1,000 Acres Of Ancestral Land Returned To Onondaga Nation

11:35 minutes

a grassy field with occasional reeds and tiny blue flowers, on a beautiful sunny day with a few white clouds and a rolling mountain in the distance
Grass field in Tully Valley. Credit: Benjamin Fisher/USGS

Earlier this month, more than 1,000 acres of land in central New York were returned to the Onondaga Nation, the original steward of the land. This decision stems from a 2018 settlement between the Natural Resource Trustees and Honeywell International, Inc.,  which previously owned the land and polluted it with dangerous toxins, such as mercury and heavy metals. Under this agreement, Honeywell will fund and implement 18 restoration projects, and the Onondaga Nation will lead the restoration and preservation of its land. 

“It is with great joy that the Onondaga Nation welcomes the return of the first substantial acreage of its ancestral homelands. The Nation can now renew its stewardship obligations to restore these lands and waters and to preserve them for the future generations yet to come,” Onondaga Nation Chief Tadodaho Sid Hill said in a statement. “The Nation hopes that this cooperative, government-to-government effort will be another step in healing between themselves and all others who live in this region which has been the homeland of the Onondaga Nation since the dawn of time.”

Roxanne Khamsi, science writer based in Montreal, Canada, joins Ira to talk about this “landback victory,” which marks one of the largest returns of land to an Indigenous nation in U.S. history.

Roxanne and Ira also discuss other science news of the week, including why pulse oximeters aren’t inclusive of people with dark skin, how some mosquito-borne viruses trick their hosts into attracting more mosquitoes, the discovery of a one-of-a-kind carnivorous plant that hides its traps underground, why some flowers act as cesspools for bumblebees, and how relocating sea turtle eggs can lead to health issues for newborn turtles. 

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Segment Guests

Roxanne Khamsi

Roxanne Khamsi is a science writer based in Montreal, Quebec.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

Later in the hour, we’ll debrief with two COVID experts about the state of the pandemic. But first, big news in conservation. More than 1,000 acres of ancestral land will be returned to the Onondaga Nation in New York State, making it one of the largest returns of land to an Indigenous nation in US history.

Here to tell us more about this milestone and other science news of the week is Roxanne Khamsi, science writer based in Montreal, Canada. Roxanne, welcome back to Science Friday.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Hi, Ira. It’s great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. OK, so how did this agreement come about?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, it’s really great news, actually. So the Onondaga Nation and New York State and the Department of the Interior made an agreement with a company, Honeywell, which has a predecessor company that had been polluting this region of Central New York with mercury and other toxic chemicals. And now it’s going to be restored to allow for wildlife like trout and bald Eagles to thrive.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So they’re going to actually make it cleaner again?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yeah. It’s great. There’s a whole movement to restore stolen land to Indigenous control, which is fantastic. And over the last several years, tribes from everywhere from California to Maine have been gaining back land and turning it into these conservation projects.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. How will the 1,000 acres be restored? Do they have a plan for this?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, I think that the main thing, first of all, is barring commercial development. That’s kind of the major step here. And that will allow for steps to be taken to allow animals like great blue herons and the trout to regain control themselves over the land. So it’s a little bit about stopping more development from happening.

IRA FLATOW: I get it. Speaking of healthy lands, let’s talk about healthy stories. You have one about how pulse oximeters, the stuff you put your finger into, right–


IRA FLATOW: –they don’t work for everyone.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah. What’s going on there?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So pulse oximeters– everyone’s probably familiar with them at this point in the pandemic. If you’ve ever been to a hospital, the first thing they’ll do, they’ll have you stick your finger in one of these things to check how much oxygen is in your blood. Like, how good is that oxygen reaching your system?

And it was invented around the late 1970s in Japan. But we’ve known since then that skin tone can affect how well the pulse oximeter’s able to give readings. Now there’s a new study that, for the first time, actually shows what the effects are of that discrepancy. And it’s pretty profound.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And how does that affect the care that the patients receive, then? I imagine there must be some impact.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So what the study found was that non-white ICU patients were actually getting less oxygen than they needed, which I find terrifying.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. It doesn’t sound good.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: No! And especially now that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, or we’re kind of hoping to get out of it. We’ve seen how important it is to get enough oxygen. There were two studies that recently came out. And one of them found out, for example, that in 3.7% of Asian patients and Black patients, that there were these misreadings, compared with just 1.7 for white patients. So those are small numbers, but the relative difference is huge.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Is there some sort of way around this, some way of moving forward here?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, this is what I find really hopeful and happy, which is that there’s actually scientists trying to figure out a solution to this. For example, at Tufts University there is a scientist who is named Valencia Koomson. She’s working on a pulse oximeter that actually also takes into account the person’s skin tone and kind of uses that in the calculation of what the blood oxygen levels are. So actually, this is a problem that we can solve if we just pay attention to it, I think.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah, let’s pay attention to that. And let’s pay attention to another story you have about skin, to its scent. There’s new research on mosquito-borne diseases and how they affect what their victims smell like.


IRA FLATOW: Roxanne, walk us through that one.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: It’s all about skin this Friday. So viruses can be super sneaky, and we’re finding out just how sneaky they can be. The virus that causes dengue fever, which can make people very sick, and as well as Zika, another virus that can cause people to become sick and all sorts of complications, they hijack us. And they make our skin smell better to mosquitoes, which then makes the mosquitoes take our blood and pass it on to the next person. So it’s kind of a fascinating story. And what was really interesting to me was how they do this.

IRA FLATOW: Fill us in on how they do this.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So, not to freak you out, but our skin has bacteria. It’s called acetophenone. And that compound is usually kept in check by a protein. But what happens when we get infected with these viruses is they somehow, we don’t know how, reduce the production of that protein that keeps that stinky, smelly compound in check, unleashing it to become at high levels for the mosquitoes to come and nab us.

IRA FLATOW: So we sort of stick out now because we’re so stinky.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: We do. And what they did is they infected mice with these viruses. And they saw that the mosquitoes loved the mice when they were sick with these diseases. And also, they swiped the armpits of people with dengue, and this compound attracted mosquitoes to the laboratory specimen they had with the armpit stink. So I don’t know? The story stinks, but it’s true.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ve got skin in this game. I mean, the mosquito borne diseases are a huge health concern around the world. So this must have some terrific implications about how we think about preventing the spread of these diseases.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, yes. I personally think it’s just underscoring the need for mosquito nets and things like that. But the scientists behind the study have been working on, like, an electronic nose or this synthetic nose that they want to be able to sniff out disease without taking a blood sample. So maybe it will help us do that.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. All right. Let’s move on to some fun news, some fun plant news. A new carnivorous plant was discovered. It belongs to a group called the pitcher plants. Oh yeah, we all love those, where the bug falls in and it can’t get out. Tell us about that.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: I don’t know. I don’t know if insects love them. So I always think about the movie Little Shop of Horrors where– that was a Venus flytrap, but–


ROXANNE KHAMSI: Pitcher plants are similar in that they’re carnivorous, right? They love to eat insects. And this one is interesting. It’s about the length of your finger and it’s kind of a dark purple. And its name is Nepenthes pudica. In Latin, pudica means “bashful.”

The reason why the scientists named it that is that it kind of hides underground with the pitcher parts. And that’s where it catches its insect prey, which is just so sneaky.

IRA FLATOW: That’s crazy. It catches the insect underground?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yeah! And the scientists, they were walking on this hike in 2012, and they saw what they thought looked like pitcher plants, but they couldn’t really see where those pitchers were. They’re kind of these vessels that the insects fall into. But they couldn’t find them. So they dug around and they saw that they were actually underground. So this is the first time that we’ve found a pitcher plant that traps its prey underground.

IRA FLATOW: All right. So what’s the competitive advantage to a pitcher plant being able to do this underground?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: One of the great advantages is that there’s not a lot of competition underground for insects when you’re talking about plants. So it’s got that competitive advantage. Another reason the scientists think this might be helpful is that the soil is a little bit moister than the dry environment around. So it might be helping to sustain the plant in that way. So I guess it’s a win-win for the pitcher plant, but a lose-lose for the insects.

IRA FLATOW: Hmm. OK. So that plant eats insects. Our next story has to do with plants that just harm insects, specifically bumblebees. Tell me about this.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yes. So this is a story that talks about how not all flowers are equal when you’re talking from the point of view of a bumblebee, in terms of their health. It turns out that, for common bumblebees, they are more likely to catch this diarrhea-causing parasite from flowers like purple corn flowers and other ones that are kind of wide. And there are less likely–

IRA FLATOW: All those echinacea varieties with the wide petals and things, the flowers on them?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yes. And they’re less likely to get this diarrhea disease from long, narrow flowers. I get kind of weirded out thinking about, you know, bumblebees getting a tummy ache, but, it happens.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. More like the phlox family or something like that.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yes, the phlox family. Exactly.


ROXANNE KHAMSI: And so this parasite, it’s transmitted when the bees land on these flowers, and they accidentally ingest the poo from a preceding bee that had been there before. And lo and behold, it kind of perpetuates this disease through the bumblebee species.

IRA FLATOW: Ah. I never would have thought the shape would be the problem and not exactly the species.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Right. Yeah, well actually, it might be that the UV light and the wind and different factors in the environment kind of dry out the feces or help the feces get decontaminated. It’s all these factors that scientists are still trying to figure out. But the point is, if you’re trying to make a happy bumblebee environment in your garden, you want to go for those phlox flowers, those long, narrow flowers.

IRA FLATOW: Bad news. Bad news from my garden where I have all these echinaceas and– I’ll have to not plant those black eyed susans and things anymore. So–

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, yeah, that’s the latest buzz.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, good one. All right, we have time for one more story. This one has to do with sea turtle conservation. What’s new here, Roxanne?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So Ira, as you probably know, people that want to protect turtles from poaching and predators and floodwaters, they’ll sometimes move the eggs that are laid to a safer area. And it’s thought, for a long time, that this is a great thing. But a study that’s super tiny, they just looked at 10 turtles, found that actually, we might be doing more harm than good.

Because the turtles that they looked at on this Mexican beach that were moved, were actually less able to turn themselves back over if they were flipped over. And they had these brain anomalies that they thought were curious. And they think it might be because the environment that we create for these turtles is a little too dry. And they’re reptiles, so they’re pretty fussy about temperature in terms of their development.

IRA FLATOW: We’re on the road to hell when we try to do that.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, the upside is we could do better. We could just make these artificial nests more like the natural ones. Maybe, keep the temperature and moisture a little bit more like the ones that they’re used to growing up in. And that way it could better meet expectations.

IRA FLATOW: Ooo. Ooo. That’s a good place to stop right there, before we hurt any more people.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: That’s true.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you very much, Roxanne, for taking time to be with us today.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Thanks, Ira. Always great to be with you.

IRA FLATOW: Roxanne Khamsi is a science writer based in Montreal, Canada.

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