The Dose Doesn’t Always Make the Poison
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Many common household products contain chemicals that could be hazardous to human health. Now, a new report finds that for some chemicals, a very small dose can have a very large health effect. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to Laura Vandenberg, a researcher at Tufts University Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology, about how exposure to small amounts of chemicals can act like hormones and have adverse health effects on humans. (06:00)
Re-mapping the Amazon
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The Brazilian government recently proposed a re-mapping of the Amazon that would remove protection for more than 200,000 acres of rainforest, including national parks. Brent Millikan is Amazon Program Director for International Rivers. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that the government wants to make way for hydroelectric dams. (06:20)
Science Note: Magnetic Soap/ Mary Bates
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Scientists have created the world’s first magnetic soap. As Living on Earth’s Mary Bates reports, when exposed to a magnetic field, the soap, dirt or oil will dissolve. (01:50)
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a conservation drone!
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Drones are unmanned aircraft often associated with the military. But now they’re being used in the war against deforestation, animal poaching and habitat destruction. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to the drones’ creator Lian Pin Koh of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology about the conservation value of these clever miniature planes. (06:45)
Searching for Martens/ Ari Daniel Shapiro
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Some species need the forest in order to survive. In the Basque country of Spain, pine martens depend on large swaths of old growth forest for food and to hide from predators. Producer Ari Daniel Shapiro joined a pair of scientists as they searched the forest floor for evidence of the elusive marten. (05:55)
Home Ground: The Language of Landscape/ D.J. Waldie
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In our continuing series on language of the American landscape from the book "Home Ground," edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney, author D.J. Waldie defines the term "singing sand." (02:00)
A Lifetime of Listening/ Ike Sriskandarajah
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Few have heard the world as Bernie Krause has. Originally trained as a musician, he spent years recording the most famous musicians of the 1960s and 70s. Then he left the studio to explore the origins of music in nature. Krause has recorded wild sounds in places few have ever been or even dreamed of. Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah listens in. (13:40)
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Bernie Krause recorded this soundscape in Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, deep in Florida's Everglades for his CD The Spring in Corkscrew Swamp. ()
HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Laura Vandenberg, Brent Millikan, Lian Pin Koh, D. J Waldie
REPORTERS: Ari Daniel Shapiro, Ike Sriskandarajah
NOTES: Mary Bates
GELLEMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. A new, mega study confirms a scientific paradox; sometimes the dose doesn’t make the poison. Many chemicals, found in thousands of household products, are more dangerous in parts per trillion than in larger amounts:
VANDENBERG: A lot of consumers think, how do I shop my way out of this problem? And the real problem is - we can't shop our way out of this problem. The real question is can we buy products that don't contain hormonally active chemicals?
GELLERMAN: Also, using your ears to tune into the power of the mind's eye:
KRAUSE: A picture is worth 1,000 words? I always say well, yeah ok, a sound-scape is worth 1,000 pictures.
GELLERMAN: Bernie Krauss went from creating synthesizer sounds -
GELLERMAN: To finding the origins of music in nature:
[FLUTE-LIKE SOUNDS OF POTOO]
GELLERMAN: We get an earful from recordist Bernie Krause, this week on Living on Earth. Stick around!
ANNOUNCER ONE: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Massachusetts, it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Generations know Campbell's soup as comfort food:
[MUSIC OF CAMPBELL'S SOUP COMMERCIAL: "soup and sandwich go together....m'm, m'm good! Campbell's of course."]
GELLERMAN: But for months consumer advocates have complained that Campbell's is bad for you, not the soup but the can. They charge the chemical Bisphenol A, used to line soup cans, can mimic human hormones, and they cite studies linking BPA to hyperactivity, obesity and depression in kids, and heart disease and diabetes in adults.
To address those concerns, Campbell's has announced it's phasing out the use of the chemical in its cans, and the FDA, which has maintained BPA is safe at low levels, is reviewing the scientific evidence, and will announce its findings at the end of this month.
But BPA is just one of the many chemicals found in thousands of common products that scientists suspect can act like hormones. A new study, which reviews hundreds of research reports into these so-called endocrine-disrupting chemicals, is just out. The lead author is Laura Vandenberg, a developmental biologist at Tufts University.
VANDENBERG: The way that traditional toxicologists look at chemicals is they look at: does this chemical kill, or does this chemical prevent pregnancy completely. It doesn't address - does this chemical change the subtle organization of the brain? So we found chemicals that are working at that really low level, can take a brain that's in a girl animal and make it look like a brain from a boy animal, so, really subtle changes that have really important effects.
GELLERMAN: So it goes against the notion of 'the dose makes the poison.'
VANDENBERG: Exactly. So, when the dose makes the poison, the more of it that you're exposed to, the more toxic it is. In this case, very, very small doses act like hormones, and that's why they have effects at low doses.
GELLERMAN: So how small an amount are we talking about here?
VANDENBERG: We're talking about chemicals that can act in the part-per-billion or part-per-trillion level. So part-per-trillion would be 1/20 of a drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
GELLERMAN: Or one drop in 20 swimming pools!
GELLERMAN: And these chemicals are in things that we're exposed to everyday?
VANDENBERG: Absolutely. So these are chemicals that are in our food and food packaging, they're in the things that we use to clean our bodies and our homes, they're in things that we spray on our lawns. So these are chemicals that are used for a very particular purpose, but they have adverse effects.
GELLERMAN: So, you mentioned lawn-care products, pesticides, detergents, cosmetics, what should the consumer look for?
VANDENBERG: It's very difficult. So, a lot of consumers think: How do I shop my way out of this problem? how do I avoid these chemicals in the grocery store? And the real problem is - we can't shop our way out of this problem. The real question is - can we buy products that don't contain hormonally active chemicals?
GELLERMAN: But if it doesn't say it on the labels...
VANDENBERG: That's exactly the problem. I would say that I'm fairly educated on this topic, but I'm not a chemist. And when I go to the store, I have no idea whether a product contains a hormone mimic.
GELLERMAN: What about the chemical BPA, Bisphenol-A. It was used in plastic, it was used to coat cans in the supermarket...
VANDENBERG: What we find is that there's overwhelming evidence in animals that BPA is associated with drastic changes in mammary gland development, also changes in the induction of mammary cancers, and changes in the sensitivity of the animal to carcinogens. So it makes you more sensitive to a carcinogen.
GELLERMAN: Well, there's a chemical called tamoxifen, people know it because it's used to treat breast cancer.
VANDENBERG: That's correct.
GELLERMAN: That has been suspected to have an estrogenic effect at very low doses, and that is suspected to be one of these chemicals that you're referring to.
VANDENBERG: So, tamoxifen is taken by women who have breast cancer, so it's a pharmaceutical. The idea is that women who take tamoxifen have to go through a period when it's building up inside their bodies. So, the first few weeks of when they start taking it at a low dose, it will actually cause their breast tumors to grow, so it's actually dangerous at low doses, until the amount in their body gets to a high level and it will kill those tumors. So for women who are taking tamoxifen, they normally go through a period of time that's quite uncomfortable for them, it's called tamoxifen flare. And during that period of time, their cancer is actually progressing before it can get to the point where that tamoxifen will start killing their cancer cells.
GELLERMAN: Your study was a meta-study, it was a study of studies.
VANDENBERG: That's right, this current study looks at lots and lots of chemicals.
GELLERMAN: So you looked at them at the animal level...
VANDENBERG: That's right.
GELLERMAN: The human level...
VANDENBERG: That's right.
GELLERMAN: ...and, the cellular level.
VANDENBERG: That's exactly right. Yeah, we were really trying to say - if we look at these chemicals as a whole - what can we learn from them? Do they have actions that are very specific to a chemical, so, is BPA special in some way, or is BPA representative of what a lot of these chemicals would do and act like?
GELLERMAN: What's the reaction you've gotten from industry, the chemical makers?
VANDENBERG: For years, the industry has argued that chemicals don't have an effect at these low doses. But now we have this huge body of evidence, all of these papers looking at hundreds of chemicals, and we're asking them now to reconsider that position; that, perhaps, chemicals are not safe at low doses.
GELLERMAN: So what does a regulatory agency like the FDA or the EPA, what are they left to do?
VANDENBERG: The way that regulatory science generally approaches chemical safety is by giving an animal a huge amount of a chemical, seeing how many animals die because of that huge amount of chemical, and then calculating what would be a "safe" amount of that chemical, but the safe amount is never actually tested. What we're asking them to do is to actually test chemicals at the dose that is suggested to be safe. It seems like a no-brainer, and yet it's not the way that chemical testing is currently done.
GELLERMAN: So, for the layperson, the take away message from your study is...
VANDENBERG: That chemicals that act like hormones are not safe at the doses that we're exposed to. There is no safe dose of a chemical that mimics a hormone.
GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Vandenberg, thank you so much for coming in.
VANDENBERG: Thank you so much, it's been great!
GELLERMAN: Laura Vandenberg is a research fellow at the Tufts University Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology. For more on her study, head to our website, loe dot org.
[MUSIC: Floratone “Do You have It” from Floratone II (Savoy Jazz 2012).]
GELLERMAN: Brazil’s River of the Dead is teeming with life, tropical birds, fish and turtles. The river is one of the hundreds of tributaries of the mighty Amazon.
[BIRDS FADE TO BOAT SOUNDS AND RUNNING WATER]
GELLERMAN: But even this remote region is being developed. Not far from this part of Brazil construction has begun on the huge and hugely controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. When finished, it will generate a vast amount of electricity and flood a vast area of the rainforest. It’s just one of 60 dams planned in the Brazilian Amazon.
Balancing Brazil’s growing need for energy and protecting the rainforest was front and center back in January 2011, when Dilma Rousseff addressed Congress after being sworn as Brazil’s first female president.
[ROUSSEFF SPEAKING IN PORTUGUESE]
VOICEOVER: My Dear Brazilians, I consider that Brazil has a sacred mission to show the world that it is possible for a country to grow rapidly without destroying the environment. We are and will continue to be the world champions in clean energy, a country that will always know how to grow in a healthy and balanced fashion.
GELLERMAN: But just a year later, President Rousseff, who was once a Marxist guerilla, signed a provisional measure redefining part of the Amazon: lifting federal protection, and potentially opening the way for construction of hydro-electric dams on more than 200,000 thousand acres of rainforest.
Environmental groups within Brazil and around the world issued an open letter criticizing the president; saying her first year in office was - quote: 'marked by the most significant regression of the social and environmental agenda since the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship.' International Rivers is one of the environmental groups that signed the letter. Brent Millikan is the organization’s Amazon Program director.
MILLIKAN: Well, it essentially transforms areas that were set aside for sustainable use and environmental conservation to open way for the reservoirs of dams. Brazil has very advanced environmental legislation, and before you can go ahead with a project, environmental impact studies have to be carried out, economic viability studies have to carried out, so this is a situation where the President reduced these areas to make way for projects that haven’t even been studied adequately yet.
So it’s not clear that those projects should even go forward at all. So it’s really putting the cart before the horse - for that reason, the federal prosecutors office filed a lawsuit questioning the legality of that provisional measure that was taken by the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff.
GELLERMAN: And this is in the Amazon.
MILLIKAN: This is in the Amazon. This is in, you know, the Tapajos is really in the heart of the Amazon, it’s right there in the middle. It’s one of the main tributaries on the right bank of the Amazon, and an incredibly important area in terms of biological diversity, in terms of cultural diversity, you know, it’s often referred to as a jewel of the Amazon in that regard, in terms of its social, its cultural, its environmental importance.
GELLERMAN: So, this would change the status of this vast area of the Amazon, which is actually part national parks. As I understand it though, there’s an exchange, that is, they give up this land so they could study it to perhaps build these dams, but in exchange, an equal amount of Amazon forest would be set aside as conservation land.
MILLIKAN: Right. The problem is that the Amazon is an incredibly diverse area. An incredibly diverse biome with very different ecosystems that aren’t the same; very different habitats. So, along the rivers you have very specific ecosystems in terms of the relationships between the rivers and the forest, in terms of endemic species, in terms of threatened species. o you can’t just subtract an area that includes a place like that and consider that any other area could be suitable for its substitution.
GELLERMAN: So not all Amazon acres are created equal.
MILLIKAN: Exactly. Yes, you can’t just treat everything as if apples and oranges are the same thing.
GELLERMAN: What about the people that live there, are there people that live in this area?
MILLIKAN: These are areas that are inhabited by riverine populations, fishing populations, indigenous people. You know, these are tradition populations, that depend on healthy rivers, healthy ecosystems for their livelihoods. A fishing economy is absolutely critical to a lot of these populations. And dams, on the Amazon, are devastating in terms of the local fish populations.
GELLERMAN: Do these indigenous peoples have a say in any part of this process? Particularly here, in terms of this provisional measure which the president signed?
MILLIKAN: The Brazilian constitution and international agreements which Brazil has signed onto require that indigenous people be consulted. That a process of free, prior and informed consultation and consent be carried out. What in fact is happening, is that that right is not being respected and that consultation process is not being carried out as it should.
GELLERMAN: So, I understand they’re going to be flooding a large part of the Amazon to make way for these five large hydroelectric dams, but that’s just the beginning!
MILLIKAN: Exactly. I mean, in fact, there are over 60 large dams that are slated for construction in the next 20 years in the Amazon. So it’s so important right now that these sorts of issues about social-environmental impacts, about economic viability, about the alternatives to large dams, these sorts of issues get the kind of attention that they deserve. Otherwise, we’re seeing situations where the same sorts of mistakes are being repeated over and over again.
GELLERMAN: But supporters of the hydroelectric powered dam say, “look, this stuff is clean energy, we don’t have to burn coal, and if we don’t do this, we’ll have to build nuclear power plants.”
MILLIKAN: Well, first of all, the idea that dams in the Amazon particularly, are clean energy really requires more scrutiny. In fact, a really important impact of dams in the Amazon has to do with greenhouse gas emissions from decaying vegetation in the reservoirs. So, if you look at human rights, if you look at the impacts on biodiversity, if you look at greenhouse gas emissions, the idea that these dams are clean energy really needs to be reconsidered, it really cannot hold water in that regard.
GELLERMAN: So is this remapping of the Amazon, this proposal a done deal?
MILLIKAN: There’s been a problem in Brazil with the way these sorts of provisional measures have been approved. Typically, there hasn’t been a discussion in Congress and they’ve been steamrolled through without any real discussion at all. In this particular case, there’s a movement for there to be a Congressional hearing that would involve representatives of communities affected in the region to be able to come into Brazilia and talk about what’s going on, to have legal experts, to have scientists talk about what’s going on. So we’re hoping there’s going to be a quality discussion, that some reason can come to bear on this situation, so that this sort of mistake won’t be able to go through Congress and be approved.
GELLERMAN: Well, Brent Millikan, thank you so much.
MILLIKAN: Thank you, it's a pleasure to talk to you.
GELLERMAN: Brent Millikan is Amazon Program director for International Rivers.
[MUSIC: Lonnie Liston Smith “Quiet Moments” from Explorations: The Columbia Recordings (Sony Music 2002).]
GELLERMAN: Just ahead: we travel to the Basque region of Spain, where scientists search for an animal related to the weasel.
GONZALEZ: The pine martens, they need the forest to survive. So if we conserve pine martens, we are conserving many, many other species.
GELLERMAN: Seeking clues to save the pine marten, and the forest. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Booker T Jones: “Harlem House” from The Road To Memphis” (Anti Records 2011).]
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Coming up: the skies are no longer the limit for conservation drones. But first, this Note on Emerging Science from Mary Bates.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
BATES: Soap helps make things less sticky. But now scientists have turned things upside down and created sticky soap, by making it magnetic.
A team of scientists from Bristol University in England has created the world’s first magnetic soap. They did so by dissolving iron-rich salts in water and ordinary soapy solutions, the same types found in mouthwash and fabric softener. To test it, the researchers put the soap in a test tube beneath layers of water and an oily substance. When a magnet was placed near the test tube, the soap overcame both gravity and surface tension and rose above the other layers.
To understand how this worked on a molecular level, researchers sent soap samples to an institute in France to undergo a procedure called neutron scattering. Beams of neutrons were fired at the soap, revealing that the iron particles were clumping together and forming tiny metallic centers inside the soap particles. Individual iron atoms aren’t large enough to respond to a magnetic field, but these clumps fit the bill.
When exposed to a magnetic field, this new soap can be easily removed, along with the dirt or oil it has dissolved. This could provide a way of cleaning up oil spills without leaving polluting chemicals behind. Researchers hope that with further development, magnetic soap will be one less reason to cry over spilt oil. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science; I’m Mary Bates.
[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]
Bristol University Press Release
GELLERMAN: Environmentalists have a new weapon in their war on deforestation, poaching of endangered species…
GELLERMAN:…and the destruction of animal habitats.
[DRONE ENGINE SOUNDS, FLYING SOUND]
GELLERMAN: Drones. Fleets of small, self-flying airplanes could soon become part of the eco-arsenal.
[SOUND OF DRONE TAKING OFF]
GELLERMAN: A tropical forest clearing in Sumatra serves as a runway—as Lian Pin Koh test-flies his conservation drone. Quickly airborne, the drone’s cameras capture a bird’s eye view of the dense forest below.
[DRONE STARTING TO LAND]
GELLERMAN: But Lian Pin Koh found that some of the test flight landings were rougher than expected.
[ROUGH LANDING SOUND]
GELLERMAN: When he’s not in Sumatra testing his eco-surveillance plane, Professor Lian Pin Koh teaches ecology and conservation at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. He’s co-developer of the conservation drone One-Point-O, and says the idea of using small, self-flying airplanes is really taking off.
KOH: So it's basically just a hobby, remote-control model plane that you can buy from any hobby shop. It has a wing-span of about 1.4 meters, so it’s pretty small and it's very compact. We can basically put it in a backpack and carry it around in the forest.
GELLERMAN: How far does it go and how high does it go?
KOH: It can fly for about 20 to 25 minutes, which gives it a range of about ten to 15 kilometers and it can be programmed to fly up to maybe about 300 meters above ground.
GELLERMAN: About a thousand feet.
KOH: Right. But the cool thing about this system is we’ve incorporated an autopilot system into this model airplane, which essentially makes it into a drone.
GELLERMAN: So, this plane flies itself?
KOH: Correct, it flies itself, autonomously!
GELLERMAN: So, a plane with a brain!
KOH: More or less. But with at least two other brains on the ground to make sure it does O.K.
GELLERMAN: (Laughs.) So, it’s the autonomous nature of the plane - that you have this software that allows it to fly itself - that’s the innovation that you bring to this.
KOH: Well, yes. But I should say that the autopilot hardware and software have been developed by a group of online developers and hobbyists, so it is open-sourced software. So, what we did was to take this system and apply it to our research area, which is tropical conservation.
By strapping a camera on the belly of the plane you can easily see the plumes of smoke on the horizon, and those could be illegal burning activities that many of the local rangers and forest mangers want to be able to control and to keep track of. The other would be taking aerial photos to produce real-time land cover maps.
GELLERMAN: What about tracking wild animals?
KOH: Yeah, that’s the third main purpose of these drones: to be able to count the number of cheetahs or antelopes or elephants, which would be already a huge cost of savings, because what’s currently being done is that ecologists go on manned aircrafts to try to do those kinds of surveys and that can be very, very expensive.
So I should also add, that when we began using drones for conservation, we actually decided to first buy a commercial system that costs tens of thousands of dollars and we found that it doesn’t really do all the things that we wanted it to do, and besides, it cost a huge amount of money, which many local conservation workers in the tropics would not be able to afford.
GELLERMAN: So how much did your system cost?
KOH: So, our system costs less than two thousand dollars.
KOH: Including the cameras and the electronics and the plane and the software, but the software is open-source, of course.
GELLERMAN: So when you’re about to fly this drone, what do you do, you program it? How do you make it go where you want it to go?
KOH: That’s very simple. We just basically have to click on waypoints on a google map - we just upload it to the drone and flick a switch on the radio system and it takes off on its own and goes about its mission. And after it’s done with the mission, it flies back to us.
GELLERMAN: Professor Koh, why not use satellites for imaging the rainforest?
KOH: Yeah, we have been using satellites as well, but a couple of problems: one is the cost, and the second reason is because in many parts of the humid tropics, there is persistent cloud cover, so it’s very difficult to get real time images from a particular location using satellite-based remote sensing.
GELLERMAN: You know, Professor Koh, have you thought of this, that you’re flying this drone over a forest, and you hone in on a deforester, someone who is cutting down trees, and they start shooting at the drone, and maybe shooting at you.
KOH: Actually, being shot at was one of the motivations for developing the drone too! Being shot at is a big risk of having manned aircraft flying over forests looking for illegal loggers, or poachers, so if the drone gets shot at, it’s the drone that goes down, it’s only a two thousand dollar technology. It’s practically disposable compared to a manned aircraft or an ultra-lite.
GELLERMAN: Since you’ve had successful test flights, have environmental groups coming to you saying, ‘hey, we could use that’?
KOH: Yeah, we’ve got lots of people contacting us, we’ve got colleagues from other research institutes asking us to go to Borneo to fly over the rainforest, asking us to go to Africa and we’ve even got someone asking us to bring our drones to the Antarctica to film penguins!
GELLERMAN: Professor Koh, were you the kind of kid - I know I was - who flew model airplanes and all that?
KOH: No, no. I wanted to fly, but we just couldn't afford to buy one of those things in my family, so I’m sort of living my childhood dream now. You know, one of my dreams is to be able to develop something that is of real practical use to conservation in the tropics, apart from all of the academic work that I’m engaged in, to reach out to the people on the ground who are actually doing conservation.
GELLERMAN: Is it fun to fly?
KOH: Oh, it’s very fun! That’s the other reason why we developed the drone! (Laughs.)
GELLERMAN: Well, congratulations Professor Koh, you’ve earned your wings!
KOH: (laughs) Oh, thank you very much.
GELLERMAN: Lian Pin Koh is a professor of ecology and conservation at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
[MUSIC: The Beatles “Flying” from The Beatles Box Set (EMI Records 2010).]
GELLERMAN: Animals leave behind little clues to their past and to their future. Reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro traveled to northern Spain recently, where he met a couple of scientific sleuths who make a living following their noses as detectives tracking down the clues animals leave behind.
[WALKING AND LAUGHING SOUNDS]
SHAPIRO: It’s not often you get to see two grown men get excited over finding a pile of feces on the ground. But a few months ago, I saw exactly that. I was in the wet forested mountains of northern Spain, in the Basque country.
The two men were Javier López de Luzuriaga and Aritz Gonzalez, and they study martens; small, bushy, large-pawed carnivores. They look a bit like weasels, and they’re really elusive. Luzuriaga, a freelance field assistant, has been working with martens for four years, and he says he’s seen the animals just twice.
LUZURIAGA: The first time I was in this mountains, I heard some noise. The marten was walking two meters from me.
SHAPIRO: What did that feel like?
LUZURIAGA: It was… impresionante, ¿no?
SHAPIRO: Exciting because most of the time, all these two get to see is evidence the martens have left behind. Like the feces lying on the muddy trail. Gonzalez, a zoologist at the University of the Basque Country, squats down to get a better look.
GONZALEZ: Okay, this is a very good quality sample, okay, so we are going to take the sample for our DNA analysis, Okay?
SHAPIRO: Gonzalez uses a twig to gently pack some of the feces into a couple of small tubes. What he really wants are the cells on and in the feces, cells sloughed off from the gut of the defecating animal. Even though he’s pretty sure the feces were deposited by a marten, Gonzalez doesn’t know whether they came from a pine marten, Martes martes, or a stone marten, Martes foina. Back in the lab, the DNA in these cells will tell Gonzalez which species of marten was responsible.
SHAPIRO: And that distinction, knowing which type of marten is where, is at the center of the puzzle Gonzalez is trying to unravel out here. He’s searching for pine martens in the forested areas of the Basque country.
GONZALEZ: Usually when we have this kind of good quality forest, usually the pine marten has an advantage to survive over the stone marten.
SHAPIRO: Pine martens depend on large swaths of old forest. The trees give the animals protection from predators, they’re perfect for creating dens, and the forest provides the habitat for the small mammals that pine martens eat.
GONZALEZ: But not all forested areas of Northern Spain are able to have pine marten populations.
SHAPIRO: The old forests here have been fragmented by roads and towns, interrupting the continuous stretches of tree-lined slopes. The DNA work has taught Gonzalez that pine martens are in a delicate situation, the pockets of remaining animals have grown genetically isolated from one another. Stone martens, however, are doing just fine.
GONZALEZ: The stone marten is able to adapt to many, many different conditions, to open fields, even in urban areas, in big cities.
SHAPIRO: Stone martens thrive in areas markedly transformed by humans. They can tolerate warmer weather as well, so they can be found clear down to the Mediterranean Sea. And the relative success of the stone versus pine martens says something about the altered versus natural environment.
GONZALEZ: The pine martens, they need the forest to survive, so if we conserve pine martens, we are conserving many, many other species.
SHAPIRO: Chief among those species is Quercus petraea, or the sessile oak tree.
SHAPIRO: Gonzalez walks briskly to show me one of his favorite spots. At last, we come upon an enormous sessile oak. (Wow, this is so beautiful.) It’s 300, maybe 400 years old. The thick, mossy trunk surges up from the ground, and a web of branches, like a tangle of hair, decorate the top half of the tree. Gonzalez leads me to an opening near the ground, and we both enter a cavity at the base of the trunk.
[SOUNDS OF CLIMBING INTO TREE]
SHAPIRO: How big can you stretch your arms out?
GONZALEZ: So, we can put my right hand on one side and with left hand, maybe, two meters something like that.
SHAPIRO: But basically, it’s the distance from, if you stretch your arms out to either side.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, like that.
SHAPIRO: The tree’s big enough to fit 14 people. They tried it once. The grooves of the inside of the trunk curl upwards like a helix.
GONZALEZ: Of course, we have not so many of huge oaks because we have been cutting them many years ago, but we have some survivors of the human activity like this one. I think that for pine martens, those trees are their home. So, of course, I think to maintain pine martens, estamos obligados, we are…?
GONZALEZ: Obligated to maintain this kind of forest.
SHAPIRO: Gonzalez’s first name, Aritz, it means “oak” in Euskara, the Basque language. His sense of obligation to protect the trees of this forest, the trees that are his namesake, is rooted in a idea that these trees are living history.
GONZALEZ: Yes, it’s historia viviente – living history.
SHAPRIO: This oak tree has survived centuries of human exploit, serving as a home for pine martens for just as long. Gonzalez is a strong advocate for protecting the integrity of these trees and of the forest, managing it in a way that allows pine martens to thrive right alongside stone martens, just as they used to. For Living on Earth, I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro.
GELERMAN: Our story on pine and stone martens is part of the series, One Species at a Time, produced by Atlantic Public Media, with support from the Encyclopedia of Life.
To see some cool photos from Ari's trip to the Basque region, follow the trail to our website loe dot org - or check out our Facebook page - it's PRI's Living on Earth.
Encyclopedia of Life’s One Species at a Time
[MUSIC: Tin Hat Trio “Helium” from Helium (Angel records 2000).]
GELLERMAN: Coming up, A man with a microphone and a passion for capturing and creating a world full of sounds. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!
ANNOUNCER ONE: Support for Living on Earth comes from the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, supporting strategic communications and collaboration in solving the world's most pressing environmental problems, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and Gilman Ordway - for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Donald Harrison: “Nouveau Swing” from Nouveau Swing (GRP Records 1997).]
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.
[MUSIC: Home Ground Theme - Oh Marie.]
GELLERMAN: From time to time - we dip into a book called "Home Ground" where you’ll find definitions for unique features of the American landscape. Writer D. J Waldie has one for people who couldn’t carry a tune even if it was in a bucket.
WALDIE: Singing sand. Sand falling from the crest of a dune can produce sounds that have haunted desert travelers for millennia. In the past, the sound was likened to the strumming of a lute, the muttering of immensely deep voices, or the crashing of waves on an invisible shore. Later, the sound was compared to cannon fire or armies in battle.
Today, the loudest booming is said to sound like the passage overhead of a squadron of propeller-driven aircraft. All of these sounds are caused by an incompletely understood interaction of wind, humidity, and the geometry of individual grains when a sheet of sand with the right properties slumps from a dune’s crest. Booming sands are relatively uncommon, but they can be heard at Sand Mountain near Fallon and Big Dune near Beatty, both in Nevada, and at the Kelso Dunes near Kelso, California.
Unique barking sands can be found on the west coast of Kaua’i, Hawai’i. Unlike booming sands, which produce a wide range of low-frequency sounds, some sands produce a single tone that has been variously described as squeaking or whistling. Walking on or shifting these musical sands produces a very short, high-frequency sound. Squeaking sand may be found at many beaches, lakeshores, and riverbanks around the United States.
[MUSIC: Michael Rogers “Sea Shells And White Sand from Magnetica (Catapult Records 2010).]
GELLERMAN: D.J. Waldie lives in Lakewood California, and is author of: “Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir.” His description of singing sand comes to us from the book "Home Ground, Language for an American Landscape" edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney.
GELLERMAN: Bernie Krause is an acoustic adventurer. For the past forty years he’s traveled the world, searching and recording sounds few people had ever heard before.
[SOUNDS OF AMAZON: Bernie Krause “Amazon Days” from Amazon Days, Amazon Nights (Wild Sanctuary, BMI, 2002)]
GELLERMAN: And some sounds you might never get a chance to hear if it weren’t for Bernie Krause. He recorded this in the Amazon rainforest a decade ago. Since then, sixty thousand square miles of jungle have been destroyed, that's an area about the size of Florida. You can read about Bernie Krause’s sonic journey in his new book: “The Great Animal Orchestra.” And you can listen to the man behind the microphone in this story by Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Bernie Krause lives in an idyllic part of Northern California. It’s all pastures, and vineyards. It’s a good place to tell a story.
KRAUSE: The valley of the moon, Jack London country. He lived about a mile from here.
SRISKANDARAJAH: And set some of his adventures in this landscape, along with the South Pacific and of course, Alaska. Jack London introduced Americans to wilderness most would never see. Bernie Krause does that with sound.
KRAUSE: This is where I edit and put things together and also do the archiving. We have a huge library of natural soundscapes
SRISKANDARAJAH: His garage-sized home studio houses 45 hundred hours of natural soundscape recordings. Krause is in his 70s now, but shows no sign of slowing his life’s work.
KRAUSE: I’ve always been in sound - cause I don’t see too well, so my world is informed by the acoustic world around me. And this archive is really important because so much of the material in that archive that was recorded in the early years - 1970s, 1980s, early 90s - is from habitats that no longer exist.
[SOUNDS OF THE AMAZON: Bernie Krause “Amazon Days” from Amazon Days, Amazon Nights (Wild Sanctuary, BMI, 2002)]
SRISKANDARAJAH: More than half, he estimates have fallen silent. These archives hold lost ecosystems’ swan songs…
[AMAZON BIRDS: Bernie Krause “Amazon Days” from Amazon Days, Amazon Nights (Wild Sanctuary, BMI, 2002) ]
SRISKANDARAJAH: Recorded in beautiful fidelity.
KRAUSE: And here’s what I use.
KRAUSE: Step on over to my shelves here… (rustle) These are the workhorses of most field recordists - who are serious, that is.
SRISKANDARAJAH: There are long skinny microphones, short stethoscopes, windscreens that look like zeppelins. The recorders range from sleek digital gear to their analog ancestors.
KRAUSE: It goes from an old Nagra, here pick this up.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Okay. (Laugh) Wow!
KRAUSE: And that’s light. It doesn’t have the batteries in it. You didn’t get a hernia when you lifted that, did you?
SRISKANDARAJAH: It’s unwieldy, but this old Nagra recorder is a trusted friend.
KRAUSE: I’m reminded of the time that I was recording with it and dropped it out of a helicopter…
[HELICOPTER SOUND EFFECT: The Doors: Opening to The End from Apocalypse Now: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1979 Electra)]
KRAUSE: I had my feet dangling over the side and the Nagra recorder in my lap and the chopper lurched and the Nagra fell off my knees and fell onto the beach 40 feet.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Five stories.
KRAUSE: And it was still working.
[MUSIC: The Doors: Opening to The End from Apocalypse Now: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1979 Electra)]
KRAUSE: It’s the only machine that’s atomic bomb proof - that’s the machine you want to have.
SRISKANDARAJAH: When you want to record the apocalypse?
KRAUSE: When you want to record the apocalypse.
SRISKANDARAJAH: And Krause might be one of the only guys who would know.
[GUITAR: The Doors: Opening to The End from Apocalypse Now: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1979 Electra)]
KRAUSE: Which, by the way, we worked on that movie.
KRAUSE: …Now! Yeah, did all the helicopter sounds with a moog synthesizer and also about a third of the score.
[APOCALYPSE NOW MUSIC FADED INTO GUANTANAMERA INSTRUMENTAL: The Weavers: Guantanamera from Reunion at Carnegie Hall 1963 (Vanguard Records, 1963)]
SRISKANDARAJAH: If you’re talking about recorded sound around the late 60s, there’s a decent chance Bernie Krause had something to do with it. He was a part of so many seminal moments in history, he’s basically the Forest Gump of sound. Here’s the short resume: as a young man he replaced Pete Seeger as a singer in the Weavers.
[GUANTANAMERA MUSIC: The Weavers: Guantanamera from Reunion at Carnegie Hall 1963 (Vanguard Records, 1963)]
KRAUSE: And together we introduced Guantanamera at Carnegie hall…
SRISKANDARAJAH: He left folk and got into electronic music, partnering with the late recording artist Paul Beaver.
[SYNTHESIZED MUSIC: Hot Butter: Popcorn from Best of Moog- Electronic Pop Hits from the 60s & 70s (Relativity, 1990)]
KRAUSE: And together, we introduced the synthesizer to pop music and film.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Soon all musicians wanted to tap into the incredible electric sound.
KRAUSE: And then we began working with a lot of different artists at the time - Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, a bunch of others.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The Monkees, the Doors, George Harrison. Krause and Beaver also created sounds for 135 feature films: Rosemary’s Baby, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the original Dr. Doolittle…
KRAUSE: But you know, I don’t remember much about that stuff, I just don’t recall.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Krause doesn’t talk much about his time in Hollywood. But he does remember what he left for. It was a challenge: an album on ecology. To combine electronic sounds alongside natural ones.
KRAUSE: I hadn’t really given much thought to that idea, like what was outside, cause I’d never been outside, I was terrified of the natural world.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Really, since you were a kid? You weren’t an outdoorsy, camping sorta guy?
KRAUSE: Not really. I mean a goldfish scared the hell out of me!
SRISKANDARAJAH: So the city kid from Detroit, turned studio artist, headed outside.
KRAUSE: I gathered up a small recorder, tape recorder, went into the field, and recorded in Muir woods around San Francisco.
[MUIR WOODS SOUNDS]
KRAUSE: No question about it - the first time I turned on my recorder and had earphones on outside, everything changed.
[MUIR WOODS SOUNDS]
KRAUSE: For a kid who suffered from ADHD, if I wanted to get a good recording, I had to sit for a long period of time, quietly, alone and not moving. This made me feel so good just to sit there quietly and watch events unfold that - uh - that’s what I wanted to do.
[MUSIC: Beaver & Krause: Walking Green Algae Blues from In A Wild Sanctuary/ Gandharva (Rhino/Warner Bros 2005)]
SRISKANDARAJAH: This is from the album, In a Wild Sanctuary, it draws from those first recordings of a stream in Muir woods.
[WATER GURGLING/BLENDED WITH MUSIC: Beaver & Krause: Walking Green Algae Blues from In A Wild Sanctuary/ Gandharva (Rhino/Warner Bros 2005)]
KRAUSE: I didn’t want to be inside anymore with those smoky rooms and all the musicians telling bad jokes and the drugs and the rest of the stuff that was going on. It was really boring to me.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The wilderness was interesting. He studied it and earned a Ph.D. in the creative arts with a focus on bioacoustics, then left to find places of sonic serenity.
KRAUSE: Well, the next step was to get away from airplane sounds and traffic noise and a lot of people yapping and talking - which is the only way that you can do it.
[MUSIC: Beaver & Krause: Walking Green Algae Blues from In A Wild Sanctuary/ Gandharva (Rhino/Warner Bros 2005)]
SRISKANDARAJAH: But escaping the human soundscape is not easy
KRAUSE: As you know - it’s not a group process… hello.
SRISKANDARAJAH: As we’re talking, a plane flies over and confirms - it’s hard to find quiet
[SOUND OF PLANE OVERHEAD]
KRAUSE: Let’s wait till that guy goes by. (pull up, pull up… yeah)
SRISKANDARAJAH: Even though Krause’s California home is tucked into a shady hill, with no humans in sight - there are airports, a highway and a race track nearby. The seclusion here is an optical illusion - something that’s harder to fake in sound.
KRAUSE: Because it tells the truth. Your ears tell the truth.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The truth in soundscapes is his core belief. And Bernie Krause has field-tested it.
KRAUSE: I recorded, not very far from here, at a place called Lincoln meadows in the Sierras. There was a lumber group that wanted to cut it down and they were introducing the then new idea of selective logging.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Basically, cutting every other tree.
KRAUSE: I said to them, any chance I could record before you do the selective logging and see what the density and diversity of birdlife is in the spring - and they said yeah, sure, come on by, and I did.
[SOUND OF LINCOLN MEADOW 88]
SRISKANDARAJAH: But a year later, the loggers fell short of their word.
KRAUSE: If you take a look at a Google Earth image of that site, what they’ve done is - they kept the tree density along the edge of Lincoln meadow the same, but if you walk back a couple hundred yards, they clear cut it.
SRISKANDARAJAH: In one year the ambience of the meadow went from this -
[BIRD CALLS, LINCOLN MEADOW RECORDING, 1988]
SRISKANDARAJAH: - to this:
[LINCOLN MEADOW RECORDING, 1989]
SRISKANDARAJAH: Google used these and other of Krause’s recordings as a feature in Google Earth. Universities got interested too. The idea of using soundscapes to show change in an environment has been gaining momentum for years, but the discipline is still pretty small.
KRAUSE: It’s called soundscape ecology and the ones who’ve actually picked up on the scientific end of this thing are Michigan State University - the enviro-sonics lab there, and also, at Purdue University - Bryan Pyjanowski.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Last year Bernie Krause and Professor Pyjanowski co-wrote a paper describing the field in the journal Bioscience. And the Purdue professor recently launched a website called the Soundscape Network.
PYJANOWSKI: We collect huge amounts of files. We have over half a million sound recordings, many of them about 10-15 minutes long.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Besides making the audio publicly available, Pyjanowski mines these recordings as data sets that gauge the health of ecosystems. The answer is relevant to biologists, engineers, urban planners and policy makers. And all of them have something to learn from Bernie Krause.
PYJANOWSKI: I mean he’s thought about what can produce sound and he’s run around and done it. I haven’t gotten out and done all the different things that he has. But he’s teaching me.
SRISKANDARAJAH: The guy that recorded ‘Apocalypse Now’ has a lot of technical knowledge to share. But the intuitive skill of listening is harder to teach. Brian Pyjanowski is learning to listen to the whole ecosystem as a “biophony.”
PYJANOWSKI: As ecologists begin to study this phenomenon, we want to be able to borrow from the vocabulary of musicians but also learn from them the way in which they listen. They’re great listeners.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Here’s Bernie Krause again.
KRAUSE: We’re a visual culture so we don’t know how to listen. We know how to listen, sort of, to music.
SRISKANDARAJAH: We listen to music, but we’ve forgotten to listen to nature. Krause’s new book is “The Great Animal Orchestra.” It argues that art imitates wildlife.
KRAUSE: Humans are imitators. It’s what we do for a living, we imitate. And when we saw primates pounding out rhythms on the buttresses of fig trees, in the forest, we developed the drum. The different length broken reeds by a stream, we got the flute.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Krause finds the origins of music in the world’s wild places.
[MUSICAL POTOO BIRD]
KRAUSE: We didn’t learn it from Julliard, not the Eastman School of Music or Berklee in Boston.
KRAUSE: We learned it from the critters.
SRISKANDARAJAH: Krause hears the biophony everywhere, in places we never knew existed. He’s recorded underwater, the sounds of an anemone trying to eat his hydrophone -
[SOUND OF NIBBLING ANEMONE]
SRISKANDARAJAH: - and spitting it back out -
SRISKANDARAJAH: into ant hills where insects chirp as their legs rub together -
SRISKANDARAJAH: - and inside trees, where thirsty plant cells produce incredible, imperceptible pops.
KRAUSE: We cheated a little on this one. We drilled a tiny hole about the size of a pencil eraser into this cottonwood tree and inserted a hyrdophone because the sound is very high frequency and recorded the sound and slowed it up by a factor of seven when we got back into the studio so we could actually hear it.
[SOUND OF TREES]
KRAUSE: And I just happened to hit on a stretch that was perfectly in synch rhythmically -
[KRAUSE RHYTHMICALLY BEATS HIS THIGHS, COMPARED TO TREE SOUND]
KRAUSE: - the beat is perfect.
KRAUSE: People always say, they use this old trope, that a picture is worth a thousand words. I always say well, okay, a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures.
SRISKANDARAJAH: These soundscapes tell stories, of invisible, unreachable places, and ones that have gone silent. There’s one more story. One in particular that would’ve made Krause’s neighbor, Jack London, proud. It was captured in Ontario’s Algonquin Park.
KRAUSE: Yeah, I went out one morning and, uh, all of a sudden I was surrounded by these wolves.
[SOUND OF ALGONQUIN WOLVES]
KRAUSE: The guy that was with me was terrified. I was in heaven. I wrapped a string around a tree and set up two mics on it and began to record. I had a pack of wolves in front of me and a pack of wolves in back of me and was completely surrounded with these two groups just yowling at one another in the dawn light…
KRAUSE:…and it was absolutely glorious.
[SOUND OF ALGONQUIN WOLVES]
SRISKANDARAJAH: The boy who flinched at goldfish, grew up to chase the call of the wild. Packs of wolves, in stereo, don’t even really bother him.
KRAUSE: That’s because I’m crazy!
[SOUND OF ALGONQUIN WOLVES]
SRISKANDARAJAH: There’s another reason.
KRAUSE: The sounds of the natural world are the sounds of the divine - the sounds of the human world are anything but.
[SOUND OF ALGONQUIN WOLVES]
SRISKANDARAJAH: For Bernie Krause, listening lets him step out of our everyday landscape and into the gospel of nature. For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.
[SOUND OF ALGONQUIN WOLVES]
GELLERMAN: A sound may be worth a thousand pictures but for some photos and more about Bernie Krause and his new book “The Great Animal Orchestra”, turn to our webpage: loe dot org.
[MUSIC: Bernie Krause: Beaver & Krause “A Short Film For David” from Gardharva (Rhino Records 2005)]
GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth, is fracking for natural gas all that it’s cracked up to be?
PORBIN: The farmer’s getting the royalties, the Subway shops that are full at lunch, the little gas station. Everyone’s winning here. And no one wants to see anyone get sick. You got to watch it, though.
GELLERMAN: The financial rewards and possible health effects of fracking, next time on Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Bernie Krause: Beaver & Krause “A Short Film For David” from Gardharva (Rhino Records 2005)]
GELLERMAN: You can hear our program anytime on our website, or get a download for your MP3 player. The address is LOE dot org. That's LOE dot O-R-G. There you’ll also find pictures and more information about our stories. And we’d like to hear from you: You can reach us at comments @ LOE dot O-R-G. Once again, comments @ LOE dot O-R-G. Our postal address is 20 Holland Street, Somerville Massachusetts 02144. And you can call our listener line, at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-99-88.
GELLERMAN: We leave you this week knee deep in 'gators.
GELLERMAN: Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is in the heart of Florida’s Everglades.
It’s home to herons, frogs, hawks and of course alligators. Bernie Krause braved the 'gators to capture the sounds, but the real threat came from nearby development. Noise from truck traffic kept interfering with his recording but for this CD, The Spring in Corkscrew Swamp, Krause pulled it out.
[Bernie Krause, Spring in Corkscrew Swamp (Wild Sanctuary, Inc 2009).]
GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Bobby Bascomb, Eileen Bolinsky, Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Ingrid Lobet, and Helen Palmer, with help from Sarah Calkins, Meghan Miner, Gabriela Romanow, and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Mary Bates and Sophie Golden. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE dot org – and while you're online, check out our sister program, Planet Harmony. Planet Harmony welcomes all and pays special attention to stories affecting communities of color. Log on and join the discussion at my planet harmony dot com. And you can follow us on Twitter - at livingonearth, that's just one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!
ANNOUNCER ONE: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation supporting coverage of emerging science, and Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic dot com. Support also comes from you, our listeners, the Go Forward Fund, and Pax World Mutual and Exchange Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social and governance factors into investment analysis and decision-making. On the web at paxworld dot com. Pax World for Tomorrow.
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