February 3, 2014

These buckets might soon be a thing of the past.     Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

A New Way to Gather Sap

Are maple sugar farms on the horizon?

Vermont harvesters won’t have to venture far into the forest to find mature maple trees to procure maple syrup. Researchers at the University of Vermont have discovered a new way to gather the delectable goo.

Traditionally—because people believed that sap flows solely from the bottoms of older trees—harvesters have hiked into the forest during late winter to place taps on mature trees. As the sap thaws, it’s collected in buckets and is then processed into maple syrup.

Rather by accident, UVM researchers discovered something that could change this process forever. They found a wild maple tree that was missing its top, with sap flowing freely from the crown like a fountain of sugary youth. When testing their discovery on young maple saplings in the lab, the researchers were able to reproduce this surprising result.

The implications are huge. Saplings could soon be planted in dense rows on farms, making the maple syrup industry similar to other commercial crop industries in North America.

But there’s something to be said for tradition. "Maple syrup is something we head off into the wild forest to get,” syrup farm co-owner Laura Sorkin told NPR. “Vermonters, I think, would be very reluctant to give that up."

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Homeless dogs in Sochi might not get to see the Games.     Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sochi to Exterminate Stray Dogs

Company will "catch and dispose" of canines

Dog lovers: You might want to stop reading now.

Olympic organizers have contracted a Sochi pest control company to exterminate the many stray dogs in the city, according to reports by the Guardian and Associated Press.

Alexei Sorokin, director general of Basya Services, said thousands of strays roam Sochi's streets and regularly bite children. Sorokin also explained that a stray dog wandered among performers last week during a rehearsal of the opening ceremony.

"We took it away," Sorokin said. "God forbid something like this happens at the actual opening ceremony. This will be a disgrace for the whole country."

Basya Services operates throughout the Krasnodar region where Sochi is located. Sorokin said his company would be "catching and disposing" of the dogs, but wouldn't explain what would be done to the dogs or where they would be taken. He also wouldn't share statistics on how many dogs Basya kills every year, citing commercial secrecy.

Stray dogs are often found wandering around Sochi and its construction sites because many workers give them food and shelter.

Local politicians support the dog extermination; Krasnodar official Sergei Krivonosov recently linked the problem to diminished Russian stature in the international community. He also said, however, that authorities should encourage dog shelters.

In response to activists, authorities pledged to build shelters, but activists say there's no evidence the shelters were ever built.

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    Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Starfish Tearing Themselves Apart

Scientists baffled by terrifying mass death

Mystery animal die-offs are always disturbing, but starfish in the Pacific Ocean are taking it to another level with a zombie-like affliction that's causing their bodies to deteriorate and their arms to literally pull themselves out and crawl away.

The mass deaths began in June and are being attributed to what researchers are calling "sea star wasting syndrome." Afflicted starfish first begin to develop lesions on their bodies, followed by strange contortions of the arms. The arms then begin crawling in opposite directions until they tear off. The starfish dies a short time later.

The disease has afflicted a dozen species of starfish, and the mortality rate is estimated at 95 percent. Entire populations have already been wiped out in several areas along the West Coast; some cases are now being reported on the East Coast as well.

Diver Laura James was one of the first to notice dead starfish washing up on the beaches and spoke to PBS about what she saw when she plunged into the depths to investigate.

There were just bodies everywhere. And they were just like splats. To me, it always looked like somebody had taken a laser gun and just zapped them and they just vaporized.

Scientists are now scrambling to find the root of the disease and, if possible, to put a stop to it before the marine ecosystem is damaged beyond repair. The current theory is that the starfish are being afflicted by a pathogen that shuts down their immune system, leaving them vulnerable to secondary infections. How the pathogen arrived in American waters is a mystery, but it's possible that it came over in the ballast water of foreign ships, which would explain why many of the die-offs have occurred along major shipping routes.

Watch PBS's feature report on the phenomenon below.

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In a story similar to the film Castaway (starring Tom Hanks, above), Jose Ivan was found on a remote island in the Marshall Islands after more than a year at sea.     Photo: Courtesy of MetroLight Studios

Man Survives a Year Lost at Sea

Says he spent 13 months adrift, drank turtle blood

An emaciated Mexican man claiming to have spent more than a year adrift in the Pacific Ocean washed up on a remote atoll near the Marshall Islands on Thursday. Dressed in only a pair of ragged underpants and aboard a 24-foot fiberglass boat, the man gave his name as Jose Ivan or Jose Salvador Albarengo.

Details of his survival are inconsistent, but updated reports from the Independent say Ivan left Mexico for El Salvador with a companion on December 24, 2012, to go shark fishing. The friend reportedly died at sea several months before Ivan's boat reached Ebon Atoll.

"[Ivan's] condition isn't good, but he's getting better," Ola Fjeldstad, a Norwegian anthropology student doing research on Ebon, told AFP. "The boat is really scratched up and looks like it has been in the water for a long time."

To survive the more than 8,000-mile voyage, Ivan reportedly ate turtles, birds, and fish, which he caught with his bare hands. He drank rainwater, but said he drank turtle blood during periods of drought.

The approximate path Jose Ivan claims to have drifted during his 13 months adrift in the Pacific.   Photo: Google Maps

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Mayor Bill de Blasio dropped Staten Island Chuck on Sunday. The groundhog saw his shadow, so according to folklore, winter will extend through March.     Photo: ShenandoahNPS/Flickr

New York City Mayor Drops Groundhog

Rodent then predicts six more weeks of winter

Groundhog Day at Staten Island Zoo didn’t get off to a good start.

Mayor Bill de Blasio dropped celebrity groundhog Staten Island Chuck during the dawn ceremony. The animal was quickly scooped up by a handler and did not escape.   

Chuck then predicted some bad news—at least for New Yorkers. The East Coast’s brutal winter will continue for another six weeks, according to the furry star who saw his shadow on Sunday.

This wasn’t the first time a New York City mayor and a groundhog have had issues. In 2009, Chuck bit former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“I’m hoping we can start a new day, a relationship here,” de Blasio said at the event. “I’m reaching out a hand to Chuck, and I hope he will consider shaking it rather than doing other things.”

A few minutes later, Staten Island Chuck wriggled out of de Blasio’s hands.

Punxsutawney Phil, the famed Pennsylvanian groundhog, also saw his shadow Sunday. If both animals are to be believed, winter will extend well into March. Here’s hoping for snow. (Sorry, New York.)

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    Photo: Getty Images

Indonesian Volcano Kills 11

Might continue to erupt

A volcano on the western island of Sumatra erupted Saturday, killing at least 11 people, Reuters reports. It is the first time that officials have seen Mount Sinabung, which stands along the Pacific Ocean's "Ring of Fire," claim any lives.

During the past several months, the volcano has become increasingly active, spewing ash high into the air. Thousands of residents were evacuated leading up to Saturday's erruption. 

"Eleven people were killed because of the eruption this morning and the number could increase," Andi Arief, a presidential staff member, told Reuters. "No evacuations could be made at this stage because of the potential for more eruptions."

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