Tag Archives: nature

New book illustrates patterns and shapes behind life on Earth

In her new book, Kimberly Ridley pairs beautiful vintage illustrations with essays that detail the role of different phenomena in nature, from small to big organisms. Ridley, a science essayist and science writer, decided to celebrate nature’s most brilliant designers and builders in “Wild Design: Nature Architects”.

Image credit: Kimberley Ridley.

The book has eight chapters with unusual information on everything from beavers to fungi to birds. It’s packed with illustrations — paintings and drawings created by natural historians from the 17th to the 20th centuries. These allow the eye to focus on important features of the natural world, creating a sense of connection to the inner workings of the natural world.

In an interview with ZME Science, Ridley said she wrote the book as a love letter to the natural world and an invitation to readers to see nature with a new set of eyes, rekindling their sense of wonder. There are countless marvels surrounding us, Ridley said, but when we fail to notice them, we become disconnected from the living world

Image credit: Kimberley Ridley

“We often conflate wonder with naivete, but I think cultivating a sense of wonder is an important survival skill,” Ridley told ZME Science. “I wrote Wild Design to speak to that sense of wonder, which I find on my daily walks. I want to gently take readers by the hand and show them nature’s gorgeous and brilliant designs all around us.”

From the intricate weave of an oriole’s nest and the winged elegance of maple seeds to the ingenious “cases” of caddisfly larvae, which they meticulously construct from pebbles and sand, there are gorgeous and brilliant designs all around us, Ridley explains. “The more I thought about design in nature, the more curious I became,” she added.

The idea of the book originated from Ridley’s own curiosity, as she started to come up with questions regarding nature’s architects. She discovered many design wonders that are right under our noses. She wrote most of the book in her own backyard in Maine. “I set up a table, chair, and my laptop and got to work,” she says.

The role of illustrations

Ridley said she discussed several illustration possibilities with her editor, but that from early on she wanted to use natural history illustrations. This is for several reasons. First, she wanted Wild Design to feel like a miniature cabinet of illustrations. Second, because the illustrations are wonders themselves, created by hand and sometimes in the field

Image credit: Kimberley Ridley

“I wanted the visual narrative of this book to present a glimpse of the visual expression in the heyday of natural history exploration and discovery. These amazing works were central to scientific discovery, and introduced the public to the wonders of the living world,” Ridley told ZME Science. “I want this book to invite readers to slow down and observe.”

Ridley said creating this book opened her eyes wider and deepened her sense of wonder for the wild world around us. The book has helped her appreciate more deeply the interconnectedness of all life. Now, on her hikes along the rocky coast where she lives, she has a new appreciation of geology and is always looking for bird nests and admiring fungi.

Her own new experiences with nature are what she hopes happens with everyone who reads the book, which invites them to explore nature’s beauty, strangeness, and mystery in their own back yards or parks. Nature is a living library, Ridley concludes, a repository of knowledge that has accumulated through billions of years through evolution.

“Nature’s wild designers offer how-to manuals and encyclopedias for helping to solve human design challenges without creating pollution or trashing the neighborhood. So, I hope this small book inspires awareness on every level,” she added.

How outdoor learning helps both students and teachers

Even a single hour per week of outdoor learning can have a tremendous impact on children’s learning outcomes while boosting teachers’ job satisfaction, research shows.

Credit: MaxPixel.

It is now an established fact that most people benefit from performing activities in natural outdoor environments. Being exposed to trees, wildlife, and parks can reduce stress, rejuvenate attention, increase motivation, and improve both physical and mental health by promoting exercise. The more time spent outdoors, the better. For instance, one 2014 study found that a week of camping outdoors can reset your body clock and return your natural sleep patterns. Even a single weekend can do the job, another study found, so better pack up that tent and camping chairs.

The psychological benefits of spending time outdoors, such as improved attention span and mental reinvigoration, are particularly attractive for education — and we don’t have to move schools into the woods to reap these benefits.

Swansea University researchers analyzed the learning outcomes for three primary schools in the south of Wales where classes were held in a natural environment for at least an hour a week.

“We found that the pupils felt a sense of freedom when outside the restricting walls of the classroom. They felt more able to express themselves and enjoyed being able to move about more too. They also said they felt more engaged and were more positive about the learning experience. We also heard many say that their well-being and memory were better, and teachers told us how it helped engage all types of learners,” Emily Marchant, a Ph.D. researcher in Medical Studies at Swansea University and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Although they were initially skeptical of this pilot program, the teachers found that outdoor learning improved their job satisfaction and personal wellbeing. That’s quite important since all too often the focus of research on education is on the student, with teachers and educators receiving little attention.

“This is a really important finding given the current concerns around teacher retention rates. Overall, our findings highlight the potential of outdoor learning as a curriculum tool in improving school engagement and the health, wellbeing, and education outcomes of children,” Marchant added.

Another study, published in 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, reached similar conclusions, finding that the “nature effect” of outdoor learning made 9-10 year-olds more attentive and engaged with their schoolwork. Teachers could teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long as during a subsequent indoor lesson, the study found.

“We wanted to see if we could put the nature effect to work in a school setting,” says Kuo. “If you took a bunch of squirmy third-graders outdoors for lessons, would they show a benefit of having a lesson in nature, or would they just be bouncing off the walls afterward?” said Ming Kuo, a scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Some teachers may be reluctant at the notion of holding some classes outdoors, at least from time to time, as they might think the environment would overexcite the children and reduce concentration. But the scientific literature actually points to the contrary.

“We’re excited to discover a way to teach students and refresh their minds for the next lesson at the same time,” says Kuo. “Teachers can have their cake and eat it too.”

Vertical gardens can help reduce our stress levels and make us feel better

Vertical gardens set up on the exterior of buildings can reduce some of the stress levels caused by living in big cities, according to a new study. Researchers used virtual reality in over 100 people and found the vertical greenery has a stress-buffering effect.

Image credit: Flickr / Ramesh NG

Rapid urbanization has been associated with decreased nature exposure and increased environmental stressors like traffic noise and pollution. Considering that nature can combat stress and promote wellbeing, there have been tremendous interests and collective efforts across the globe to increase green space, with examples ranging from Europe to China. 

Vertical greenery refers to the integration of vegetation onto the vertical structures of buildings, which differs from green roofs that utilize the flat horizontal space atop buildings. In the past, vertical greenery mainly consisted of self-climbing plants like vines that spread over buildings’ facades. But now the concept has been expanded much further. 

Gardens take to the skies

Implementing vertical gardens can increase greenspace above-ground, thereby overcoming land constraints common in high-density urban areas, and provide important ecosystem services – such as cooling system, sound absorption which decreases noise pollution, and absorption of harmful pollutants which mitigates air pollution. But the advantages of vertical gardens may be even greater, especially on our mental health.

Existing research on nature’s effects on emotion and stress has been dominated by natural environments such as parks and forests. No experimental study has been done to examine the physiological benefits of having a row of buildings covered in vertical greenery. Now, researchers at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore hoped to address this gap with a new study.

They asked 111 participants to walk down a virtual street for five minutes, using VR headsets. Participants were randomly assigned to a street that had rows of planted greenery on balconies, walls and pillars or buildings, or on one with only buildings that had green painted walls instead of green plants. Traffic noise was played out during the experiment.

Those who viewed buildings with only a green pain had a significant increase in stress, as recorded by one measure of heart rate variability. Meanwhile, those who saw the buildings with the green plants didn’t experience any change in stress. This is in line with previous studies that have found nature to have beneficial effects on stress and emotion. 

Participants then replied to a questionnaire to assess their positive and negative emotions and the level of anxiety they were feeling. They said to feel less positive when walking through the street with buildings covered by only green walls. Meanwhile, those walking through the street with buildings covered by plants didn’t report feeling either more or less positive

“With urbanization, more people are expected to be living in urban areas globally in future. It is thus important for urban city planners and architects to understand factors that can contribute to healthy living, as urban planning can have a direct impact on quality of life for the population. Our work can guide efforts to green cities, by providing evidence of how vertical greenery can be a viable way to integrate nature into our built environment and promote mental health,” Lin Qui, co-author, said in a statement.

The study was published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning. 

Spending 0.1% of global GDP would avoid a collapse of ecosystems, UN says

Tackling the interlinked climate, biodiversity, and land degradation crises requires the world to quadruple its annual investment in nature conservation, according to a UN report. This would mean spending 0.1% of the global GDP every year to restore forests, manage pollution, and protect natural areas and ecosystem services. 

The State of Finance for Nature report, produced by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative (ELD), found that a total investment of $8.1 trillion was required between now and 2050 to maintain the natural habitants that are vital to human civilization.

The authors urged governments, financial institutions and businesses to overcome the investment gap by putting nature at the center of economic decision-making. They stressed the need to accelerate capital flows to nature-based solutions, making nature central to public and private sector decision-making related to societal challenges.

Spend money to make money

The report comes after the warning of scientists in January that the planet is facing a “ghastly future of mass extinction, declining health and climate-disruption upheavals” that threaten human survival because of ignorance and inaction. People still haven’t grasped the urgency of the biodiversity and climate crises, the 17 experts warned. 

“Biodiversity loss is already costing the global economy 10% of its output each year. If we do not sufficiently finance nature-based solutions, we will impact the capacities of countries to make progress on other vital areas such as education, health and employment,” UNEP executive director Inger Andersen said in a press statement. 

The authors found that annual investments in nature-based solutions will have to triple by 2030 and increase four-fold by 2050 from the current investments into nature-based solutions of USD 133 billion. Nearly two-thirds of that is spent on forest and peatland restoration, regenerative agriculture and pollution-control systems.

Structural transformations are needed to bridge this financing gap, which may involve repurposing the billions of dollars that are now allocated every year for damaging agricultural and fossil fuels subsidies. Nature only accounts for 2.5% of projected economic stimulus spending in the wake of Covid-19, the UN estimated. 

The UN called for a steep increase in annual investment of the private sector in nature-based solutions and to couple investments in restoration action with financing conservation measures. This could result in forest and agro-forestry (combination of food production and tree growing) area increases of 300 million hectares by 2050. 

“The dependency of global GDP on nature is abstract but what we really mean are livelihoods, jobs, people’s ability to feed themselves, and water security,” Teresa Hartmann, the WEF lead on climate and nature, told The Guardian. “If we don’t do this, there will be irreversible damages to biodiversity that we can no longer fix.”

The upcoming summits on climate, biodiversity, land degradation and food system later this year could provide an opportunity to harness political and business momentum to act on biodiversity, climate and land degradation, the UN said. A new global framework for biodiversity is expected as well as more ambitious climate pledges.

People are increasingly turning to nature to cope with the pandemic and improve their wellbeing

As social activity is reduced and stress is running high, nature seems to be offer valuable support for mental wellbeing, a new Canadian study finds. This was especially the case among women and unemployed workers, who spent more time, taking walks, doing outdoors activities, and watching wildlife.

Image credit: University of Vermont

Human-nature relationships benefit people in many ways. Such benefits can be material (such as food and flood protection) or nonmaterial (such as mental health and spiritual fulfillment) and can occur through a diverse range of human-nature interactions, from subsistence practices to recreation.

A study from last year found that spending time with nature produced a significant drop in the stress hormone cortisol, with the duration of the nature experience contributing to the amount of stress reduction. Another research from 2004 showed having access to a garden has a significant positive impact on stress. Now, researchers have begun to review the effects of COVID-19 on nature experiences.

Preliminary evidence shows that both visits to and the value of natural areas have increased during the pandemic and that compared to time spent indoors, time spent outdoors was associated with greater psychological well-being.

A study led by Rachelle Gould from the University of Vermont asked local residents about the impact of the pandemic on their engagement with nature-based activities and how time outside affected their mental health. To do so, Gould and her team carried an online survey with over 3,200 people during the lockdown in May.

Speaking with VTDigger, Gould said that during the pandemic even people who don’t normally engage with nature were going outside more. “There were a lot of people saying, ‘I’m looking at my bird feeder, I’m looking at the tulips coming up in my front yard.’ It was very much not like conquering mountaintops,” she added.

Turns out, that’s exactly what the study found: people are spending more time in nature. Compared to the same time last year, participants in the survey said to spend more time watching wildlife (up 64%), gardening (57%), taking photos or doing other art in nature (54%), relaxing alone outside (58%), and making their masked and distanced way on walks (70%).

People also experienced a shift in the way they value nature. During the pandemic, respondents said in nature they cherished a greater sense of mental health and wellbeing (59%), exercise (29%), appreciating nature’s beauty (29%), sense of identity (23%), and spirituality (22%), along with other less common values.

The study also found significant socio-demographic trends associated with increased activity engagement. Female respondents were the only demographic who reported increased activity across all six of the most engaged-in activities we surveyed, suggesting that women more than men are turning to nature in this challenging time.

Although research on the gender equity implications of COVID-19 is presently limited, the pandemic has likely increased professional and household burdens on women much more than men. How this finding interacts with our gender-related findings is a rich area for future study, the researchers believe.

“Our preliminary analysis suggests that, during the pandemic, women are more likely than men to report increased importance of values that includes mental well-being, beauty, exercise, familiarity with landscape, and fun,” says Gould. “Our next step is to explore the qualitative data to explore this result deeper.”

At the same time, the odds of reporting increased gardening, relaxing socially, walking, and wildlife watching were higher for respondents who had lost their jobs during the pandemic than those who retained them. Unemployment results in less structured time and outdoor activities provide a well-documented source of stress relief.

The researchers believe that this finding offers a potential rebuttal to arguments that nonmaterial benefits from engagement with nature, such as stress reduction and social connection, are “luxury goods.” The fact that people who lost their job prioritize nature activities suggests the many benefits they can bring.

With this in mind, Gould and her team urged policymakers to ensure that the most widely accessible outdoor activities receive the support needed to meet demand, for both frequent participants and marginalized populations for whom the benefits of such participation might be especially important in times of crisis.

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Feeling blue with the pandemic? A dose of nature can make a big difference

The pandemic has left us all to deal with unprecedented changes in our day-to-day lives, including making many people spending most of their time at home, isolated from others. While this can be effective in reducing the spread of the virus, it can also have negative consequences on our mental health and wellbeing.

But we have a pandemic-proof ally: nature. During this extraordinary time nature around our homes can actually play a key role in mitigating against the risk of adverse mental health outcomes, studies are increasingly showing.

Credit image: Flickr / Luis Alberto Martinez

“Studies have proven that even the smallest bit of nature can generate health benefits,” Kathleen Wolf, a researcher at the University of Washington, said in a statement. “Look closely in your neighborhood, and the bit of nature you may have taken for granted up until now may become the focus of your attention.”

With more people working from home, many have been inspired to explore nature in their neighborhood as they refocus on their immediate surroundings. Factory and car emissions have declined due to the pandemic so taking a walk to a near-by park and listening to the birds can even be more enjoyable than before.

Even if you can’t go out due to the pandemic you can still receive mental health benefits from nature from within your home. One notable “less immediate” experience of nature is viewing nature from the home (through the balcony or even the window) — we all do this more or less and it helps a bit, even though we might not feel it.

People all around the world have also seen a greater interest in gardening. Google Trends shows a doubling of worldwide online searches for compost and seeds compared with a year ago. U.S. seed company W. Atlee Burpee & Co sold more seed than any time in its 144-year history in March, for example.

Dr Mathew White, from the University of Exeter, told the BBC that even a brief nature fix such as ten minutes of wind brushing across our cheek, or the sun on our skin can lower stress. Connecting with nature makes us happier and more energized, with an increased sense of meaning and purpose, he added.

In fact, many studies have shown exactly that. Researchers from the University of Tokyo did an online questionnaire to 3,000 adults in Japan to quantify the link between menthol health outcomes and measures of nature experiences. They found a link between more frequent green space use with higher levels of happiness.

“Our results suggest that nearby nature can serve as a buffer in decreasing the adverse impacts of a very stressful event on humans,” said lead author Masashi Soga. “Protecting natural environments in urban areas is important not only for the conservation of biodiversity but also for the protection of human health.”

A study from last year found that spending time with nature produced a significant drop in the stress hormone cortisol, with the duration of the nature experience contributing to the amount of stress reduction. Another research from 2004 showed having access to a garden has a significant positive impact on stress.

Peter Kahn from Washington University explained that being in touch with nature can slow down the mind’s natural process of rumination through which we think about the past and worry about the future. “When your mind isn’t ruminating, it can then open to a wider world, where there’s great beauty and healing,” he said in a statement.

Slow movements such clouds moving across the sky place effortless demands on our working memory but enough to distract us from rumination. Researchers such as Kahn call this capacity to hold our attention the “soft fascination” of nature. A similar effect is caused by tending to plants, giving us a sense of achievement when they flourish.

Other tips that you can do at home include:

  • Open a window to hear the sounds of the leaves or enjoy the scent of fresh rain
  • Walk first in the morning or before the sunset when the warm colors highlight the textures of the natural world
  • Plant seeds. You can even use the ones you find in fruits or near trees
  • Use natural design elements in your home
  • Think of nature when you are cooking. When you take your morning coffee, imagine the rainforest birds that helped pollinate coffee plants.

Why blue and green are the brightest colors in nature

Throughout nature, the colors of blue and green are usually the brightest and most intense. A group of researchers from Cambridge University has now figured out the reason why, after they performed computational modeling to get to the bottom of things.

Credit Flickr Mathias Appel

Physicist Gianni Jacucci and his team worked on a numerical experiment, assessing the ranges of matt structural color. This is a phenomenon responsible for some of the most intense colors in nature. The model showed how this intensity effect extends only as far as blue and green within the visible spectrum. Notably, matt structural coolers cannot be recreated in the red region of the visible spectrum.

“Most of the examples of structural color in nature are iridescent — so far, examples of naturally-occurring matt structural color only exist in blue or green hues,” said co-author Lukas Schertel in a statement. “When we’ve tried to artificially recreate matt structural color for reds or oranges, we end up with a poor-quality result, both in terms of saturation and color purity.”

Structural color is formed from the disordered array of structures in a way that results in angle-independent matt colors, meaning the colors look the same from any viewing angle. The basis of structural color, the researchers found, is not the result of pigments or dyes, such as with the glossy yellow of the buttercup, which is achieved through a yellow carotenoid pigment.

In contrast, the coloration seen on the wings of birds and butterflies and on insects, for example, is the result of internal structure alone. The way a color manifests itself is due to the way that structures are arranged at the nanoscale, reflecting light in complex patterns.

Jacucci hopes the data will prove useful with the development of non-toxic paints or coatings with intense color that never fades. Nevertheless, it will take some time for this to happen, as the researchers have to figure out the limitations for recreating these types of colors. They plan to investigate further the use of other kinds of nanostructures to overcome the limitations.

“In addition to their intensity and resistance to fading, a matt paint which uses structural color would also be far more environmentally-friendly, as toxic dyes and pigments would not be needed,” said in a statement first author Gianni Jacucci from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry.

The study was published in the journal PNAS.

Experiencing nature seems to make us happier, at least on social media

A new study from the National University of Singapore (NUS) used artificial intelligence to trawl through social media posts in order to gauge the social and cultural value nature brings to humans. Overall, they report that the findings show a positive association between the presence of nature and fond memories described in photographs or events such as vacations and honeymoons.

Image via Pixabay.

Naturally happy

“Integrating social media data and AI opens up a unique opportunity for us to carry out unprecedented large-scale global studies such as this to better understand our interactions with nature in our daily lives,” said Dr Chang, Research Fellow at the Department of Biological Sciences at NUS Faculty of Science and first author of the study.

The team began their research in an effort to better map the value that nature brings to our lives. They explain that the economic and ecological impacts of issues such as climate change have been documented, but not so much the social or cultural effects. We know that certain areas attract people — The Great Barrier Reef and the Swiss Alps remain some of the top holiday destinations in the world — but exactly what benefits people draw from visiting them remains poorly understood.

The team, led by Dr Chang and Associate Professor Roman Carrasco from the Department of Biological Sciences at NUS Faculty of Science, used automated image recognition technology to analyze over 31,500 photographs across 185 countries from social media platforms.

This step revealed that photographs tagged as #fun, #vacations and #honeymoons are more likely to contain elements of nature such as plants, water, and natural landscape as compared to photographs tagged #daily or #routines — no massive surprises there. The trend, however, was consistent across the globe, which the team says is evidence in favor of the biophilia hypothesis (that humans have an innate desire to experience and connect with nature). The trend, they add, implies a positive association between nature and fond memories in memorable events like honeymoons.

Furthermore, they found that the amount of nature experiences per individual in a country is linked to the overall life satisfaction of its residents. Countries such as Costa Rica or Finland — which have more elements of nature in photographs tagged as #fun — also rank highly on national satisfaction levels as reported on in the World Happiness Report 2019, the team explains.

All in all, the findings do seem to suggest that people derive emotional happiness, relaxation, and life satisfaction from experiencing nature. I would point out that the posts this study looked at involved nature, yes, but they also related to events such as holidays or personal events which involved leisure, which obviously would make people #happy and #relaxed. On the other hand, it seems to me that the #daily # routine posts would obviously involve less exposure to nature (since most people live in urban environments) and less excitement or relaxation, two states which we don’t readily associate with the daily grind.

Still, the study is valuable in highlighting the positive effect nature and exposure to nature can have on our own subjective well-being and emotional states.

“[The findings] further emphasises the importance of preserving our natural environment for the loss of nature may mean more than losing quantifiable economic and ecological benefits; it could also mean losing the background to our fondest memories,” says Assoc Prof Carrasco.

“Our next step is therefore to establish how nature experiences may benefit human well-being such as how it improves our satisfaction in life, hence enabling the development of constructive solutions to better environmental conservation,” he added.

The paper “Social media, nature, and life satisfaction: global evidence of the biophilia hypothesis” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Experiencing wilderness keeps us happy, so we should protect it even in cities

Experiencing wilderness is particularly important for physical and mental health finds new research led by the University of Washington (UW).

Lighthouse at the Discovery Park, Seattle.
Image credits Michael Camilleri / Flickr.

We’ve gradually lost touch with nature as our cities grew wide and tall around us. The luckier among us city dwellers might live close to a park, or on a green-roofed building, giving us some access to natural areas; but wild ones are virtually non-existent. A new study reports that exposure to wilderness is an important factor for human physical and mental health, especially so in urban landscapes, even compared to other types of natural areas.

Wild at heart

“It was clear from our results that different kinds of nature can have different effects on people,” said lead author Elizabeth Lev, a graduate student in the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

“The wilder areas in an urban park seem to be affording more benefits to people — and their most meaningful interactions depended on those relatively wild features.”

The study focused on the Discovery Park in Seattle, the largest in the city (roughly 500 acres in size). The park is situated about 20 minutes by car from Seattle’s downtown areas, and has faced the same development pressures as others in cities with growing populations, the team explains. The research was prompted by the park’s advisory board, which asked the team to find out which elements are most important for park-goers in order to better inform decision-makers.

Despite focusing on this single park, the team is confident that their findings hold over well for most other major cities and beyond.

“We looked at Discovery Park, but this is about the entire planet,” said senior author Peter Kahn, a UW professor of environmental and forest sciences and psychology. “Everywhere, development is chipping away at wild areas. Humanity has caused so much destruction and there’s no stopping it — unless we stop.”

“We’re trying to show that if you’re going to develop an area, you at least need to understand the human costs.”

The team asked several hundred visitors to the park to submit a written online summary of a meaningful interaction they had at Discovery Park, obtaining 320 submissions. Then they set about coding these experiences into several categories (which the researchers call “interaction patterns”) to allow for better handling of the data. For example, an account stating “we sat and listened to the waves at the beach for a while” was assigned to the categories “sitting at beach” and “listening to waves.”

They found that six categories were consistently rated as important to visitors. These included encountering wildlife, walking alongside a body of water, enjoying the view, or following an established trail. They further looked at how the wilderness component factored into these experiences, finding that it had a role to play in nearly every interaction the visitors reported on. For example, “spotting bald eagle” references a relatively wild bird, and “watching birds perched on an old-growth tree,” denotes a wild habitat.

Additionally, the researchers looked at whether the park’s relative wildness was important in each visitor’s most meaningful experiences in the park. They defined “relatively wild” as including Discovery Park’s varied and relatively unmanaged land, its high levels of biodiversity, its “big nature” like old growth trees, large open spaces, expansive vistas, and people’s experience of the park’s solitude and removal from civilization.

The team explains that it’s important to know what these interactions are and what makes them valuable to us, so that we may better recognize and engage in them. Walking along the water’s edge on a weekend may be very fulfilling, but it’s not really an option most of us have on a busy weekday — but more ‘tame’ versions of it, such as walking along a fountain or other water feature to unwind, are.

“We’re losing the language of interaction with nature and, as we do, we also lose the cultural practice of these deep forms of interaction with nature, the wellsprings of human existence,” Kahn said.

“We’re trying to generate a nature language that helps bring these human-nature interactions back into our daily lives. And for that to happen, we also need to protect nature so that we can interact with it.”

It’s definitely an interesting study, and I do personally like the idea of mixing in more natural spaces in our lives. But as out cities become ever more crowded and space ever more expensive, there’s bound to be intense pressure to turn parks and recreational areas into more ‘productive’ landscapes. Studies such as this one go a long way towards reminding us that efficiency and profit aren’t the only ingredients of a good life; sometimes, happiness is as simple as sitting down and looking at an old tree.

The paper “Relatively Wild Urban Parks Can Promote Human Resilience and Flourishing: A Case Study of Discovery Park, Seattle, Washington” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Cities.

Beautiful ‘Capturing Ecology’ photo competition winners announced

Every year, the British Ecological Society (BES) runs the ‘Capturing Ecology’ photo competition to “celebrate the diversity of ecology”. This year’s finalists have just been announced and they definitely delivered on that goal. So let’s take a look at the charming and sometimes adorable moments that the photographers captured on film.

Worth a thousand words

The Overall Winner of the competition was an image of a Malagasy tree boa taken by Roberto García Roa, Ph.D., an evolutionary biologist at the University of Valencia. He wanted to showcase the plight of Madagascar, whose ecosystems have suffered severe damage at the hands of human poaching and fires.

“Red Night” / Roberto García Roa.

“Unfortunately, many areas of Madagascar are suffering huge anthropic pressures including poaching and fires, and big snakes are becoming increasingly difficult to see,” Roa explained on the submission. “During my visit to Madagascar, I had the pleasure of finding this outstanding snake and photographing it. To offer a dramatic scenario reflecting the conditions that these snakes are suffering, I used an external red light as a source of light and severe blurring to capture the environment.”

Professor Richard Bardgett, President of the BES, finds the image “stunning” and deserving of the Overall Winner prize, saying it “not only captures the beauty of the Malagasy tree boa, which is endemic to the island of Madagascar, but also its vulnerability, especially to hunting and fire.”

Nilanjan Chatterjee, Ms.C. at the Wildlife Institute of India, won the Overall Student Winner award for his picture titled Flames in Flumes, showing a plumbeous water redstart waiting for its hapless prey by a cascade.

“Flames in Flumes” / Nilanjan Chatterjee.
“Autumn Texture” / Mikhail Kapychka.

Kapychka’s photograph of a birch forest in the autumn is the Overall Runnerup of the competition.

Up Close and Personal

A category aimed at “displaying the intricacy of nature using close-up or macro photography.”

“Fluorescence” / Roberto García Roa.

Not content with simply winning outright, Roa also claimed the Up Close and Personal award with this picture of a fluorescent scorpion glowing under UV light. Don’t worry, the scorpion wasn’t the end of him — either in real life or in this competition.

Khristian Valencia won the Student award in this category with the picture below. The frog he captured “exhibits one of its less common morphs” of the species.

“Harlequin” / Khristian V. Valencia.

Dynamic Ecosystems

This category rewarded images that “demonstrat[e] interactions between different species within an ecosystem”

Roa claimed this award with this picture Small Warrior. It showcases a Malayan spider taking on an ant several times its size — and winning.

“Small Warrior” / Roberto García Roa.

The student award in this category went to Pablo Javier Merlo from the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba. Are You Seeing the Same as Me? shows a domestic cow and a chimango — a relative species of the falcon — pondering something over a breathtaking visage of the Beagle Channel (the southernmost tip of South America). I don’t know what they’re meditating on, but this is my personal favorite entry in the competition.

“Are You Seeing the Same as Me?” / Pablo Javier Merlo.

Individuals and Populations

“A unique look at a species in its environment, either alone or as part of a population” was the subject of this category.

The winner here was Felix Fornoff from the University of Freiburg with Sleeping Still. The image shows leafcutter bee offspring developing in intricate nests of several leaven layers constructed by adult bees.

“Sleeping Still” / Felix Fornoff.

The Student prize in this category was awarded to Khristian Valencia from the University of Antioquia, Colombia. Watchful shows a dazzling black-and-white snake fixing its gaze on its (soon-to-be-caught) prey.

“Watchful” / Khristian V. Valencia.

People and Nature

Looking for “an interesting and original take on the relationships between people and nature,” the award in this category went to Andrew Whitworth a Ph.D at the University of Glasgow and a member of the Osa Conservation group, for Why Did the Sloth Cross the Road?.

The photograph shows a female three-toed sloth navigating a busy road — luckily, she was spotted by the driver of an oncoming truck and everybody lived to see another day.

“Why Did the Sloth Cross the Road?” / Andrew Whitworth.

Gergana Daskalova, a student at the University of Edinburgh, Thawing Away, A human silhouette is dwarfed by the size of a retrogressive thaw slump on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island in Canada. The shifts resulting from these slumps can echo through the whole ecosystem. This photo was taken on an expedition supported by the National Geographic Society.

“Thawing Away” / Gergana Daskalova.

Ecology in Action

Molly Penny at the University of the West of England won this category for best “showcasing the practice of ecology in action” with The Rhino’s Annual Haircut. This annual procedure is protects the animals from poaching.

“Rhinos Annual Haircut” / Molly Penny.

Gergana Daskalova at the University of Edinburgh won the student prize in this category for capturing how drones are helping us better map climate change with Capturing Tundra Vegetation Change.

“Capturing tundra vegetation change” / Gergana Daskalova.

The Art of Ecology

The final category asked for “a creative and original take on photography denoting ecology”. Peter Hudson from Penn State University won with a picture of a heart-shaped flock of flamingos over Lake Magadi.

“For the Love of Flamingoes” / Peter Hudson.

Sanne Govaert from Ghent University captured a tiny, dew-laden Mycena spp. mushroom growing inside a rotten tree trunk.

“Teeny Tiny World” / Sanne Govaert.

‘Half-Earth’ conservation schemes would affect over a billion people

A new study is looking into the social and economic effects Half-Earth-type conservation schemes would have on local and global communities. Over a billion people around the world would be impacted by such measures, they explain.

USFS Wilderness Sign at Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, California.
Image credits Jason Crotty / Flickr.

Back in 2016, American biologist Edward Osborne Wilson published ‘Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life’. The book proposes that we designate half the planet as a human-free natural reserve in order to preserve biodiversity.

The idea is definitely catchy — there’s something romantic about the idea of keeping half the planet wild, and it would definitely go a long way towards protecting nature. While policymakers and conservationists are starting to consider the idea in various forms ( such as the ‘Global Deal for Nature‘ which aims for 30% protection by 2030 and 50% by 2050) we still have a very poor idea of how a Half-Earth-type scheme would impact human society.

Half-earthing it

“People are the cause of the extinction crisis, but they are also the solution,” said Dr. Judith Schleicher, who led the new study, published today in the journal Nature Sustainability.

“Social issues must play a more prominent role if we want to deliver effective conservation that works for both the biosphere and the people who inhabit it.”

Species go extinct all the time, that’s just how mother nature rolls. The ‘extinction crisis’ Dr. Schleicher mentions is an increase in that natural rate of extinction (called the baseline extinction rate) caused by human activity — with habitat destruction and pollution being the main culprits.

Faced with this extinction crisis, and with humanity’s overall disastrous effect on the natural balance of our planet, activists have picked up on Wilson’s idea and are calling for more ambitious conservation targets than ever before. A new study comes to assess how many people worldwide would be impacted, and who and where they are specifically, if half the planet was used to preserve the diversity of the world’s habitats.

For the study, they analyzed global datasets to determine the areas we’d need to give conservation status to add up to 50% protection for every ecoregion (areas of distinct habitats such as Central African mangroves and Baltic mixed forests). The team reports they made every effort possible to avoid specific “human footprints” such as cities of farmland.

This “conservative” estimate still holds that over a billion people, primarily in middle-income countries, would be affected by a Half-Earth scheme. However, many of the world’s rich and populous countries in the Northern Hemisphere would also need to massively expand on lands with conservation status, including areas we may be loathe to give up — the authors cite parts of London as an example. They cautiously estimate that an additional 760 million people would find themselves living in areas with new conservation status, a fourfold increase of the number of residents inside protected areas today.

The team says that issues of environmental justice and human wellbeing should be at the forefront of the conservation movement. They hope that their findings will help world leaders agree of global conservation targets at next year’s Convention on Biological Diversity in Beijing.

“Goals that emerge from the Convention on Biological Diversity could define conservation for a generation,” said Schleicher. “We need to be ambitious given the environmental crises. But it is vital that social and economic implications at local levels are considered if the drivers of biodiversity loss are to be tackled. The lives of many people and the existence of diverse species hang in the balance.”

“Failing to consider social issues will lead to conservation policy that is harmful to human wellbeing and less likely to be implemented in the first place.”

The team calls for proponents of Half Earth, and all supporters of area-based conservation, to “recognise and take seriously” the human consequences – both negative and positive – of their proposals.

“Living in areas rich in natural habitat can boost mental health and wellbeing. In some cases, protected areas can provide new jobs and income through ecotourism and sustainable production,” said Schleicher.

“However, at the other extreme, certain forms of ‘fortress’ conservation can see people displaced from their ancestral home and denied access to resources they rely on for their survival.”

The paper “Protecting half of the planet could directly affect over one billion people” has been published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Central Park.

Urban parks make people ‘as happy as Christmas’ — at least on Twitter

A quick walk in the park may just be the emotional pick-me-up you need.

Image credits Maleah Land.

The first study of its kind shows that those who visited an urban park use happier language and express less negativity on Twitter than before the visit. This boost in mood, the paper further reports, can last for up to four hours afterward.

Christmas come early

“We found that, yes, across all the tweets, people are happier in parks,” says Aaron Schwartz, a University of Vermont (UVM) graduate student who led the new research, “but the effect was stronger in large regional parks with extensive tree cover and vegetation.”

The effect is definitely strong — the team found that the increase in happiness people derived from visiting an area of urban nature was equivalent to the mood spikes seen on Christmas day (which they explain is by far the happiest day of the year on Twitter). Given that more and more of us live and work in the city — and given the growing rate of mood disorders we experience — the findings can help inform public health and urban planning strategies.

For the study, the team spent three months analyzing hundreds of tweets daily that were posted from 160 parks in San Francisco. Visitors showed the effects of elevated mood in their posts after visiting any one of these urban nature areas. Smaller neighborhood parks showed a more modest spike in positive mood, while mostly-paved civic plazas and squares showed the least mood elevation.

This suggests that it wasn’t merely going out of work, or being outside, that caused the boost in mood. The team says areas with more vegetation had the most pronounced impact, noting that one of the words that shows the biggest uptick in use in tweets from parks is “flowers.”

“In cities, big green spaces are very important for people’s sense of well-being,” says Schwartz.

“We’re seeing more and more evidence that it’s central to promoting mental health,” says Taylor Ricketts, a co-author on the new study and director of the Gund Institute for Environment at UVM.

The study’s findings are important as they quantify the benefits of natural areas beyond immediate monetary gains (i.e. “how many dollars of flood damage did we avoid by restoring a wetland?”) and look at its direct effects on public health.

Image via Pixabay.

The team used an online instrument called a hedonometer — invented by a team of scientists at UVM and The MITRE Corporation — to gather and analyze the tweets. The instrument uses a body of about 10,000 common words that have been scored by a large pool of volunteers for what the scientists call their “psychological valence,” a kind of measure of each word’s emotional temperature.

The volunteers ranked words they perceived as the happiest near the top of a 1-9 scale, with sad words near the bottom. Each word’s final score was calculated by averaging the volunteers’ responses. “Happy”, for example, ranked 8.30, “hahaha” 7.94, and “parks” 7.14. Neutral words like “and” and “the” scored 5.22 and 4.98. At the bottom were “trapped” 3.08, “crash” 2.60, and “jail” 1.76.

Using these scores, the team combed through the tweets of 4,688 users who publicly identify their location and were geotagged with latitude and longitude in the city of San Francisco (so they could pinpoint exactly which park they were tweeting from).

“Then, working with the U.S. Forest Service, we developed some new techniques for mapping vegetation of urban areas–at a very detailed resolution, about a thousand times more detailed than existing methods,” says study co-author Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne, director of UVM’s Spatial Analysis Laboratory in the UVM Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and a co-author on the new study.

“That’s what really enabled us to get an accurate understanding of how the greenness and vegetation of these urban areas relates to people’s sentiment there.”

Overall, the tweets posted from urban parks in San Francisco were 0.23 points happier on the hedonometer scale over the baseline. The increase is “equivalent to that of Christmas Day for Twitter as a whole in the same year,” the scientists write.

Exactly why parks have this effect on people isn’t fully understood — and wasn’t the object of the present study. Regardless of how it happens, the results suggest that people tend to be happier in nature. That’s a finding “that may help public health officials and governments make plans and investments,” says UVM’s Aaron Schwartz.

The paper “Visitors to urban greenspace have higher sentiment and lower negativity on Twitter” has been published in the journal People and Nature.

Credit: Pixabay.

Spending just 2 hours a week in nature promotes health and wellbeing

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

British researchers found that spending at least 120 minutes in nature a week improves your health and psychological wellbeing. This is yet another study that underscores the importance of reconnecting with nature.

The study involved nearly 20,000 people in England, whose outdoor habits were surveyed by a team of researchers at the University of Exeter. The study found that spending time in a natural setting (town parks, woodlands, country parks, beaches, and so on) was associated with higher levels of self-reported good health and psychological wellbeing — as long as they spent at least two hours outdoors every week. Those who didn’t cross the 120-minute threshold experienced no such benefits.

“It’s well known that getting outdoors in nature can be good for people’s health and wellbeing but until now we’ve not been able to say how much is enough. The majority of nature visits in this research took place within just two miles of home so even visiting local urban greenspaces seems to be a good thing. Two hours a week is hopefully a realistic target for many people, especially given that it can be spread over an entire week to get the benefit,” said Dr. Mat White, of the University of Exeter Medical School.

Previously, another study found people who spent time in natural settings reported greater feelings of relaxation and lower levels of stress, as well as stronger emotional connections to the natural world — the more time they spent in nature, the more they cared about it. Children might stand to benefit the most by spending time in nature — according to a 2019 study, children with a stronger connection to nature had less distress and hyperactivity, as well as fewer behavioral and emotional difficulties and improved pro-social behavior.

There’s much we don’t know about the relationship between nature and human wellbeing. For instance, how do people’s relationships with nature form? How do they influence personal values and attitudes? And what behavioral implications do they have? These are interesting questions that research in the future might answer. In the meantime, try a walk in the park — it might do you a lot of good.

“There are many reasons why spending time in nature may be good for health and wellbeing, including getting perspective on life circumstances, reducing stress, and enjoying quality time with friends and family. The current findings offer valuable support to health practitioners in making recommendations about spending time in nature to promote basic health and wellbeing, similar to guidelines for weekly physical,” said Professor Terry Hartig of Uppsala University in Sweden, who is a co-author of the research published in Scientific Reports.

Want your kids to be calmer and have improved mental health? Connect them to nature, scientists say

Having a stronger bond with nature can alleviate a number of mental health issues for children, a new study reports. The more connected to nature they are, the less likely they are to suffer from hyperactivity, distress, and behavioral problems.

Many parents feel that an overly urban lifestyle is severely detrimental to the development of children, and a new study suggests that they are, at least partly, correct. Increasingly, physicians and psychologists have started to pay more and more attention to this phenomenon, and many environmental programs around the world hope to (re)connect children with nature.

For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) summarized scientific evidence highlighting the benefits of green spaces for children. The WHO recommends that all children have green spaces within 300 meters (1,000 feet) of their home for recreation and play. But in some cases, even when these green spaces aren’t available, they are not being used.

“We noticed a tendency where parents are avoiding nature. They perceive it as dirty and dangerous, and their children unfortunately pick up these attitudes. In addition, the green areas are often unwelcoming with signs like “Keep off the grass”, said Dr. Tanja Sobko from the School of Biological Sciences of the University of Hong Kong and author of the new study.

Sobko and colleagues developed a 16-item parent questionnaire to measure “connectedness to nature’ in very young children. The test focuses on four aspects: enjoyment of nature, empathy for nature, responsibility towards nature, and awareness of nature.

They carried out the questionnaire with 493 families with children aged between 2 and 5, in conjunction with the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire — a well-established measurement of psychological well-being and children’s behavior problems. The scientists found that children with a stronger connection to nature had less distress and hyperactivity, as well as fewer behavioural and emotional difficulties and improved pro-social behaviour.

Remarkably, children who took greater responsibility towards nature also had fewer difficulties connecting and relating with their peers.

Mental health problems affect about 1 in 10 children and young people worldwide, but the percentage can vary significantly by geography. In China, for instance, up to 22% of preschoolers show signs of mental health problems. Having green spaces can be a surprisingly effective way of alleviating these issues, making for happier and more peaceful children.

This isn’t the only project of this type Sobko has worked on. She is also involved in a Hong Kong research-based project called Play&Grow — the first in Hong Kong to promote healthy eating and active playtime with preschool children by connecting them to nature.

The study “Measuring connectedness to nature in preschool children in an urban setting and its relation to psychological functioning” has been published in PLoS.

Bullfinches mate for life, researchers confirm

A new study confirms what was long-time assumed about bullfinches: they keep the same partner throughout their lives.

A male (left) and a female (right) bullfinch. Source: Pixabay / Oldiefan.

Bullfinches (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) are small birds commonly found in the temperate areas in Europe and Asia. They are usually resident (non-migratory) birds, but some of the northern populations do move towards the warmer south during the winter.

However, recent years weren’t rosy for the bullfinches. Their large numbers and love of flower buds turned against them. They started to be viewed as pests during the 1970s, leading to a licensed control of the species. Even though this didn’t have an important impact on the birds’ populations, bullfinches suffered a decline due to the loss of arable weeds and intensification of agriculture.

Professor Olav Hogstadt banded 165 birds, comprised of 63 adults and 102 young birds. Hogstadt’s birds were migratory, making their monitoring much more difficult. He used a small feeder to lure and tag the bullfinches. Most birds were isolated individuals, though a small flock was also observed.

He discovered three pairs that stayed together for one winter, three that stayed together through two winters, and one pair that stayed together through three winters. He thus concluded that pair fidelity was true among bullfinches, confirming a long-standing assumption.

Why do these finches have such a romantic approach to life?

Actually, the answer is pretty logical. Having the same mate allows these birds to spare the energy of finding a new one each beginning of mating season. In this way, the frenzy of reproduction can be prolonged, and the little bullfinches saved the heartbreak of rejection — and the efforts associated with mating rituals.

Young male bullfinch awaiting his love.
Source: Pixabay/Oldiefan

“It’s a little embarrassing to tell people that it’s taken a quarter century of ‘research’ to confirm something that ‘everyone has known’ for several decades. On the other hand, it shows that if an assumption is repeated often enough, it’ll eventually become a reality,” Hogstad says.

Professor Hogstad from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) published the paper “Pair fidelity of wintering Bullfinches; observations over 24 years” in the journal Det Kongelige Norske Videnskabers Selskabs Skrifter. Vol. 2016.

Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the vulnerable nature World Heritages sites listed by the IUCN since its glaciers are shrinking in the face of global warming. Credit: Pixabay.

Natural World Heritage sites threatened by climate change doubled in the past 3 years

A report released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that the number of natural World Heritage sites at risk from climate change has nearly doubled in only three years. Researchers now estimate there are 62 vulnerable sites or one in seven listed sites, compared to 35 sites in 2014.

 Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the vulnerable nature World Heritages sites listed by the IUCN since its glaciers are shrinking in the face of global warming. Credit: Pixabay.

Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the vulnerable nature World Heritages sites listed by the IUCN since its glaciers are shrinking in the face of global warming. Credit: Pixabay.

Natural World Heritage sites include some of the most breathtaking places on the planet like coral reefs, glaciers, and wetlands. Among them are the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean, the central Amazon, the Everglades in the United States, and Australia’ Great Barrier Reef.

“Climate change acts fast and is not sparing the finest treasures of our planet,” said IUCN director general Inger Andersen in a public statement.

Particularly vulnerable to global warming are coral reefs, which are subjected to bleaching, and glaciers. In the last three years, three World Heritage-listed corals — Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean, the Belize Barrier Reef in the Atlantic, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef — have all experienced significant bleaching events.

The Great Barrier Reef is threatened by coral bleaching. Credit: Pixabay.

The Great Barrier Reef is threatened by coral bleaching. Credit: Pixabay.

According to the report, 29 percent of World Heritage sites faced ‘significant’ climate change threats and seven percent had a ‘critical’ outlook.

There are also some success stories shared in the IUCN report, such as Ivory Coast’s Comoé national park where elephant and chimpanzee populations have recovered significantly. However, such examples are heavily outnumbered by the alarmingly high number of vulnerable nature sites.

“The scale and pace at which it [climate change] is damaging our natural heritage underline the need for urgent and ambitious national commitments and actions to implement the Paris Agreement,” said Andersen.

The disturbing IUCN report was released today at Bonn, Germany, where many scientists, experts, policymakers, and world leaders have gathered to figure out the action plan for the ‘climate-saving’ pact etched in 2015 by nearly 200 countries in Paris. The so-called Paris Agreement aims to limit greenhouse gases so average temperatures won’t jump more than 2 degrees Celsius past those recorded at the beginning of the industrial revolution, ideally no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Since the industrial revolution, the globe has warmed by almost one degree Celsius. What’s more worrying for our world’s natural treasures is that the pledges submitted by countries so far put us on course for a 3 degree Celsius warming.


Science confirms: Spending time in nature really does help your mind

New research confirms what we already knew deep down: spending time in nature makes us feel better. All types of nature help, but rural and coastal areas help more than urban parks.

Image credits: Elke Karin Luger.

If you talk to people, you’ll find countless stories of how being in a forest or by the seaside does wonders for the mind. Who hasn’t taken a stroll in a park to clear their head, or gone to the countryside to get away from the hectic city? However, surprisingly few studies have analyzed this effect. A new study from British researchers investigated how different environmental settings and their quality impacted psychological well-being.

They asked 4,500 people about their outdoor experiences. The participants were asked to describe their visit and self-evaluate their overall experience and feelings. While self-reporting has its caveats, it was deemed the best reporting mechanism for this study.

Researchers discovered that while urban parks and gardens also helped, rural and coastal areas offered more peace of mind. Furthermore, protected or designated natural areas (i.e. national parks) also resulted in greatly improved mental well-being, indicating that not all green areas are created equal. Socioeconomic status was not found to be a factor in the enjoyment of nature, highlighting the need for free or cheap access to parks and protected areas.

Free access to parks is significant, researchers note. image credits: WIll Paterson.

People who spent time in natural settings reported greater feelings of relaxation and lower levels of stress, as well as stronger emotional connections to the natural world — the more time they spent in nature, the more they cared about it. Visits longer than 30 minutes were especially effective.

A rather surprising positive impact was reported in coastal areas. This brings about an interesting discussion: if nice coastal areas make us feel better, doesn’t that mean that they’re worth more financially? This could be an important factor in encouraging policymakers to designate and protect more natural areas.

“It was surprising to learn that the extent of protection of marine environments also affects the extent of mental health benefits that people gain from their interactions with the sea,” study authors say.

“People’s health is likely to become an increasingly important aspect to consider as we manage our coasts and waters for the benefit of all users.”

The same discussion could be had about both urban and natural parks. If we could quantify how much they help people feel better, this could perhaps justify the creation of more such spaces.

Lead author of the paper Dr. Kayleigh Wyles says that while results are encouraging, much more needs to be done to understand exactly how and why this happens. Understanding how people’s relationships with nature form, how they influence personal values and attitudes, and what behavioral implications they may have, could contribute not only personal well-being but also to environmental management goals, researchers write in a previous study.

“We’ve demonstrated for some time that nature can be beneficial to us, but we’re still exploring how and why. Here we have found that our mental wellbeing and our emotional bond with nature may differ depending on the type and quality of an environment we visit.

“These findings are important as they not only help unpick the mechanisms behind these psychological benefits, but they can also help to prioritise the protection of these environments and emphasise why accessibility to nature is so important.”

This isn’t the first time such a connection has been described. In a previous review, Brian Restall and Elisabeth Conrad from the University of Malta found significant evidence of connectedness and mindfulness related to spending time in nature.

Journal Reference: Kayleigh Wyles. Are Some Natural Environments More Psychologically Beneficial Than Others? The Importance of Type and Quality on Connectedness to Nature and Psychological Restoration. DOI: 10.117710013916517738312.


Inmates who watch nature shows in prison are 26% less aggressive than their counterparts

An experiment carried out at Snake River Correctional Institute found that inmates who were shown nature videos were less likely to be aggressive behind bars. The team believes that the images help relax the inmates, reducing negative emotions and behaviors such as distress, irritability, and nervousness which can cause them to lash out in aggression.

Just look at this beautiful lake. And the mountains. It's all so very nice. You know what else would be nice? Not shiv-ing other inmates in the showers. Ahhh, nature. Image via pexels

Just look at this beautiful lake. And the mountains. It’s all so very nice. You know what else would be nice? Not shiv-ing other inmates in the showers. Ahhh, nature.
Image via pexels

“We need nature for our physical and psychological well-being,” said clinical psychotherapist Dr Patricia Hasbach, of ecospychology practice NorthWest Ecotherapy in Oregan, who presented the research.

“Although direct contact with real nature is most effective, studies have shown that even indirect. nature exposure can provide temporary relief from psychological stress in daily life.”

The team performed their study at the Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon which houses 48 inmates. Half of them were given nature videos to view during their scheduled indoor recreation time, three to four times a week over the course of a year. These videos included images of a wide range of environments, such as oceans, forests, rivers, or the Earth viewed from space and cloud fly-throughs. They also included anthropic settings such as aquarium scenes or logs burning in a fireplace. The other half, the control group, were not offered the chance to view the videos.

“Inmate surveys and case study interviews with inmates suggested that negative emotions and behaviors such as aggression, distress, irritability and nervousness were reduced following the viewing of videos and lasted for several hours post-viewing,” said Dr Hasbach.

Prisoners who viewers the videos were involved in 26% fewer violent events compared to the control group, though the change can’t be directly attributed to the videos. Still, the experiment had such good results that other prisons are starting to showcase nature videos.

“This is equivalent to 13 fewer violent incidents over the year, a substantial reduction in real world conditions, since nearly all such events result in injuries to inmates or officers,” Hasbach said.

Prison staff, however, reported through interviews and written surveys that viewing the videos appeared to have a positive effect on the inmates — so much so that they started using the videos as a targeted intervention when they see warning signs that an inmate may be about to act out.

Still, the American prison system is just bad, and no amount of nature videos is going to change that — but there are some things that would.



American Avocets feeding and vocalizing among Mangroves at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The Cruickshanks played a key role in the establishment of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Tracing the Transformation of Bird Watching to a Mainstream Pastime

Allan Cruickshank was a renowned National Audubon Society lecturer, photographer and author who co-published several books and field guides with his wife, Helen. Along with his cohorts–most notably bird guide author and illustrator Roger Tory Peterson—he transformed bird and nature watching from a fringe interest to a popular, easy accessible, mainstream pastime.

American Avocets feeding and vocalizing among Mangroves at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The Cruickshanks played a key role in the establishment of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

American Avocets feeding and vocalizing among Mangroves at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The Cruickshanks played a key role in the establishment of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Cruickshank moved to Florida in 1952 and led the Cocoa, Florida, Christmas bird count for over two decades. This annual citizen science survey provides valuable information on local bird populations.

Sports Illustrated printed several articles on Cruickshank’s bird watching prowess, including documenting his success as the leader of the Cocoa initiative. The count areas included what is now part of the Kennedy Space Center, and the resulting positive publicity influenced NASA to preserve much of the space center property as a refuge, which eventually became the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

In 2011 I started a research project to celebrate the semicentennial of Merritt Island. Bolstered by a grant from American Public University System (APUS), I posited that the creation of the refuge was the result of the work of many but was significantly influenced by the Kennedy administration’s culture of conservation and the championing of Cruickshank.

In 2015, I furthered the research project by focusing on Cruickshank. APUS provided another grant allowing me to visit the Roger Tory Peterson Institute (RTPI) in Jamestown, N.Y. and the archives of the University of Florida Natural History Museum. At the RTPI, there were several correspondences between the Cruikshanks and Peterson, including an invitation to join the 1955 Cocoa project. The number of birds recorded at that time was the highest in the nation and the first of 11 straight years that Cocoa retained this title.

Perhaps the most intriguing discovery was the separate diaries Allan and Helen maintained during their first trip to Florida in 1937 for their honeymoon. The diaries reveal a hard- working, intense expedition focused on birds and flora.

This would be one of many trips the couple would take to record the wild world. They would later make several trips to Florida, one of the outcomes of which was the 1948 book, Flight into Sunshine, Bird Experiences in Florida, written by Helen and accompanied by Allan’s photos. Eventually, they made Florida their permanent home.

The diaries reveal a couple that would tolerate hardship to see and photograph nature. Stories of waiting for hours in a blind to capture the perfect shot or collecting and transporting road kill to attract vultures illustrate their willingness to get it right. The stories from these parallel logs will be compiled into a monograph and offered to Florida-based nature organizations for publication.

Another find at the University of Florida was a 35mm film, “The first X-mas bird count at the Merritt Island Sanctuary.” This 1963 vintage film is undergoing transfer to a digital format. What it reveals remains to be seen, but the film canister notes, “Stars Allan Cruickshank.” The film will be shown to some local nature-based organizations and, hopefully, will be featured statewide.

This research unearthed materials that apparently have not been seen for many years. Assessing this information and bringing it forward to a wider audience should help to further the legacy of the Cruikshanks.

About the Author
Charles Venuto is the Director of Environmental, Health & Safety for Delaware North Parks & Resorts at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and an adjunct professor of Environmental Science at American Public University (APU). He has assembled a monograph on the history of the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge that surrounds the Kennedy Space Center. His research began toward the end of his 30 year career as the Environmental Manager for the contractor responsible for operating the Space Shuttle. His research revealed facts and information that posits the important roles the Kennedy Administration played in the modern environmental movement. He received funding from APU to further his research at the National Achieves, the University of Florida Natural History Museum, the Roger Tory Peterson Institute and the John F. Kennedy Library. He received an Ed.S. in Science Education from Florida Institute of Technology, a M.S. in Environmental Policy and Management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a M.S. in Environmental Science from Florida Institute of Technology.

Crown Shyness – Trees can shy away too!

Crown shyness is a phenomenon observed in some tree species, in which the crowns of fully stocked trees do not touch each other, forming a canopy with channel-like gaps.


Well, scientists are not certain what causes these remarkable patterns. But some theories have been proposed since the 1900’s to explain the phenomenon.

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Photo Credit

Since most of the trees are tall, slender and typically found in high wind areas, crown shyness is thought to prevent them from bumping into one another and abrading each other. The leading shoots get dispatched as an aftermath of the abrasion.

This was proven experimentally too. Scientists artificially prevented the trees from colliding in the wind and found out that they inturn fill the canopy gaps!

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Photo Credit

But studies done on the Camphor tree found no evidence of abrasions. Instead, it was suggested that the leading tips were sensitive to light. Ergo, fewer buds developed in regions that were already dense or where the crowns of different trees met. This curbed the development of shoots in regions that already were populous.


Where would you find these species? Well, Crown shyness is not an exclusive phenomenon that occurs only in a country/region, it’s universal and  has been reported in various parts around the world.

Species of Dryobalanops( including Dryobalanops lanceolata and Dryobalanops aromatica ), eucalypt, Pinus contorta or lodgepole pine, Avicennia germinans or black mangrove, Didymopanax pittieri, Clusia alata,  Celtis spinosa and Pterocymbium beccarii are some well-known ones that exhibit Crown Shyness.


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Photo Credit

With over 100 years of research into this phenomenon, we are yet to truely uncover the mechanism of Crown Shyness. Although it is not for the lack of trying, we seem to be missing a conjoining piece that connects all the pieces together.

Look deep into Nature, and you will understand everything

As we further our understanding about the world that we dwell in, we will hopefully be able to unravel the mysteries that underly baffling phenomena of nature such as Crown Shyness and appreciate nature better.