May 21, 2013 9:13 am
For every endangered animal, there are probably at least two plans to save it. Many of these plans involve raising public awareness, conserving habitat, removing invasive species or breeding new members in captivity. But for the marbled murrelet, the plan is a little different: making their predators vomit.
Basically, scientists are going to paint the odorless, tasteless chemical called carbachol onto the eggs of the marbeled murrelet. This way, when an egg-eating Steller’s jay comes along and tries to chow down on the endangered birds’ vulnerable eggs, the jay will puke immediately. This sudden, extreme response is perfect for teaching jays to avoid murrelet eggs, researcher Keith Benson told Live Science: ”All of a sudden, their wings will droop, and they throw up. That’s exactly what you want — a rapid response — so within five minutes, they barf up whatever they ate.”
This sort of conditioning of the jays is called conditioned taste aversion (CTA). The Fish and Wildlife Service explains that”[j]ays that ingest carbacholtreated eggs are expected to associate the unpleasant experience with murrelet eggs such that they modify their behavior and avoid ingesting actual murrelet eggsthey encounter in the future.”
This is actually part of a two-pronged strategy to keep the Steller’s jay from taking over murrelet territory. The second prong involves keeping humans from feeding the jays. It turns out that there are more jays near campgrounds—full of tasty trash—than there are anywhere else in their range.
The marbled murrelet is a weird little bird. It spends some of its time in the redwood forest and some of its time in the Pacific Ocean. They’re like puffins—little duck like birds with webbed feet—which makes it odd to see them in the forest. But the birds breed in the forest, which is where the jay likes to snatch their eggs. Because of this egg snatching, along with deforestation and pollution, the murrelet population is down by over 90 percent compared to it nineteenth century population. The Steller’s jay, however, is doing quite well. The Cornell Ornithology lab describes them as “bold, inquisitive, intelligent, and noisy.” Now they can add “pukey” to that list.
More from Smithsonian.com:
May 20, 2013 2:03 pm
If animals were to compete in a space-based reality survival show, lizards might emerge victorious. At least, that’s the indication of a Russian experiment concluded yesterday when a space capsule containing live mice, lizards, crayfish and fish was recovered around 750 miles south of Moscow, the Associated Press reports.
The capsule spent a month traveling 375 miles above the planet’s surface. That’s higher than the International Space Station’s orbit. The Russian scientists say that this experiment represents that longest period animals have ever spent alone in space and been recovered alive. In 2007, AP writes, the last research capsule to carry live animals into space spent only 12 days in orbit.
Not all of the research subjects made it, however.
Fewer than half of the 53 mice and other rodents who blasted off on April 19 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome survived the flight, Russian news agencies reported, quoting Vladimir Sychov, deputy director of the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems and the lead researcher.
Sychov said this was to be expected and the surviving mice were sufficient to complete the study, which was designed to show the effects of weightlessness and other factors of space flight on cell structure. All 15 of the lizards survived, he said.
The ordeal is not over for the surviving mice and lizards, however. They will be flown back to Moscow, where researchers will perform laboratory tests on them to better understand the atrophying effects of space.
The AP does not mention what happened to the crayfish and fish.
More from Smithsonian.com:
May 20, 2013 11:01 am
“Dying of a broken heart” is more than just a turn of phrase. The despair of losing a loved one—the stress and the anxiety and the pumping adrenaline—can actually kill you. Writing for The Conversation, cardiologist Alexander Lyon tells the tale of the broken-hearted, those whose hearts simply shut down during times of stress.
Known to doctors as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, broken heart syndrome is a special type of heart attack. In a normal heart attack, a blocked artery chokes the flow of blood to the heart, cutting off the supply of oxygen and killing heart tissues. In a Takotsubo heart attack, there is no such blockage. For the broken-hearted, nine out of ten of whom are “middle-aged or elderly women,” says Lyon:
They have chest pains, a shortness of breath and ECG monitors show the same extreme changes which we see with a heart attack.
But when an angiogram is performed, none of their coronary arteries are blocked. Instead, the lower half of their ventricle, the main pumping chamber of their heart, shows a very peculiar and distinctive abnormality – it fails to contract, and appears partially or completely paralysed.
…In the most extreme cases the heart can stop – a cardiac arrest.
We’re still not really sure what causes broken heart syndrome, writes Lyon, but research suggests that adrenaline—the hormone behind the body’s “fight or flight” response—may be to blame.
At low and medium levels adrenaline is a stimulating hormone, triggering the heart to beat harder and faster, which we need during exercise or stress. However at the highest levels it has the opposite effect and can reduce the power the heart has to beat and triggering temporary heart muscle paralysis.
Unlike normal heart attacks, where the tissues are usually damaged for good, people can often walk away from a Takotsubo heart attack unscathed. But though the physical damage may be undone, a broken heart never truly mends.
More from Smithsonian.com:
May 17, 2013 10:19 am
There are still some pretty annoying things about being left-handed. But in America, at least, we’ve mostly stopped forcing lefties to learn to use their right hand. That’s not the case everywhere, though. China, for example, claims that less than one percent of students are left-handed. If that were true, it would be strange: the global average of lefties comes in at 10-12 percent. A study in the journal Endeavor recently took on this question: Why are there no left-handers in China? The researchers also looked at India and Islamic countries and discovered that nearly two-thirds of the world’s lefty population faces discrimination.
There’s nothing special about the genetics of people living in China that makes them less likely to be lefties. Chinese-Americans are just as likely to be left handed as any other Americans. The lefties in China are actually switching their dominant hands. Why? Because it’s simply more difficult for them to stick with their naturally dominate hand than for people in Europe of the United States. Many Chinese characters require a right hand, says Discovery News.
Elsewhere, stigma against lefties still exists. Discovery News reports:
In many Muslim parts of the world, in parts of Africa as well as in India, the left hand is considered the dirty hand and it’s considered offensive to offer that hand to anyone, even to help. The discrimination against lefties goes back thousands of years in many cultures, including those of the West.
Even the word left comes from “lyft” which meant broken. The German words “linkisch” also means awkward. The Russian word “levja” is associated with being untrustworthy. Synonyms for left in Mandarin are things like weird, incorrect and wrong.
And for a long time there were all sorts of ways to “retrain” lefties. An article in The Lancet explains the “scientific” rationales used:
The methods used to obtain this result were often tortuous, including tying a resistant child’s left hand to immobilise it. Typical of the reasoning to justify such practices is a 1924 letter to the British Medical Journal endorsing “retraining” of left-handers to write with their right hands, because otherwise the left-handed child would risk “retardation in mental development; in some cases…actual feeble-mindedness”. As late as 1946 the former chief psychiatrist of the New York City Board of Education, Abram Blau, warned that, unless retrained, left-handed children risked severe developmental and learning disabilities and insisted that “children should be encouraged in their early years to adopt dextrality…in order to become better equipped to live in our right-sided world”.
While today in the United States and Europe, left handed kids aren’t punished and retrained, these same sorts of biases still exist in large parts of the world, proving that righties are just as capable as being sinister as lefties.
More from Smithsonian.com:
May 17, 2013 9:16 am
Picture a mountain climber, trekking up Mount Everest. Is he kind of burly? Does he have a beard? He’s probably a man—a white man. That’s about accurate: 78 percent of Americans who took part in activities outdoors last year were white. Only 37 percent of African American kids between 6 and 12 did any sort of outdoor sport, from hiking to fishing.
Expedition Denali, a group of teachers and students dedicated to promoting hiking and outdoor activities among minority groups, just ran a successful Kickstarter to fund 12 teachers and students who will become the first African American team to reach the top of Denali—North America’s highest mountain. Here is their video:
Other organizations are trying to increase the diversity of their outdoor groups as well. Outside Magazine reports on the National Outdoor Leadership School:
In 1994, the Lander, Wyoming, nonprofit devised a diversity program that has since doled out more than $1.5 million in scholarships to help get minority youth into its courses, which teach wilderness and leadership skills through extended adventure trips. “We work hard to recruit young people of color, but we still struggle,” says Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, who manages NOLS’s diversity program. “There are many barriers, including the lack of role models.” That’s where Expedition Denali comes in, and NOLS has budgeted nearly $250,000 for the group’s efforts.
Another website, Outdoor Afro, tries to encourage minorities to get outdoors as well. The group’s founder, Rue Mapp, explains why she started Outdoor Afro in this NPR interview. Her site describes the group’s purpose this way:
Outdoor Afro is a social community that reconnects African-Americans with natural spaces and one another through recreational activities such as camping, hiking, biking, birding, fishing, gardening, skiing — and more!
Outdoor Afro disrupts the false perception that black people do not have a relationship with nature, and works to shift the visual representation of who can connect with the outdoors.
Together, these sites and expeditions hope to communicate with communities that don’t tend to participate in hiking, climbing, fishing and biking. And while they acknowledge that 12 people reaching the top of one mountain won’t solve all the problems, it can help raise awareness of the tiny numbers of minorities who hike in the first place.
More from Smithsonian.com: