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Take Pictures of Your (Six-Legged) Roommates for Science

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Modern Americans spend nearly 90% of their lives indoors. Yet despite all that time inside, we know remarkably little about the life that shares our indoor spaces. This spring, a team at North Carolina State University hopes to change that by asking students to document the creatures they find in their dorms, homes, and apartments for a citizen science project called “Never Home Alone @ NCSU.”

Photo of a cockroach.

Cockroach. Photo by C.L. Goforth, used with permission.

Ever since we humans climbed down from the safety of the trees, we have been walling ourselves off from the wild outdoors. And while we may imagine our modern indoor spaces to be the exclusive domain of humans, they are in fact home to a diverse array of lifeforms. In fact, many of these species have adapted specifically to live alongside us.

Yet while the creatures of our kitchens, showers, and beds share an intimacy afforded to few others, we know almost nothing about who they are and how they survive.

Photo of a moth fly.

Moth fly. Photo by C.L. Goforth, used with permission.

This dichotomy piqued the interest of Matt Bertone and Rob Dunn, two researchers at North Carolina State University. Two years ago, they set out on the first ever scientific expedition to explore the wild unknown of indoor spaces. They crawled under furniture, picked through carpet fibers, and analyzed the dusty corners and windowsills of 50 homes around Raleigh, North Carolina expecting to find a few dozen common species of fly, cockroach, and book louse.

It turns out they were off by two orders of magnitude. The research team had discovered a veritable rain forest of more than 1,000 species, many of them little-studied and poorly understood. Their study revealed that we not only live alongside wildlife; our homes are in fact living, breathing ecosystems that breed a unique and diverse patchwork of creatures found nowhere else on earth. By Dunn and Bertone’s count, the arthropod diversity of their sampled homes was higher than that found in many natural ecosystems like alpine savannahs.

Photo of beetle.

End-band netwing beetle (Calopteron terminale). Photo by Jackson Boone, used with permission.

The study has since blossomed into a global citizen science project aptly named “Never Home Alone,” where anyone in the world can upload observations of the creatures they find in their homes to the wildlife mapping app “iNaturalist.” Since its launch in August, the project has collected crowd-sourced photographs of more than 5,000 creatures from Easter Island to Qatar. Among the observed animals are some usual suspects, like cockroaches, flies, ants, and beetles. But there have also been many surprises, from a curious abundance of giant crab spiders in southeast Asian homes to an American alligator in a garage in Florida.

This spring, the project will launch a new phase, looking at a different uncharted frontier of indoor biodiversity: the college campus. The new iteration, called “Never Home Alone @ NCSU,” will open the project up to students and faculty living on or near the NC State campus that are interested in documenting the wild life of their dorms, apartments, and houses. By partnering with the public, the research team will be able to access data that they never could have gathered on their own. They can also answer new questions, like whether different cleaning regiments in dorms might influence their biodiversity, or even whether sharing your home with different types of life is associated with positive or negative health effects.

Photo of pill bugs.

Pill bugs. Photo by Patricia O’Hare, used with permission.

But beyond this, the Never Home Alone @ NCSU team hopes that project volunteers will come away with a deeper appreciation for the wilderness that is in their homes. While some may be unnerved at the idea of deliberately seeking out the leggy denizens of their basements without the express purpose of spraying them with insecticide, the truth is that we all live with wildlife. The homes sampled in Dunn’s and Bertone’s study were not dirty or decrepit. They were in fact some of the nicest in the city. A later study by Misha Leong from the California Academy of Science found that wealthier homes actually have more bugs, even after adjusting for square footage. So if you can’t ever really live alone, you might as well get acquainted with your six and eight legged tenants. You might be surprised by how beautiful some of them are, like the Crotalaria moth, or by the incredible (and beneficial) life strategies of others, like the jewel wasp, whose young feed solely on cockroaches.

There is a whole ecosystem of creatures chasing prey, building homes, and raising young under our laundry baskets and sofas, and many of them are poorly understood or wholly unknown to science. In an era with no more blank spots on the map, you can still be an explorer of these wild landscape without even leaving the living room. And you just might find something amazing.

Above is a short film about the project made by the author of this post, Bradley Alf.

If you watch and listen closely, your home will reveal itself for what it truly is– a continuation of the web of life we have been living with for millennia. What will you find?

“Never Home Alone @ NCSU” was selected as the 2019 “Wolfpack Citizen Science Challenge Project,” a program meant to engage the broader NC State University (NCSU) community in a campus-wide citizen science project. Students, faculty and staff participate in the project through the new NCSU campus portal on SciStarter. NCSU is the nation’s first Citizen Science Campus and the Wolfpack Challenge is a key component of that initiative.

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!


Bradley's headshot.About the Author

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Ecology

Globe Climate: Canada’s resource reckoning is coming

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Good afternoon, and welcome to Globe Climate, a newsletter about climate change, environment and resources in Canada.

This afternoon, the Alberta government announced that it is restoring a coal mining policy it revoked last spring. At the time, the move provoked a widespread public backlash detailed by The Globe. The original decision, which opened up more than 1.4 million hectares to exploration, was made without public consultation. Premier Jason Kenney previously defended the changes.

Lots more on coal and Canada’s resources industry in this week’s newsletter edition.

Now, let’s catch you up on other news.

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Ecology

‘Incredibly destructive’: Canada’s Prairies to see devastating impact of climate change

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As the climate continues to warm at an alarming rate, experts warn if dramatic steps to mitigate global warming are not taken, the effects in Canada’s Prairie region will be devastating to the country’s agriculture sector.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the country is warming, on average, about double the global rate.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. recently found 2020 was earth’s second-hottest year on record, with the average land and ocean surface temperature across the globe at 0.98 of a degree C above the 20th-century average.

However, the agency found the northern hemisphere saw its hottest year on record, at 1.28 degrees C above the average.

“(In Canada) we are looking at about 6.4C degrees of warming this century, which isn’t much less than one degree per decade, which is just a terrifying rate of warming,” Darrin Qualman, the director of climate crisis policy and action at the National Farmer’s Union said.

Qualman said there is “massive change coming” to Canada’s Prairies, which will be “incredibly destructive.”

“It’s not going too far to say that if we made that happen, parts of the Prairies wouldn’t be farmable anymore,” he said.

According to the federal government, in 2018 Canada’s agriculture and agri-food system generated $143 billion, accounting for 7.4 per cent of the country’s GDP.

The sector employed 2.3 million people in 2018. The majority of the 64.2 million hectares of farmland in Canada is concentrated in the Prairies and in southern Ontario.

The effects of climate change are already being felt on the ground in the Prairies, Qualman said, adding that the NFU has already heard from farmers complaining of “challenging weather.”

“People are sharing pictures of flattened crops and buildings, et cetera, that have been damaged,” he said. “And we’re still at the beginning of this.”

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Ecology

Insect-based dog food aims to cut your pet’s carbon pawprint

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Meat has an enormous carbon footprint, with livestock liable for about 15 per cent of worldwide emissions, as we have beforehand mentioned on this e-newsletter. That is prompted specialists to suggest consuming much less meat for sustainability (and well being) causes.

However what about your pet? One research discovered that the methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by canine and cat meals within the U.S. alone had been equal to about 64 million tonnes of CO2, or roughly the quantity produced by 13.6 million automobiles. And it might be getting worse, with a development towards feeding pets “human-grade” meat.

That is prompted some pet meals makers to look to lower-carbon protein sources — together with bugs.

Research present that producing insect-based meals requires far much less feed, land and water and generates far fewer greenhouse fuel emissions per kilogram than meats comparable to beef, pork or rooster.

That is one of many causes increasingly more pet meals containing insect protein are hitting the market. Purina, a model owned by multinational Nestlé, launched a line of canine and cat meals containing black soldier fly larvae in Switzerland in November.

In Canada, Montreal-based Wilder Harrier began promoting canine treats made with cricket protein in 2015 and pet food made with black soldier fly larvae in 2019. It plans to broaden to launch a line of insect-based cat treats later this yr and cat meals in 2022 due to “a ton of demand,” mentioned firm co-founder Philippe Poirier.

Wilder Harrier initially labored with animal nutritionists on insect-based merchandise to unravel a unique downside — specifically, the founders’ canines had allergy symptoms to frequent meats utilized in canine meals. Poirier mentioned now about half its prospects hunt down the product due to their pets’ allergy symptoms and about half for environmental causes.

Dr. Cailin Heinze, a U.S.-based veterinary nutritionist licensed by the American School of Veterinary Vitamin, has written concerning the environmental influence of pet meals. She mentioned we’re typically “not as involved as we probably ought to [be]” concerning the environmental footprint of pets.

Alternatively, she famous that the longer-term influence of newer diets, comparable to vegan meals and people containing bugs, hasn’t been nicely examined in comparison with conventional pet meals.

Maria Cattai de Godoy, an assistant professor of animal sciences on the College of Illinois who research novel proteins for pet meals (together with bugs, yeast and plant-based substances), mentioned such substances are rigorously examined to find out their security and diet earlier than being added to pet meals. 

“This can be a very extremely regulated trade,” she mentioned, however admitted it is also evolving.

Relating to bugs, she mentioned constructive information “reveals promise in direction of utilizing them increasingly more in pet meals.” Insect-based proteins have additionally earned the endorsement of the British Veterinary Affiliation, which says some insect-based meals could also be higher for pets than prime steak.

However Godoy famous that there isn’t any one-size-fits-all resolution, and pet homeowners ought to take into consideration the wants of their very own particular person pet and analysis whether or not a specific weight loss plan can be appropriate.

She mentioned that other than the kind of protein, issues like packaging and manufacturing strategies may also make a distinction. For instance, utilizing meat byproducts that may in any other case turn into waste would not drive elevated meat manufacturing the identical approach as utilizing human-grade meat.

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