Numbers Game: Cave In
Renewing a big bird act; India’s sand thieves; walrus woes; more.
Before long, you might be able to drink your tequila and burn your biofuel, too. That’s because the liquor’s source, agave, may be an ideal feedstock for semi-arid regions—roughly a fifth of all land. By simply re-establishing plantations that once grew agave for fiber (synthetics are now used), more than 1.6 billion gallons of biofuel could be produced annually, researchers estimate. But agave’s energy potential is even greater. “We’re talking about using the whole plant,” says Sarah Davis, a University of Illinois ecologist, “and with really low environmental impact.” For instance, after being pressed for tequila, blue agave’s leftover pulp and leaves could become fuel. And unlike corn used for ethanol, farmed agave isn’t as likely to displace food crops. The spiny succulents are also super-efficient, conserving water by keeping their pores closed during the day. Next up for Davis and others: Find the agave species best suited for cultivation.—Nick Neely
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|Carston Peters/National Geographic Stock
Percentage of the earth’s surface that constitutes karst landscapes, regions characterized by rapid drainage through limestone and cave systems.
Percentage of U.S. drinking water thought to pass through cave and karst systems.
Number of documented troglobites, or cave species, in the United States.
Years the all-white, eyeless olm, a Slovenian cave salamander, is thought to be able to live.
Bat species in the United States that use caves at some point in their lives.
Mexican free-tailed bats in Texas’s Bracken Cave from March through October.
Miles of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, the world’s longest known cave system.
Year that Vietnam’s Son Doong Cave (above), thought to be the world’s largest subterranean passage, was first explored.
Feet wide and tall the Son Doong Cave is for most of its 2.8 miles.
Number of caves recorded in Tennessee, the most of any state.
Number of caves that might exist in Tennessee.
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It’s raining fruit Down Under. When Cyclone Yasi swept across northeast Australia in February, officials quickly added cassowaries—six-and-a-half-foot-tall birds with blue necks and red wattles—to their list of those in need of relief. Ferocious 175 mph winds stripped Queensland’s tropical rainforest of the myrtle, laurel, and palm fruits that up to 200 of the country’s estimated 2,000 endangered cassowaries rely on. Soon the Department of Environment and Resource Management began dropping fruit by helicopter: 6.8 tons of donations, unfit for sale but still delectably overripe, to the ratites. Rangers provisioned more than 90 food stations. “We’re determined to ensure we give these incredible birds and their habitat every chance of recovery,” says Kate Jones, Queensland’s Climate Change and Sustainability Minister. Officials also warned residents to “Be Cass-o-wary!” of any hungry ones that ventured from the forest. As for the birds, they needn’t fear getting hit in the head by a falling melon—they sport natural helmets.—Nick Neely
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Almost since time began, boats have sailed the seven seas, bracing good weather and bad. One wonders why, then, the ingenious idea for Sea Bags didn’t emerge until 1999. On a busy wharf in Portland, Maine, tailors recycle retired sails made of canvas, Dacron, or Kevlar into heavy-duty tote bags. Their durability and design—they’re emblazoned with vintage anchors, stripes, stars, and numbers—have inspired raves in top women’s magazines: French Vogue hailed “a cult object in the hearts of fashionistas,” and Martha Stewart gushed about “a must-have from Maine.” A seaman can have his fun, too. Also for sale are shaving kits, with rich histories and long futures in their own right. (For more information, click here.)—David Seideman
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|Cyril Ruoso/JH Editorial/Minden Pictures
Move over People magazine. There’s another source for celebrity gossip—one that’s ripe with love triangles, sex, breakups, adorable babies, and aging stars. The Ugandan Wildlife Authority’s Friend-A-Gorilla program affords the public the opportunity to follow the antics of dozens of mountain gorillas through Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, live video, and geo-tracking. Since the program began in 2009, 15,500 gorilla lovers from Finland to Florida have paid $1 to friend a gorilla of their choosing (the donations fund conservation efforts, from thwarting poachers to tracking the gorillas on a daily basis). They receive exclusive updates on the gossipy minutiae of gorilla life. “You get to hear about all the drama in the forest,” says Jossy Muhangi, spokesman for the program. “Who’s pregnant, who won the latest wrestling matches, who’s grooming whom.” The gorillas’ antics, he adds, aren’t so different from ours. Indeed, recent Facebook updates feature the young male Faraha getting teased when he fails to make any noise while thumping his chest and the silverback Makara romancing the petite young Nyabukye. (To learn more, click here.)—Nancy Averett
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