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Beyond a delicious beverage, teabags a good monitoring tool

Q.  With trouble brewing over carbon emissions in the Arctic, how might the humble teabag help determine the severity of the problem?

A.  The Arctic tundra contains vast quantities of carbon that are being emitted into the air at an accelerating rate as the land heats up, says Lesley Evans Ogden in “New Scientist” magazine.  Two Dutch researchers studying soil decomposition had the tedious job of joining the seams of hundreds of tiny bags, “filling them with dead plant material, then weighing and burying them in the ground.”  Later they’d dig up the bags and reweigh them to track the progress of decay. 

A eureka moment came during a tea break when they realized that using teabags would not only eliminate all the time-consuming work but also provide a standard study tool “if ecologists everywhere buried the same type and brand of teabag instead of homemade litterbags.”  And because decomposition follows a two-stage process — fast at first, then more slowly for the more resistant materials—-they further saw that by burying two different types of tea, they could capture data on both phases simultaneously.

Now the Tundra Tea Bag Experiment — an international collaboration involving some 50 researchers — has buried teabags at 350 sites worldwide to try to find out how decomposition rates differ across the tundra.  “Analysis is ongoing, but early hints are concerning,” says Ogden.  It is hoped that the findings will improve the predictability of climate change at high latitudes.

Q.  About seven per cent of Americans over the age of 40 are affected by phantosmia.  What is that?

A.  Also called phantom odor perception or olfactory hallucination, it occurs when someone smells burning rubber or other unpleasant odors even though nothing is there, reports the University of California, Berkeley “Wellness Letter.”  The condition is not well understood, but it may occur with some common medical conditions or with certain neurological or psychiatric disorders.  According to a recent study by the National Institute of Health, women were more likely to perceive such odors, as were those of either sex who had persistent dry mouth, a history of head injury or poorer overall health (“Journal of the American Medical Association,” 2018).

“Phantosmia can lower quality of life and affect appetite and food preferences,” but in many cases, it goes away on its own.

     Q.  Elephants are often cited as ecosystem engineers, knocking over trees, pruning branches and dispersing seeds.  How has a recent discovery linked the footsteps of these giants to one of the smallest creatures in the landscape?

A.  When herpetologist Steven Platt trudged through a seasonally flooded wetland in Myanmar, he noticed “Frisbee-sized pools brimming with clusters of frog eggs and wriggling tadpoles,” says Rachel Nuwer in “Scientific American” magazine.  These pools, Platt realized, were elephant tracks offering a lifeline in this parched environment for the next generation of frogs.  Returning to the same spot a year later, he found similar tracks, again containing tadpoles and eggs, and surmised they served “as small breeding sites linking together larger wetland patches during the dry season.”  The only other study on this phenomenon in Uganda seems to confirm his conclusion.

But with elephants being threatened due to habitat loss and poaching, Platt wonders if some of this complex interconnectedness may be lost: “As the elephant goes, probably a lot of relationships we don’t even know anything about at this point go, too.”

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