Three Energizing Discoveries

By Amy Renfranz (

Article Published: Feb. 28, 2013 | Modified: Feb. 28, 2013
Three Energizing Discoveries

Scientists have discovered that the spotted salamander is powered by photosynthesis. You can find this little wonder in your own backyard.

Photo submitted

What are your favorite words, dear reader? My top four favorites are “adventuring,” “ubiquitous,” “Noah” (my dog) and “discovery.”

For a time, it was my goal in life to make a new discovery. I took my camera everywhere and pointed it at anything that looked the least bit interesting.

After all, nearly 20,000 new species were discovered in 2009 alone. Scientists hypothesize that there are more than 10 million species of plants, animals and microbes yet to be discovered on the planet.

Yes, I was going to make a groundbreaking discovery. And it was to be called, “Rangeria amyreffic.”

Alas, despite my enthusiasm, I still have not contributed to the new species list. The only thing my “Operation Discovery” has succeeded in is having my number put on the “do not answer” list of several local biologists.

Yet, there are scientists who make discoveries every year. These discoveries are sometimes mundane and sometimes astonishing. In the following list, one might gain a new, energized perspective of the natural world.

Ranger Amy’s Top Scientific Discoveries of the Past Five Years

1. The spotted salamander living in your backyard is solar-powered.

For many years, scientists have known that some animals have symbiotic relationships with algae. The algae generate sugar and oxygen during photosynthesis and, in turn, “feed” the host animal.

For many years, animals like coral, sea slugs and sponges were the only creatures known to do this. In 2011, however, a group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania discovered that salamanders do it, too.

These researchers took a close look at salamander eggs and discovered that algae grows inside the salamanders’ embryonic cells. This is significant because salamanders are vertebrates, just like us. Vertebrates that survive, at least partly, on internal photosynthesis.

2. Bees can sense a flower’s electric field.

Ever wondered why or how bees know which flowers have already been visited without ever landing on them? A group of scientists at the University of Nevada have discovered that it is because bees can sense a flower’s electric field.

When a bee flies through the air, it creates a positive charge. Flowers have evolved to having a negative charge, yet this charge is changed by a positively charged foraging bee.

Once the bee leaves a flower, the field stays changed. This serves as a warning for the next bee that buzzes by. She won't stop to investigate a flower that has already been visited.
This means the bee can forage more efficiently, and more flowers are likely to be pollinated.

3. There are bacteria in your backyard pond that can manufacture magnets.

Researchers at the University of Leeds are trying to turn these magnetic microbes into bio-computers.

Traditional hard drives use tiny magnets to store data. The idea is to use the even smaller magnets made by these bacteria to store data instead. This would create better, faster hard drives.

If development is successful, we could see biocomputers on the shelves in the next 10 years.
Know of any discoveries that knocked your socks off or want to share your favorite words? You can now find “Dear Naturalist” on Facebook.

If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email ( All of your questions will be answered. One or two will be featured next week. See you on the trails!

Amy Renfranz is an interpretive park guide on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina. Her comments are made independently and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.

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