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Briefs
Species Protection
Rockabye Beetles
Gaining an Edge
Party Lines
Skeletons In the Deposit
Cactus Bandits
Numbers Game: Dirt Track
Gossip Hounds
Beats Candlesticks
Shroom Boom

News Articles
State of the birds; stemming the Maldives’ rising tide; bear-proofing parks; more

 

Edwin Fotheringham

Species Protection
The next time you find yourself in an intimate situation, the Center for Biological Diversity wants you to think about the polar bear first. The nonprofit enlisted 4,000 volunteers to distribute 100,000 endangered-species–themed condoms in an attempt to raise awareness about overpopulation. “The main threats to biodiversity are driven by unsustainable human growth,” says Randy Serraglio, who led the campaign. “Sprawl, climate change, resource depletion, species extinction—rarely do you see people going back to the root of it.” The series includes six different packages with original artwork, edgy taglines—“Hump smarter, save the snail darter,” for instance, and “Wrap with care, save the polar bear”—and information about population growth. The current extinction rate is 1,000 times above the normal standard, and estimates show that the earth will have nine billion people by 2050. Says Serraglio, “With a little more care and responsibility, people can be part of the solution.”—Michael Lowe
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Joel Sartore

Rockabye Beetles
Like many expectant parents, American burying beetles put a lot of effort into their nurseries. But instead of applying a fresh coat of paint or buying a crib, these 1.5-inch insects sniff out a dead mourning dove or other animal, bury it, strip it of its feathers, and preserve the body with sticky secretions. The female lays eggs under the carcass, and once they hatch, the parents regurgitate bits of flesh until the young can feed on their own. The beetles were once found throughout the eastern United States, but habitat loss nearly caused them to go the way of the passenger pigeon—probably a prime food source. Today their numbers are climbing again on Massachusetts’ Nantucket Island, where Lou Perrotti, conservation programs director at the Roger Williams Park Zoo, spent 11 years working to reintroduce them. “They have distributed to the entire eastern half of the island, up to three miles in every direction from our original release site,” he says.—Joe Levit
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Gaining an Edge
The average Audubon reader probably doesn’t crave the Shamwows, ginsu knives, and other wares hawked on late-night infomercials. Even so, you might come to swear by one such product. When your razor starts to lose its edge, pop it in the Save-A-Blade for a few seconds and it will be nearly as good as new. Functioning like a knife sharpener, the handheld, battery-powered device works for all razors. The commercial promises “200 perfect shaves,” but our tests found it maxed out at about 150. That’s still 10 times more decent shaves than you typically get, which means you’ll defray the sharpener’s cost ($14.99 after rebate) in about six months—and cut down on the number of blades you send to the landfill (saveabladesale.com).—David Seideman
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Party Lines
Potato, potahto. Tomato, tomahto. Tax, offset? Your political affiliation might affect how willing you are to pay a little extra to reduce your carbon footprint. Columbia University’s David Hardisty and colleagues gave 898 people the option to purchase a hypothetical plane ticket with no add-ons, or a slightly more expensive one with a carbon tax or a carbon offset. Among those who opted for the extra fee, Independents and Republicans were far more likely to choose an “offset” over a “tax,” while Democrats chose the two equally. “When Democrats think about taxes, they think of the good things they’re being used for, whereas when Republicans think about taxes, they think about the cost,” says Hardisty. The big takeaway, he says, is that if policymakers were to replace the T-word with “permit” or “license,” most people might find paying a little extra to benefit the environment more palatable.—Michael Lowe
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Skeletons in the Deposit
If modern Wyomingites were transported back 50 million years, they likely wouldn’t recognize the birds swooping over the jungle-like terrain. They might catch sight of mousebirds perching in the canopy, and perhaps espy rollers performing their aerial acrobatics. Today these species live primarily in the Eastern Hemisphere, but by studying the Green River Formation, Wyoming’s spectacular fossil deposit, paleontologists have concluded that they were part of the ancient avian mix there, too. The researchers have hit the mother lode with a newly discovered collection of fossils. “We anticipate to probably double the number of known Green River bird species,” from approximately 12 to 24, says lead researcher Julia Clarke. “There’s a lot of exciting stuff left to discover.” Clarke adds that the fossils suggest climate change may have caused the shift from those unique prehistoric species to today’s birds.—Stuart Fox
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Chip Simons/Corbis

Cactus Bandits
Nothing says “southern Arizona” quite like a saguaro in the yard. Cactus poachers know it, and they have mastered the art of digging up the prickly succulents to sell for quick cash—some hauls rake in $2,000. “The thieves are quick in, quick out in the cloak of darkness,” says Bob Love, chief ranger at Tucson’s Saguaro National Park. Though hawking saguaros—which can grow up to 50 feet tall and live for about two centuries—is legal with a permit if they’re taken from public land, removing them from national parks is prohibited. To deter thieves, this year rangers at Saguaro plan to embed tiny computer chips into particularly coveted individuals from a saguaro population estimated at 1.3 million in 2000. Similar to identification tags inserted in pets, each chip could be coded to a specific plant. Waving a computerized wand over a flagged cactus will activate the chip, providing investigators with details on the plant, such as its original location. The idea was inspired by a barrel cactus–chipping program at Nevada’s Lake Mead Recreation Area, which so far seems to be an effective deterrent—who wants to risk getting stuck with a spine and a fine?—Julie Leibach
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Ljupco Smokovski/iStock

Numbers Game
Dirt Track

70,000 Different types of soil in the U.S.

1 Tablespoon of soil has more organisms in it than there are people on earth

500 Minimum years it takes to form one inch of topsoil

5,000 Different types of bacteria in one gram of soil

.01 Percent of the earth’s water held in soil

15 Tons of dry soil per acre that pass through one earthworm each year

1,400,000 Earthworms that can be found in an acre of cropland

20,000 Pounds of total living matter in the top six inches of an acre of soil

10 Percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions stored in soil

4,000 Gallons of water soil needs to produce one bushel of corn

11,000 Gallons of water soil needs to produce one bushel of wheat
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Raymond Gehman/National Geographic Stock

Gossip Hounds
“Long, thin, yellow-brown coyote! Coming in fast on the right,” barks a Gunnison’s prairie dog to his colony. Though it sounds like gibberish to our ears, prairie dogs have one of the most complex languages in the animal kingdom. These small social creatures can distinguish not only between species but between individuals, too. They can even tell if a person is carrying a gun (a good thing to know if you’re often used for target practice). Think a southern drawl or Boston accent is exceptional? Prairie dogs have local and regional dialects. When they’re not calling out about threats, they’re constantly chattering. Con Slobodchikoff, a biologist at Northern Arizona University who has studied the rodents’ language for decades, has found that they seem to learn it from their parents. “I’ve been constantly wowed and surprised every time we do new experiments,” he says. “We find greater and greater levels of sophistication.”—Katherine Tweed
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Edwin Fotheringham

Beats Candlesticks
Indonesian newlyweds starting a new life together have to give new life as well: Couples must donate trees to the government to legalize their nuptials. Home to some of the largest remaining tracts of tropical forest, Indonesia has the world’s highest deforestation rate—losing two percent of its remaining forest annually—primarily because of agriculture, fires, and illegal logging. To revegetate the landscape on the cheap, officials in the Garut district in West Java launched a program in 2009 requiring all couples to give 10 trees to the forestry department. Without the contribution, they aren’t legally hitched. And no divorces are finalized without the donation of one tree. “The Garut government wants to encourage couples getting married, as well as those seeking divorce, to support a national reforestation program, given budget limitations,” Wibowo, the district secretary, told reporters. More than 200 million people live in the country, and with all of those wedding gifts, Indonesia will have more trees to have and to hold (carbon).—Susan Cosier
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Shroom Boom
In college, Eben Bayer grew mushrooms in his closet—not for recreational purposes but for entrepreneurial ones. Today Ecovative, his three-year-old company, uses mycelium, or what Bayer calls “mushroom roots,” to make a biodegradable, chemical-free product that could replace Styrofoam. “Why use plastic for a few months when it lasts thousands of years?” he says. At Ecovative’s 9,000-square-foot facility in New York, mycelium is mixed with agricultural waste like rice husks, then put into a mold. A week or two later the product, called Ecocradle, is ready. It’s inert and has the combined qualities of Styrofoam and wood. When people receive a stereo or TV packaged in it, they can put the material in the compost bin instead of the garbage. Bayer has plans for more products, and is working to make Ecovative a leader in sustainable materials, the way Dow and Dupont were leaders in synthetic ones. “We really should be emulating nature,” he explains. “Sustainable materials should fit into the recycling system that’s been around for millions of years.”—Susan Cosier
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