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Big Oil Faces Big Trouble in the Amazon

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Big Oil Faces Big Trouble in the Amazon
Fish and coral in the Amazon reef. Greenpeace

By Andy Rowell

We have known for years that the days of finding easy oil outside the Middle East are over. It means that the oil industry has to go into fragile ecological areas like the Arctic or exploit dirty unconventionals like the tar sands or shale gas.


Or the industry can go deep offshore, where the ecological risks are also huge, but where the consequences of a spillage are devastating as stopping any oil spill on the bottom is deeply problematic.

But as people fight the tar sands industry in Canada or fracking in the UK, there is a new battleground: Brazil.

There is a growing conflict in Brazil just off the mouth of the vast Amazon, where the oil industry has been searching for oil in the hope of finding what has been descried as "Latin America's next big oil discovery."

According to the usual industry hype, the area known locally as the Foz do Amazonas Basin may contain some 14 billion barrels of oil some 120 kilometers offshore.

However, the oil industry has a problem. For years, Brazilian scientists believed the area could be home to a large reef, but the depth of the water and murky silt pouring out from the Amazon delayed efforts to explore the area.

But last year, an amazing reef was discovered after a scientific expedition. It defied expectations as the huge amounts of silt coming from the Amazon River should in theory cut out light and prevent a flourishing reef. But this is not the case.

The scientists were astounded by what they saw.

"We brought up the most amazing animals I've ever seen on an expedition like this," Oceanographer Patricia Yager from the University of Georgia told National Geographic last year. "All the scientists just hung over the rails amazed at what we were finding."

According to the magazine, "There were sea fans, and yellow tubes, and tiny, sunset-colored fish, as well as pink coral-like crusted algae called rhodoliths, and gorgeous sponges in yellow and red." National Geographic called it "one of the most surprising finds in modern sea research."

Fabiano Thompson of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, one of the many co-authors of a scientific study with Yager, said simply, "We found a reef where the textbooks said there shouldn't be one."

But this newly discovered reef, which is over 1,000 kilometers long, is just kilometers from where French oil company Total, along with its partners BP and Brazilian state oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA, want to drill for oil.

And now environmentalists are fighting back. Greenpeace wants a total ban on drilling in the area.

"BP and Total are proposing a technically challenging, risky deepwater operation close to a unique and largely unexplored biome in an area with an unknown number of endangered species," said Sara Ayech, a Greenpeace oil campaigner.

Valdenira Ferreira, a researcher at the Institute for Scientific Research of Amapá, who is helping prepare a study for the nation's Environment Ministry, also told Reuters, "In terms of environmentally sensitive environments, this is the biggest in Brazil."

Total, which paid just under $200 million for five exploration blocks, is now waiting for final approval from Brazil's environmental regulator, IBAMA. "It's an area that is very sensitive. We're concerned about everything there," Alexandre Souza, an environmental analyst for IBAMA, told Reuters.

Total and BP are also now facing opposition from Brazilian prosecutors and a possible legal challenge over the drilling plans. Federal prosecutors in the state of Amapa are calling on IBAMA to suspend the licensing due to concerns over the spill risks to the reef.

A statement by the prosecutors said Total "did not take into account the important ecosystem of the coral reef of the mouth of the Amazon River" in its drilling plans, nor has it adequately responded to information. If IBAMA does not take notice of its plans, then the prosecutors are threatening legal action within ten days.

In turn, the oil companies argue that all the necessary environmental impact assessments have been carried out. However, if IBAMA accepts the prosecutor's assessment, BP and Total will have to undertake new environmental impact assessments.

The scientists who studied the reef are asking everyone to proceed with caution: "Such large-scale industrial activities" as oil drilling "present a major environmental challenge, and companies should catalyze a more complete social-ecological assessment of the system before impacts become extensive and conflicts among the stakeholders escalate," they warned last year.

That warning still has not been heeded.

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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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