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Dear Dr. Universe: Why do flowers smell so nice?

Rachel Bonoan.

Flowers not only smell nice to humans, but also to many insects and birds who help the flowers do a really important job, according to Rachael Bonoan, a scientist with the Conservation Biology Laboratory at Washington State University.

Let’s imagine that you are a bee or a butterfly. You don’t have a nose on your face, but instead use your two antennae to smell things.

As you fly around, you catch a whiff of chemicals floating in the air. Down below, you see a field of daisies. The flowers are releasing some chemicals, which are the building blocks of a smell.

You fly down to the field and land on a daisy’s petal. It’s just what the flower wanted you to do.

Not only can you drink nectar from the flower to get some energy, but you can help the flower get ready to produce even more flowers.

As you sip on the daisy’s sweet, liquid nectar, the hairs on your body start picking up pollen, sticky grains on the flower. If you are imagining yourself as a bee, you might also use your front legs to put the grains into your pollen baskets, or pollen pants, near your back legs.

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Dr. Universe

WSU researchers see health effects across generations from popular weed killer

Washington State University researchers have found a variety of diseases and other health problems in the second- and third-generation offspring of rats exposed to glyphosate, the world’s most popular weed killer. In the first study of its kind, the researchers saw descendants of exposed rats developing prostate, kidney and ovarian diseases, obesity and birth abnormalities.

Michael Skinner.Michael Skinner, a WSU professor of biological sciences, and his colleagues exposed pregnant rats to the herbicide between their eighth and 14th days of gestation. The dose—half the amount expected to show no adverse effect—produced no apparent ill effects on either the parents or the first generation of offspring.

But writing in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers say they saw “dramatic increases” in several pathologies affecting the second and third generations.

In third-generation males, the researchers saw a 30 percent increase in prostate disease—three times that of a control population. The third generation of females had a 40 percent increase in kidney disease, or four times that of the controls.

More than one-third of the second-generation mothers had unsuccessful pregnancies, with most of those affected dying. Two out of five males and females in the third generation were obese.

“The ability of glyphosate and other environmental toxicants to impact our future generations needs to be considered,” they write, “and is potentially as important as the direct exposure toxicology done today for risk assessment.”

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WSU Insider

Dr. Universe: What can I do to help stop ocean pollution?

Richelle Tanner.

One of the most important things we can do to prevent more pollution is to keep our garbage, especially plastic, out of the ocean. That’s what I found out from my friend Richelle Tanner, a marine biologist and researcher at Washington State University.

Tanner said it’s a lot easier to keep plastic out of the ocean than to get it out of the water. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates the amount of garbage humans put into the ocean every year is equal to about 90 aircraft carriers, those big ships at sea where planes take off and land.

Tanner said you might work with your class to pick up trash near waterways in your community. You might also share what you’ve learned and talk about it with family and friends.

One other thing you can do is try to reduce your own plastic use. For a week, keep track of all the plastic you use. Then, track another week and see if you’ve improved. Ocean pollution is a big problem, but we can all take small steps to help make a big difference.

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Dr. Universe

These Super Rare Butterflies Thrive on Army Bases. The U.S. Military is Helping Them.

As planes take off at an Army National Guard airfield in Concord, New Hampshire, a tiny, delicate life form exists that’s arguably more reliant on the U.S. military than the soldiers are themselves. Small green caterpillars, barely distinguishable from the leaves they feed on, are the next generation of the Karner Blue butterfly, an insect that landed on the Endangered Species List in 1992.

Cheryl Schulz.

Twenty-five years ago, Cheryl Schultz—now a conservation biologist at Washington State University, Vancouver—partnered in a study of the Fender’s Blue butterfly, a relative of the Karner Blue that was believed to be extinct until small populations were rediscovered in 1989.

For the Fender’s Blue, a controversial approach using fire in the butterflies’ habitat is working, and scientists want to determine whether the same methods will work for the Karner Blue.

Like Karner Blues, Fender’s Blue larvae dine solely on lupine plants. Maintaining these habitats is challenging. If left alone, grasslands grow into shrub lands or forests that choke out low-growing lupines. And even though nature has its own system for preserving grasslands—modern day humans have essentially wrecked that system by either taking over prairie lands entirely or corralling the animals and small fires that keep these areas intact.

Controlled burns could help maintain grasslands, but they also introduce a conundrum: Use fire and some endangered larvae also go up in flames. But avoid fire and grasslands collapse—taking the butterflies, too.

Since those early test fires at Baskett Slough, Fender’s Blue populations have increased at least nine-fold, possibly more. There are currently an estimated 14,000 to 28,000 Fender’s Blues flitting between lupine plants, Schultz says—a population size that’s large enough to give conservationists hope that the species will survive.

“Here’s a story where we’ve turned it around, but that’s not the usual story,” she says. “Many of our butterflies are sharply in decline, and not just the rare ones.”

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Male Birth Control: Why We Don’t Have It, And When We Might

Not every man wants to be a father and not every father wants more kids. Roughly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended. But when it comes to male birth control, none of the options are ideal and safe, reversible hormonal male contraception may be 10 years away.

Michael Skinner.

But why has it taken this long? Why is there another decade to go? What barriers to male birth control still exist?

“Females only ovulate once per month, so it’s relatively easy to block with an endocrine approach,” Michael K. Skinner, director of the Center for Reproductive Biology at Washington State University told Fatherly. “Males produce millions of sperm daily…it’s difficult to design endocrine approach without shutting down all of male endocrinology.” In other words, in order to impact sperm production meaningfully, hormonal therapy would need to all but shutter the endocrine system—with serious side effects.

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