A couple things happened late last week that feel worth mentioning, to kick off this week on a hopeful note.
First, in a bit of legislative wonkery, the House of Representatives voted against an amendment that would have prevented the Department of Defense from studying how climate impacts threaten national security.
To express that in a way that doesn't double up on negatives, let's unpack it. The National Defense Authorization Act is the annual bill to fund the Department of Defense. This is considered a "must-pass" bill so everyone tries to slip in amendments, hoping that the bill's size and scope means they pass without notice.
One of these amendments, proposed by Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa), would have cut funding for a DoD study of how climate change will impact national security over the next 20 years. The military is already dealing with climate change, so it's prudent that they are able to study what sorts of impacts are coming down the line.
Perry argued that there are plenty of other agencies looking at climate change, so the military shouldn't. But in a relatively impressive display of intelligence, 46 Republicans joined Democrats to vote down Perry's amendment, preserving the funding for the DoD study.
That 46 Republicans were willing to side with science is impressive, and in part a function of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. This group has come under some scrutiny (perhaps rightfully so) for their general inaction and specifically failing to criticize Trump's Paris pull-out.
But now, by voting down Perry's amendment, they've done something—that's good news! In their defense, the fear of getting "Bob Inglis'd" (where a Republican takes a reasonable position on climate change then gets primaried from the right by a Koch-supported candidate), is understandable.
Bob Inglis brings us to the other flicker of light in these dark times. Buzzfeed's Zahra Hirji reported on Friday that Rep. Lamar Smith took a quiet trip to the Arctic to tour science facilities in the melting North. Yes, the same Lamar Smith who spent a year harassing climate scientist Tom Karl went to learn from climate scientists about their work. Oddly, he refused to talk about it with Buzzfeed afterward, canceling a call two minutes before it was supposed to start.
Considering that it was a trip to Antarctica that inspired Inglis's conversion to climate reality, one can hope that seeing the ice melting for himself will have a similar effect on Smith.
Either way, the Defense vote shows that the House may be moving in the right direction, if admittedly at a glacial pace. Whether or not it continues, we'll just have to wait and Larsen C.
Sweden's reindeer have a problem. In winter, they feed on lichens buried beneath the snow. But the climate crisis is making this difficult. Warmer temperatures mean moisture sometimes falls as rain instead of snow. When the air refreezes, a layer of ice forms between the reindeer and their meal, forcing them to wander further in search of ideal conditions. And sometimes, this means crossing busy roads.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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