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Raising Hell
Roadkill’s Second Life
Up on the Roof
Dueling Duets
Duck Hunt

Illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham

 

Raising Hell
Frogs aren’t usually menacing. But with its massive size and predatory nature, Beelzebufo ampinga—the so-called “devil frog”—may prove the exception to the rule. The beast, which lived in Madagascar some 65 million to 70 million years ago, resembled a 10-pound, flattened beach ball with a bony skull, a broad mouth, and sharp teeth. David Krause, a paleontologist at Stony Brook University in New York, and his team had been finding remnants since 1993 but only recently had enough to piece together. “It was clear that this was a big frog,” Krause says. “That’s how we started calling it the ‘frog from hell.’ ” A colleague suggested they name it accordingly: Beelzebufo, a combination of the Latin words for “devil” and “toad.” Intriguingly, although Madagascar is home to a diverse frog population, none is related to the devil frog. Its closest relatives are the “Pac Man” frogs of South America, named for their resemblance to the video-game character. Those amphibians are voracious carnivores, fueling speculation that devil frogs may also have been fearsome hunters, perhaps even munching on hatchling dinosaurs. The relationship also provides clues about the earth’s history, suggesting Madagascar and South America were once connected.—Andrea Anderson
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Roadkill’s Second Life
What do you do with that 150-pound deer that didn’t make it to the other side of the road? Compost it, says Jean Bonhotal of the Cornell Waste Management Institute. She has teamed up with New York’s Department of Transportation (DOT) to establish deer composting sites throughout the state and has organized roadkill composting workshops nationwide. “This is nothing new—animals have always rotted. This is just controlling [the process] a little bit more,” Bonhotal says. Previously, the DOT dealt with the estimated 25,000 deer killed on its highways each year by paying independent contractors to bury the animals, toting them to landfills, or dragging the carcasses off the road to rot in place—all practices that can potentially contaminate water resources. But composting offers a safe and, at $25 a deer, economical solution. At DOT sites, workers layer carcasses side-by-side on a bed of wood chips and cover them with several more feet of chips. Microbes heat up the mound to more than 110 degrees, hastening decomposition and killing most pathogens. After a year the resulting compost is used on highway landscaping projects—making the process a boon to all but the buzzards.—Hilda J. Brucker
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Up on the Roof
In the summer of 1979 Jimmy Carter clambered onto the roof of the West Wing to turn on the White House’s first-ever solar installation, a $28,000 array providing hot water for a staff restaurant. Carter hoped the gesture would spur a solar-energy revolution; his successor, Ronald Reagan, was less excited and took down the panels. Lately, though, solar has staged a comeback at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In 2002 the National Park Service hired designer Steven Strong to install solar panels to heat the pool and help power the White House compound. (President George W. Bush apparently paid little attention to the move.) Strong says the installation has symbolic value but provides only a fraction of the White House’s total energy. So should President Obama run an entirely solar-powered residence? It might prove tricky: Landmark status makes prominent panels a no-no, and amid the skylights and rooftop solarium, there’s little space for new solar arrays. “There’s no way to power the White House through solar alone, short of putting hundreds of ground-mounted panels on the front lawn,” Strong sighs. “That’d be cool, but I don’t think they’d allow it.”—Ben Whitford
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Dueling Duets
When birds sing duets, it can mean war. Or simply that mates are trying to find each other in dense vegetation. For the first time, biologists have shown that rufous-and-white wrens’ matched melodies serve these dual functions—a mystery that eluded researchers for decades, largely because Costa Rica’s thick forests make it difficult to observe the bird’s behavior. Dan Mennill, a biologist at Ontario’s University of Windsor, got around this obstacle by triangulating the birds’ positions with microphones. He found that the wrens locate each other with song—from up to a football field apart—much as children do playing Marco Polo: One calls out, the other answers, and the first bird moves toward the second until they meet. To see if wrens also use melodies to ward off rivals, Mennill played recordings of another pair, eliciting “an aggressive duet showdown.” The turf owners belted out duets at five times the normal rate. Such forceful protection of their habitat makes sense for the non-migrating birds, Mennill says. While their northern counterparts typically make new homes each year, for resident tropical songbirds, “There may be increased pressure to defend their territory.” (To hear the duets, click here.)—Alisa Opar
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Duck Hunt
Rubber duckies are doing a lot more than making bath time fun. Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) recruited 90 of the toys to track the path of melting glacier water. Currently, no one knows how glacial meltwater flows into nearby lakes or the ocean. Alberto Behar, a JPL scientist, says he got the idea after hearing that people tracked ocean currents by following sneakers and bath toys fallen from tanker ships. The ducks are part of a larger experiment in Greenland to understand why glaciers move faster toward the ocean in summer months and if meltwater contributes to the quicker pace. “We don’t really know what the story is,” Behar admits. He and his team hope hikers or fishermen find the yellow ducks and respond to the e-mail address written on their sides.—Katherine Tweed
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Audio: Wren Duets
Some wrens sing to each other to communicate important messages. Listen to two duets here.