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This App Plants Trees When People Make Lower-Carbon Choices

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This App Plants Trees When People Make Lower-Carbon Choices
Local women water newly planted saxaul in the desert at Mingqin county on March 27th, 2019 in Wuwei, Gansu Province, China. The trees were planted as part of Ant Forest, a green initiative on the Alipay app. Wang HE / Getty Images

By Harry Kretchmer

Since its launch in 2016, over half a billion people have used Ant Forest to convert lower-carbon activities such as using public transport into real trees.


The game is helping China lead the way in re-greening the planet and is serving as a model for tree-planting schemes elsewhere.

It's the kind of innovation the World Economic Forum is seeking through UpLink, a platform for crowdsourcing sustainable development solutions to challenges including how to plant a trillion trees.

The Ant Forest Model

"Ant Forest taps into the best of human ingenuity and innovation to create a better world," said Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme – which in 2019 gave the project the UN's top environmental award.

So how does it work?

To start with, Ant Forest has plenty of potential players, being part of China's Alipay mobile payments app, which is used by more than a billion people.

Each time a user performs a lower-carbon activity, such as paying a utility bill online or cycling to work, they are rewarded with "green energy points."

However, rather than immediately spending those points on a real tree, Ant Forest turns its users into game players. The green energy points "grow" into a virtual tree on the user's app. And users can share green energy with friends and see how their virtual forests compare with others.

For every virtual tree grown, Ant Forest donates – and plants – a real one. And this gamification has had real-world impacts.

The world is getting greener, with China and India leading the way. NASA / Nature Sustainability

A Greening China

According to a study in Nature Sustainability, NASA satellites have revealed a 5% increase in global green leaf cover since the early 2000s – with China leading that growth.

While a third of Chinese greening is due to the expansion of agriculture, 42% comes from projects to plant forests. According to the UN, Ant Forest has become the country's largest private sector tree-planting scheme – so the game is a big part of China's greening.

And the locations for planting are ambitious: arid areas of Northern China like parts of Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Shanxi. Many of the 122 million Ant Forest trees have been planted in areas that have become deserts.

There has been some criticism. In 2019, the journal Nature reported concerns that holding back deserts with trees could put pressure on water supplies. Scientists in China responded that local conditions are taken into account. Drought-resistant varieties, such as the "saxaul" shrub, are used by Ant Forest.

The project is certainly ambitious. In 2019, Alipay's parent company, Ant Financial Group, said the trees covered some 112,000 hectares. And there are sizable spillover benefits, too.

Environment and People

The young trees maintain and repair eroded soils, as well as reduce global CO2 levels.

Another major gain from the project has been employment. Ant Financial Group said 400,000 job opportunities have been created through Ant Forest, many for local farmers.

But if the trees are donated by Ant Financial, why not simply plant the trees and cut out the virtual ones?

The reason, as the UN puts it, is "significant behavioural change." Gamification has encouraged millions of people to adopt lower-carbon lifestyles.

The success of the project has now led to a similar initiative in the Philippines, launched by the mobile payments provider GCash.

The project is an encouraging step, according to the UN's Andersen.

"Although the environmental challenges we face are daunting," she said, "we have the technology and the knowledge to overcome them and fundamentally redesign how we interact with the planet."

Reposted with permission from World Economic Forum.

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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