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Inquiring Minds

How a volcano caused the “year without a summer,” a rediscovered species, fake news, and more.

Bactrian Deer


Human conflicts can have disastrous consequences for wildlife. Territorial ranges are divided, habitats degraded, migratory paths disrupted—and biologists can’t ascertain which species require protection. A team of wildlife ecologists led by Zulmai Moheb, a UMass Amherst PhD student in environmental conservation, set out to see what had become of Bactrian deer in the Panj River region in northern Afghanistan.

Bactrian deer, native to central Asia, prefer a rare habitat known as a tugai forest: shrubby thickets of tamarisk, willows, grasses, and tall reeds that grow along river valleys and flood plains. Due to loss of this fragile habitat, as well as unregulated hunting and the exotic pet trade, the global population of Bactrian deer had dropped to about 120 in the 1970s, when it was last measured.

Decades of Soviet occupation and devastating civil war had prevented field scientists from checking in on the animals, so their survival was a mystery. They were feared extinct.

Through a field survey that involved direct observation, samples of scat, and accounts by locals, Moheb and his colleagues confirmed that the deer had rallied: they are indeed present in Afghanistan in a stable number, yet critically in need of protection. 

The team’s recently published research was supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development.



Mount Tambora
Jialiang Gao/


New England’s fisheries were shaped by a volcano 10,000 miles away. The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia was catastrophic, causing “the year without a summer”—an extreme cold, volcanic winter that settled over much of the Northern Hemisphere. Crops failed and livestock died. 

It was also the year that the fisheries in New England shifted.  

Karen Alexander, research fellow in the Department of Environmental Conservation, led a team of aquatic ecologists, climate scientists, and environmental historians in a forensic examination of the rapid switch that year from alewife fishing to mackerel fishing in the Gulf of Maine. The study, published in Science Advances, is the first time historians and climate scientists have shown the effects of the Tambora eruption on a coastal ecosystem.

The life cycle of alewives makes them particularly susceptible to climate events: fluctuating temperatures disrupted their spawning runs, leading to die-offs. Without alewives to eat, people turned to mackerel, a more resilient oceanic fish. Supporting the adage that nothing is as permanent as a short-term solution, the transition to mackerel became a habit, altering the infrastructure of the coastal fisheries. 

The study of “the mackerel summer,” supported in part by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Northeast Climate Science Center, based at UMass Amherst, has much to teach us about intertwined human and natural systems—a model that can help prepare us for the effects of climate change. “The past,” says Alexander, “can be a laboratory.”



Maple Syrup
M. Rehemtuall for QUOI Media Group


For a gourmand who loves to drown her short stack in the liquid amber of maple syrup, is an early sugaring season cause for alarm? 

UMass Amherst plant ecologist Kristina Stinson, assistant professor of environmental conservation, has mounted the first-ever study of the effect of climate change on maple sap quality—that is, its sugar content and chemistry. 

For her study, funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Northeast Climate Science Center, based at UMass Amherst, Stinson is gathering information from family maple producers, who often keep decades of records right in the sugarhouse. Such citizen science can yield important historic information on the quantity and quality of syrup produced through the years. 

Compounds called phytochemicals give maple sap its taste—without them, it’s basically just sugar and water. Phytochemicals evolved to offer protection against such factors as insect pests and frost and may be most affected over time by fluctuating seasonal temperatures. 

In some areas, tapping season may now start a full two weeks earlier than the traditional date. Stinson’s research could help syrup producers adapt their harvest to accommodate climate change—and keep the syrup flowing right to the sides of your plate. 




When people have difficulty telling what is fake news and what is true, what do you do? Enlist the help of objective artificial intelligence that can’t be swayed by human biases. 

Nabanita De, a second-year master’s student in the College of Information and Computer Sciences, is part of a team that developed a prize-winning algorithm to filter the authenticity of Facebook posts in response to the proliferation of fake news posted on the site during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. De and three other students developed the algorithm at a Princeton University hackathon last November. 

The algorithm uses artificial intelligence to classify and label posts in Facebook’s news feed—including pictures, links, and more—according to the reputation of the source, its connections to phishing website databases and malware, and Google/Bing searches. The program then adds an icon to the story to show whether or not it has been verified. 

“FiB: Stop Living a Lie” is an open-source project that any developer can install and adapt.