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Bolsonaro Dismisses Amazon Deforestation as ‘Cultural’

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Bolsonaro Dismisses Amazon Deforestation as ‘Cultural’
Jair Bolsonaro pictured at a presidential debate in Brasilia, Brazil June 6, 2018. REUTERS / Adriano Machado / CC BY-NC 2.0

Despite confirmation this week that the deforestation rate in the Amazon rainforest is at its highest in more than a decade, far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro refuses to take the problem seriously.


When confronted with findings from Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) that deforestation between August 2018 and July 2019 was at its highest rate since 2008, Bolsonaro wrote them off as inevitable.

"Deforestation and fires will never end," Bolsonaro told reporters in Brasilia Wednesday, according to The Washington Post. "It's cultural."

Former INPE researcher and member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences Carlos Nobre told Folha De S. Paulo that there had been a persistent culture of deforestation in Brazil since the arrival of the Portuguese. He noted that during the military dictatorship that governed Brazil from the 1960s to the 1980s, land donated by the government was cleared in order to obtain agricultural loans from the Bank of Brazil.

But cultural doesn't mean unchangeable. The Washington Post noted that a high deforestation rate in the 1990s declined when Brazil's environmental agency IBAMA began to actively fight illegal mining and logging in the forest. Bolsonaro, however, campaigned on a promise to open the Amazon to development, and critics say he has weakened enforcement. Despite a year marked by environmental catastrophes including record fires in the Amazon and a devastating oil spill, IBAMA handed out its lowest number of fines since 2000 from January to September of Bolsonaro's first year in office.

"About 90 percent of the destruction of the forest occurs illegally," Marcio Astrini, public policy coordinator at Greenpeace Brazil, told The Washington Post. "Therefore, the only cultural aspect of deforestation in the Amazon is the culture of forest crime, which the government does not seem to want to confront."

Bolsonaro's remarks also ignore other cultures in Brazil that rely on the forest for their way of life: the region's indigenous communities that are also threatened by Bolsonaro's pro-development rhetoric. Indigenous forest guardian Paulo Paulino Guajajara was murdered by illegal loggers earlier this month, and advocates say the blame ultimately lies with Bolsonaro's promises to open indigenous reserves to industry.

"President Bolsonaro wants to destroy the indigenous peoples of Brazil. His racism and hate encourage miners and loggers to invade our territories and kill our people. Well, I've got news for him – we love our lands much more than he hates us, and we will never allow him to destroy us, or the forests we have protected for so long," Sonia Guajajara, the Executive Coordinator of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), said at a protest this month reported by Survival International.

Bolsonaro's remarks contradict other members of his government, who have pledged to tackle deforestation following the release of the latest INPE figures.

Environment Minister Ricardo Salles promised to fight illegal forest clearing, and Institutional Security Minister General Augusto Heleno Pereira echoed that commitment during an interview in Brasilia, Bloomberg News reported Thursday.

"We are already preparing a stronger policy to contain fires," Heleno said. "Everybody is convinced we must tighten enforcement."

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

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.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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