What we’re reading: Night fish, pollution-fighting rice

rice paddy in Indonesian village

In countless villages around the world — including this one in Indonesia — farmers grow rice as a staple crop. New research has identified rice varieties that may require less fertilizer, which is good news for people and the planet. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

Editor’s note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In this occasional series, Human Nature shares three recent stories of interest in our world.

1. Some fish tackle global warming by pretending it’s night

The story: Australia’s Planet Ark Environmental Foundation reported on an unusual method some fish are adopting in order to acclimate themselves to the changing ocean chemistry resulting from climate change. Carbon dioxide levels in the ocean naturally vary between day and night; algae, seaweed and other ocean-dwelling plants are more active during the day when they can absorb more sunlight and carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. A recent study found that in order to adapt to increased ocean acidification, a species of damselfish in the Great Barrier Reef is altering its body clock to permanent nighttime levels.

What’s next: Scientists are cautiously optimistic that this change demonstrates one method fish might employ to adapt to climate change. However, Dr. Philip Munday of Australia’s James Cook University believes that “more study is needed to see how far beneficial genes can be inherited.” Higher acidification levels and other climate change impacts may also reduce the ability of fish to reproduce and pass on such beneficial genes.

Read more here.

2. Rice crops that can save farmers money and cut pollution

The story: A new study has identified rice varieties that influence the metabolism of soil microbes, allowing them to take in more nitrogen. This is important because although nitrogen is necessary for plant growth, plants have difficulty absorbing it efficiently. In tropical rice fields, anywhere between 50 and 70 percent of it can be lost, released into the atmosphere or the soil, where it can contaminate groundwater. On top of that, it’s one of the most expensive elements to produce as a fertilizer.

What’s next: Maximizing the efficiency of nitrogen capture would not only boost farmers’ incomes, as they would receive greater outputs from less fertilizer, but it would also bring enormous environmental benefits. Higher efficiency in nitrogen capture results in less groundwater contamination and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. The biggest challenge now is spreading the word to farmers. The study’s lead author, Dr. Herbert Kronzucker from the University of Toronto Scarborough, points out that the crops “had to be proven in the field as viable options” because if farmers aren’t on board, the study’s findings are useless.

Read more here.

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3. Abundant and diverse ecosystem found in area targeted for deep-sea mining

The story: Scientists exploring the Pacific Ocean’s Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) — a region currently being targeted for deep-sea mining — have found evidence that the region is a rich and biologically diverse ecosystem. In biological surveys of the CCZ led by Dr. Diva Amon of the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (UHM SOEST), more than half the species collected by researchers were thought to be new to science. Most of the creatures discovered appeared to either reside around or depend on the nodules which deep-sea mining activities would be harnessing. The deep sea is widely believed to be the next frontier for mining activity.

What’s next: In order to sustainably manage the CCZ and mitigate the environmental impacts of deep-sea mining, understanding “the abundance, diversity and species ranges of megafauna” is crucial, says Dr. Craig Smith, another researcher from UHM SOEST. Despite encompassing the largest ecosystems on Earth, we know very little about the deep sea. As companies continue to explore the region for its mining potential, the region’s management — if handled responsibly — could serve as a model for deep-sea ecosystems everywhere.

Read more here.

Ben Koses is an intern for Conservation International.

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