April 2017 Newsletter
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Painting the town "green"

The saying goes, "April showers bring May flowers." Well, we're getting a head start with bringing about the flowers and introducing the "green" of Spring - from unlikely green thumbs of coral reefs to the intertwining green vines that sprawl throughout the U.S. Southeast.

And it's most appropriate for us to paint the town green this month because
Earth Day is this month (April 22) !!!

Late Senator Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, said, "
Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures."

(Photo credit: Fritz Albert)


Take the time to appreciate nature around us, not only on April 22, but every day!

Being a grassroots organization, we're always interested in your suggestions on what and how to write! Send us a reply at 

In This Issue....

  • BIOTA Update
  • Marine Green Thumbs
  • Vlog Feature
  • The Vine that Ate the South
Connect with us!

BIOTA Update: From Grassroots to Non-Profit

The concept of BIOTA was initially conceived in late 2013 by two curious friends with an appreciation for promoting science accessibility. Today, we take pride in sharing some big news with our supporters - Biota is about to become the real deal. By June of this year, we will be a 501c3 non-profit organization.
What does that mean? It means a lot of great potential and opportunity.
One major challenge the BIOTA team members face is distance. Our crew's diversity spans from Merced, Utah, New York, Massachusetts, North Dakota, and Dubai, just to name a few locations. Communicating with each other can be difficult when living in such different locations, especially when it comes to coordinating meetings across time zones. 
As a 501c3, BIOTA will become an official organization that can apply for funding. With this funding, we can support our team on a larger scale and bring everyone together in-person for the first time. Your donations and support (link Kickstarter in 'your donations) have helped us get here. As a non-profit organization, we'll be able move at a faster past with production, kicking off with an invited science communication presentation summarizing our work at the January 2018 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology conference in San Francisco!
All legal paperwork aside, BIOTA is working hard to bring new episodes to you! We've started interviews and filming in LA and are getting subsequent episodes queued up by their release dates. Get ready for weekly episodes (3-4 minutes long) from June to November!

As a teaser for what's to come, here is a sneak peek of new logo.

Marine Green Thumbs

When you think of a green thumb, you probably picture a person with dirt on their overalls, bent over digging through the soil, but if you ventured under the water’s surface, you would find neat patches of algae tended to by an unexpected gardener.

 Damselfish are the colorful fish that swim about tropical coral reefs - they are known to be territorial, protecting their food and mating sites aggressively and even swimming right up to divers’ faces as a warning. A species of damselfish, the Dusky Farmerfish (Stegastes nigricans), takes this protection a step further: not only does it protect its patch of food, but it also ensures the algae grows properly, benefiting both the fish and the algae.
(Photo credit to Pattaya Snorkelling Tours)

A research group from Kyoto University first noticed this behaviour when they observed damselfish feeding on the carefully cultivated algae in their gardens. As they got closer to these gardens, he realized they were dominated by one algal genus: Polysiphonia. This made sense, since damselfish actually lack the digestive enzymes necessary to process most kinds of algae, but they can eat that one. So, it goes without saying that their favourite red algae is easily found in their personal gardens. Scouring the reefs led to another revelation: one Polysiphonia species only grows inside the gardens of dusky farmerfish, and isn’t found anywhere else on the reef. In fact, Hiroki Hata leading the group said "Life inside the damselfish gardens is so good for the algae that they seem to have come to depend on being farmed."

(Photo Credit to Vattenkikaren)
Why is that? Well, the Dusky Farmerfish are doing some very effective weed-whacking. These fish selectively weed the algal gardens on which they feed, suppressing the growth of less palatable algae, alongside other pests like hungry sea urchins and sea stars. In turn, this encourages the growth of their preferred algal species of Polysiphonia, and although they can snack on some, it still benefits the growth of Polysiphonia overall.

Humans have been doing this for centuries, alongside many other species such as ants and snails. What you and I think of as weeding when we clear out space to ensure our preferred flowers grow, actually has a scientific name: cultivation mutualism. And Dusky Farmerfish caught onto our tricks all by themselves!


Introducing Annam, who has been coordinating and managing BIOTA's Twitter.

Meet the rest of the BIOTA team via their vlogs over at our YouTube Page.

Kudzu: The Vine that Ate the South

If you are wandering through the roads of the U.S Southeast, you might notice a scene like this:

(Photo credit: Tail of the Dragon)

Pretty, right? Well these massive climbing, intertwining green vines can grow about a foot every day, which is daunting. 

Known as Kudzu, they are everywhere, and if they aren’t tamed, they will continue to grow until they take over highways, backyards and parks. It’s easy to figure out how they earned their nickname: “the Vine that ate the South.”

So, where did they come from? Kudzu are native to much of eastern Asia, Southeast Asia, and some Pacific islands. The vine itself was introduced to the United States as an ornamental bush  at the Philadelphia Continental Exposition in 1876, promoted as an effortless and efficient shade producer. In the 1930s and 1940s, the vine was re-branded as a way for farmers to stop soil erosion. No one realized just how truly effortless its growth would be: look where it got us today.
(Photo credit: Anonymous)

Kudzu's environmental and ecological damage results from acting through "interference competition," meaning it out-competes other species for a resource. In the U.S, Kudzu is classified as an invasive species and is grouped in with other noxious weeds. As it grows rapidly over trees and shrubs, it outcompetes native flora for sunlight; when it blocks their access to this vital resource by heavy shading, most local species very easily die.

(Photo credit: Kerry Britton, USDA Forest Service,

Difference between invasive and parasitism
An invasive species is legally defined as “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” Any species that is not native to a particular ecosystem is considered an alien species: we’ve already mentioned where kudzu grows naturally, and the Southeast wasn’t on that list!

So, maybe you’re thinking: the Kudzu just reaps the benefits of sunlight at the expense of all these other plants, which sounds like a specific kind of symbiotic relationship: parasitism. Defined as a relationship between two species of plants or animals in which one benefits at the expense of the other, this doesn’t always involve killing the host organism.

And reader, you are onto something: invasive species can be parasitic. Just like native species can be parasitic. But a parasite is not always invasive. Got it?

But kudzu, in particular, is not necessarily considered a parasite. Parasites are specialized, and target specific hosts: kudzu does not harm a specific plant for its own benefit, nor does it share a relationship with any one plant; rather it competes for a resource (in this case, sunlight) against all the native species it encounters, and generally causes them to die.
Benefits of kudzu
Despite all of the negativity surrounding kudzu, it may actually be quite useful. Kudzu may be used with medicinal purposes like to treat heart problems, high blood pressure, and conditions with symptoms of fever, headache, or stiff neck. Kudzu is also used in the treatment of allergies, migraines, and diarrhea. One of the most unusual uses of all - kudzu root tea is even used to sober up a drunk. It is very effective for this, and its uses extend past immediate sobriety; in fact, one of the most promising uses for kudzu is in the treatment of alcoholism and addiction withdrawal! (Photo credit: Nutra-Y Co., Ltd)
Taming the kudzu
On top of its medicinal benefits, kudzu is edible, so if you have an insatiable appetite, you could try and literally eat your problems away... or you can join in the fight to tame the unwieldy coiling vines by using programs across the U.S. that serve to lessen the spread of the kudzu.

State Natural Resources Departments and environmental groups provide tons of resources to help gardeners recognize and tend to kudzu (and other invasive species)! As a Citizen Scientist, even If you don’t have a personal garden but happen to spot kudzu in the area, you can download an app to report it:

But there is one truly innovative solution to this problem: goats! No joke; in Tennessee, goats have become unofficial city mascots, roaming a city-owned section of the ridge to nibble this fast-growing vine throttling the Southern landscape. And this isn’t limited to the not-as urban south: stranger, but cooler still, these goats were also deployed in New York City to take care invasive species in Prospect Park, and got the job done. Well, not exactly the same goats, but you get the idea! (Photo credit: BBC News)

Why goats? They are actually better than herbicides on several counts: safer and gentler because they (obviously) don’t use any harmful chemicals, they are also much faster acting, and cost less in the long run. Don’t believe us? There’s a website for it. (Photo credit: BBC News)

So, whether you’re a visitor or a resident, don’t be alarmed by the sight of those tangled coils: there are ways to handle the problem, and you can easily be part of the solution. In face, if you have always wanted an excuse to have a pet goat for a day, or a month, move to the Southeast and help out!
This newsletter is brought to you by Helen Cheng and Annam Raza.
Copyright © 2017 BIOTA, All rights reserved.

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