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Nature Comes Into Full View On Twitter

The sun begins to rise over the Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach, VA, in August 2011.
The sun begins to rise over the Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach, VA, in August 2011.

On Sunday, I went swimming in the Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach. As I swam along laterally, in the trough between two lines of waves, I daydreamed about how far those waves had traveled and which other animal species had encountered them along the way.

That evening, tired in that good way that comes from hours in sun and sea, I lazily scrolled through my Twitter feed and found a blog post that expanded my wave-imaginings in fun ways. Oceanographer Kim Martini (@rejectedbanana) described internal waves, huge waves that flow in the ocean's depths. Just as the surface waves that break on the beach occur where air meets water, internal waves occur where layers of different seawater densities meet.

This sort of thing happens frequently: I gain deeper appreciation for something in nature (including our varied human natures) because scientists share blog posts, articles or videos on Twitter.

On vacation in New Jersey last month, we drove up the coast from Seaside Heights to Long Branch. About mid-way, we encountered some darkly magnificent storm clouds. The multiple lightning flashes were impressive, and we got to speculating about sky-to-ground versus ground-up lightning.

On Twitter a few days later, I came across this annotated video clip. It depicts cloud-to-ground lightning that triggers "upward lightning leaders." Now I understand more about relationships among different lightning forks, and how they change dynamically.

This Twitter effect works for me not only in fields like oceanography and meteorology, where I lack any scientific expertise, but also in anthropology and animal behavior, my "home" disciplines.

After last month's mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, anthropologist Daniel Lende (@Daniel_Lende) wrote and shared on Twitter a blog post about why "mental illness" isn't a satisfactory answer for terrible acts of violence like this. Lende suggests that labeling someone as mentally ill "closes off a deeper explanation of what happened and why." He asks us to think instead about shooters who act out "cultural scripts," explaining what he means by this term and changing my thinking on a key contemporary issue.

Even in my academic specialty, primate behavior, I learn via Twitter. A video clip about a zoo dweller has gone viral on Twitter in the last week or so: a chimpanzee in a Welsh zoo, standing in front of an attentive visitor, points with two index fingers towards a window then makes a gestural sign. The ape's action has been widely interpreted as a plea to be let out to freedom. As I wrote about last week, smart animals sometimes do send us messages about how they feel about their captivity. In the chimpanzee's case, there may be alternative explanations, but I'm happy to know that key ethical questions are being raised about animal welfare.

Sure, I might have come across some of this stuff via non-Twitter channels of communication. But because I follow a lot of natural and social scientists (as well as animal people and book people) on Twitter, I'm constantly treated to a bounty of fascinating material in a concentrated space.

Some of you will be reading this post — and others here at 13.7 — from your Twitter feed. Tweet-greetings to you!

To others who haven't yet made the Twitter plunge: Come join us!!

You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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