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Racing Extinction: A Must-See Documentary of 2015, World Premier at Sundance

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Racing Extinction: A Must-See Documentary of 2015, World Premier at Sundance

Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah is one of the largest independent film festivals in the world, attracting some 50,000 attendees. This year's festival, its 31st anniversary, runs from Jan. 22 to Feb. 1. Robert Redford, founder of Sundance and a longtime environmental activist, sat down with Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman yesterday to discuss this year's festival and pressing environmental issues, including the Keystone XL pipeline. The festival always has a solid showing of environmental films and this year is no different.

One of the standouts premiering at the festival is Racing Extinction. There have been five mass extinctions in the history of our planet and we may be in the midst of a sixth. We could lose up to half the world's species and humans are to blame.

Every year,
some 100 million sharks are killed to make shark fin soup. Photo credit: Racing Extinction's Facebook Page

Academy award-winning director, Louie Psihoyos, who also directed The Cove, joins forces with activists, scientists, nature photographers and inventors to give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at black markets where endangered species are sold. With hidden cameras on, these activists uncover highly endangered species being sold at markets all over Asia. Psihoyos says, "the more endangered it is, the more you have to go to the backrooms. Wildlife trade is second only to the drug trade." The film goes beyond the black market trade to highlight humans' devastating impact on other species with greenhouse gas emissions.

Racing Extinction, is produced by Psihoyos's Ocean Preservation Society, who together with the United Nations, Obscura Digital, producer Fisher Stevens and musical score composer J. Ralph created illUmiNations. During this 11-minute event, images and statistics of the extinction crisis in our midst were displayed at the United Nations headquarters in New York City in September—the day before the People’s Climate March and two days before the UN Climate Summit.

Jane Goodall's voice broadcasted at the event, imploring the world: "In 200 years, people will look back on this particular period and say to themselves how did those people at that time just allow all those amazing creatures to vanish. But it would be very little use in me or anybody else exerting all this energy to save these wild places if people are not being educated into be better stewards than we've been. If we all lose hope, there is no hope. Without hope, people fall into apathy. There's still a lot left that's worth fighting for."

That's the take away message from this film. We can do something about this. Sundance says, "With stakes as high as the survival of life on the planet, Racing Extinction dispenses with apathy or fatalism to emerge as an urgent, affirming call to action to stem the tide before it's too late." Psihoyos says, "When you're talking about losing all of nature, it's not a spectator sport anymore. Everybody has to become active somehow."

Invoking a Chinese proverb, one activist says, "Better to light a candle than curse the darkness. There's so many people who sit back and say we're screwed, but you know what, with that one candle maybe someone else with a candle will find you, and I think that's where movements are started."

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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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