Thursday, April 14, 2011

Humpback whales spread songs outward like pop tunes.

So cool! From EurekAlert:
Humpback whales have their own version of the hit single, according to a study reported online on April 14th in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication. At any given time within a population, male humpbacks all sing the same mating tune. But the pattern of the song changes over time, with the new and apparently catchy versions of the song spreading repeatedly across the ocean, almost always traveling from west to east.

"Our findings reveal cultural change on a vast scale," said Ellen Garland, a graduate student at The University of Queensland. Multiple songs moved like "cultural ripples from one population to another, causing all males to change their song to a new version." This is the first time that such broad-scale and population-wide cultural exchange has been documented in any species other than humans, she added.

Researchers from The University of Queensland in collaboration with members of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium made the discovery by searching for patterns in whale songs recorded from six neighboring populations in the Pacific Ocean over a decade. This revealed a striking pattern of cultural transmission as whale songs spread from Australia to French Polynesia over the course of about two years.

"The songs started in the population that migrates along the eastern coast of Australia and then moved—just the songs, and probably not the whales—all the way to French Polynesia in the east," Garland said. "Songs were first learnt from males in the west and then subsequently learned in a stepwise fashion repeatedly across the vast region."

In fact, only one song ever moved to the west over the period of the study. Garland explained that the almost exclusive movement of songs to the east may be due to population size differences, because the population on the east coast of Australia is very large compared to all others in the area. The researchers suspect that either a small number of males move to other populations, taking their songs with them, or whales in nearby populations hear the new songs while they swim together on migration.

Most of the time, songs contain some material from the previous year blended with something new. "It would be like splicing an old Beatles song with U2," Garland said. "Occasionally they completely throw the current song out the window and start singing a brand new song."

Once a new song emerges, all the males seem to rapidly change their tune. Those songs generally rise to the "top of the chart" in the course of one breeding season and typically take over by the end of it.

Garland said it is not yet known why the humpbacks' songs spread in this way. In fact, why whales sing in the first place isn't fully known. Song is likely a mating display, but it is unclear whether the main effect is to attract females or to repel rival males.

Still, Garland suspects that the whales may want to stand out like a new pop song. "We think this male quest for song novelty is in the hope of being that little bit different and perhaps more attractive to the opposite sex," she said. "This is then countered by the urge to sing the same tune, by the need to conform."

Cuba faces worst drought in 50 years.

From BBC:
Cuba is facing its worst drought in half a century, with tens of thousands of families almost entirely reliant on water trucks for essential supplies.

The drought started two years ago, and reservoirs are now down to a fifth of their normal levels.

The government is providing road deliveries of water to more than 100,000 people in the worst affected areas of the capital, Havana.

The situation in Havana is compounded by a pipe network in poor condition.

The state-run newspaper Granma says up to 70% of water pipes supplying the capital are leaking and in urgent need of repair, the BBC's Michael Voss in Havana says.

Residents are having to use buckets and bottles to fill up with water from the road deliveries.

"It's completely out of control," one resident, Ana Gomez, said. "Just imagine that you can't wash when you want to, you have to wash when you are able to."

Another, Enrique Olivera Gonzalez, said: "As there is no water, you can't wash your clothes, cook, or clean your house."

Cubans are hoping the rainy season in May and June will bring some respite.

But even a normal rainfall will not be enough to fill up the reservoirs, our correspondent says.


Media: How the advertising boycott helped push Glenn Beck off the air.

Duh: Civic group finds the LIRR is the least efficient commuter railroad in the nation.

Health: India emerges as world's leading vaccine producer.

Duh: US Senate probe finds Goldman Sachs knowingly misled and fleeced their investors.

Booze: Cheap wine as good as expensive wine in blind taste tests.

Monday, April 11, 2011

How the wild hamster was tamed.

From NPR:
In the spring of 1930, a biologist named Israel Aharoni ventured into Syria on a mission. He was searching for a rare golden mammal.

Its name in Arabic translates roughly as "Mr. Saddlebags." Thanks to Aharoni, the little rodent with the big cheeks can now be found in many grade-school classrooms, running on a little wheel in a little cage.

That's right. Aharoni's big find was the hamster.

Of course, Aharoni didn't set out looking for a schoolchild's pet, biologist Rob Dunn tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. Dunn, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, wrote about the hamster's discovery in a recent article on

One of Aharoni's colleagues, Saul Adler, thought the animal might be similar enough to humans to use for medical research. "Aharoni saw this as a chance to both to discover this organism in the wild and to bring them back to Adler so he could make major discoveries about humans," Dunn says.

Following tips from local farmers, Aharoni tracked down a litter of 11 hamsters in a Syrian wheat field. He put the little family in a box, and trouble started immediately when mama hamster ate one of her babies.

More troubles followed in the lab. There was more hamster cannibalism, and five others escaped from their cage — never to be found. Finally, two of the remaining three hamsters started to breed, an event hailed as a miracle by their frustrated caretakers.

Those Adam-and-Eve hamsters produced 150 offspring, Dunn says, and they started to travel abroad, sent between labs or via the occasional coat pocket. Today, the hamsters you see in pet stores are most likely descendants of Aharoni's litter.

Fertilizers causing huge destruction to Europe's environment and economy.

Jeez. Item.

A major new study has found that nitrogen pollution is costing each person in Europe around £130 - £650 (€150 – €740) a year. The first European Nitrogen Assessment (ENA) is launched at a conference today (11 April) in Edinburgh, Scotland. The 4 minute long official launch video can be watched on Youtube.

The study, carried out by 200 experts from 21 countries and 89 organizations, estimates that the annual cost of damage caused by nitrogen across Europe is £60 - £280 billion (€70 - €320 billion), more than double the extra income gained from using nitrogen fertilizers in European agriculture.

Professor Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), welcomed the report. He said, "The assessment emphasizes how nitrogen links the different environmental issues that we have come to know so well: climate, biodiversity, air, water, and soil pollution. It develops the vision for a more holistic approach, which is vital if we are to make progress in tackling these issues."

The ENA (available to download here) is the first time that the multiple threats of nitrogen pollution, including contributions to climate change and biodiversity loss, have been valued in economic terms at a continental scale. As well as identifying key threats the assessment also identifies the geographical areas at greatest risk of damage by nitrogen pollution. The report provides EU policymakers with a comprehensive scientific assessment on the consequences of failing to address the problem of nitrogen pollution – and outlines key actions that can be taken to reduce the problem to protect environmental and public health.

The assessment deals with ‘reactive nitrogen’ which includes ammonia, nitrous oxide (laughing gas), nitrogen oxides (NOx) which form acid rain and smog, and nitrates, as distinct from the ‘inert nitrogen’ which makes up 78% of the atmosphere.

Key messages from the assessment include:

  • At least ten million people in Europe are potentially exposed to drinking water with nitrate concentrations above recommended levels.
  • Nitrates cause toxic algal blooms and dead zones in the sea, especially in the North, Adriatic and Baltic seas and along the coast of Brittany.
  • Nitrogen-based air pollution from agriculture, industry and traffic in urban areas contributes to particulate matter air pollution, which is reducing life expectancy by several months across much of central Europe.
  • In the forests atmospheric nitrogen deposition has caused at least 10% loss of plant diversity over two-thirds of Europe.

The lead editor of the ENA, Dr Mark Sutton from the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said, “Nearly half the world’s population depends on synthetic, nitrogen-based fertilizer for food but measures are needed to reduce the impacts of nitrogen pollution. Solutions include more efficient use of fertilizers and manures, and people choosing to eat less meat. We have the know-how to reduce nitrogen pollution, but what we need now is to apply these solutions throughout Europe in an integrated way.”

Squids experience massive acoustic trauma from ocean noise pollution.

Sad. From EurekAlert:
Noise pollution in the oceans has been shown to cause physical and behavioral changes in marine life, especially in dolphins and whales, which rely on sound for daily activities. However, low frequency sound produced by large scale, offshore activities is also suspected to have the capacity to cause harm to other marine life as well. Giant squid, for example, were found along the shores of Asturias, Spain in 2001 and 2003 following the use of airguns by offshore vessels and examinations eliminated all known causes of lesions in these species, suggesting that the squid deaths could be related to excessive sound exposure.

Michel André, Technical University of Catalonia in Barcelona, and colleagues examined the effects of low frequency sound exposure—similar to what the giant squid would have experienced in Asturias—in four cephalopod species. As reported in an article published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (e-View), a journal of the Ecological Society of America, all of the exposed squid, octopus and cuttlefish exhibited massive acoustic trauma in the form of severe lesions in their auditory structures.

The researchers exposed 87 individual cephalopods—specifically, Loligo vulgaris, Sepia officinalis, Octopus vulgaris and Illex coindeti—to short sweeps of relatively low intensity, low frequency sound between 50 and 400 Hertz (Hz) and examined their statocysts. Statocysts are fluid-filled, balloon-like structures that help these invertebrates maintain balance and position—similar to the vestibular system of mammals. The scientists' results confirmed that statocysts indeed play a role in perceiving low frequency sound in cephalopods.

André and colleagues also found that, immediately following exposure to low frequency sound, the cephalopods showed hair cell damage within the statocysts. Over time, nerve fibers became swollen and, eventually, large holes appeared—these lesions became gradually more pronounced in individuals that were examined several hours after exposure. In other words, damage to the cephalopods' auditory systems emerged immediately following exposure to short, low intensity sweeps of low frequency sound. All of the individuals exposed to the sound showed evidence of acoustic trauma, compared with unexposed individuals that did not show any damage.

"If the relatively low intensity, short exposure used in our study can cause such severe acoustic trauma, then the impact of continuous, high intensity noise pollution in the oceans could be considerable," said André. "For example, we can predict that, since the statocyst is responsible for balance and spatial orientation, noise-induced damage to this structure would likely affect the cephalopod's ability to hunt, evade predators and even reproduce; in other words, this would not be compatible with life."

The effect of noise pollution on marine life varies according to the proximity of the animal to the activity and the intensity and frequency of the sound. However, with the increase in offshore drilling, cargo ship transportation, excavation and other large-scale, offshore activities, it is becoming more likely that these activities will overlap with migratory routes and areas frequented by marine life.

"We know that noise pollution in the oceans has a significant impact on dolphins and whales because of the vital use of acoustic information of these species," said André, "but this is the first study indicating a severe impact on invertebrates, an extended group of marine species that are not known to rely on sound for living. It left us with several questions: Is noise pollution capable of impacting the entire web of ocean life? What other effects is noise having on marine life, beyond damage to auditory reception systems? And just how widespread and invasive is sound pollution in the marine environment?"

Absolutely nothing interesting happened on this day in history.

From NPR, who know a little something about boringness.
Coming into work this morning we heard Morning Edition's Renee Montagne say that April 11, 1954, according to a British computer scientist, was "the most uneventful day of the 20th century" because nothing much happened on that date.

That sounded familiar. And, sure enough, we blogged about that very claim last November, when All Things Considered talked about it.

Which makes us wonder:

Has all this talk about what didn't happen 57 years ago today made that day any more interesting? While we can't go back in time to change things (or can we, sci-fi fans?), is saying something isn't interesting making it interesting?

We e-mailed William Tunstall-Pedoe, the man behind the notion that April 11, 1954, was so dull. Here's how he responded to our musings:

— "(a) Yes, the attention paid to the day has certainly now made it far more interesting that many other days.

— "However, (b) our original conclusion based on the lack of things that actually happened that day still stands. It is the exceptional boringness that makes it interesting."

Pistachios deliver weight management support, other health benefits.

From EurekAlert:
Washington, D.C., April 11, 2011 – In a first-of-its-kind study with nuts, randomized controlled-feeding research conducted by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that fat in pistachios may not be completely absorbed by the body. The findings indicate that pistachios may actually contain fewer calories per serving than originally thought – further validating pistachios as one of the lowest calorie nuts with 160 calories per 30 gram serving (approximately 1 ounce). The study was presented today at the Experimental Biology conference in Washington, D.C.

The research measured the energy value of pistachios by feeding 16 healthy adults the nuts as part of a controlled diet and calculating the energy value from differences in energy excretion during the dietary treatment timeframe. The resulting energy value of one 30 gram serving of pistachios was 5.9 percent less than previous calculations.

"Existing scientific research indicates that fat from nuts is poorly absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract," said lead ARS researcher David J. Baer, Ph.D., Supervisory Research Physiologist with the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center. "This study confirms that the fat from pistachio nuts, specifically, is not completely digested or absorbed, resulting in a lower energy value."

Additional data from this study presented at Experimental Biology reinforced the heart-health benefits of pistachios. The ARS researchers found that when healthy individuals included 1.5 and 3 ounces of pistachios into their typical American diet, cardio-supportive results were shown.

The new data demonstrating the potential calorie savings of pistachios builds on previous research showing that pistachios are a weight-wise snack. According to researchers at the University of California – Los Angeles, choosing to snack on pistachios rather than pretzels not only supports body mass index (BMI) goals, but can support heart health, too.

In a 12-week randomized study, 52 overweight and obese subjects were placed on a 500-calorie deficit diet and assigned to either a pistachio snack (about 75 pistachios providing 240 calories) or a pretzel snack group (two-ounces of pretzels providing 220 calories). The results showed that the pistachio group had better success with supporting their BMI goals compared to the pretzel group, showing pistachios can be included in a healthy diet, even for those managing their weight.

Additionally, pistachios – also known as the "Skinny Nut" – are shown to be a "mindful snack" in terms of taking longer to eat and requiring the snacker to slow down and be more conscious of what has been consumed. According to behavioral eating expert, James Painter, Ph.D., R.D., Chair of the School of Family and Consumer Sciences at Eastern Illinois University, "Our research shows in-shell snackers eat 41-percent fewer calories than those who snack on shelled nuts. We also found that in-shell pistachios offer a visual cue to help reduce intake. When leftover shells are cleared immediately, snackers eat up to 22 percent more compared to leaving left over shells as a reminder of consumption. "

Pistachios are also a good source of fiber and protein. Providing about 49 kernels per 30 grams (approximately 1 ounce) serving, pistachios offer the most nuts per serving when compared to other popular snack nuts – comparatively, almonds have 23 in a serving, walnuts 14 halves and cashews, 18.

Chiquita banana company sued for murdering over 4,000 Colombians.

Sent in by JenK. Item. And more info here.
Despite some efforts by Chiquita to clean up its act in recent years, its long history of human rights abuses is coming back to haunt the company. Chiquita is being sued by the families of more than 4,000 Colombians murdered by illegal armed groups funded by Chiquita.

More than 100 lawyers have filed the suits for different groups of victims, but are all working together, according to Colombia Reports, to make one giant case against the company.

The Irish Times writes, "The civil cases follow Chiquita's admission in 2007 that it paid $1.7 million (€1.2 million) to the AUC between 1997 and 2004 and acknowledged previous payments to other groups."

That admission was preceded by a secret Justice Department investigation, at which time Chiquita was represented by Eric Holder—yes, the current Attorney General. Chiquita was fined $25 million.

Lamest bank robbery attempt ever?

From NY Post:
Who planned this bank heist? Woody Allen?

Like a scene from Allen's classic film "Take the Money and Run," a nebbishy knucklehead in a black yarmulke allegedly tried to rob a Bank of America in Queens only to give up after the teller refused to comply with his demand note.

"OK, I will go to Citibank . . . I will rob them instead!" Harold Luken, 45, allegedly declared in the Forest Hills branch shortly before being grabbed by cops, police sources said.

The shtick-up began at about 1:50 p.m. Thursday when Luken walked into the bank at 107-26 71st Ave., carrying an acoustic guitar. He apparently didn't want to cause too much of a fuss.

"I am gonna rob the bank," he allegedly yelled. "I have a gun, but I'm gonna wait on line."

True to his word, Luken patiently waited for his turn at the teller window. Once there, he allegedly said, "I'm gonna rob the bank."

He added, "First, I'm gonna pass you a note . . .", police sources said.

The note didn't read, "I have a gub," as in the famous robbery scene from the Allen flick, but it had just as little impact.

When teller Sean Knudsen balked at giving him money, Luken asked for the balance in his own account, police sources said.

Knudsen didn't even give him that.

Luken slunk out of the bank, only to be arrested by 112th Precinct cops.