Near and Deer
Air Mail Pilot readers probably feel they are learning plenty in school as it is. And please accept our apologies for even mentioning the word “school” in July. But a new study released in the U.K. last week claims that British and American students are being underserved in an important area: botany, the study of plants.
“Despite the significance of plants and the critical role they have played in shaping ecosystems, civilizations, and human cultures, many people are now disconnected from the botanical world,” researchers at the University of Leeds claim. They worry that “plant apathy” among students—and pretty much everyone else—will hinder efforts to combat climate change and other environmental challenges.
The study practically begs students to start paying attention: “From birth to death, plants dominate every aspect of our existence—they are our silent partners in civilization. There is virtually always a plant or a plant product in your field of vision.” It’s true: Air Mail Pilot’s field of vision currently includes a cotton shirt and a cup of coffee.
On an unwell planet, the report continues, plants should be front and center “on the global stage.” On the plus side, plants can play a key role in taking carbon out of the atmosphere. But there are downsides, too. Invasive plant species can ruin ecosystems for other plants as well as animals and humans, and yet well-intentioned people continue to plant them in gardens and occasionally in the wild. The problem, the report says, is that even many green-leaning folks don’t know “good” plants from “bad” ones. (Those are Air Mail Pilot’s terms, not the researchers’.)
The crux of the matter: schools simply aren’t teaching kids enough about plants. An earlier British study claimed that even among high school students studying advanced biology, “only 14 percent could name more than three species of native plants,” a failing “which matched their teachers’ botanical skills,” the new report adds, a bit snarkily.
A U.S. study found a similar gap among American college students, who could, on average, “only correctly list a single species of wildflower, ‘weeds,’ or grasses when tested on these groups separately.”
(Air Mail Pilot was planning to show off here by naming several of our favorite wildflowers, but a quick Google search revealed that one of them, Queen Anne’s lace, is native to Europe and considered an invasive species in much of the U.S., so consider us part of the problem.)
Making matters worse, fewer and fewer college students are choosing to study botany. In Britain, according to The Times of London, “from 2007 to 2019 one student graduated in plant science for every 185 who qualified in other life sciences degrees.” In the U.S., plant science ranks 165th on one list of most popular college majors, and 348th on another.
The study cites a troubling imbalance in science education for younger students who are “presented with little plant content… compared to animal content.” So, um, ignore this week’s cute picture of deer and think of maples instead. —Bruce Handy
On the Same Wavelength
Once in a while, everyone gets a song stuck in their head. Turns out, a similar thing happens to humpback whales. While AIR MAIL Pilot tends to remember the chorus perfectly but only half-heartedly learns the rest, humpback whales are virtuosos.
You’ve probably heard that humpback whales are the ocean’s musical masters. They grunt, groan, and even slap their fins against water, sort of like hitting a drum. In a new study, scientists discovered that these giants can easily pick up new songs performed by other whales across the ocean. Even more impressive, they master complex songs.
To find this out, scientists from Queensland University, in Australia, examined tunes sung by a pod of humpbacks in Eastern Australia, and ones sung by a group 1,000 miles away, in the French territory New Caledonia. A year after the Australian whales sang melodies, their friends in New Caledonia picked up the songs.
“We really don’t get cultural transmission in animal species on this spatial scale,” Dr. Jenny Allen, the lead author of the study, told The Times of London. “Really humans are the only other species where learning can occur, kind of across that bigger scale.”
Plus, the whales mastered the new songs. Scientists broke the melodies down into components: units (the whale equivalent of words), phrases (whale sentences), and themes (whale paragraphs). Each song is made up of many themes.
The whales perfected every song, down to the smallest unit. “What we found was that they don’t have to make it dumbed down at all,” Allen said. “They can keep it as complicated as it was originally, and they’re able to learn the whole thing.”
Scientists aren’t sure how far whale songs can travel. But they are certain that the animals are ready for their solos. —Elena Clavarino
A Girl on a Mission
Even though Lily D. Moore graduated high school two months ago, she’s already an established actress, model, and advocate for people with disabilities. The 19-year-old, who was born with Down Syndrome, has never been too intimidated to take on a new challenge, and she’s never let her disability stand in her way.
Lily was young when she realized she wanted to be an actress. At six years old, when her family briefly moved from California to Austria, she took her first drama class. “I fell in love,” she tells AIR MAIL Pilot. “[W]hen I came back home, my mom signed me up for [acting] workshops and classes. Ever since, I’ve been doing this.”
Her big break came in 2020, when she was cast as the cheeky and outspoken Rebecca in Mindy Kaling’s Netflix series, Never Have I Ever. The coming-of-age comedy was a hit, and the third season is set to stream this summer.
This past June, Lily’s first leading role in a movie hit screens. In the tear-jerker romance Color My World With Love, which debuted on the Hallmark Channel, Lily stars as a young painter with Down Syndrome navigating life and love.
When she isn’t acting—or modeling for British Vogue and in swimwear campaigns—Lily is advocating for human rights. She is an ambassador to the Special Olympics, a role she says comes easily to her. “I give speeches to people and tell them to follow their dreams and to treat everyone with kindness,” Lily says. “I believe that everybody has an inner star. Once they find it, it should come outside from the inside for the world to see.”
This view led Lily to start her own charity, Helping Everyone with Love and Passion (H.E.L.P. ). With the organization, she puts together H.E.L.P Bags, which contain food and toiletries for people in need. “Whenever I see a homeless person, I give them out,” she explains. “I’ve been doing it for five years now, and I’ve given out over 1,000 bags.”
Even though Lily is busy, she always has her eye on the future. The next item on her agenda: winning an Oscar. —Bridget Arsenault