Don't Plant Mystery Seeds From China, Agriculture Authorities Warn
Agriculture officials also told anyone who received one of the packages to alert authorities. They are worried the seeds could harm the environment by introducing invasive species, insect pests or diseases.
"Invasive species wreak havoc on the environment, displace or destroy native plants and insects and severely damage crops," the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said in a news release Friday, as CNN reported.
"Taking steps to prevent their introduction is the most effective method of reducing both the risk of invasive species infestations and the cost to control and mitigate those infestations."
VDACS urges #Virginia residents who have received unsolicited seed packets from #China not to plant the seeds & con… https://t.co/K58ogfefc1— VDACS (@VDACS)1595858211.0
The seed packages have been mailed to people in several states. Photos shared online by agricultural departments show they come in white or yellow packaging and have Chinese characters and the words "China Post" on the outside, according to The New York Times. Several packages falsely claimed to contain jewelry. Some reported in Louisiana claimed to contain ear buds or toys, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry said.
It is not yet clear why the seeds were sent.
"At this point in time, we don't have enough information to know if this is a hoax, a prank, an internet scam or an act of agricultural bio-terrorism," Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles said, as CBS News reported. "Unsolicited seeds could be invasive and introduce unknown diseases to local plants, harm livestock or threaten our environment."
The police department in Whitehouse, Ohio said the seeds appeared to be linked to an internet scam called "brushing," in which online vendors send cheap, unsolicited items and then write positive reviews on the part of the receiver in order to boost their business.
"Although not directly dangerous, we would still prefer that people contact us to properly dispose of the seeds," the police wrote on Facebook.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is investigating the situation and also said there was no evidence the seeds were sent for any purpose besides a brushing scam.
"USDA is currently collecting seed packages from recipients and will test their contents and determine if they contain anything that could be of concern to U.S. agriculture or the environment," the department said in a statement.
#APHIS is working closely with @CBP and State Depts of Ag re: unrequested seeds. If received, pls contact State Dep… https://t.co/xjivlSAR1P— USDA APHIS (@USDA APHIS)1595879809.0
In addition to Virginia, Louisiana, Kentucky and Ohio, agricultural departments have issued warnings about the packages in Washington State, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, Florida, Kansas and Alabama, according to The New York Times. People also received the seeds in Utah and Arizona, according to local news reports. Officials in Arkansas, Michigan, New Jersey and Oregon also put out warnings about the packages but did not say if any of their residents had received them.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the country's postal service had asked for the packages to be sent back to China for further investigation, but that their records appeared to have been falsified, Reuters reported. Wenbin said the Chinese postal service worked to follow the rules for sending seeds.
Seeds imported into the U.S. for the first time usually follow a strict procedure overseen by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Penn State University plant pathology expert professor Carolee Bull told The New York Times.
"Say that when I import seed into the country that has not been here before — wheat seed, for example — I know they'll bring it in and they'll actually grow it out at the A.P.H.I.S. facility to check it for disease," she said.
But, in the case of the mysterious seeds, that hasn't happened.
"The reason that people are concerned is — especially if the seed is the seed of a similar crop that is grown for income and food, or food for animals — that there may be plant pathogens or insects that are harbored in the seed," Bull said.
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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.
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