New Bird Dances to Its Own Beat, and More Amazing Discoveries

See stunning developments spanning the world of science from biology to genetics to sustainability.

A fallen tree in a forest may seem unremarkable—but to some birds of paradise, it’s the ideal stage for a mating dance. Edwin Scholes, who runs Cornell’s Birds-of-Paradise Project, and Tim Laman, a biologist and National Geographic photographer, were doing research in the Arfak Mountains of western New Guinea when they found a downed log and set up a camera in hopes of catching a courtship display. The bird that appeared was different from others of its species, says Scholes: Its feathers fanned into a unique crescent shape, and it had distinctive moves, “like a Latin dance where all the motion is below the hips.” What he and Laman observed confirmed a previous discovery of genetic variation. Last year they announced a new species: the Vogelkop superb bird of paradise. Such sightings may benefit the region, says Scholes, by encouraging ecotourism that provides a “new economic incentive to keep the forest intact.”

Scientists at the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) have teamed up with candymaker Mars to use the Crispr gene-editing technology to protect one of the world’s favorite treats. The goal: give the cacao plant an immune system that can resist a virus ravaging West Africa’s crops. That could avert losses on two levels, says IGI’s Susan Jenkins: “The self-centered side is ‘Oh my gosh, no more chocolate’”—and for cacao-growing regions “the socioeconomic impact is huge as well.”

There’s no erasing mistakes with Sprout, a Danish brand of pencil. Instead of the rubber nub that’s typically on the end of such writing utensils, this one has a biodegradable capsule that holds a collection of seeds. After it’s worn to a stub, the pencil can be planted and watered until it blooms into a handful of daisies, a sprig of basil, or one of eight other plants.

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