LaRue has worked with Lynch to study penguin populations before, but wasn't involved with this latest study.

The paper also shows how useful the combination of satellite, ground observation, and drones can be in counting penguins in remote areas. The drone was able to capture images like the one above every second as it flew over the island, creating 2D and 3D views of the whole area. This made their overall population count more accurate, which will aid researchers in tracking changes in the colony as time goes on.

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