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Climate Change Might Ruin Fall Foliage

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Martin Gerten/AFP/Getty Images

In coming years, leaf peepers might still able to enjoy a road trip through fall foliage—but the display might not look the same. While foliage is notoriously difficult to predict, researchers suggest climate change may dull autumn’s vibrant red and yellow hues.

According to Nicole Cavender, vice president of science and conservation for Illinois’s Morton Arboretum, unpredictability caused by climate change—including extreme droughts and floods—could reduce the number of leaves on a tree, hindering the spectacle of foliage colors. One bad storm can change the entire year’s outlook for fall foliage.

Another effect will be the timing of the leaf change: Warmer temperatures generally cause trees to change colors later in the season. A group of researchers recently studied the effects of climate change on autumn phenology, or seasonal changes, and found that 70 percent of their study area (the Northern Hemisphere) experienced delayed foliage. Only the arid and semi-arid regions stayed unchanged.

Of course, Cavender notes, fall foliage doesn’t hinge on climate alone. Factors like the genetics of a tree, environmental conditions such as wind and strong rains, and the tree’s overall health all play an integral part.

While specifics remain up in the air, Cavender predicts that the growing number of frost-free days anticipated in the next 50 years will definitely dull the colors of some of the United States’ most popular fall trees.

The sugar maple, for example, known for its vibrant shades of yellow, orange, and red, is expected to decrease in abundance in America’s natural forests by 2100. It’s also one of many species whose natural habitats will shift north due to warming temperatures. The sugar maple isn’t alone: The yellow birch, beloved for its bright yellow fall leaves, will also migrate north—possibly above the Canadian border by the early 22nd century, according to National Geographic.

Trees aren’t the only species which will move as a result of changing climate: The range of insects are also predicted to dramatically change. The ash tree, which typically has yellow, red and even purple leaves in the fall, is particularly sensitive to insect-borne diseases. One such insect, the emerald ash borer in North America, has been decimating ash trees—although cold winters could help control the epidemic by reducing the insect population, very cold days have decreased by more than 30 percent in the last century, according to NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information.

These somewhat dire predictions have already changed this fall's display: This year’s extended summer temperatures caused foliage delays in popular leaf peeping spots from Massachusetts to Indiana, among other locations.

But there are some things—besides reducing greenhouse gas emissions—that we can do to help. Fall foliage effects—such as colors, vibrancy, and longevity of those colors—varies by type of tree. Cavender says that by planting a diverse assortment of tree species, we can pave the way for colorful autumns well into the future.

“As the climate changes, it’s critical to plant the right tree in the right environmental conditions,” Cavender tells mental_floss. “The more tree diversity you have, the more likely you are to get fall colors every year.”

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Watch Weevils Invade California Palm Trees
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Josh Cassidy/KQED

California is known for its palm trees. Though it only has one native palm species—the rest are imported—the carefully trimmed trees are an instant visual that reads "paradise." Sadly, some palms are now being eaten by weevils.

The South American palm weevil is a big lumpy beetle with a mission: burrow into palm trees and lay eggs. They favor the Canary Island date palm, sometimes called the "pineapple palm" referring to its distinctive shape after pruning.

Female palm weevils drill into the apical meristem ("heart of palm" to foodies) to lay eggs. The newly hatched weevils start life in a bountiful environment, surrounded by food and water. They eat the trees' heart out, leaving a mushy ruin in their wake. Then the larvae proceed with their lifecycle, maturing inside cocoons they make from leftover palm fibers. When they hatch and fly on, the cycle repeats.

This slow escape can kill the tree, as the apical meristem is where the tree sprouts new leaves. In many cases the weevils leave the tree in a state of severe injury, with a characteristic wilt to its existing leaves.

Finding these weevils isn't easy—once they've burrowed in, they're basically undetectable until the damage is done. The current best practice for preventing their spread is to treat palm trees with anti-weevil pesticides. As the weevils begin to invade San Diego, scientists are tracking their spread.

In the video below, Deep Look gets up close with these palm weevils and the scientists studying them. This was shot in 4K Ultra HD, so you can see the creepy little bugs in all their H. R. Giger-style glory.

If video isn't your thing—or you just want more discussion of the science—read this KQED Science blog post.

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Cai et al., 2017
Tiny Prehistoric Beetle Was First to Mooch off Termites
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Cai et al., 2017

Why buy the cow when you can get the termite hole for free? The insects known as termitophiles make themselves right at home in termites’ cozy nests. Now scientists say they may have found the first enterprising moocher to move in—99 million years ago. They published their findings in the journal Current Biology.

The amber mines of Myanmar have yielded some incredible discoveries. Last year, paleontologists reported finding both dinosaur wings and tail feathers in amber markets. The latest discovery, of minuscule, horseshoe-crab-like beetles, may be less flashy, but is no less important in the history of life on this planet.

Cai et al., 2017

With a body length of just 0.03 inches, the new specimens may look itsy-bitsy to us, but they’re actually pretty big compared to the rest of their family. Modern rove beetles in the Trichopseniini tribe are all tiny, and they all perform the insect equivalent of couch-surfing, setting up shop in termites’ nests and snacking on the fungi inside without bothering anybody. 

Scientists previously believed that Trichopseniini and other moochers made their first foray into termite nests around 19 million years ago. Yet the newly discovered specimens (named Cretotrichopsenius burmiticus after the Burmese mine where they’d been hanging out) are at least 80 million years older than that.

“The fossil reveals a richer ecology within early insect societies during the Cretaceous,” the authors note, “and a lengthy period of co-evolution between termites, the first of all social insects, and their numerous arthropod associates.”

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