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🎖Social Media Helps ID Belch Source🎖

If you’ve ever checked out the restaurant reviews on Yelp, you know that these little missives can tell you whether a bistro is overpriced or understaffed or just nothing to write home about. But they may also be able to tell the local health department whether an establishment has been serving up Salmonella.

Researchers at Columbia University in New York City were looking into an outbreak of food poisoning at a local restaurant a few years ago when they got the idea of using social media to track gastrointestinal disturbances.

“During the investigation, the Department of Health noted that patrons had reported their illnesses on yelp in the reviews but hadn’t reported them via 311, the city’s official reporting service.”

Computer scientist Thomas Effland, who led the study.

Previous investigations had shown that monitoring social media for keywords associated with illness was a good way of rapidly identifying outbreaks of infectious diseases…such as the flu. So Effland and his team built a similar system for stomach symptoms. The Department of Health started using it in 2012.

“The tool works by sifting through the recent Yelp reviews for New York City restaurants each day to identify potential reports of foodborne illness.”

Yelp reviews get scanned for telltale terms such as “vomit,” “diarrhea,” “food poisoning,” and “sick.” Flagged entries then then get passed along to epidemiologists for a closer look.

The system has produced some false positives, for example, from reviews that stated things like, the food “had a weird chunky consistency…hopefully we won’t get sick tonight.” And it missed a few posts, like when the writer misspelled “diarrhea” (a challenging word to write down even when you don’t have it).

But overall, the results are nothing to sneeze at. Or in this case, barf at.

“We found that using Yelp data has helped the Health Department identify approximately 1,500 complaints of foodborne illness in New York City each year. In total the system has found 8,523 complaints since July 2012, resulting in the identification of 10 outbreaks.”


The study is in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.


The researchers plan to extend their analysis to Twitter. After all, many people use Twitter to let everyone know that they’re not well.


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🎁
informatics

(ˌɪnfəˈmætɪks )

noun
(functioning as singular) another term for information science

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food-borne
adjective
foodborne

(of a disease) carried by or transmitted through contaminated food.
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epidemiology

(ɛpidimiɑlədʒi )

uncountable noun

Epidemiology is a branch of medicine that is concerned with the occurrence, distribution, and control of disease.
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telltale

(tɛlteɪl )

adjective [ADJ n]
Something that is described as telltale gives away information, often about something bad that would otherwise not be noticed.
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gastrointestinal

(gæstroʊɪntestɪnəl )
adjective [ADJECTIVE noun]

Gastrointestinal means relating to the stomach and intestines.

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salmonella

(sælmənelə )
uncountable noun
Salmonella is a disease caused by bacteria in food. You can also refer to the bacteria itself as salmonella.

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be nothing to write home about

informal
be very mediocre or unexceptional.
🎁

overpriced

(oʊvəʳpraɪst )
adjective
If you say that something is overpriced, you mean that you think it costs much more than it should.
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understaffed

(ʌndəʳstɑːft , -stæft)

adjective [usually verb-link ADJECTIVE]
If an organization is understaffed, it does not have enough employees to do its work properly.
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missive
ˈmɪsɪv/

plural noun: missives

humorous, litarary
a letter, especially a long or official one.

🎁

bistro
/ˈbiːstrəʊ,ˈbɪstrəʊ/

bistro; plural noun: bistros
a small, inexpensive restaurant.

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To learn about the plant life of long ago, scientists dig through layers of the Earth, looking for fossil clues. Like bits of fossilized pollen, or spores.

"And that's where I come in." Timo van Eldijk (EL-dike) is an evolutionary biologist at Utrecht University. He was called into action when his pollen-hunting pals noticed something altogether different, in a sample of sediment more than 200 million years old dug from a thousand feet below the surface of Germany: bits of insect.

"I took a human nose hair, because that's the way you isolate these things. You have a needle tipped with a human nose hair, apparently it has just the right springiness for the isolation."

Whose nose hair? "I don't actually know. There was a joke going around it was one of the professors, but we don't actually know."

So, using someone's nose hair, van Eldijk picked through the sludgy sediment, and isolated the tiny scales of moth wings—the stuff that looks like dust, if you touch a butterfly or moth.

His team scanned those scales with an electron microscope, and made a crucial discovery: some of the scales were hollow. The fossil record shows that: "First came the proboscis and then came the hollow scales. We can then infer, if we find the hollow scales, there must already have been a proboscis."

So what’s the big deal? The finding means that these samples predate existing evidence for the first butterfly tongues by 70 million years. Which in turn implies that an early version of the proboscis, which in modern insects can pry into a flower's nooks and crannies for nectar, appears to have evolved before the appearance of flowers—not as a response. The study is in the journal Science Advances. [Timo J. B. van Eldijk et al., A Triassic-Jurassic window into the evolution of Lepidoptera]

The early proboscis might have been used to pluck drops of liquid from the tips of ancient forms of today’s pine tree cones. And it’s clear that these sucking tongues underwent a lot of remodeling after the emergence of flowers, as flowers and moths co-evolved.

But van Eldijk is hoping insect scales might become more widely used as a tool to investigate the ancient world. "We're hoping that people will start recognizing them in other places. You can even imagine a scenario in which we can reconstruct past ecosystems based on the scales you find in a core, similar to the way we do with pollen now."

All scientists have to do is follow their noses—or at least their nose hairs.


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sediment
(sedɪmənt )

Sediment is solid material that settles at the bottom of a liquid, especially earth and pieces of rock that have been carried along and then left somewhere by water, ice, or wind.

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sludgy in British

(ˈslʌdʒɪ )
adjective -ier or -iest
consisting of, containing, or like sludge


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proboscis
(prəʊˈbɒsɪs )
noun plural -cises or -cides (-sɪˌdiːz)
1.
a long flexible prehensile trunk or snout, as of an elephant
2.
the elongated mouthparts of certain insects, adapted for piercing or sucking food
3.
any similar part or organ
4. informal, facetious
a person's nose, esp if large

🎁
If you say that something is a big deal, you mean that it is important or significant in some way.

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You Traveled Far Last Year

Happy New Year! And if you’ve been away from work for a few days, you deserve some time off. After all, you’ve traveled far. Even if you just stayed at home. According to NASA, just by being on the planet Earth in the last year, you’ve zipped about 584 million miles around the sun. At an average speed of about 67,000 miles per hour. [Siren sound.] Hey, I wasn’t speeding—in my inertial reference frame.

Of course, the trip was not a perfect circle. As Kepler showed, the Earth’s orbit is an ellipse, with the sun at one of the two focal points. He also figured out the planet goes faster when it’s at perihelion, nearer the sun, than when it’s at aphelion, its farthest distance. Which would explain why summer seems to zip by, except that the seasons are a function of the tilt of the Earth’s axis, not its different distances from the sun. And the Earth rotated 365 and a quarter times during its sweep around the sun. The trip took 8,766 hours. Or 525,960 minutes. Or 31,557,600 seconds. Tick tock.


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  If you say that something or someonezips somewhere, you mean that they move there very quickly. [INFORMAL]
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perihelion

ˌpɛrɪˈhiːlɪən/

the point in the orbit of a planet, asteroid, or comet at which it is closest to the sun
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aphelion
/apˈhiːlɪən/

the point in the orbit of a planet, asteroid, or comet at which it is furthest from the sun.
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 The tilt of something is the fact that it tilts or slopes, or the angle at which it tilts or slopes.
🔑
 If you figure out a solution to a problem or the reason for something, you succeed in solving it or understanding it. [INFORMAL]
🔑
 An ellipse is an oval shape similar to a circle but longer and flatter.
🔑

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You Live in a Strange Solar System

The more astronomers study the heavens, the more they realize: our solar system is weird.

"There are a few things that make the solar system kind of strange." Lauren Weiss, an astrophysicist at the University of Montreal. "One of which is we have a giant planet. Only about 10 percent of sunlike stars have a giant planet. And there are probably even fewer that have two giant planets."

In addition to giant Jupiter and lesser giant Saturn, we have tiny Mercury—just a bit bigger than Earth’s moon.

So if we’re weird, what does a typical solar system look like? Weiss and her team trained their telescopes on 355 star systems known to host a handful of small exoplanets. And they found that most of the planets within individual star systems tended to be similar in size.

"So if I'm a planet, and I'm, say, two times the size of Earth, my neighbor, the next planet over, is also likely to be two times the size of Earth, give or take a little bit."

And they were strung out at similar distances from each other too…like peas in a pod, she says. Compared to that orderly array, our system looks more like, "Uh let's see, if I stick with food…I don't know…like a whole Thanksgiving dinner or something?"

The results are in The Astronomical Journal.

As for hunting for habitable worlds: "If we're trying to find an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone”—not too close to the star but not too far away either—“and we find an Earth-sized planet closer in, it might be worthwhile to continue searching for planets around that star."

Because there might just be a few more peas in the pod.

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exoplanet

/ˈɛksəʊplanɪt/

a planet which orbits a star outside the solar system

🔱

like peas in a pod

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With regard to, concerning. For example

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 If things arestrung out somewhere, they are spread out in a line.
🔱

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Glow Sticks Help Ecologists Study Amphibians

Populations of frogs, salamanders and other amphibians are declining around the world—even in protected areas, like U.S. national parks. Ecologists needed a simple method to track the animals’ numbers. Now, researchers have found an effective way to keep tabs on amphibians—using that concert and party favorite: glow sticks. Green glow sticks, to be specific.

“What we do know is that their eyes are particularly sensitive to green light.”

David Munoz, a PhD candidate in the ecology program at Penn State University.

To test the idea, Munoz and colleagues set up minnow traps with and without glow sticks at a dozen vernal pools in Centre County, Pennsylvania. The critters gather at the pools to breed.

For a month, they trapped and tracked numbers of the Jefferson salamander, the spotted salamander, the wood frog and the eastern red-spotted newt. “Right before we left for the day, around 4 P.M., we’d activate the glow stick and hang it on the little minnow trap, come back the next day to see what we got.”

Traps with glow sticks were vastly more productive. “We were really surprised by how strong of an effect our glow sticks had on our captures. So, by just putting a glow stick in one of these minnow traps we increased the capture rates for our spotted salamanders and our Jefferson salamanders between on average two to four times.” And for the eastern red-spotted newt, the glow stick traps lured six times as many. [Michael Antonishak, David A. W. Miller and David J. Munoz, Using Glow Sticks to Increase Funnel Trap Capture Rates for Adult Vernal Pool Amphibians, in Herpetological Review]

“You know, these salamanders and these amphibians are going to these sites to breed. And so what are they looking for? They’re looking for other individuals…and so what we think is that the glow stick is either making the movement of other salamanders more apparent, or it's potentially just a simple visual cue…their eyes are sensitive to this type of light, so they might be attracted to it.”

Regardless of the reason, Munoz hopes his team’s glowing discovery will benefit amphibians. “In order to help manage those species, and help bring them back, or reverse those declines, we need to understand what’s causing those declines. And the way we do that is by monitoring populations.”

Another nice thing about glow sticks: they’re cheap. “It gives scientists a new tool, and essentially a better tool to help achieve that monitoring on a cost effective basis.”

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Air Force Tracks Final Frontier

“There’s three strategic trends that I see in space.”

General Jay Raymond, Commander of Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs. He recently visited Scientific American to talk about Space Command, which is responsible for space and cyber for the Air Force.

“One is space is congested…we track 23,000 objects in space. We provide the conjunction assessment warning, if you will, so for every object in space we do the analysis on every other object in space to see if there’s a potential collision. And if there’s a potential collision we make the warning for satellite operators around the world to maneuver their satellites to keep that collision from happening…

“I see the trends of that growing. If you look at the numbers of launches that are occurring, the numbers of launches are up largely because the cost of launch has gone down. So the access to space has gotten easier…not just are the numbers of launches going up, but the numbers of satellites on each launch are also increasing…and so I see that congestion just growing in the future, and that’s something that we are obviously working to help mitigate that growing strain.

“The other thing that’s happening in space is that we are becoming more contested. I think it’s clear that space is a war-fighting domain just like air, land and sea. And we are seeing threats across the spectrum, everything from low-end reversible jamming of GPS satellites all the way up to high-end kinetic destruction, which we saw in 2007 when China shot down their weather satellite.

“And then the last thing, and I wouldn’t say it’s concerning by any means, is the increased competitive nature of space. I think that’s a good thing. I think there’s some huge opportunities here to leverage a growing commercial space market…I think as costs of launch go down and as technology allows for smaller satellites I think we’ll be able to leverage those for a wide variety of missions.”


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On March 27th, 1964, a huge earthquake struck the Prince William Sound, off the coast of Alaska. «CLIP: "Out in the gulf of Alaska, the ocean bottom plunges, then heaves upward a full 50 feet, and a wave starts racing toward the shore…"»

The quake is the second most powerful ever recorded, at 9.2 on the Richter scale, and it killed more than a hundred people. And just like the devastating Sumatra quake of 2004…or the Chilean quake in 2010…the great Alaska earthquake struck right around the time of the full moon. Coincidence?

In 2016 Japanese researchers concluded that large earthquakes might indeed be more likely to occur during times of significant tidal stress… when it's either a new or full moon. And the news rumbled through the media, despite the study's small sample size, of just a dozen large quakes.

Now seismologist Susan Hough of the U.S. Geological Survey has done a much larger analysis. She plotted more than 200 big quakes—magnitude 8.0 or above—over the past four centuries, looking to see if they were more likely to strike on certain days of the year, or during key phases of the moon. The answer, neatly summed up in the study's one-word abstract? "No."

The study is in the journal Seismological Research Letters.

That's not to say we don't know of certain factors that actually do increase the risk of quakes. Hough says the ground injection of wastewater, oil and gas production, fracking, and damming up waterways can in some cases cause quakes. Just don't blame it on the moon.

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Canada Geese Taking a Winter Staycation

“Over the last few decades, Canada geese have been wintering further and further north, which was interesting, because the winters have gotten a little more mild over the last few years, but still it’s pretty cold out there and there’s still snow.”

University of Illinois ornithologist Mike Ward.

“So you would wonder why these geese are deciding to spend the winter in Chicago, when they could have the opportunity to fly down to Arkansas, Louisiana, somewhere warmer.”

Geese who continue south often land in agriculture fields and other wide open areas. Which makes them visible to hunters in those states, who can bag the birds until the end of January.

“There’s definitely a lot of geese not just staying in Chicago, but lots of urban areas throughout the Midwest and one reason they are doing that is they are trying to avoid hunters, it looks like.”

Of course, staying in cities is no easy life either.

“It probably would be easier to find food if they would fly somewhere else, to go to cornfields or somewhere else, but they are hanging out in the city but they are acting very strangely.”

“We found that they were using parks like you might expect, but when the weather got bad and it snowed, they were hanging out on top of roofs, so large factories with flat roof tops, they’d spend large amounts of time just sitting there. We also found that they would go to areas like transfer stations or rail cars that had spilled grains, so they would be walking around railroad tracks to find spilled grain.”

And the effects of that changed behavior are significant.

“They are a lot skinner. The ones that go onto ag fields, all the spilled corn and soybeans- they can really fatten up really well. The birds that we have caught later in the year in the city are a lot skinnier. Of course, the ones we have caught earlier in the year in ag fields, couldn’t have been much fatter, so some of these ag fields are just ideal places for them to just go out and load up on corn and really put on the fat.”

The study by Ward and his colleagues is in the journal The Condor: Ornithological Applications.

There’s no way to know for sure if Canada geese are wintering in Chicago to avoid hunters—the Illinois goose hunting season also ends in late January—or if warmer winters account for their staycations. But it looks like Canada geese—which are said to taste like beef and not chicken—are going to get tougher for Midwesterners and Southerners alike to put on their tables.

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Catching Flu Also Boosts Heart Risk

Get a flu shot. It's already standard advice from your doctor. But it may be even more important for senior citizens at risk of heart attack.

Because a new analysis in The New England Journal of Medicine found that a flu infection raises the risk of a heart attack by six times... And other viral infections can also up the risk, to a lesser degree.

"The idea is that these viruses cause a stress on the system overall, and so increase the metabolism, and so people who are at risk for having a heart attack, that can tip them over." Jeff Kwong, an epidemiologist at Public Health Ontario and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences.

Kwong and his team evaluated that risk by studying the histories of 20,000 older adults with confirmed cases of influenza. And they found that within one week of a flu diagnosis, the group suffered six times as many heart attacks, on average, than they did during control periods, when they weren't sick.

Which Kwong says is another good reason to get a flu shot. "If you're at a high risk for heart disease it's probably a good idea to get one, to reduce the risk of heart attacks."

And since they also found a link between heart attack risk and infection with other viruses, like respiratory syncytial virus. Kwong has one more oft-repeated piece of advice to keep you healthy during the cold and flu season: "washing your hands frequently, to prevent all sorts of respiratory infections."

That practice will guarantee some heart-healthy exercise, too: to wash your hands properly, you have to get off the couch.


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Worldwide Effort Says Together Science Can

“Collaboration in science across the world is the key to a better world in the future. Doesn’t matter whether it’s drug resistance or climate change or social inequalities. All of these, I believe, can be broached by science.”

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s biggest non-governmental funders of scientific research, earlier today, January 23rd. He spoke to Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina at the World Economic Forum in Davos, after they both took part in the Global Science Outlook discussion at the Forum.

“And nobody—not myself, not our organization, Wellcome, no organization—is going to solve this on their own. And so we’ve launched a campaign called Together Science Can, which brings together people from absolutely around the world to stand up for those things that we care about. That people can work together across borders, they can be friends, they can share their information, and they can eventually make the world a better place.”

You can see video of the entire discussion that took place at Davos earlier today. Just google World Economic Forum at Davos, Global Science Outlook.



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Nobelist Crafts Light-Switchable Antibiotics



Yesterday, January 24th, 2018, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina ran into Ben Feringa. He shared the 2016 Nobel Prize for chemistry for designing and creating molecules that function as microscopic machines.

[DiChristina:] Ben Feringa and I are walking through Davos about to go to our next appointment. And I was just asking Professor Feringa, what was exciting to him right now?

[Feringa:] The most exciting thing probably we’re working on now is to make antibiotics that we can switch with light. So we have, you know antibiotics is a real big problem, antibiotic resistance, and what we do is we build in light switches in antibiotics, and they’re off, and then we can switch them on with light, and after 24 hours when they have done their job, they switch off automatically. And the bugs don’t build up resistance. And it works. And recently we got it done with red light, and that’s really exciting, because now we can get light into the body, because red light…

[MD:] ...goes deeper.

[BF:] Goes very deep in the body. And that gives us a lot of opportunities to develop these smart drugs.

For a video of a longer conversation between Mariette DiChristina and Ben Feringa go to the World Economic Forum homepage, and search for Ben Feringa.


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Baby Bats Can Learn Different Dialects

Bats are sophisticated communicators. And not just when they’re in vampire form. New research finds that Egyptian fruit bats actually have regional dialects, depending on the bat chatter that surrounds them as they grow up. The study is in the journal PLOS Biology.

Among humans, one person’s howdy is another one’s g’day. Wild populations of bats also display group-specific vocalizations. But how do these vocal characteristics arise? Do they reflect innate, genetic differences or are they learned? And if bat accents are acquired, who are these furry fliers imitating? Their parents? Or their roost-mates?

To find out, Yossi Yovall at Tel Aviv University and his colleagues captured 15 pregnant fruit bats and divided them into three groups, each of which was housed in its own separate box. The mothers gave birth inside these boxes and their babies, called pups, lived there for a full year. During that time, the researchers exposed the pups to a select symphony of bat sounds. Fruit bats in the wild are reared in colonies that contain dozens to thousands of individuals, so they’re used to being surrounded by a cacophony of calls and other vocal communiques.

For one of the boxes, Yovall and his team exposed the young batlings to a selection of squeaks that were biased toward the higher frequencies. Pups in the second box heard lower-pitched peeps. And the third box got a random sampling of fruit bat hits that was heavy on the mid-range frequencies but also included those at either end of the aural spectrum.

“And what we found is that they were influenced by the playback that they heard.”

Yossi Yovall.

“So the control group was using a vocal repertoire that was identical to their mothers and identical to fruit bats in the colony here in Is. But the two manipulated groups were using different dialects...we actually were able to create three different groups of fruit bats with three different dialects in the lab.”

Of course, birds are famous for their songs. Which the males learn from tutors, typically their dads. But Yovall says when it comes to vocal learning, bats march to a different drummer.

“Here we show that even though the pups were with their mothers, they were exposed to their mother’s normal repertoire, they were still influenced by the background vocalizations that they heard. Now this is probably extremely reasonable in the case of bats because bats roost in these caves with many hundreds of individuals…we believe that this process, which we call crowd vocal learning, because you learn from the entire crowd, is relevant for many other animals that live in crowded colonies.”

As the researchers note in their paper, this sort of social learning is sometimes called “culture.” Even if you’re living in a cave.


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Lion Conservation Challenges Giraffe Protection

The giraffe is an icon of the African savannah. The lion is the top predator of the ecosystem. Both animals face uncertain futures, and both are subjects of intense, ongoing conservation work. Now a study suggests that saving one might mean bad news for the other. [Zoe Muller, Population structure of giraffes is affected by management in the Great Rift Valley, Kenya, in PLOS One]

"When I was out in the field, I heard anecdotes from people that in one of my study sites there were very few juvenile giraffes, because apparently the lions in the area had developed a preference for taking young giraffes."

University of Bristol biologist Zoe Muller. Working in Kenya's Great Rift Valley, she focused her attention on two neighboring sites: a national park with lots of lions, and a privately owned conservancy with no lions.

In the lion-free conservancy, 26 percent of the giraffes were less than one year old. But in the lion-filled park, juvenile giraffes made up only 5 percent of the species’ population.

"So I was able to show that in the presence of lions, the number of juveniles is severely reduced, by actually 83 percent. Which was a lot higher than I thought it would be. Quite shocking, actually."

Giraffe populations have declined by some 40 percent in the last 30 years, with fewer than 98,000 individuals left in the wild. In recognition of those figures, they've recently been classified as "vulnerable," that is, likely to become endangered.

The ongoing loss of juveniles could lead to a situation where the population crashes, since population growth and stability both rely on having enough calves survive to sexual maturity—so they, too, can breed and produce offspring of their own.

The study compares only two sites in East Africa. But it highlights the extreme complexity of wildlife management in Africa, where the recovery of one species could potentially come at the cost of another.

"Unfortunately, in East Africa especially, most of the conservation areas these days are fenced and enclosed. And so this is going to become an increasingly more common problem, where we find that predators are being enclosed in specific areas."

Allowing for the conservation of both species in the same areas is thus a tricky proposition. Muller says that one possibility might be to translocate giraffes into and out of lion-free areas, or to translocate lions into and out of places with lots of giraffes. If we do that, we may help ensure the two species’ survival. But are they still truly wild?


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Wildfires Spike Wine with Smoky Notes

The fires that ripped across Napa and Sonoma last year damaged some two dozen wineries, and burned others completely to the ground.

"Yeah and also don't forget Chile burned pretty good this year, too. In fact fires there destroyed quite a few old vineyards." Wes Zandberg, an analytical chemist at the University of British Columbia, at the Okanagan campus, right in B.C.'s wine country. "Basically this is a problem in North and South America this year."

Even wineries that are unscathed by fire may suffer from smoke passing through their vineyards. Because it can leave that year's vintage with unpleasant smoky notes.

Zandberg and his team studied that process with an experimental plot of cabernet franc vines—five of which they exposed to wood smoke, and five they left alone.

They found that when volatile compounds in smoke land on grapes, the fruit very quickly sucks the chemical into its skin or flesh. Then it tags sugar molecules onto the smoky compounds, which renders the smoky substances water soluble, and nontoxic. But that chemical conversion leaves the compounds with no scent or taste…, which means winemakers can't detect them in grapes… until it's too late.

"The problem is when you take a bunch of grape juice and expose it to yeast during the fermentation process, the yeast have the required enzymes to cleave that sugar from the smoke-flavored compounds, so it kind of unmasks them during fermentation." Making them once again detectable by nose and tongue.

The findings are in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. [Matthew Noestheden, Eric G. Dennis, and Wesley F. Zandberg, Quantitating Volatile Phenols in Cabernet Franc Berries and Wine after On-Vine Exposure to Smoke from a Simulated Forest Fire]

The study was funded in part by a local chemical testing company, which hopes to develop a test for various smoky substances in the grapes, to predict whether so-called 'smoke taint' will be a perceptible problem in the finished wine.

Until then, Zandberg has this advice for wildfire-affected winemakers: "One obvious strategy for minimizing smoke taint in wine, is don't put it in a toasted oak barrel. That's just going to put more compounds in there that give that odor, or flavor."


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Ticks on Uptick Where Big Game Declines

Ticks. The tiny arachnids feed on the blood of mammals, birds, and sometimes even reptiles and amphibians. And disease-causing parasites travel in that blood, from tick to victim and from victim to tick. The most familiar tick-borne illness is probably Lyme disease, but ticks can also transfer Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, Q fever, and even a form of encephalitis. Without treatment, many of these diseases can be fatal.

Keeping tick populations in check is thus good for public health. And it seems that the mere presence of large wildlife helps. Because a new study done in Kenya finds that areas without large wildlife saw tick populations rise as much as 370 percent. The finding, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, caught researchers by surprise—because ticks love to land on large animals.

"We expected if we lost large animals that we would also lose ticks."

University of California, Santa Barbara, ecologist Georgia Titcomb.

Before they get to their big targets, such as deer or antelopes, ticks attack small mammals, like rodents.

"So what we found is when you lose the large animals, you have an increase and a hyper-abundance of these rodents." Because those rodents are not being eaten, or simply displaced, by the bigger animals missing from the environment.

So the ticks happily feed on the rodents, after which they’d normally look for a bigger animal to parasitize before reproducing. Now, with no large mammals available, humans could become an attractive tick target—and more likely to come down with the various tick-carried conditions.

The study demonstrates one of the many ways in which biodiversity loss can be detrimental not just for wildlife but for people, too. The researchers are now doing similar work in California to see how if the Kenya findings hold elsewhere. Because lions, tigers and bears may seem scary. But the more likely danger to humans comes from ticks.


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Holiday Cheer Leads to Birth-Rate Spike

In the United States, there’s a holiday that goes hand in hand with romance…so much so that nine months later, there’s a spike in the number of babies born. Valentine’s day? Wrong! It seems that people in the U.S. and in other predominantly Christian countries have been having some very merry Christmases indeed. That’s according to a study in the journal Scientific Reports.

Scientists have long wondered why, in Western countries, birth rates spike in September and early October.

“The prevailing hypothesis for this phenomenon postulates that there is a biological adaptation to the solar cycles.”

Luis Rocha of Indiana University co-led the study. He notes that nine months before this baby boomlet is the winter solstice. And when the days grow shorter and the night grows long, well, humans seem to turn to procreation for recreation.

“However this hypothesis was built on observations pretty much restricted to northern hemisphere countries and also culturally Christian countries.”

And some data suggested there might be something cultural going on.

“So for instance in Israel, it was previously observed that communities associated with different religions have birth peaks at different times of the year.”

To try to separate the cultural from the biological, Rocha teamed up with Joana Gonçalves-Sá of the Gulbenkian Institute of Science in Portugal. Together, they combed through data on a planetary level…comparing countries in the Northern and Southern hemispheres…and countries with predominantly different cultures, in this case Christian and Muslim.

But they didn’t look at when babies are born. They looked to see when, during the year, people around the world Google the word “s.e.x.” Joana Sá:

“What we found, first, was that Google…searches for s.e.x on google…are a very good proxy for sexual appetite and sexual, offline sexual interest. And when we looked at close to 130 countries around the world, what we saw is that each country has a particular signature with peaks and valleys of interest in sexual content.”

Sá says that those patterns were most similar for countries that shared a similar culture…

“This means that if you live in a culturally Christian country, whether you live in the northern hemisphere or the southern hemisphere, you are more likely to have an increase in sexual appetite around Christmas. But if you live in a Muslim country, you are much more likely to conceive around Eid-Al-Fitr, than at a different, at another time of the year.”

Now, if you’re still wondering what’s so special about these holidays…Rocha says interest in s.e.x coincides with a particular mood…a finding he made with the help of Twitter.

“We collected close to 50 billion tweets and showed that, independently of the geography and independently of the particular culture, when we observed the surge of interest in s.e.x we also observe the appearance of a particular mood that can best be classified as calm and happy and de-stressed mood that is maximized around Christmas for Christian countries and maximized at the end of Ramadan with Eid for Muslim countries.”

All of which makes the following year’s holiday family gathering just a little bit bigger.


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‍ Killer Whale Culture Revealed by Mimicking Us

Killer whales, also called orcas, are like dolphins and belugas—they all have a wide vocal repertoire. « orca sounds » But orcas also have unique dialects among different pods. Which suggests the animals can learn new and unique sounds by imitating mom, or another whale.

Researchers tested that premise by asking a killer whale named Wikie to imitate novel sounds from another killer whale, like this [Wolf sound] or this [creaking door sound].

And then: Wikie's trainers asked her to imitate them speaking English. Here's how she did: ["Amy, hello"]

Pretty impressive, especially because she's using her nasal passages to imitate sounds we make with our vocal cords.

And a technical acoustic analysis of the original and imitated sounds showed that Wikie was doing a reliable job of mimicry, suggesting orcas do indeed possess the ability of vocal imitation. The study is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. [Jose Z. Abramson et al., Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca)]

So how long before Wikie's fluent in English? Well: "This is not our goal." Study author José Zamorano-Abramson, a comparative psychologist. "We are focusing on one aspect of vocal language, which is the capacity for vocal imitation." Because the ability to imitate implies a way to transmit culture… and preserve each orca pod's unique repertoire. ["bye bye"]


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‍ Homebodies Economize on Energy Use

The rise in technology, particularly for information and communication, is radically transforming lifestyles. For example, many people can now work from home and still be in almost constant contact with the office. Or maybe you prefer your own couch for watching a recently released movie rather than trekking to the local theater.

“This technology induced lifestyle changes affect how people consume energy and ultimately affect the energy demand of the nation.”

Ashok Sekar, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. To assess how our changing usage of technology might alter our energy consumption, Sekar and his colleagues first set out to determine how much more we’re in our homes than we were in the past.

For more than a decade, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has surveyed how Americans spend their time each day. More than 11,000 citizens respond to the survey each year.

Crunching the numbers from this survey, the researchers found that Americans are definitely logging more hours in their living rooms.

“When compared to 2003, in 2012, Americans spent eight days more at home.”

That’s seven fewer days spent in “nonresidential spaces” and one less day spent traveling per year. And that’s on average. The younger generation exhibited even stronger homebody tendencies.

“The population aged 18 to 24 spent two weeks more at home in 2012 compared to 2003. Which is 70 percent higher change than the average population.”

And that shift in location translates into surprisingly large energy savings. The researchers calculate that Americans are reducing energy use by 1,200 trillion Btus by not hopping in our cars. And we’re saving thousand trillion Btus by skipping public appearances at the mall, movie theaters, and the office. The study is in the journal Joule. That’s J-O-U-L-E, which like the Btu is a unit of energy.

Now, obviously we still use energy while at home. But not all activities are equally draining when it comes to our dependence on the power grid.

“Activities at home on average takes less energy per minute compared to time spent in your car or commercial buildings.”

To save even more energy, Sekar suggests that we focus on improving the energy efficiency of home appliances and consumer electronics—the stuff we use more when we’re working from home. All day. In our pajamas. See, we even saved the energy we’d otherwise expend getting dressed.


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‍ Woodpeckers Drum to Their Own Tunes

Humans can recognize each other by voice alone. I sound different from other 60-Second Science reporters, for example. In fact, lots of nonhuman animals, of all types, use voices to distinguish familiar individuals…including frogs, fish, lemurs, and penguins.

And that unique audio fingerprint extends to a sound you may have heard in the forest on occasion: «woodpecker drumming»...the drumming of a woodpecker.

Researchers recorded multiple drum rolls, «woodpecker drumming» from 41 great spotted woodpeckers—colorful red, white and black birds—living in Polish forests. They then used audio software to analyze them.

And they found that the length of the drumrolls, and the spacing between beats varied enough from bird to bird to tell the woodpeckers apart by drumming alone. The study is in the journal PLOS ONE.

The scientists say this fact might be useful to woodpeckers, in identifying each other. And to conservation biologists, trying to tease one bird from another in a recording, for example, to count individuals in a given area. The birds' head-banging could thus do away with that research headache.

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‍ Boat Noise Means Fish Can't Learn Their Lessons

If you've ever gone snorkeling or scuba diving—you know how peaceful it sounds under there… «reef sounds»... aside from the crackling sound of snapping shrimp.

Compare that to a reef with boat traffic. «noisy reef» Not quite as calming. And it gets on undersea creatures' nerves too: stressing out spiny lobsters, slowing the development of sea slugs.

And now scientists have found one more side-effect of noise: impaired learning abilities, for fish. The study is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. [Maud C. O. Ferrari, School is out on noisy reefs: the effect of boat noise on predator learning and survival of juvenile coral reef fishes]

Researchers started by teaching juvenile damselfish in the laboratory about the predators they'd encounter, once they settled on an Australian reef. The training consisted of injecting the damselfishes' tanks with seawater fouled with both the scent of a predator, and alarm cues from injured damselfish. A message that, hey, this predator smell? It means dead friends. Maybe dead you.

To reinforce that lesson, they also lowered ziploc bags with the predators themselves into the damselfish's tanks, together with the scents, to teach them: these guys are your enemies.

They conducted all this training to a soundtrack of peaceful reef sounds «quiet reef» or with the added distraction of buzzing boat engines. «loud reef». And they found that fish that trained with normal reef sounds were suitably spooked by the scent of a predator, later on. But fish exposed to boat noise? Totally unphased.

"It appeared that the presence of boat noise was interfering with the learning process. So when later on we said 'hey, here's a predator, are you scared?' they didn't respond."

Maud Ferrari, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Saskatchewan. She says same thing held true in the real world, too, once they released the fish. Three days later, two thirds of the quiet-trained fish were still alive. Compared to only 20 percent of the fish trained with the boat noise backdrop…the same severe mortality rate suffered by fish with no training at all.

The silver lining, Ferrari says, is boat noise is a stressor that local legislators can actually regulate. "You want to change the environment, slow down the warming, the acidification, but it's really out of our hands, you know what I mean? The results we found with noise pollution, what is nice is it's one of those stressors we can actually control."

So that young fish can learn their lessons. Alone or in schools.

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‍ Old Trees Are Ecosystem Gold
“Well, lots of people recognize that as humans get older they tend to have less and less children...trees do it the other way around.”

David Lindenmayer. He studies conservation, landscape ecology and biodiversity at the Australian National University College of Science in Canberra. On January 26th he spoke to Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina when they were both at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

DL: “What happens is that the older some of these really big old trees get, the more seeds they produce and the more germinants they’re likely to have. So it’s actually the polar opposite of what we see with humans and most other animals, so really quite extraordinary.”

Mariette DiChristina: “And how about the number of older trees that we have today, how does that look?”

DL: “It’s quite a distressing situation, because in many, many forests and woodland and other ecosystems around the world, populations of large old trees are declining very, very quickly. And this matters because a lot of biodiversity, a lot of carbon, a lot of key ecosystem processes are associated with those really big, old trees.”

MD: “Is there something we can do about this?”

DL: “Absolutely there is. We can make sure we grow more forest, we can make sure we protect the big trees that we have now, and we can make sure that we don’t do things that really put a lot of pressure on those trees. Straight out, just cutting them down—we should not be cutting down really big, old trees anymore.”

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‍ Needed: Info on Biodiversity Change over Time

“We find that the composition of ecosystems around the world is changing much more rapidly than we expected. Indeed, much more rapidly than ecological theory predicts.”

Biologist Anne Magurran of the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland.

“We still don’t understand the consequences of this. We think that it’s going to be associated with a reduction in resilience in these assemblages, but there are still many questions to be addressed about the consequences of this rapid biodiversity change. And what it means is that if we’re interested in conservation we need to do much more than count species. We also need to track changes in the abundances and identities of the species present in these ecosystems. Conservation biologists will need to keep track of the types of species that they find in these places. And policy makers will need to will to take account of these changes in their policy.

To that end, Magurran and colleagues are establishing what they’re calling the BioTIME Database, a repository for information about ecological communities and populations, and how they’re changing over time. Magurran spoke on January 26th with Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

MD: “And the data set is going to be published very soon?”

AM: “Yes, we’re publishing the data set. It’s an open access data set, so anybody anywhere in the world can use it for research, for education, for conservation. And we’d be delighted to collaborate with anybody who has data and wishes to join with us or wishes to support the preservation of the data set in any way.”


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‍ Mosquitoes Learn the Smell of Danger

When it comes to sucking blood, mosquitos can play favorites: they show preferences for particular species or even certain individuals. At the same time, their tastes can change, depending on the circumstances. One species of skeeter in California, for example, has a fondness in summer for robins, but will settle for mammals once the birds head south for the winter.

But how do mosquitoes decide what’s on the menu? And when to shift to something new? It appears that they play it by nose—and by their intended victim’s behavior. Because a new study shows that mosquitoes not only memorize the scent of their preferred host, they can use these olfactory cues to avoid individuals who try to swat them. The finding is in the journal Current Biology. [Clément Vinauger et al., Modulation of Host Learning in Aedes aegypti Mosquitoes]

Researchers took female mosquitoes of the species Aedes aegypti and loaded them one by one into a maze shaped like a Y. One arm of the Y was suffused with the scent of a human volunteer. The other contained a control solution of mineral oil. As predicted, the mosquitoes showed an obvious preference for eu d’ Homo sapiens.

Next, the researchers attempted to train the mosquitoes to flee from the heady aroma of humans. So they coupled the exposure to human odor with a mechanical vibration—something akin to the shock that might accompany a near-miss by a swatting host. Sure enough, mosquitoes that were trained to associate human smells with their potentially deadly defensive maneuvers lost their appetite for the previously attractive scent.

That learning, the researchers found, is made possible by the neurotransmitter dopamine. This biological chemical has previously been shown to play a role when female mosquitoes seek someone to suck. And it’s involved in learning and memory in other insects.

So the researchers used an array of molecular techniques to knock out the aegypti’s ability to sense and respond to dopamine. And without this neurotransmitter, mosquitoes become much worse at learning to avoid danger.

Targeting mosquitoes’ smarts could thus provide a new method for curbing the spread of diseases carried by Aedis aegypti—like Zika, dengue, and yellow fever. Because mosquitoes that are slow learners ᐸswatting/slap noise> are easier to swat.

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‍ The word "duet" usually refers to a song. But in a sense, every human conversation is a duet—with unwritten rules about when participants take their turns to speak. You can hear how awkward it sounds when the rules are broken: as with the slight delay between this ABC News host and astronaut Rick Mastracchio. «"Okay, so give us an idea of what you guys go through on a daily basis. —Long pause— Okay, well we wake up fairly early…"»

That long pause? Pretty uncomfortable, especially if you're not talking to someone on the space station. We humans first get a feel for this back-and-forth rhythm when we're still babbling babies. And, it turns out, same goes for songbirds in learning their duets.

"What you should hear is something like the whistle, «whistle sound» and then something like «trill sound» and then «trill sound». Yeah, I'm not very good at doing the song, but... "

«songbird duet clip» "It seems that only one bird is singing, that's how good they are."

Karla Rivera-Cáceres, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Miami. She and her team recorded the formative songs of a bird called the canebrake wren, in their nests in the Costa Rican forest.

Here's the same baby bird singing just two weeks earlier. Listen for it trampling on the lines of its parent, in the second half of the duet. «poor songbird duet» Again for reference, here's the improved version, when the bird had learned to take turns. «songbird duet»

Rivera-Cáceres analyzed the progress of 13 juvenile birds, and was able to determine that the youngsters didn't just naturally mature into this ability to sing a duet. They gradually picked up their dueting skills from the adults they practiced with—a trait they share with humans, in learning their species' conversational rhythms. The study is in the journal Royal Society Open Science. [Karla D. Rivera-Cáceres et al., Early development of vocal interaction rules in a duetting songbird]

And these findings might provide a window into our own language learning, too. "Understanding songbirds has helped us understand more about how human language is acquired, and understanding the neural machinery and the genetic machinery that controls that vocal learning. It gives us the tools to explore more how these rules are processed in the brain."

No word yet on whether it may also reveal why some humans have such trouble carrying a tune.

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‍ Big Cities Have Fewer Tweeters Per Capita

But those who do tweet in big cities are more prolific—tweeting more often, on average, than their small-town counterparts. Christopher Intagliata reports.
Full Transcript

Walking in New York City is almost a competitive sport. «Midnight Cowboy clip: "Hey! I'm walkin here."» And people in cities really do walk faster than their country counterparts—2.8 feet per second faster, according to a worldwide study in the 1970s. But that speedier pace of life extends to other aspects of city living, too.

"There's more inventions per capita in large cities, there's more mobile telephony usage in large cities." Lav Varshney, an information theorist at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.

He says you might expect Twitter use to increase in larger cities, too. But after analyzing two and a half million tweets, from 50 U.S. cities, his team concluded the opposite is true: There's actually less tweeting per capita as population rises.

But those who do tweet in big cities are more prolific—tweeting more often, on average, than their small-town counterparts. "And so what we discovered is that there's a core of people we call "town tweeters" that seem to emerge. And those people are actually tweeting a lot. And then everyone else is not tweeting very much in large cities. So those "town tweeters" are actually serving as an information broadcast infrastructure."

Their analysis is in the journal SAGE Open.

Of course the faster pace of life in big cities also means that these days, lots of people text and tweet while they're walking. In a 2018 remake of Midnight Cowboy, maybe a more accurate line for Ratso Rizzo would be…, "Hey! I'm tweetin' here!"

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‍ Animal Coloration Can Serve Double Duty

Nature may be red in tooth and claw. But one plucky caterpillar dresses in orange and black to avoid becoming somebody’s lunch. What’s really surprising, though, is that this distinctive set of stripes can serve as both a warning or as camouflage, depending on how far away it is from the viewer.

Animals can deploy color as a defense mechanism in a couple of ways. Some shades and patterns help potential prey blend into the background. Whereas bold markings often serve as a signal that an animal is unpalatable—for example, chock full o’ toxins.

“So, these two strategies have often been considered in isolation and often seen as mutually exclusive and alternative mechanisms. But under natural conditions you find this distinction is less clear cut.”

Jim Barnett of the University of Bristol, who led the study to explore whether the same coloration might do double duty, allowing an animal to be obvious under some conditions but unseen in others.

They focused their attention on the caterpillars of cinnabar moths. These larvae sport bright orange and black stripes. Their vivid appearance was believed to remind the birds who may have eaten others of their kind that they are none too tasty, thanks to their diet of alkaloid-rich ragwort plants.

The researchers snapped photos of the caterpillars in suburban green spaces around Bristol. And they used a visual modeling program to give them a “bird’s-eye view” of what the caterpillars look like, either close-up or from farther away.

“And what we found is that although at close range the caterpillar’s stripes are highly conspicuous—these bright colors distinguish it quite easily from its ragwort background—but when viewed from a distance they blend together to form a color which is actually quite difficult to discern from the background color. So, what we think is going on is that the caterpillar is getting the best of both worlds.”

Close up, the stripes say keep your distance. But from a distance, they allow the caterpillars to hide in plain sight. The results can be seen in the journal Royal Society Open Science. [James B. Barnett, Innes C. Cuthill, Nicholas E. Scott-Samuel, Distance-dependent aposematism and camouflage in the cinnabar moth caterpillar (Tyria jacobaeae, Erebidae)]

The finding is a reminder: Don’t forget to step back and see things from a different perspective.

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‍ Human Echolocators Use Tricks Similar to Bats

Many bats use a system similar to sonar to navigate in the dark. They send out high frequency sound, sometimes as clicks, and get information about their surroundings by the timing and quality of the sound that bounces back. And just as turning up the light in a darkened room helps to illuminate the objects there, bats are known to turn up the intensity of their clicks when they have trouble detecting a target.

"Now, bats have had millions of years of evolution basically to develop these mechanisms to dynamically adjust their emissions." Lore Thaler, a neuroscientist at Durham University in the U.K. "And what we were wondering is, well, do people do the same?"

Because some people with impaired vision can indeed navigate using the echoes of finger snaps, hand claps, or mouth clicks «clicking sound». But it's not known how dynamic that ability is. So Thaler and her team presented eight expert echolocators with a challenge: could they tell whether a small dinner-plate-sized object was being held up about three feet from their head, by clicking alone?

You can try this at home by the way, with a plate or a book. "And if you hold it very close to your face while you're speaking you can notice that the sound that you hear really changes. This is because the sound that comes out of your mouth when you speak is reflected by the object you're holding in front of you. And that's an echo."

But move the plate 45 degrees to the side…then 90…then behind your head. And the task gets harder. But similar to the way bats do, the study subjects increased the number of clicks, and their loudness, «loud clicks» as the object became harder to detect—perhaps as a way to amplify the weak sounds echoing back.

The subjects still had trouble detecting the object a full 180 degrees behind them—they did only slightly better than chance. But they guessed correctly 80 percent of the time when the object was diagonally behind them. And nabbed nearly perfect scores when the disc was to the front or to the side. The results are in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. [L. Thaler et al., Human echolocators adjust loudness and number of clicks for detection of reflectors at various azimuth angles]

Thaler says the study gives echolocating learners a shortcut: "If you're not sure, make a couple more clicks, and also make them louder." To produce echoes that more accurately reflect the world.

—Christopher Intagliata


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‍ Searching the Heavens for Mountains

In the last few decades, astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets orbiting other stars. Now, scientists want to know what they look like. Do they have oceans? Atmospheres? Researchers have even searched for signs of plant life and the glow of alien city lights—although they haven’t found any yet.

“We’ve moved on from being excited about finding exoplanets to now having to get our kicks out of characterizing them.”

Moiya McTier, a graduate student at Columbia University and the host of the podcast So You Think You Can Science.

Last year, McTier’s advisor challenged her to find something else on exoplanets: evidence of extraterrestrial mountains. Because mountains could offer clues about what’s going on inside these planets.

“The way that those form is through the collision of tectonic plates or through lava building up in the same place over millions of years. And so that’s one of the most exciting things, in my opinion, that can come out of this project, is actually being able to figure out what’s underneath the surface of an exoplanet.”

The trick was how to do it. Modern telescopes are powerful, but they can’t capture pictures of exoplanets. Instead, a common way astronomers detect them is by watching as they pass in front of their star, blotting out some of the light. McTier riffed on this idea to find a way to look for mountains.

“And so, what we are doing with this mountains project is saying, okay, if a planet has a mountain on it and if that planet is rotating, then the mountain will show up in silhouette. And the silhouette will change, because the planet’s rotating. So, we can study that changing silhouette—that changing shadow—to get an idea of what the surface of the planet looks like.”

McTier tested the technique by modeling how the rocky planets of our solar system would look through modern telescopes like the James Webb if they were far away.

“And we were pretty heartbroken when found out that it wouldn’t be possible.”

But McTier calculated that it might be doable with something like the Extremely Large Telescope, which is currently under construction in Chile. Even this telescope probably wouldn’t be able to measure the topography of a Mars-like body if it orbited a large star like our Sun. But if that planet circled a smaller star, like a white dwarf, it would block out enough light to be detectible. The research is in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. [Moyia A.S. McTier and David M. Kipping, Finding mountains with molehills: the detectability of exotopography]

So, one day soon we may be able to confirm the existence of exoplanetary mountains. And with even better telescopes, maybe molehills. Or even moles.

—Julia Rosen


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‍ Arctic Heat Waves Linked to Snowpocalypse-Like Storms

February was unusually hot in the Arctic. Thawing out temperature: 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

"It made big news when it got to 35, I don't know if that's T-shirt weather yet, but…"

Judah Cohen, a climatologist at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, a company that does consulting on weather and climate. "The Arctic relatively is a much warmer place than it used to be."

Over the last few decades, the Arctic has heated up two to three times faster than the rest of the planet. But in the same period, Eurasia and the northeastern U.S. have been on a cold streak. With some serious cold air and snow.

«CLIP: News montage: "Snowmaggedon… Snowpocalypse"»

Climate-change-denying politicians like to point to the cold snaps as some sort of proof global warming is not happening. But a new analysis of more than six decades of daily temperature and snowfall data by Cohen and his team suggests arctic heat waves may actually be linked to severe cold weather at lower latitudes… perhaps through the polar vortex.

"A warmer Arctic in general kind of favors these polar vortex disruptions. And when you get a polar vortex disruption, warm air from the lower latitudes rushes in to the Arctic, and you can get extreme warm events like we saw in February. But then the cold air that's normally locked up over the Arctic gets displaced and it heads to lower latitudes. It's all connected, I think it's all part of the same phenomenon."

The details are in the journal Nature Communications. [Judah Cohen, Karl Pfeiffer & Jennifer A. Francis, Warm Arctic episodes linked with increased frequency of extreme winter weather in the United States]

Important caveat: this research is just an observational study. So it doesn't show a definite mechanism for a warm Arctic causing more snowpocalypses. But if further studies bear this connection out, perhaps it'll kill the idea that cold weather means no climate change… and help keep snowballs off the senate floor.

—Christopher Intagliata


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‍ Arctic Heat Waves Linked to Snowpocalypse-Like Storms

February was unusually hot in the Arctic. Thawing out temperature: 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

"It made big news when it got to 35, I don't know if that's T-shirt weather yet, but…"

Judah Cohen, a climatologist at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, a company that does consulting on weather and climate. "The Arctic relatively is a much warmer place than it used to be."

Over the last few decades, the Arctic has heated up two to three times faster than the rest of the planet. But in the same period, Eurasia and the northeastern U.S. have been on a cold streak. With some serious cold air and snow.

«CLIP: News montage: "Snowmaggedon… Snowpocalypse"»

Climate-change-denying politicians like to point to the cold snaps as some sort of proof global warming is not happening. But a new analysis of more than six decades of daily temperature and snowfall data by Cohen and his team suggests arctic heat waves may actually be linked to severe cold weather at lower latitudes… perhaps through the polar vortex.

"A warmer Arctic in general kind of favors these polar vortex disruptions. And when you get a polar vortex disruption, warm air from the lower latitudes rushes in to the Arctic, and you can get extreme warm events like we saw in February. But then the cold air that's normally locked up over the Arctic gets displaced and it heads to lower latitudes. It's all connected, I think it's all part of the same phenomenon."

The details are in the journal Nature Communications. [Judah Cohen, Karl Pfeiffer & Jennifer A. Francis, Warm Arctic episodes linked with increased frequency of extreme winter weather in the United States]

Important caveat: this research is just an observational study. So it doesn't show a definite mechanism for a warm Arctic causing more snowpocalypses. But if further studies bear this connection out, perhaps it'll kill the idea that cold weather means no climate change… and help keep snowballs off the senate floor.

—Christopher Intagliata


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‍ The Internet Needs a Tune-Up



“So, the internet is really a network of networks that underlies critically so many things in our lives. But really 50 years ago it was an experiment that escaped from the lab. And it wasn’t really designed to be the global communications infrastructure it is today.”

Jennifer Rexford, a computer scientist at Princeton University specializing in computer networks. She spoke to Scientific AmericanEditor in Chief Mariette DiChristina at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos.

“So, it really planted the seeds of tremendous innovation around the periphery of the internet and the devices we connect to it and the applications we run over it. But ironically it didn’t plant the seeds of its own innovation. And we suffer from that every day, from the fact that we have denial-of-service attacks taking down websites, we have performance problems, Netflix streams grinding to a halt and so on.

“In my work on self-driving networks we’re bringing together two really exciting technologies: machine learning that’s transforming everything, by taking raw data into true situational awareness. And the second is programmable network switches that bring the same idea of enabling and lowering the barrier to innovation that we have at the outside of the internet to its basic underpinnings. So that we can learn how to sense and actuate better over time, so that the network can learn to detect performance problems and route around them. To detect denial-of-service attacks and block them before they do significant harm. So, the marriage of these two technologies is really happening now, and it’s a great opportunity to build an internet that actually is worthy of the trust that we increasingly place in it today.”

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‍ NYC Mice Are Packed with Pathogens

Rats. They’re a defining feature of life in New York City, rustling in trash bags, scurrying along the subway tracks—and becoming famous for occasionally eating pizza. But these urban vermin may be less of a threat to human health than their smaller, cuter cousins—the city’s mice.



"They're in your buildings, and they get into your kitchen cupboards, and they get behind refrigerators. So they have a real potential to contaminate the environment that you actually live in."



Simon Williams is a microbiologist at Columbia University and the University of Western Australia. He and his colleagues trapped more than 400 mice in apartment building basements in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. They took swabs of the mice's rear ends, gathered feces from the traps, and subjected both to a battery of genetic tests.



The mice harbored an array of disease-causing bacteria, like shigella, Clostridium difficile, salmonella. They also carried a suite of antibiotic-resistance genes, and viruses associated with insects, dogs, chickens and pigs. Mice from a Chelsea apartment building had the most pig virus—perhaps, the scientists say, because they live near the Meatpacking District, which used to have pork processing facilities before fashionable nightclubs took over.



The details are in the journal mBio. [Simon H. Williams et al., Viral Diversity of House Mice in New York City; and Simon H. Williams et al., New York City House Mice (Mus musculus) as Potential Reservoirs for Pathogenic Bacteria and Antimicrobial Resistance Determinants]



The mere fact that these microbes can be found in poop, though, isn't cause for immediate alarm. "You know we're not saying these bugs are all out to get us. We're just finding the genetic footprint. They're indicators, but we're not saying they're necessarily out there and there's a huge problem. So keep calm, in terms of the public health response."



Further work might tease out whether there's transmission of bacteria between mice feces and humans. Until then, there are plenty of other New Yorkers to investigate.



"Cockroach would be an amazing one to go onto next. I think they have real potential."



—Christopher Intagliata



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‍ Drumming Beats Speech for Distant Communication

The Bora people in the northwestern Amazon use drums to send languagelike messages across long distances. Christopher Intagliata reports.
Full Transcript

Before the internet or cell phones, radio or telegraph, long-distance communication meant riders on horseback, carrier pigeons or semaphore. But various cultures also developed ways to produce audio messages that travel miles—like the sounds of the manguaré drums of the Bora people in the northwestern Amazon.

The drums look like wooden cannons, with a slit on top. A player stands between two of them and beats out a rhythm—either purely musical, or a Morse code–like message. For example:

"Bring the coca leaves for toasting." «manguaré mm 01 00:58-01:05»

"They have this fantastic sound which resounds through the jungle and can be heard up to 15 to 20 kilometers away." Frank Seifert, a linguist at the University of Amsterdam and the University of Cologne. "That extends the range of the human voice by about a hundred."

There's a drinking game in Bora culture: who can drink the most cahuana, a non-alcoholic cassava drink. The winner might declare, «káPgúnúkòúβú ò áPţàkúnè» "I am finishing the cahuana." Or broadcast that boast on the drums. «drum version»

Seifert and his team analyzed those beats and the corresponding spoken phrases, «spoken, beat» and found the pauses corresponded to the number of vowels and consonants in the phrases.

"Depending whether the vowel is long or short, and whether there's consonants intervening between the vowels, the pauses between the beats are going to be shorter or longer."

The findings are in the journal Royal Society Open Science. [Frank Seifart et al., Reducing language to rhythm: Amazonian Bora drummed language exploits speech rhythm for long-distance communication]

Seifert says studies of Bora drumming may ultimately reveal something more fundamental about spoken language. "I think that shows very clearly how this fine temporal structure of language, this rhythmic structure embedded in speech, how important that is for language processing in general."

In the early 1900s, manguaré drums were reportedly heard daily in this part of the Amazon. Today, only 20 drums remain, and the Bora language is losing turf to Spanish. But for now…the beat goes on.

—Christopher Intagliata

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‍ Culture Shapes Kids' Views of Nature


Hi, I’m Scientific American podcast editor Steve Mirsky. And here’s a short piece from the April issue of the magazine, in the section we call Advances: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Science, Technology and Medicine:

How do young children understand the natural world? Most research into this question has focused on urban, white, middle-class American children living near large universities. Even when psychologists include kids from other communities, too often they use experimental procedures originally developed for urban children. Now researchers have developed a methodology for studying rural Native American kids' perspectives on nature and have compared their responses with those of their city-dwelling peers. The findings offer some rare cross-cultural insight into early childhood environmental education.

Sandra Waxman, a developmental psychologist at Northwestern University, and her colleagues have long collaborated with the Menominee, a Native American nation in Wisconsin. When the researchers presented plans for their study to tribe members who were trained research assistants, the assistants protested that the experiment—which involved watching children play with toy animals—was not culturally appropriate. It does not make sense to the Menominee to think of animals as divorced from their ecological contexts, Waxman says.

Instead one of the Menominee researchers constructed a diorama that included realistic trees, grass and rocks, as well as the original toy animals. The researchers watched as three groups of four-year-olds played with the diorama: rural Menominee, as well as Native Americans and other Americans living in Chicago and its suburbs.

All three groups were more likely to enact realistic scenarios with the toy animals than imaginary scenarios. But both groups of Native American kids were more likely to imagine they were the animals rather than give the animals human attributes. And the rural Menominee were especially talkative during the experiment, contrary to previous research that characterized these children as less verbal than their non–Native American peers. The results were published last November in the Journal of Cognition and Development.

“The involvement of tribal communities in all aspects of the research—planning, design, execution, analysis and dissemination—has to be the minimum requirement of all research involving Native people,” says Iowa State University STEM scholars program director Corey Welch, who is a member of the Northern Cheyenne

Nature or nurture Jason G. Goldman

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‍ Africa: Future Worldwide Science Hub

“In a couple of decades from now Africa is going to be the powerhouse of human capital globally—the youngest continent in terms of young demography.”

Thierry Zomahoun. He’s the President and CEO of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. He spoke with Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina, who recorded these comments, at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos.

“Africa is…going to be the global hub for science discoveries in this century. How to make this happen is going to take three things in my view. Number one, we’ve got a massive view of untapped scientific talent, a wave of youngsters are coming. What we need to do is to provide these young people with the equal system within which they can flourish as great scientists and successful scientists. Equal system meaning training, give them the right training, give them research infrastructure for them to be able to come up as a great scientist.

“So, second thing this is going to take is a conducive policy environment. Political leaders, industry leaders must join forces to come up with policies which are conducive for science in Africa.

“And lastly, global collaboration around science. We need the American continent, the European continent, all continents, to join forces around Africa to collaborate effectively—researchers from the West and Africa to collaborate around some of the grand challenges which necessitate breakthrough research.”

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Google's AL Assistant Does Your Tasks

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Africa: Future Worldwide Science Hub

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Healthful Eating Requires Supermarket Smarts


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Healthful Eating Requires Supermarket Smarts


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Archaeologist Makes a Case for Seafaring Niandertals

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Plants Can Sense Animal Attack Coming

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Mars Lander Will Peer Inside the Red Planet

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Jupiter and Venus Squeeze Earth's Orbit


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Hunting Rules

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Hunting Rules

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Radar Scans Detail North Korean Nukes

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Stool-Pigeon Poop Reveals Bird-Racing Fouls

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Stool-Pigeon Poop Reveals Bird-Racing Fouls

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Great Ape Makes Good Doc

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Doc's YA Novel Treats Life-and-Death Issues

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Doc's YA Novel Treats Life-and-Death Issues

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Doc's YA Novel Treats Life-and-Death Issues

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Astronomy Tool Helps ID Sharks

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Border Wall Could Distrupt Hundreds of Species

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Border Wall Could Distrupt Hundreds of Species

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Border Wall Could Distrupt Hundreds of Species

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Advanced Listening( C1, C2)
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Advanced Listening( C1, C2)
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