Science Briefs: Amateurs discover new plants, benefits of electric vehicles, why mushrooms glow

These are flowers of Psoralea vanberkelae.
These are flowers of Psoralea vanberkelae. Nicky Van Berkel

Amateur botanists in South Africa have discovered two new species of beautiful legumes.

Few people tramp the empty rolling ranges of mountains and the fragmented, jagged coastline of the Southern Cape, a wild, species-rich region called the Cape Floral Kingdom. Yet there are a band of intrepid walkers and climbers traverse these areas every week searching for rare and endangered plants.

A group of intrepid walkers searching the areas weekly for rare and endangered plants recently discovered two beautiful blue-flowered legumes they thought were new to science. They sent samples to the University of Cape Town; after a botanist saw the plants in the field and compared them with known species, they were identified as new members of the legume genus Psoralea.

Psoralea diturnerae is known from only a few localities in the Outeniqua Mountains. The other – Psoralea vanberkelae – is locally abundant in a small coastal habitat. It is a stunning, flagship species for a wild and relatively unknown coastal strip where the cliff edges rise sharply from the sea and escarpments are not easy to access.

The study was published in the journal PhytoKeys.

Electric vehicles have hidden environmental benefits

Electric vehicles are cool, research shows. Literally.

A study in Scientific Reports by researchers at Michigan State University and in China adds more fuel to the already hot debate about whether electric vehicles are more environmentally friendly than conventional vehicles.

The finding: Electric vehicles emit significantly less heat – to a degree that could mitigate the “urban heat island” effect that helps turn cities like Beijing into pressure cookers in warm months. Also, the cooling resulting from replacing all gas-powered vehicles with electric vehicles could mean city dwellers needing less air conditioning, another environmental win.

The research was led by Canbing Li of Hunan University in Changsha, China, while he was a visiting scholar at Michigan State’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.

In the paper, Li and his colleagues find other positives for plug-ins. Conventional vehicles and air conditioners are the two biggest contributors to the heat island intensity – the difference between urban temperatures and the cooler temperatures of rural areas. In that arena, electric vehicles are cooler, giving off only about 20 percent of the heat a gas vehicle emits.

Here’s why – and when – some mushrooms glow in the dark

Did you know that there are mushrooms that actually glow? Aristotle was aware of this intriguing fact more than 2,000 years ago. He also was the first recorded person to ask a simple question: Why?

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology finally have a good answer. The light emitted from those fungi attracts the attention of insects, including beetles, flies, wasps and ants. Those insect visitors are apparently good for the fungi because they spread the fungal spores around.

The new study also shows that the mushrooms’ bioluminescence is under the control of the circadian clock. In fact, it was that discovery that led the researchers to suspect that the mushrooms’ light must serve some useful purpose: Circadian control of bioluminescence makes the process more efficient.

Only 71 of more than 100,000 described fungal species produce green light in a biochemical process that requires oxygen and energy.