There have been many remarkable episodes in the BBC Earth Podcast series in which we have learned some incredible facts about the world of nature. Here are 5 of the most magical of these discoveries, along with the reasons why these findings are so special.
- The first satellite recording of the ‘milky seas’
The vast patches of incandescence spotted by numerous mariners on the oceans at night have for centuries remained a mystery. Floating above the water level like a thick glowing mist for miles in every direction, these rare and utterly beautiful phenomena have been puzzled and pondered over by sailors and scientists alike. We do know that the effect is caused by billions of bioluminescent bacteria, but as Steven Miller, a senior research scientist at Colorado State University says, “there is not concrete evidence of how they form, (or) why they form”.
Working with highly sensitive satellite equipment he believed he had the tools to finally observe and record this spectacle. By matching reports from the captain of steamship Lima, a vessel sailing off the coast of Somalia in 1995, who observed a whitish glow on the horizon – followed by the ship being surrounded by “a field of snow” 15 minutes later – he was able to match the precise time and date of satellite pictures which identified for the first time, a ‘smudge’ of light in the exact same location.
“It was the first confirmed satellite view of a bioluminescent milky sea” he goes on to say, a discovery that has lead to more satellite imaging of sightings of bioluminescence and the beginning of understanding this rare and amazing natural occurrence.
- Fossilized DNA and preserving endangered species
We would love to see a Dinosaur cloned, making Jurassic Park a reality, or perhaps a woolly Mammoth, but with the discovery of fossilized DNA it is extremely unlikely according to Beth Shapiro of the University of California. Beth studies DNA in fossils in order to find out why some ecosystems are more resilient than others. “Dinosaurs are all rocks..” she says “..the only thing we can get DNA from are the things that died more recently than that”. This is because we would need a preserved cell from the extinct animal, and these are impossible to find in anything other than more recently extinct species. Cloning by extracting the nucleus from a preserved cell and inserting it in to the egg of the nearest current species has the theoretical potential, but so far it has not been successful in cloning an extinct organism. What is possible and more exciting for Beth is applying these and other techniques to endangered species where there are real possibilities to help save them from becoming extinct. One technique she is most inspired by is genome editing technology, where a living cell can be manipulated by inserting specific sequences of letters to create stronger DNA codes. She uses the examples of coral where specific attributes of the DNA code in more robust species are being transferred to less successful coral species in order to give them a greater chance of survival.
- The singing wolves
Well, not strictly wolves, this discovery of African wild dogs (aka painted wolves) singing to each other was made by Nick Lyon, one of the producers of the BBC Dynasties series, whilst on location in Zimbabwe tracking and observing a pack of painted wolves for an episode in the series. Circling the wolves in a helicopter one day he noticed that they were opening their mouths, so he landed the helicopter in order to find out why. On alighting he was greeted by a sound he had never heard before, indeed something he believes nobody before had ever observed from this species – the wolves were singing! Pairs were singing to each other before coupling off, but at certain points the whole pack were singing in unison. The wolves had recently and unexpectedly been made leaderless, which is an unusual situation for them to have been in, so it is thought that possibly it was a response to this. At this point we can only speculate on the reasons for this amazing scenario, but luckily Nick was able to record the sound on his mobile phone, and since then work has begun to try and understand this unusual, never seen before behaviour.
- A new ecosystem
Finding a new species is the dream of most explorers, but to locate a whole new virgin ecosystem became an unbelievable reality for ecologist Julian Bayliss. Using satellite imagery to scour Northern Mozambique he came across a dense forest like area of vegetation in a crater on top of what appeared to be a mountain. On further investigation this mountain (named Mount Lico), turned out to be an inselberg, a sheer piece of non-volcanic rock, and according to the local inhabitants, nobody had ever scaled it in living memory. He embarked on a mission to investigate it further using a drone in order to see over the lip of the crater, and what it captured confirmed all his wildest hopes. When the photos from the drone were recovered and downloaded on to his laptop later it showed that “the whole of the forest was there…it was really the first view of a lost world…”. When an expedition finally took him in to the forest, new species of butterflies, amphibians and mammals were recorded, and scientists are still finding treasures in its undisturbed terrain.
- Discovering caves – miracles of darkness
Tim and Pam Fogg are climbing experts who work for the BBC getting people in to very difficult places, often underground. They have been on extensive worldwide cave explorations, one of which took place in complete darkness for 8 continuous days, where they woke up each day to the disconcerting effect of complete silence and total blackout. When they visited the stunning caves of the Northern Borneo rain forests in 2004, where huge limestone tunnels and amphitheatres hide treasures of giant stalactites and stalagmites, they discovered their undisturbed footprints in a passage that they had traversed in 1989 – nobody else had been there since.
These caves are really the last largely unexplored places in the world, comprising their own ecosystems that can include rivers, fish, and wildlife such as snakes, centipedes and cave crickets. Tim says about their expeditions, “We’ve been lucky enough to take a lot of steps that no other human has ever taken and cast light on places that no other human has ever seen and no light has ever been .. and that’s pretty special!!”
Written by Chris Knowles