Can the U.S. Slash Food Waste in Half in the Next Ten Years?
By Tim Lydon
Can the United States make progress on its food-waste problems? Cities like San Francisco — and a growing list of actions by the federal government — show that it's possible.
San Francisco passed the nation's first mandatory composting law a little over 10 years ago, requiring residents and businesses to separate food waste for municipal trash collection. The city, which already had an enormously successful recycling program, incentivized composting through consumer education, a scalable fee structure and, as a last resort, penalties. It also streamlined its entire waste collection system by contracting with a single waste hauler. That company, in turn, now delivers food waste to a composting facility that converts it to rich fertilizer, which is sold to California's vineyards and farms at a profit.
The result? Composting has helped San Francisco reduce its annual waste by a whopping 80 percent, taken pressure off local landfills, and reduced the city's greenhouse gas emissions. And the city is now a global leader in municipal-waste reduction.
San Francisco's success has inspired other local governments to take similar action. In recent years a dozen other cities and states have adopted their own mandatory composting laws. Although it's still a growing movement nationally, experts say this composting shift represents an important way that the U.S. can tackle food waste.
Every year American consumers and businesses waste hundreds of millions of pounds of food. The EPA estimates that about 22 percent of the foods we produce end up in landfills, with another 22 percent burned for energy. This contributes to climate change and a host of other environmental and humanitarian issues.
Congress agrees on the national value of community composting as one element of solving this problem. The 2018 Farm Bill, which passed a little over a year ago, created a fund for new composting programs.
It was one part of an unprecedented suite of actions in the Farm Bill designed to curb U.S. food waste. The actions encourage systemic change in the country's food system and support an ambitious government goal to slash domestic food waste by half in the next decade.
In the United States, the broader effort is spearheaded by the EPA and the Department of Agriculture. With help from the Farm Bill, the country now seems poised to bring about meaningful change.
However, experts caution that continued progress will depend on continued support from Congress and solid commitments from industry, government, nonprofits and even consumers.
The Promise of Reducing Waste
No matter which way you slice it, food waste is a significant issue. In the U.S., up to 40 percent of all food is tossed in the garbage. It's more than just the uneaten food you scrape off your plate. Food waste happens at every stage of production, from vegetables rotting on the vine to dumpsters full of unsold fruit and meat at your local grocery store.
"Our food system is operating with a 40% inefficiency," said Katy Franklin, operations director for the nonprofit ReFED, a leading resource for food-waste research, data and solutions design. The organization works in support of both U.S. and UN waste goals.
It comes with a huge cost for the climate: This waste represents an enormous use of fossil fuel to grow, ship and refrigerate food that no one will ever eat. And as food products decompose, they release methane, a greenhouse gas with many times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide. Nearly all discarded food in the U.S. ends up in landfills, where it produces up to 14 percent of our country's methane emissions.
Looking at production, distribution and disposal, the United Nations estimates that excess wasted food generates a full 8 percent of worldwide global carbon emissions.
If food waste were a country, it would be the world's third-largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the U.S.
And the waste contributes to a host of other problems, including deforestation, pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, and human-rights issues from forced labor or food inequality.
But recognizing that problem also creates the opportunities for improvement. Tackling food waste, Franklin points out, "can be a huge part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions" and solving other problems.
Franklin and others see a lot of reasons for optimism, especially the 2018 Farm Bill, the most important elements of which are just starting to take effect. Top food-waste experts at ReFED and the Harvard Law School's Food Law and Policy Clinic collaborated on recommendations for the bill, which were mostly accepted by Congress.
"It was satisfying and really thrilling to see the bill provide both funding and intellectual investment in the issue," said Franklin. "That's a magical combination."
The Farm Bill Creates Leadership
While the Farm Bill put a range of programs in motion, three specific elements showcase the systemic changes needed to achieve serious cuts in food waste.
First, the law set the stage for the creation of a high-level "food-waste liaison" under the Secretary of Agriculture, with specific duties for researching and cutting waste. Franklin calls the new position an exciting signal of government leadership, which can help galvanize participation throughout the business, consumer and government sectors. While the 2018 Farm Bill did not pay for this new position, preliminary funding was included in the 2020 appropriations bill that passed in December 2019. The provision was inserted in both bills by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), who in 2018 also launched Congress' first-ever Bipartisan Food Recovery Caucus and has introduced other bills to curb food waste.
Until the liaison is hired, many of the duties assigned to the position by the Farm Bill fall to Elise Golan, the USDA's director for sustainable development. She describes the role as a natural fit for USDA because reducing food waste addresses the department's focus areas, including agriculture, nutrition, food safety and the environment.
Golan's office is presently determining the best methods to define and measure U.S. food waste, an early task the Farm Bill laid out for the liaison.
"We need benchmarks to generate good statistics," she said, "but even more importantly they help us identify the drivers of waste at every level, from farms to consumers."
Although some broad national estimates exist, experts say a lack of more specific data limits the ability to track progress in reducing waste across the entire food system. A 2019 Government Accountability Office report reached similar conclusions. The report identified specific data gaps and pointed to inconsistent methods for measuring food waste among government agencies and others as a barrier to progress.
Golan says part of solving that problem requires greater coordination among federal agencies, another liaison role described by the Farm Bill. As an example of headway toward the goal, she points to an interagency strategy signed in 2019 by EPA, USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, which includes a commitment to improving food-waste measurement.
Other roles the liaison may eventually take on, as dictated in the Farm Bill, include raising public awareness, expanding existing programs, and nurturing both governmental and non-governmental partnerships, broad roles that experts say are best served by federal leadership.
Feeding the Hungry
In the second effort at establishing systemic change, the Farm Bill set the stage for removing hurdles that commonly prevent supermarkets, restaurants and farmers from donating unwanted food to charity.
According to the nonprofit Feeding America and other experts, food donations carry enormous potential for reducing waste while helping people in need. But getting companies to donate goods has been a problem. Surveys have shown that many retailers avoid donating surplus food because they fear potential lawsuits over less-than-optimal foodstuffs, even though they'd theoretically be protected by so-called "good Samaritan" laws.
The Farm Bill took steps to fix that problem by clarifying protections established more than two decades ago under the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. The Act previously offered liability to individual donors, nonprofits and "gleaners" — people who gather excess food left behind on agricultural fields. The new bill expanded that liability protection to cover direct donations by retailers.
The Farm Bill also required whoever eventually takes on the food-waste liaison role to publish additional guidance on the Bill Emerson Act, something no agency has done in the decades since the law's passage.
Experts say weeding out this confusion around liability protections can spur growth in commercial food donations. Toward that end, the Farm Bill also authorizes millions of dollars to help farmers participate in donation programs, especially for the perishables that comprise a high percentage of U.S. food waste. As one of the first examples, this September the USDA rolled out a new program that reimburses farmers for milk donated to low-income families.
The third example from the Farm Bill is a new fund to support community composting programs, which provides a total of $25 million to jumpstart pilot efforts in at least ten states.
Franklin and others call this provision especially important.
"There are so many valuable components of food-waste material," said Franklin. "There's really no reason they shouldn't be part of a circular economy that helps produce energy, soil and other products."
That's just what San Francisco's mandatory composting law has done, while also alleviating the burden on landfills and sharply cutting heat-trapping methane emissions.
There's an economic benefit, too, says Franklin. Recycling food often creates more jobs than tossing it. That point holds true in Massachusetts, where recycling food waste supported more than 900 jobs and $175 million in economic activity in 2016 alone, according to a recent report from the state government.
The three Farm Bill examples track well with a "food recovery hierarchy" developed by the EPA and others to guide thinking on food waste. It emphasizes that communities address waste prevention as their top priority, then move through a series of other solutions that include donating, repurposing and composting food, all before the least desirable practice of dumping it in a landfill.
Beyond the Farm Bill
Congress and government agencies are far from the only ones working on food waste. If anything, they're late arrivals in a field where conservation and humanitarian groups have been toiling for years. They include the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), ReFED, Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, Feeding America and many others, as well as hundreds of local food rescue groups that connect unwanted food with people in need. In fact, the Farm Bill provisions reflect many of these organizations' longstanding recommendations.
The groups have helped spur the food industry into action. For example, large retailers such as Walmart began efforts to standardize food expiration labels after a 2013 report by NRDC and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic showed confusion over the labels leads up to 90 percent of Americans to toss perfectly good food. In 2017 they were joined by industry associations representing dozens of major firms, who volunteered to trim the more than ten date labels — including "best by," "sell by," and "expires on" — to just two: "best if used by" and "use by."
The Food and Drug Administration approved their choice of "best if used by" to indicate optimal quality this past May but stopped short of sanctioning "use by" as a marker for when an item could be safely consumed.
Still, ReFED and others point out that voluntary industry efforts are not enough. They say a continuing mishmash of retailer approaches and state food safety laws have prevented the universal standardization of labels. That standardization, they say, is only achievable by federal legislation that includes oversight, comprehensive consumer education, and consistency between state and federal laws. That may still emerge: In 2019 Rep. Pingree of Maine introduced label reform legislation that matches ReFED's recommendations.
But as label reform shows, major industry players are coming to the table to help fight food waste. The EPA and USDA encourage their efforts through the 2030 Food Waste Champions program, which highlights companies working toward the government's 2030 goal. Members include Walmart, Campbells, Kellogg, Kroger and more than 20 other large retailers. Although the program is voluntary and doesn't require independent verification, highlighting again the need for better overall measurement standards, supporters argue it incentivizes companies to reduce waste.
"We've been lucky," said Franklin, "because reducing food waste has a lot of appeal among businesses right now."
But as Franklin says, unexpected events or market shifts could temper efforts at any time. She also points to the need for greater consumer education, as she's regularly reminded that most people remain unaware of the food-waste problem.
But she sees promising work there, too, and highlights the World Wildlife Fund's Food Waste Warrior toolkit for school teachers. Similar experiential education is also included in a bill Rep. Pingree and others introduced in January, which would initiate a new federally supported food-waste program in schools.
Taken together, all of these examples show legislators, agencies, nonprofits and industry collaborating to tackle food waste, with growing coordination around the government's 2030 goal. Experts say such coordination is necessary for solving America's — and the world's — food-waste problem.
Ultimately consumer behaviors also need to change, but once again we can look to San Francisco for proof that this can work. Once the city government and industry put in place tools and incentives, consumer behaviors followed.
Franklin calls it a matter of fitting all the puzzle pieces together — and it's almost like assembling a recipe to reduce food waste.
Experts agree we're still a long way from meeting our 2030 goal, and caution that the years ahead will show if continued coordination and investment keep us moving forward, but they also say the hunger for solutions is another sign of progress.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Bill Sullivan
Black licorice may look and taste like an innocent treat, but this candy has a dark side. On Sept. 23, 2020, it was reported that black licorice was the culprit in the death of a 54-year-old man in Massachusetts. How could this be? Overdosing on licorice sounds more like a twisted tale than a plausible fact.
The Root of the Problem<p>The unfortunate man who recently succumbed to excessive black licorice consumption is not alone. There are a smattering of similar case reports in medical journals, in which patients experience <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26380428/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hypertension crisis</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.5414/cn107011" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">muscle breakdown</a> or even death. Adverse reactions are most frequently seen in people over the age of 40 who are eating far more black licorice than the average person. In addition, they are usually consuming the product for prolonged periods of time. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMcpc2002420" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In the most recent case</a>, the Massachusetts man had been eating a bag and a half of black licorice every day for three weeks.</p><p>Licorice is a flowering plant native to parts of Europe and Asia. Its scientific name, <em>Glycyrrhiza</em>, is derived from the Greek words "glykos" (sweet) and "rhiza" (root). The aromatic and sweet extract from its root has long been used as an herbal remedy for a wide variety of health maladies, from heartburn and stomach issues to sore throats and cough. However, there is <a href="https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/black-licorice-trick-or-treat" target="_blank">insufficient evidence to support that licorice is effective in treating any medical condition</a>.</p><p>Glycyrrhizin (also called glycyrrhizic acid) is the chemical in black licorice that gives the candy its signature flavor, but it also leads to its toxic effects.</p><p>Glycyrrhizin mimics the hormone <a href="https://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/aldosterone/" target="_blank">aldosterone</a>, which is made by the adrenal glands when the body needs to retain sodium and excrete potassium. Sodium and potassium work together as a kind of cellular battery that drives communication between nerves and the contraction of muscles. Too much glycyrrhizin upsets the balance of these electrolytes, which can raise blood pressure and disturb the heart's rhythm. Other symptoms of excessive licorice intake include swelling, muscle pain, numbness and headache. Examination of the man who died from consuming too much licorice revealed that he had <a href="https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMcpc2002420" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">dangerously low levels of potassium, consistent with glycyrrhizin toxicity.</a></p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMcpc2002420" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"></a>It should be noted that a number of licorice-based foods do not contain real licorice, but use a flavoring substitute called anise oil, which does not pose the dangers discussed here. In addition, despite its name, <a href="https://www.livestrong.com/article/537724-black-licorice-vs-red-licorice/" target="_blank">red licorice rarely contains licorice extract</a>. Instead, red licorice is infused with chemicals that impart its cherry or strawberry flavor.</p><p>Products that contain real licorice are usually labeled as such, and list licorice extract or glycyrrhizic acid among the ingredients. Be advised that some products, such as black jelly beans or Good & Plenty, are mixtures of different candies that contain both anise oil and licorice extract.</p>
Hidden Dangers That Increase Risk<p>Glycyrrhizin has the distinct licorice flavor and is <a href="https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=19&contentid=Licorice" target="_blank">50 times sweeter than sugar</a> and has been used in other types of candy, soft drinks, tea, Belgian beers, throat lozenges and tobacco. This can make it challenging to keep track of how much glycyrrhizin has been consumed, and a combination of these products could trigger adverse effects.</p><p>Some people take dietary or health supplements that already contain licorice, which increases the risk of toxic effects from eating black licorice candy. Certain medications such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.5414/cn107011" target="_blank">hydrochlorothiazide</a> are diuretics that cause increased urination, which can lower potassium levels in the body. Glycyrrhizin also lowers potassium levels, further disrupting the balance of electrolytes, which can produce muscle cramps and irregular heart rhythms.</p><p>People with certain preexisting conditions are more susceptible to black licorice overdose.</p><p>For example, patients who already have low potassium levels (hypokalemia), high blood pressure or heart arrhythmia are likely to have greater sensitivity to the effects of excessive licorice. Those with liver or kidney deficiencies will also retain glycyrrhizin in their bloodstream for longer times, increasing their risk of experiencing its adverse effects.</p>
What to Do?<p>If you're a fan of black licorice, there is no need to ban it from your pantry. Eaten in small quantities from time to time, licorice poses no significant threat to otherwise healthy adults and children. But it is advisable to monitor your intake.</p><p>With Halloween approaching, be sure to remind your kids that candy is a "<a href="https://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@global/documents/downloadable/ucm_305557.pdf" target="_blank">sometimes food</a>," especially the black licorice. The <a href="https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/black-licorice-trick-or-treat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FDA has issued warnings</a> about the rare but serious effects of too much black licorice, advising that people avoid eating more than two ounces of black licorice a day for two weeks or longer. The agency states that if you have been eating a lot of black licorice and experience an irregular heart rhythm or muscle weakness, stop eating it immediately and contact your health care provider.</p><p>Some scientists have further cautioned against the routine use of licorice in the form of a dietary supplement or tea for its alleged health benefits. A <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2042018812454322" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">review article from 2012</a> warned that "the daily consumption of licorice is never justified because its benefits are minor compared to the adverse outcomes of chronic consumption."</p>
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Material Revolutions: Shirts Made from Shellfish, Biodegradable Rum Bottles and Reusable Fast Food Containers
In the age of consumption, sustainability innovations can help shift cultural habits and protect dwindling natural resources. Improvements in source materials, product durability and end-of-life disposal procedures can create consumer products that are better for the Earth throughout their lifecycles. Three recent advancements hope to make a difference.
1. Allbirds Shirts Made From Shellfish<p>Sustainable sneaker start-up <a href="https://www.allbirds.com/pages/apparel" target="_blank">Allbirds</a> is known for its thoughtfulness for consumers and the environment. The four-year-old shoe company has become hugely popular by creating comfortable shoes made from responsibly sourced materials like tencel and wool, reported <a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/90565358/allbirds-new-clothing-line-includes-t-shirts-made-from-discarded-crab-shells" target="_blank">Fast Company</a>.</p><p>Recently, Allbirds launched its debut apparel line with garments for men and women made with eco-friendly materials that have a low carbon footprint, the report said.</p><p>Introduced along with the line is a new t-shirt material called "TrinoXO," which is made from wool and discarded snow crab shells from Canada's seafood industry, reported <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2020/10/20/sustainable-sneaker-start-up-allbirds-is-selling-sweaters-t-shirts.html" target="_blank">CNBC</a> and <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/20/business/allbirds-sustainable-apparel/index.html" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">CNN</a>. The shells are the "number two discarded resource on earth," Allbirds claims, reported <a href="https://www.menshealth.com/style/a34427585/allbirds-apparel-clothing-line-review/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Men's Health</a>.</p><p>"Discarded material is the holy grail when it comes to sustainable fibers," Jad Finck, Allbirds head of innovation and sustainability, told Fast Company. "It's far better for the environment than getting raw materials from scratch."</p><p>The shells have antimicrobial properties that keep clothes fresh even after hours of wear, without the need to add "extractive" materials like zinc or silver, Men's Health reported. This allows for longer periods of wear between washes, reducing clothes' environmental footprint.</p><p>"We knew we wanted to be a real brand, and had this vision that we'd be an innovation company first, and a product company second," co-founder Joey Zwillinger told <a href="https://www.vogue.com/article/allbirds-launches-clothing" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Vogue</a>. "And our products would solve problems for people in a natural way, and show the world that you don't have to compromise on the planet for amazing products."</p>
2. Bacardi Biodegradable Rum Bottles<p>By 2023, <a href="https://www.bacardi.com/us/en/" target="_blank">Bacardi</a> rum will be sold in 100% biodegradable bottles, <a href="https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20201021005281/en/Bacardi-First-in-Fight-Against-Plastic-Pollution-With-100-Biodegradable-Spirits-Bottle" target="_blank">Business Wire</a> reported.</p><p>The alcohol giant is collaborating with Danimer Scientific, a leading developer of biodegradable products, to create the new bottles using the natural oils of plant seeds such as palm, canola and soy, the report said.</p><p>According to <a href="https://sports.yahoo.com/bacardi-to-make-100-biodegradable-spirits-bottle-124436841.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAE1Wl8ONNdph3ID8reylzGM8dbX575Mk96Jw6z3kHZaGjKCz_UgQgxH0Q1n3RNCzhOMBEZ7fAIf8iiOXLRtY9VVHNZsmb-w1VOJnGlzIbuwhmoBo_KOV4dba8FoWrkgmmwwCyQZnRoTL0Uda6HQ4pE5ewGWh2pwQzjS3gKAe1ynm" target="_blank">Yahoo Finance UK</a>, the new bottle will biodegrade in a wide range of environments, including compost, soil, freshwater and seawater. After 18 months, the bottle will disappear completely without leaving microplastics.</p><p>"Nodax PHA is one of the most promising eco-friendly materials in the world today because it delivers the biodegradability that consumers demand without losing the quality feel they receive from traditional plastic," said Danimer Scientific chief marketing & sustainability officer Scott Tuten, reported <a href="https://www.thrillist.com/news/nation/bacardi-biodegradable-spirits-bottle-plastic-free-packaging" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Thrillist</a>. "The material provides the best of both worlds, and we look forward to working with Bacardí and incorporating PHA into their iconic packaging."</p><p>Bacardi is also creating a sustainably sourced paper bottle, Yahoo reported.</p><p>The manufacturing of both new bottle types will save energy over petroleum-based plastic ones. Bacardi plans to share the technology with competitors to help in the global fight against <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastic-pollution" target="_self">plastic pollution</a>, and aims to be 100% plastic-free by 2030, reported Thrillist.</p>
3. Burger King Reusable Fast Food Containers<p>Fast food giant <a href="https://www.bk.com/" target="_blank">Burger King</a> plans to launch reusable Whopper boxes and soda cups by next year. Partnering with TerraCycle's zero-waste packaging division Loop, Burger King will nudge customers to return the specialized packaging for hygienic washing and reuse, similar to how milk bottles used to be returned, reported <a href="https://www.marketwatch.com/story/can-burger-kings-reusable-packaging-change-fast-food-forever-11603392581" target="_blank">MarketWatch</a>.</p><p>"During COVID, we have seen the environmental impact of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/air-pollution-food-delivery-plastic-waste-2648454324.html" target="_self">increased takeaway ordering</a>, which makes this initiative by Burger King all the more important," said Tom Szaky, TerraCycle and Loop CEO, according to MarketWatch.</p><p>Customers who don't feel comfortable can opt-out of the service, <a href="https://www.abc10.com/article/entertainment/television/programs/the-buzz-burger-king-to-test-reusable-packaging-in-2021/77-f01f1b70-05b7-436d-9971-a7dd6081249b" target="_blank">ABC News</a> reported. Those who are willing to try will be charged a small deposit upon purchase, and when the packaging is returned, they will receive a refund, reported <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/22/business/burger-king-reusable-packaging-sustainability/index.html" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">CNN</a>.</p><p>Burger King and TerraCycle are aiming for a container that can be used at least 100 times, reported <a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/90566995/burger-kings-new-whopper-packaging-isnt-greasy-cardboard-its-reusable" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Fast Company</a>.</p><p>"The benefit is, you're able to serve your guests without having to create that single-use item in the first place," Matt Banton, global head of innovation and sustainability at Burger King, told <a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/90566995/burger-kings-new-whopper-packaging-isnt-greasy-cardboard-its-reusable" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Fast Company</a>. "This product is durable enough to go through the system multiple times, so it's ultimately reducing our environmental impact, and minimizing the amount of single-use packaging that we have to produce as well."</p><p>Burger King has also committed to sourcing 100% of its customer packaging from renewable, recycled or certified outlets, and recycling all customer packaging at its restaurants in the United States and Canada by 2025, reported CNN.</p>
There are many different CBD oil brands in today's market. But, figuring out which brand is the best and which brand has the strongest oil might feel challenging and confusing. Our simple guide to the strongest CBD oils will point you in the right direction.
The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.
"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."
The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.
They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.
They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.
But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.
"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.
What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.
It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.
To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.
First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.
Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.
University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.
"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."
Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.
"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.
In 'Road Map for a More Sustainable Future,' NY Regulator Tells Banks to Consider Climate Risks in Planning
By Brett Wilkins
Regulators in New York state announced Thursday that banks and other financial services companies are expected to plan and prepare for risks posed by the climate crisis.