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It Could Take Another 300 Years to Identify All the Trees in the Amazon

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Neil Palmer/CIAT via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

The Amazon is kind of like Pokemon Go for biologists. A new study suggests that, to date, we’ve found more than 11,000 tree species in the region’s rainforests and savannas, but there are at least another 4000 out there, waiting to be discovered. If we keep spotting them at our current pace, researchers say, catching them all could take us another three centuries. They discussed their findings in the journal Scientific Reports. 

Before the researchers could speculate on those known unknowns, they had to tally up the, well, known knowns. The team knew that the Amazon—the largest rainforest in the world, spanning nine countries—is home to around 1300 species of birds, 427 species of mammals, and 50,000 species of seed plants. And thanks to an earlier study, they had a pretty good guess of the number of tree species: 16,000. But that was just an estimate. To date, nobody had counted. 

So the team, which included botanists from six countries, dug into museum collections around the world and started counting. They reviewed more than half a million specimens from the last 308 years. The final tally was 11,676 different tree species, each one a unique thread in the Amazon’s vivid and varied tapestry. Think about that for a moment. How many different trees can you name off the top of your head? Got a number? Good. Now multiply it by a lot.

The team’s sum total doesn’t invalidate the earlier estimate of 16,000 species. Quite the opposite, in fact. Based on the number we’ve found so far, and the rate at which we’ve been collecting and discovering them, the authors believe we’ve got at least another 4000 to track down.

Doing that could take a while, says study co-author Nigel Pitman, senior conservation ecologist at The Field Museum in Chicago. “Since 1900, between 50 and 200 new trees have been discovered in the Amazon every year,” he said in a press statement. “Our analysis suggests that we won’t be done discovering new tree species there for three more centuries.” 

Will there even be an Amazon in 300 years? That remains to be seen. Deforestation levels have decreased in the last few years, but hardly stopped. “If deforestation were to increase to levels of the early 2000s,” the authors write, “most of the rare—and possibly unknown—species in eastern and southern Amazonia would face threat of extinction.”  

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Switzerland Flushes $1.8 Million in Gold Down the Sewer Every Year
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Switzerland has some pretty valuable sewer systems. As Bloomberg reports, scientists have discovered around $1.8 million worth of gold in the country's wastewater, along with $1.7 million worth of silver.

Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology examined sewage sludge and effluents, or discharged liquid waste, from 64 water treatment plants and major Swiss rivers. They did this to assess the concentrations of various trace elements, which are "increasingly widely used in the high-tech and medical sectors," the scientists explained in a press statement. "While the ultimate fate of the various elements has been little studied to date, a large proportion is known to enter wastewater."

The study, which was recently published online in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, revealed that around 94 pounds of gold makes its way through Switzerland's sewage system each year, along with 6600 pounds of silver and high concentrations of rare metals like gadolinium and niobium. For the most part, these metals don't harm the environment, researchers say.

With gold and silver quite literally flowing through their sewers, is there any way that Switzerland could turn their wastewater into wealth? Scientists are skeptical: "The recovery of metals from wastewater or sludge is scarcely worthwhile at present, either financially or in terms of the amounts which could be extracted," the release explains.

However, in the southern canton of Ticino, which is home to several gold refineries, the "concentrations of gold in sewage sludge are sufficiently high for recovery to be potentially worthwhile," they conclude.

Switzerland is famous for its chocolate, watches, and mountains, but it's also home to major gold refineries. On average, around 70 percent of the world's gold passes through Switzerland every year—and judging from the looks of it, much of it goes down the drain. As for the sewer silver, it's a byproduct of the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, which is a cornerstone of Switzerland's economy.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Grass-Fed Beef Is Actually Worse for the Planet, Report Finds
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There are plenty of reasons to reject factory farming, but in the case of beef, your carbon footprint shouldn’t be one of them. According to EcoWatch, new research shows that grazed cattle provide an outsized contribution to greenhouse gasses, as opposed to cattle kept largely indoors and fed on grain.

The report [PDF], released by Oxford’s Food Climate Research Network, aims to provide definitive answers to what has been a heavily debated topic in environmental circles. Some research has found that grazing cattle actually reduces the carbon footprints of beef operations, because all that pasture stores carbon and prevents it from being released into the atmosphere, and because all that chomping stimulates new vegetation growth. Other research has found that the benefits aren’t as great as the grass-fed boosters estimate—especially since the fields of grain used to grow cattle feed for factory farms sequester carbon, too.

The new Oxford research comes down firmly on the side of the latter camp. It finds that while grass-fed operations can help sequester carbon, it’s “only under very specific conditions,” in part since the definition of what a grassland is can vary wildly. There are natural ranges dominated by wild vegetation, there are pastures that are actively maintained and managed by farmers, and there is land that lies somewhere in between. Overgrazing, trampling, and soil conditions can all negatively impact how much carbon the grasses can sequester. And even under the best conditions, the gains can be short-lived. “This sequestering of carbon is even then small, time-limited, reversible, and substantially outweighed by the greenhouse gas emissions these grazing animals generate,” according to FCRN.

And it seems that even if the vegetation does sequester carbon, grass-fed beef is still an outsized source of greenhouse gasses.

To begin with, all cattle are a huge drain on the environment, no matter how you feed them. The report estimates that the livestock supply chain generates around 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and cattle create 65 percent of those livestock emissions. But even compared to cattle in general, grass-fed animals are heavy polluters. Within the global protein supply, grass-fed beef makes up around 1 gram of protein per person, per day, compared to 13 grams from all ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats, etc.). But these grazed cattle generate up to a third of all global greenhouse emissions from ruminants. In other words, grass-eating cattle create an outsized cost—emissions-wise—compared to the meat they provide.

And the carbon sequestration doesn't help enough to offset that. The report estimates that the carbon sequestration that might occur from grazing practices would only offset emissions by 20 percent.

There are other reasons to buy grass-fed beef, of course, whether it’s about ethical concerns with factory farming or just a taste preference. But if you’re going to choose grass-fed, your reason shouldn’t be concern for the environment.

[h/t EcoWatch]

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