By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor
Compared to adorkable pandas and majestic big cats, humble plants often take a back seat as conservation mascots. No one wants to cuddle a shrub or make Netflix documentaries about quirky root poachers (which is a shame, by the way). The one exception seems to be trees, the plants that you, dear readers, are obsessed with, according to the articles that attract the most eyeballs to our website. I can understand the impulse—in most places where humans thrive, trees are our stalwart companions, providing food and shade and raw materials for building all sorts of useful objects. City-dweller that I am, I fell in love with our house in part due to the large-leafed catalpa towering over our back patio.
In recent years, scientists have offered up amazing insights that give us new appreciation for trees, including hints that they can “talk” to each other via their root networks to share resources. Some scientists even suspect that trees use chemical conversation starters to maintain a kind of social distance called crown shyness, perhaps helping them to avoid spreading pests and disease.
Previously, Welch reported on a highly detailed survey of the world’s trees that showed how the largest among them are vanishing around the globe, due to a devastating combo pack of habitat loss, overharvesting, disease, and fires, the latter of which is only getting worse as the world heats up. Most alarmingly, a decline in big trees means that forests are less able to take up and store carbon dioxide gas from our atmosphere, leading to a potentially dire feedback loop.
Clearly, the fates of humans and trees are intertwined in ways that we are only starting to fully appreciate. So, the next time you rest for a spell under a rustling canopy or pick an apple from a heavy bough, give thanks to these arboreal sentinels—and spare a thought for how we can boost plant conservation, for all our sakes.
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Today in a minute
Too frozen to burn? That used to be the case in a stretch of northern Siberia that is 85 percent covered in forest. No more. Warming temperatures and drier-than-normal conditions have cleared the way for wildfires to move into tundra underpinned by permafrost, Madeleine Stone reports for Nat Geo. “I was a little shocked to see a fire burning 10 kilometers south of a bay of the Laptev Sea, which is like, the sea ice factory of the world,” fire researcher Jessica McCarty told Stone.
Climate denial rises on Facebook: The social network, already being boycotted by nearly 1,000 companies accusing it of amplifying hate speech, has recently overruled its scientific fact-checking group, which had flagged information about climate change as misleading, E&E News reports. At issue: a plethora of false information being distributed on Facebook pooh-poohing the effects of rising temperatures, increased carbon dioxide emissions, and fossil fuel use. Facebook also has placed restrictions on Texas Tech University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, preventing her from promoting videos on climate research.
Wait a moment: Amid a pandemic, President Trump caused a flutter on Tuesday when he formally gave notice of his intention to withdraw from the World Health Organization. Experts have said that such a pullout cannot occur until mid-2021 at the earliest. A withdrawal would require several things, including a presidential reelection, a compliant Congress, and court triumphs despite dubious legal precedents, writes former Assistant Secretary of State and department legal adviser Harold Hongju Koh.
Humor at this time: She’s 19. Has an iPhone 6. Offers what she acknowledges are low-quality, poorly edited videos on YouTube. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the irreverent talk of student Elsa Majimbo has become hugely popular, the Guardian reports. Munching on potato chips, Majimbo often flips empty social graces to get at an uncomfortable truth. “Ever since corona started we’ve all been in isolation,” one of her most famous videos begins, seeming as though it will continue with a heartfelt message. “And I miss no one!” she continues, laughing with abandon. “And these ones who keep on telling me, ‘I miss you.’ Why? ... Do I pay your school fees? Do I pay your rent? Do I provide food for you? Why are you missing me?”
We asked, you answered: After a story on the origins of the GI Bill, we linked to a proposal to write off the student debt of frontline COVID-19 workers. More than a hundred readers emailed their responses, with more than 90 percent of them in favor of the idea. (A few opponents suggested low-interest loans instead.) “We need a little of the American dream in the middle of this nightmare,” wrote Terrill Rowley of Duncan, Arizona. Reader Janice Wussow added: “They stepped up for us, we should step up for them."
Your Instagram photo of the day
Treasures at home: Fossils of long-extinct creatures aren’t just in museums. Sometimes, they’re in homes and businesses, as wealthy collectors indulge a controversial hobby. Eleven-year-old Luke Phipps sits atop a Triceratops fossil—still in a plaster jacket—with Chris Morrow at CK Preparations, a commercial fossil company Morrow owns in Montana. Luke found the fossil while digging with his father, Clayton Phipps, a rancher and amateur paleontologist known as the “dinosaur cowboy.”
Subscriber exclusive: Inside the homes (and minds) of fossil collectors
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This week in the night sky
A brightening comet, primetime for Jupiter: A comet has surprised astronomers by not disintegrating and melting as it rounded the sun last week, and now it is quickly brightening. The comet, named NEOWISE, can be seen by the naked eye in the Northern Hemisphere at dawn to the east and is even sporting a short tail. It may keep brightening for the next week as it moves away from the sun’s glare. In other news, Jupiter (pictured above) will be at its brightest this Tuesday, when it is opposite to the sun in our skies. It will also be at its closest approach to Earth, some 385 million miles away. Check out Jupiter’s large moons through binoculars, as well as the complex atmospheric details through a small telescope. For those with larger backyard telescopes, watch for the famed Great Red Spot to pop into view as the planet spins on its axis. This cyclonic storm is currently big enough to engulf Earth and has raged for at least three centuries. — Andrew Fazekas
Related: Jupiter, Io, and Europa—what you need to know
The big takeaway
Opening eyes, changing perceptions: A Swedish reconstruction expert has illuminated the faces of our long-ago ancestors by tying in discovered skulls with DNA and 3D analyses, Nat Geo’s Kristin Romey writes. Oscar Nilsson's creations have humanized earlier people for a modern audience and challenged Scandinavian assumptions, for example, by accurately showing the dark-haired early Nordic hunters and gatherers of the era rather than the more commonly envisioned blond Germanic farmers who followed. Above left, Nilsson reconstructed the appearance of an 18-year-old woman, her skull found in a cave in central Greece, who was believed to have lived about 9,000 years ago. To the right, Nilsson represented a 1,500-year-old skull by rebuilding the face of a man thought to be among the first wave of Saxons to enter Britain after the collapse of the Roman Empire.
Subscriber exclusive: He brings skulls to life
In a few words
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On Thursday, Rachael Bale covers the latest in animal news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Whitney Johnson on photography, Debra Adams Simmons on history, and George Stone on travel.
The last glimpse
Not Jurassic Park: In the classic 1993 movie, a human-size dino was seen hissing, extending its neck frill, and spitting poisonous venom on a fleeing man. The problem: A new analysis shows that Dilophosaurus was nothing like what Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg imagined: The Jurassic predator was much bigger, for one thing, about half the size of an adult T. rex. Also, a seven-year study of three Dilophosaurus skeletons shows no neck frill and no information it relied on venom to subdue its prey, John Pickrell writes for Nat Geo. Oh, well. Maybe it will be fixed in a Jurassic remake. Pictured above, a reconstruction shows an adult Dilophosaurus wetherilli tending to a clutch of hatching eggs.