With temperatures rising we can all feel how climate change is affecting our lives, but what if we could hear it too? This week, Japan Times climate editor Chris Russell joins us to discuss what researchers at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology are listening to.

Hosted by Shaun McKenna and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Shaun McKenna 00:08

Welcome back to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I'm Shaun McKenna, and sincerely thanks for joining us. We took some time off, producer Dave Cortez was back in California for a bit. And, as we get back into the swing of things, we've made the decision to publish new episodes biweekly. David and I hope that gives us a bit more time to put more effort into our episodes, and we hope that you, our much valued listeners, are able to stick with us. I got something for you to listen to.

[ambient sounds]

These are the sounds of various ecosystems on Okinawa, as recorded by monitoring stations put up by researchers at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. One of the things we did on our break was we went down to Okinawa to check these recording stations out and I'll chat with Dr. Evan Economo later on in the episodes about that program. But before that, I've got a discussion with Chris Russell about the ambience you just heard and a piece he did on what climate change sounds like.


Chris, thanks for coming back on the show.

Chris Russell 01:22

Great to be back, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna 01:24

OK. So, producer Dave Cortez and I went to the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, just before Deep Dive went on break. And, shortly after you were there, too. So all three of us spent time learning more about what they do on campus. Do you want to tell our listeners a little more about the place itself?

Chris Russell 01:41

Yeah, so the university is called OIST, for short. It's quite distinct within Japan's higher education landscape, I guess. So it's located in Onna, which is sort of midway up Okinawa’s main islands, about a 50 minute drive from Naha airport, the main airport on the island. Work started on setting up OIST like a couple of decades ago now, but it was accredited in 2011, it's got five labs, one of its professors is a Nobel Prize winner. But, kind of what really sets OIST apart is the fact that it was set up in opposition, almost, to what a standard Japanese university is. All the tuition is done in English, for instance, all the structure of it, you know, kind of academically, the professor and so on. That's because it was like such a key part of this drive to internationalize Japanese higher education, and it just kind of gives the whole place a really different feel. It also has a different funding source and it's really sort of tied in with efforts to sort of lift up Okinawa, which is, you know, the poorest prefecture in Japan.

Shaun McKenna 02:46

So you went down there to do reporting for an article titled, “Hearing the impact of climate change in Okinawa, one bird call at a time.” You detailed one aspect of the Okinawa Environmental Observation Network, or OKEON, which is, as it sounds, a network of ecological monitoring stations collecting all kinds of data from the environment, and you focused on what’s called “passive acoustic monitoring” being done at the stations. So, in layman's terms, that refers to just recording sound, right?

Chris Russell 03:17

Yeah, I mean, so inside those like 24 monitoring stations, they've got these kind of high-end, special microphones. And yeah, they’re just recording one minute, every 30 minutes. And they just do that indefinitely, basically.

Shaun McKenna 03:34

So you went to the monitoring stations. Where are they and like, what do they look like?

Chris Russell 03:38

So they're right across the islands, like right from the sort of very urbanized south around Naha, right up into the north where you have like the Yanbaru forest, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and sort of almost still nearly pristine like jungle basically. And yes, it kind of captures that whole sweep, ecological environmental kind of sweep up the island basically. And, so I went to like a couple, and then you know, maybe saw a few others from a distance.

The first one I saw was in the town of Ginowan, which is about 30, 40 minutes drive from Naha airport, really close to the U.S. military base. You can see and hear a lot of choppers buzzing around. And, to get to the monitoring station we had to walk through a lot of deep bush. Although we’re in this town and you've got a U.S. military base right next to you, you've got all these kind of residential complexes around as well, it feels quite wild, I guess. That area used to have a lot of farms, but because of concerns over PFAS chemicals, a lot of that farming stopped. So now, it's just all this kind of overgrown grass. And then we've got the actual station, which is basically right in the middle of the field. But it's a very interesting site, because it looks very kind of wild and overgrown, but just all around you, you know, there's kind of urban infrastructure, you can see kind of big apartment blocks, you know, shops, and as I say, the U.S. military base is there as well. So, it's a very kind of interesting site in terms of that sort of simultaneous wild but also urban sort of feel. So, we made our way through that and then we kind of got to the site. And, you know, it's sort of simple in a way. You know, it's just a few different devices monitoring different aspects of the environment.

Shaun McKenna 05:32

I'm actually picturing a birdhouse like, what, what does it actually look like?

Chris Russell 05:36

Yeah, so I mean, there's not like a kind of one structure in which this is all kind of contained. It’s sort of these different things grouped together, I guess. And the most sort of visible part of it is kind of almost like, looks like a white tent, almost. And, that's used for the bug traps. But then you also have these high-end microphones that they're using, and that's got this little roof over the top of it. And they also have like a weather station as well.

Shaun McKenna 06:00

Okay, so they’re used for several kinds of research. I know, when it comes to climate change, we tend to look at data. Is the idea of listening to data a new thing?

Chris Russell 06:12

I mean, I think it's, it's not necessarily new in the sense that people have been kind of going out into the wild and recording what they hear for, like, some decades now. So you have people like Bernie Krauser, he's kind of like, one of the main guys who's been doing this for decades, and built up this really massive library of recordings. And from that, you know, sort of pointing to the changes and how it's kind of getting quieter, and, you know, that sort of thing. So, people have been doing that. But I think what is kind of really different here is it's more sort of systematic. With this kind of technology they have now they can process way more data, but they can also get data more consistently, and, you know, across time and across greater areas as well. So they're just getting more and more information than they ever could do before. And that's just like a really powerful tool. But one of the things that really interested in me is this idea of using kind of sounds to track or understand climate change, because I think, if you're thinking about, like, you know, how you actually like, perceive climate change, you know, probably the main thing you're going to think about is, you know, just sort of like temperature, right? Think back to like, last summer, and just like how hot it was, you know, that sort of maybe the way we would most readily kind of connect climate change with that kind of sensory perception. So the idea that you can actually sort of hear this process in some way, using sound to understand this process in a different way.

Shaun McKenna 07:42

Right. So what are the researchers hearing?

Chris Russell 07:45

So, fundamentally, they're just recording everything, right? They're trying to get that entire soundscape. And then that is basically a kind of a baseline or like a reference point that then they can use for all sorts of different purposes. But within that, at the moment, what they're focused on is birds.

Shaun McKenna 08:04

Then what do those reference points get used for?

Chris Russell 08:08

So one of the things they've used it for so far as to measure the impact of typhoons. One study was about typhoons Trami and Kong Rey. And, you know, they were able to kind of monitor the response of the ecosystem to those typhoons, and they actually got some results that were quite contrary to what they're expecting. They thought there was going to be a sort of uniform response across the island, but actually, the different sites responded differently. And basically, that, they think, speaks to how the animals move around, and in doing so, kind of give that ecosystem more resilience? So it's actually kind of like a positive indication, right? But the downside, or the worrying thing is that, you know, that might not hold. So, you know, we've always had extreme weather. Typhoons have been hitting Okinawa for however long.

Shaun McKenna 09:01

Yeah, the islands that make up Okinawa are kind of in the path of many of the typhoons coming off the Pacific.

Chris Russell 09:08

Yeah. So, you know, it's kind of priced into the ecosystem. And, you know, it's evolved in a way that it has a certain level of resilience to those things. But you know, one of the troubling aspects of climate change is that it makes this extreme weather more intense, more likely. So the typhoons I studied, I'm not aware of any study that specifically says that climate change made those things worse or more likely. But, down the line, that is what we can expect.

Shaun McKenna 09:38

Typhoons are getting stronger. More frequent...

Chris Russell 09:40

Yeah, that kind of thing. And so that resilience may not hold and this would be a way to actually kind of track that, you know. They've got this reference point that they can look back to and they can see those changes and kind of demonstrate them quite clearly. But then also, you know, looking to the future, climate change is going to fundamentally alter ecosystems and their biodiversity. And we should really care about biodiversity. I mean, just selfishly, you know, the kind of food and medicine that humanity relies on, you know, that all comes from these ecosystems that are made more resilient by biodiversity. Biodiversity can also shore up natural processes that absorb carbon. So ideally, this sort of recording project is just going to stretch out for kind of decades and decades, and that is what scientists say will be actually the probably most valuable part of the project, you know, where they can really start to see how these kinds of changes are kind of being introduced over that long period of time.

Shaun McKenna 10:42

Decades and decades. So that's a lot of tape to go through. Yeah,

Chris Russell 10:46

Yeah I mean, already...

Shaun McKenna 10:47

How are they doing that?

Chris Russell 10:50

I mean, well, a lot of listening, obviously, but I mean, thankfully, they've got some kind of, you know, new tools to help. So, obviously, AI is in the news a lot, right? It’s one of the buzzy things. But it's not just chat GPT demos on how you don't need to learn languages anymore, or whatever, right?

Shaun McKenna 11:05

Usually, I hear it's like, going to take jobs away from writers. But yeah, that too, you know,

Chris Russell 11:09

Yeah, that too, you know?

Shaun McKenna 11:10

Here it's doing something good.

Chris Russell 11:12

Yeah, actually putting it to good use. So, you know, they can use this to kind of pick out the birdcalls, and kind of, identify them across these recordings. And, you know, obviously, that AI is developing quite rapidly. So, some of what they've been using already was still quite labor intensive, you know, they needed to go through and train the AI on what the target sounds were. But with, you know, the progression, it’s sort of that needs, that kind of guidance is maybe like less than less, you know, you have transfer learning models, for instance, which has been trained on one similar thing, and then they can kind of be reapplied to something else. So maybe, you know, it's like North American birds, and then you're able to kind of reapply that learning to Okinawan birds. And so that progress is like really opening up kind of how much they can actually sort of analyze, and you know, what they can actually use for their studies. But actually, it's a little bit old school at times, too. So I mean, sometimes they need to kind of go out with these, like big microphones, almost like a dish to try and get individual kind of bird calls that they can then reference for the other recordings. Sometimes they're just really not clear on what they're hearing, and they need to go and find some local expertise to help them with that. And, you know, there's other sort of, you know, things that they need to do to kind of link the changes in the sound to the actual kind of changes observed in the environment. So, you know, they started going out with cameras strapped to their heads to take photos of like, the tree canopy, so then they can more kind of closely tie the sound changes to, you know, damages to that canopy from, you know, typhoons and so on.

Shaun McKenna 12:58

You said local experts. So who would that be?

Chris Russell 13:00

So for instance, there's like one retired professor that they're in contact with, and you know, he has a lot of knowledge. And if they have something they're really not sure about, they can go to him, and he might be able to help them in the right direction.

Shaun McKenna 13:10

Yeah, it's like a human Shazam. So what kind of challenges are they finding with this form of data collection?

Chris Russell 13:18

Yeah, so there are some fundamental issues with passive acoustic monitoring. So there's a little bit of criticism about, you know, whether you can actually say how many animals are in a recording, you know, you might just have one particularly vocal bird, you know, so it's not several, it's just one, and whether it really reflects the biodiversity of the area. I mean, obviously, not every creature makes sound or is not potentially going to be that audible. So there are some concerns about that. But I think it's still fundamentally thought that it will track the changes; that recording over time is going to reflect the change in biodiversity over that period. So there are those kind of concerns as well, although some of the tech side of it, maybe, is going to help with that. You can locate where the sound is coming from within space, but that requires sort of complex calculations, and so on. But that might become easier and that will enable them to draw certain conclusions that are maybe a little bit difficult at the moment. And that actually kind of speaks to just sort of how complicated these projects are. So you can't just go and whack some microphones up across a landscape and, you know, get those recordings turned into data, and then it's all good. You know, you have to understand, the physics of sound. This sort of engineering comes into it as well, data science, obviously. So, you know, one of the things I heard is you need to be a little bit careful about it. And although this is fundamentally about ecology, it's actually quite multidisciplinary, you know, all the things you need to bring together to actually make this work and be able to actually draw valid conclusions.

Shaun McKenna 14:58

Right, well, Chris, your article on passive acoustic monitoring work at OIST is really interesting, and we'll put a link to it in the show notes. Thanks for coming on Deep Dive.

Chris Russell 15:08

Thanks for having me.

Shaun McKenna 15:09

After the break, we'll bring you a discussion I recorded at the OIST campus with the head of Biodiversity and Biocomplexity unit there, Dr. Evan Economo.

[music and field audio]

As I mentioned before, we were down in Okinawa to visit OIST back in March. At the time we were lucky enough to speak to Dr. Evan Economo about his research using the monitoring stations and, specifically on ants, which, like many insect species, are not so well-documented but play a crucial role in biodiversity— it’s the kind of thing Chris was speaking about in the prior segment. After our chat, Dr. Economo and his unit were chosen as the Japan National Champions for the Swiss Frontiers Planet Prize, which puts him in the running to be one of three world champions in June.

And just a note, we recorded our chat in a room with different acoustics than you, our listeners, are probably used to hearing, just a heads up because I think I sound totally different, haha.

Dave Cortez 16:38

The wonders of audio recording, right?

Shaun McKenna 16:40

The wonders of audio recording, yes. So here’s Evan Economo.

Welcome back. So we are actually now on the premises of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, and joined by professor Evan Economo, who leads the biodiversity and biocomplexity unit at the institute. Evan, thanks for making the time to join us on Deep Dive.

Evan P. Economo 17:01

No problem, thanks for having me.

Shaun McKenna 17:02

So for our listeners who may not know too much about your field, what is it that you guys here in the biodiversity and biocomplexity unit focus on?

Evan P. Economo 17:11

Well, first of all, we focus on diversity of life, the range of species of plants and animals and microbes we find around the world, both what species are out there, what are the patterns in that diversity, where are they located? And then the biocomplexity part is really the interactions among all those species that sustain this wonderfully complicated world that we live in.

Shaun McKenna 17:34

Well, we've been speaking about the Okinawa Environmental Observation Network, or OKEON “Churamori” project, what does Churamori stand for?

Evan P. Economo 17:42

So “churamori” is — in Uchinaaguchi, which is an Okinawan language — and it means “beautiful forest.” So it was very important to us to have this project be a tight collaboration with people in Okinawa, and really have some part of our research here at OIST, that is interfacing with people on the island. And so, of course, OIST is a big institute that has all kinds of different research from theoretical particle physics to cell biology. But as ecologists our research can really interface with people's lives here in Okinawa, so this project was really half of a science project and half of a community outreach project to get ourselves out of our, out of our walls here and into the local communities to interface with people and do research that's really relevant to their lives.

Shaun McKenna 18:37

And we focused on the sound element earlier of the project. But that's not the only weapon in its arsenal, is that right? You're using cameras, weather monitoring and insect traps, how did the insect traps fit into your research?

Evan P. Economo 18:50

Yeah, so, really, the design of the project was to set up an ecological monitoring network across the island. So we set up 24 sites that where we're taking long term data on all kinds of different variables about Okinawa's ecosystems. And one problem we have with all the talk about climate change and global change, we don't have basic data on what's happening to many different aspects of ecosystems out there, for example, insects. There's huge potential concern about declines of insects, some people call this the “insect apocalypse,” but actually we really lack long-term data on a lot of those insects. So if you asked me what happened to the insects in Okinawa for the last 30 years, we wouldn't really be able to tell you, but what we want to do is have a data set that in 20, 30 years from now we can answer that question and know what's going on in Okinawa. So we've put up long-term sites across different habitats in Okinawa, where we're not just monitoring insects but different aspects of the ecosystems — the microclimate, we're looking at different species with camera traps, with acoustic monitoring, as we, as you said, we're measuring sound or recording sound 24/7, around the clock. And also what's happening to all the different insect populations, what species are there, are they growing, are they shrinking, are there new things arriving?

Shaun McKenna 20:14

Have you made any big discoveries about the insects or populations on Okinawa?

Evan P. Economo 20:19

Yeah, so one thing we wanted to do was understand how the habitat change the land use change in Okinawa affects the dynamics of, of insect communities. So in many places in the world, throughout the year, there's different insects that are active, and that are you would find in your backyard, and there's a seasonal cycle to that. But in Okinawa, like many areas of the world, there are, there's a big gradient of human disturbance. So in the very south of the island, you have most of the people, you have most of the urbanized areas. And the forest has basically mostly been, been degraded. But as you go farther north in the island, you get all the way to Yanbaru the, the national park area in the north of the island. And so it's quite good habitat. And so we wanted to put sites all over that landscape and say, “How does what has happened to the land affect the seasonal rhythms of insects?” And what we basically found is that in the more disturbed areas, you see a breakdown of that seasonal cycle of when insects are active in the forest, you get a very synchronous rhythm to, to activity of insects throughout the year. But in the more disturbed areas, it's more disorganized. So you have some species just going at different, different times of the year, almost randomly. If, that makes sense.

Shaun McKenna 21:43

Well can I ask what that looks like? So say, an ant cycle in the winter in the southern part of the urbanized part of Okinawa as compared to what it would be like in the forested part in the north.

Evan P. Economo 21:57

If you were to go out in the forest and the north every single day and record the activity of ants that you see, moving around and foraging and doing their activities, it would be a big difference between what you see in the summer versus the winter. So unlike in the very far north, you don't get a shutdown of all the insects here in Okinawa, where everything freezes and is covered by snow. But I think there is more of a slowdown in the winter in the activity. But if you were to go in the more urbanized areas, you have much less of a difference in the activity. More, you wouldn't be able to tell as easily if it is the summer or the winter.

Shaun McKenna 22:35

Were there any other differences in like different species in these different habitats?

Evan P. Economo 22:39

Yeah, there's another aspect to the story. And when we think about ants and other insects, for example, a lot of the ants you find in Okinawa are not actually from Okinawa, originally, they're being spread around the world by humans accidentally. So we call these “introduced species” and sometimes “invasive species.” So you may know, for example, in Japan, there's a lot of concern about one species that may come here, the hiari, or the fire ant, and a big part of our work here in Okinawa with OKEON is also to be a surveillance system to monitor these species from elsewhere and what they're doing. So many of the species here on the OIST campus and around all the city areas in Okinawa are not from here, they're from Africa or South America or somewhere far in the world. And what we found is that, it's a lot of those species have a little bit different relationship with temperature, they can do better in the colder months, and they're driving some of this difference in the rhythmicity of the ecosystems inside and outside the forest.

Shaun McKenna 23:41

OK, well, we were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of your lab earlier. And, for listeners, OIST itself is a pretty gorgeous complex, I can only describe it as halfway between, I guess a very well-funded university library and a Bond villain layer. But we came across the lab and I was struck by these massive posters of ants.

Evan P. Economo 24:01

Yeah, that I mean, ants are one of the most fascinating group of organisms on the planet. They, you know, I was drawn to them for many different reasons. You know, actually, when I was getting started, I was a field assistant working in the Amazon rainforest. And I was working on birds that followed army ant swarms. So these are birds that chase army ant swarms and catch the things that are running away from army ants. And then I got so fascinated with the ants themselves that I ended up switching what I was working on. But ants are are one of the massively dominant organisms on the planet. I mean, we know them because they may be in our picnic blanket or in our kitchen sometimes, but, actually, in terrestrial ecosystems around the world they’re one of the dominant organisms that are present almost everywhere, and often at very high abundance. So the biomass of ants is often higher than, than all the vertebrates combined, for example, out there, and so and so I was drawn to working with them both because they're, they're, they're important parts of our world, but they're also a good model system for understanding diversity and diversification for invertebrates. So for all these organisms, other than vertebrates — mammals and birds — that get a lot of attention, and are a good way to study all the insects and all these other groups. Because they're quite diverse, I mean, there's about 15,000 species of ants in the world. But it's not really untractably diverse, like beetles and some other groups where you may have a million species. So they’re are good a test case, we've studied them quite a lot. Both because of what I'm what I mentioned there — it can be problematic sometimes when we move them around, and they become invasive, like the hiari. So there's a lot of attention on what these species are doing around the world. But also, because they have really fascinating social structures. So they're one of the only groups of organisms to have very complex societies and live in complex societies, something like humans do. So actually, that's quite rare across the tree of life. So a lot of people study ants, because they're interested in how societies are organized, and how cooperation can be maintained in these more complex groups. So those are all reasons. The last reason is they're just so ecologically and behaviorally flexible, that there's so many cool, different behaviors and diversity of how they make a living out there that for a biologist, they're just a really attractive group of organisms to work on.


Shaun McKenna 26:50

What might be a good example of one type of behavior that you would think might surprise a lot of us?

Evan P. Economo 26:56

Yeah, well, I mean, one thing my lab works on are a particular kind of ant called trap-jaw ants. And so these ants have evolved a special kind of jaws that basically operate like a mousetrap. So in order to move extremely fast, they have a spring-like structure where they will open up and lock in the open position and load up this mandible with a lot of force. And then there can be a trigger, and it can close very, very quickly. So it's just like, when you want when in biology, there's a limit to how fast biological muscle can move. And so, in order to make very, very fast movements, you have to store elastic energy, like coiling a spring, and then release that very, very quickly. And so these ants have incredible mandibles that can move extraordinarily fast. And our collaborators and I, as us, we measured the speed of some of these mandibles, and they were found to be the fastest accelerating animal movement of a resettable part. So over a million G's of acceleration, so and these mandibles can close in about 5,000 times faster than the blink of an eye. So those are some of the little things going on on these ants that we don't really perceive, they're here in Japan, right outside our buildings.

Shaun McKenna 28:18

Right, right. Actually, 8-year-old me was a big fan of the trap-jaw ant, and I came across it and I was obsessed with them for a little while. What kinds of ants are specific to Japan?

Evan P. Economo 28:30

Japan is a high biodiversity area and has lots of interesting species. So but especially here in Okinawa, it is the highest biodiversity prefecture in Japan for many groups of organisms. And so we have a lot of species that are found throughout Japan, but also we have the northern range of a lot of more tropical species. So we have, for example, a species of aenictus, a type of army ant here in Okinawa that is not found anywhere else in the northern part of Japan.

Shaun McKenna 29:07

When we were in the lab, we saw a tray of specimens and one of them was labeled the largest ant in the world. I want to say it's maybe the size of a small cockroach, but you might be able to describe it a little better. What would you say? How big would you say it is?

Evan P. Economo 29:20

Yeah, I think that's about right. It's very, very big for an ant but of course there are other insects that are that are much bigger, but yeah, when you see these walking around that particular one you saw was in Southeast Asia. And when you see it walking around, it's quite impressive how big it is.

Shaun McKenna 29:38

Yeah, and we also saw, well we tried to see, the smallest ant in the world, which was on the corner of a small piece of paper or something.

Evan P. Economo 29:45

Yes, yes. And some of these ants get so small that it's really hard to see, I definitely have to put my glasses on in order to be able to see them with your naked eye. But one thing if you saw those giant pictures that we show when one of the points of those is when you look really close, there's just amazing, complex structures in the bodies of these organisms.

Shaun McKenna 30:06

Yeah, yeah. And then there was also one ant that was labeled the stinkiest ant in the world. Can you tell us what that ant smells like?

Evan P. Economo 30:14

Yeah, I think it'd be something like a really stinky cheese, maybe? That would be my best description of it. But yeah, different ants can have different odors, for reasons, a lot of them produce chemicals, are like little chemical factories, and that's how they communicate, a big part of how they communicate. And some of these odors do have smells and can even be a deterrent sometimes.

Shaun McKenna 30:42

OK, so something, an ant like that, is that detectable by us regularly? Like, would we be able to smell it if we were to come upon a nest?

Evan P. Economo 30:50

Yeah, I think so, you would be able to smell — and some of it, actually, we use this for identification sometimes, if we want to know, if there is a whole group of ants that if you pick (one) up and smell it, it’ll smell like blue cheese. So that's one thing if you're out with, ant biologists will be, you know, touching them watching how they walk, walk around, sometimes smelling them, and that'll give us clues to what type of ant they are.

Shaun McKenna 31:12

Amazing, yeah. Are there any other particularly interesting ants that we might not know about?

Evan P. Economo 31:18

Yeah, I mean, there's all kinds of amazing ants around the world. I mean, some of my favorites are the fungus-farming ants or the leaf-cutter ants, and you've probably seen pictures of these ants, they carry, they cut bits of leaf and they'll carry it, and what they're doing is they're taking those leaves underground and feeding them to fungus. So they're actually. they’re farmers, it's agriculture, and they're growing this fungus and eating the fungus. So you know, when you live in a society, it allows you to evolve all kinds of different behaviors that are really, really interesting. And in some ways, parallel what other societies like our own can do. Another example, as a collaboration that I've been part of, is ants that perform medical care, basically, on their injured estimates. So there's one species of ants that are very warrior-like, and they attack big termite nests, and often they get battle wounds, and, and they'll go back, and this can be a big source of mortality on an ant individual. So actually, they've evolved a behavior where their nest mates will identify a wound, clean the wound, and actually, they can make antibiotics to treat the wound. So they have a special gland that treats the wound with antibiotics, and they can even perceive when a wound is infected. And so they can basically that's pretty advanced medical care: you can see a wound, diagnose that there's a problem and then apply a specialized treatment to that, and really increase their mortality. And the interesting thing about that study was the pathogen, the bacteria that was infecting their wounds is one of the biggest ones that affects human battlefield wounds. So the actual, you know, if you go back to World War I or World War II, I mean, these were some of the biggest sources of infection. It's the exact same bacterium that infects ant wounds.

Shaun McKenna 33:12

Oh right, yeah. So we hear a lot about the important roles that bees play in our ecological systems. What role do ants play?

Evan P. Economo 33:20

Yeah, so ants are incredible ecosystem engineers. So they're, they're aerating the soil, they're moving the nutrients around the soil. Sometimes they're dispersing seeds, so plants depend on them to take their seeds and, and move them away and almost like plant them, you know, inadvertently so that, so many plants have evolved special structures that are that are attractive to ants, and the ants will pick that up and sometimes eat it and move that seed away. They're big predators of other organisms, so they control other insects and other invertebrates. And they form a lot of mutualistic partnerships with different kinds of organisms — with plants, as I mentioned with other other insects and animals, like you may have seen there was a study that showed that ants protect trees in Africa. There's certain species of ant that has a symbiosis with a tree in Africa and the tree will make sort of little houses for the ants and the ants will attack any herbivore that comes in. And so actually, when they remove the ants from this, the herbivores would have more success in eating the trees and that would clear out the sort of visual obstructions and then that actually reduced the efficiency of lions able to attack the large game. And so actually by removing ants, you hurt the population of lions in this area. So that kind of thing is indicative of the network of, of interactions among species, and how something like an ant can actually be a key to maintaining a larger part of diversity.

Shaun McKenna 35:05

Is there anything else you're working on right now that you're looking at for, like, the future?

Evan P. Economo 35:10

Yeah, I mean, one thing we're really excited about is new ways to capture the 3D shape and morphology of ants. And what we use for that is X-ray CT scanning. So just like you go to a hospital, and you do a CT scan, and it may give you a 3D picture of what's inside a human, we can do that on an ant at much, much higher resolution. So we call it micro-CT scanning. And what we've been doing is working on a project to try to, particularly using a synchrotron facility in Europe that is, basically, can scan in very rapidly, many, many specimens. And we want to capture thousands of species, the whole, you know, across the whole diversity of forms a 3D representation of the inside and outside anatomy of those species. So we have this wonderful millions of species out there, but we don't really, we haven't kind of brought that into the digital realm, the digital data around that we can use all kinds of cool tools, both things like machine learning to analyze the evolution of all these forms, but also, you know, bring all that diversity into the digital realm like the metaverse, for example. So we want all these species to be there, and not just the kind of monsters that we create ourselves. But this, so that's what I think one thing we're really excited about is using this era of big data, and machine learning and all these new exciting tools to better grasp this diversity of life that is not easy to, to even get our hands around and then interact with that in new ways and learn from that in new ways.

Shaun McKenna 36:51

Well, Evan, thanks very much for speaking to us.

Evan P. Economo 36:54

Yeah, thanks for coming.

Shaun McKenna 37:00

My thanks again to Dr. Evan Economo, we’ll be rooting for him to get the Frontiers prize next month, and my thanks to environment reporter Chris Russell. We will provide links to his work in the show notes.

In other news, wow, a lot has happened in the months we’ve been off. The yen hit ¥160 to the dollar, it was sitting at ¥156 at the time of recording this. Tourists have been descending on a Lawson convenience store in the town of Fuji-Kawaguchiko because it had a great view of Mount Fuji — that is until the town put up a black tarp blocking the view as a way to discourage the piles of tourists that were converging on the roadside spot.

Elsewhere in The Japan Times, however, I wanted to single out a few interesting stories I noticed, one by my colleague Tomoko Otake on the amount of harassment COVID-19 researchers in Japan received after speaking to the Japanese media. Contributing writer Eric Margolis wrote a roundup of the more environmentally friendly Japanese politicians that are out there. And Alex K.T. Martin wrote a piece in which he interviewed professor Tomoya Mori, who believes that depopulation in Japan may pose more of a threat to the country than climate change, specifically in the form of disappearing cities.

Dave Cortez 38:05

So Shaun, does that mean Yokohama is gonna vanish?

Shaun McKenna 38:09

Maybe? It’s likely smaller cities, and cities in the general vicinity of Tokyo will see their populations drop and professor Mori talks about obvious technological progressions like shopping from home being a reason why you would need to go into the cities less, he thinks that the actual cities like Tokyo and Fukuoka, for example, are gonna serve more of a function like ports do, Fukuoka because it’s far enough outside of the general radius of Tokyo but it’s close to Shanghai and South Korea so it’s good for trade. It was an interesting read, I definitely recommend it.

Deep Dive from The Japan Times is produced by Dave Cortez, our closing song was written by Oscar Boyd and our theme music is by LLLL. I’m Shaun McKenna, thanks for listening and podtsukaresama.