Archive for December, 2008

Bonnie the Orangutan Is the First Whistling Primate

By Nina Bai | December 16, 2008 1:53 pm

orangutanScientists were stunned when they first heard Bonnie whistle. The 30-year-old female orangutan at the Smithsonian National Zoo had never been taught to whistle, but she figured out the trick all by herself back in the 1980s, according to her caretakers. That makes her the first documented case of a primate spontaneously mimicking the sounds of another species—in this case, humans.

Though she can’t carry a tune, Bonnie seems to enjoy whistling and will usually happily comply when asked to do it. You can even watch her whistle on Youtube. The researchers, who published a paper on Bonnie in the journal Primates [subscription required], say she also taught another orangutan, Indah, how to whistle. Bonnie and Indah dispel the theory that orangutan vocalizations are only involuntary reactions to stimuli, and are mainly determined by evolutionary factors.

Instead, whistling orangutans suggest that orangutans can learn and teach each other new vocalizations. This would explain why separate populations of orangutans in the wild seem to maintain different repertoires of sounds—which can include screams, grumbles, barks, raspberries, and kiss squeaks.

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MORE ABOUT: orangutan, primates

Egad! Oldest Spider Web Dates Back to Dinosaur Era

By Adam Hadhazy | December 15, 2008 6:38 pm

spider’s web.jpgA British paleobiologist thinks he’s found traces of the oldest spider web on record.

Millimeter-thin strands of the presumed web have remained trapped, Jurassic Park-style, in fossilized tree resin (better known as amber) for eons. An amateur fossil hunter stumbled upon the chunk of archaic amber on a beach in southern England.

Martin Brasier, the Oxford University scientist who examined the specimen under a microscope, estimates the encapsulated web dates back some 140 million years to the Cretaceous period. That’s in the heyday of the dinosaurs, well before they went extinct about 65 million years ago. Though not a full web, the preserved strands still form a circular pattern that resembles the orbs spun by modern-day arachnids the world over.

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MORE ABOUT: dinosaurs, fossils, spiders

Periodic Table Gifts: All I Want For Christmas Is…Uranium?

By Nina Bai | December 15, 2008 3:48 pm

goldFor the science-inclined, there is something very sexy about the periodic table and how, by a simple accounting of protons in atomic nuclei, its neat rows and columns reveal the peculiar behaviors of elements—the irreducible components of our world. Anyone who has taken time to ponder the periodic table has his or her favorites, whether it’s based on their explosive properties (potassium), their illustrious namesakes (curium, named after the Curies), or their silly abbreviations (Uup, Uuh).

An amazing team at the University of Nottingham has been sharing its love of the periodic table by making short Youtube videos of all 118 elements, from helium to ununoctium. The team goes to great lengths to showcase the elements, including handling vials of highly toxic arsenic and traveling to frosty Ytterby, Sweden (the birthplace of yttrium, ytterbium, terbium, and erbium). Check out the entire Periodic Table of Videos.

Their latest video is called “What Element Would You Like for Christmas?” in which they pose that question to researchers, all of whom seem to have a ready answer. One researcher selects neodymium, for its Christmas-y colors; more than one picks platinum, the most expensive element. What would you pick?

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New Species Alert! Hot Pink Millipede, Collosal Spider, and Tiny Deer Emerge.

By Nina Bai | December 15, 2008 1:32 pm

pink millipedeFor the last ten years, two new species a week have been identified in the Greater Mekong, a swath of diverse ecosystems along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. In a new World Wildlife Fund report [pdf], scientists say they have documented at least 1,068 new species since 1997.

These aren’t run-of-the-mill species, either. Take Desmoxytes purpurosea, a bubble-gum pink “dragon” millipede that looks like a Halloween prop. Scientists found the thumb-sized centipede just sitting around on rocks and palm trees. Its shocking pink color is actually a warning to would-be predators: get too close and they’ll have to contend with the deadly cyanide that the millipede secretes. This millipede won a spot in Arizona State University’s annual Top Ten New Species.

The new species also include 88 types of spiders. The report says the “most remarkable” of these is the colossal cave-dwelling Heteropoda maxima. With a legspan of 30 centimeters (12 inches), it is the largest huntsman spider in the world.

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MORE ABOUT: mammals, spiders, vietnam

Weekly Science Blog Roundup

By Nina Bai | December 12, 2008 7:02 pm

Yee-haw! It’s the blog roundup.• Look up! The biggest full moon in 15 years (if you’re in the Northern hemisphere) will rise tonight…like an extra-large pizza.

• There are more than one billion people in the world who speak Chinese. Still, the Max Planck Institute didn’t bother to find one to proofread the calligraphy splashed across the cover of their science journal. The “classical poem” turned out to be a racy brothel ad.

• Is it a boy or a girl? A baby’s sex may be determined by the father’s genes.

• Scientists find that bats’ echolocation can hit 110 decibels—about as loud as an iPod on full volume.

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MORE ABOUT: bats, Chinese, moon

Don't Jump! Japanese Use Blue Lighting to Reduce Suicides

By Nina Bai | December 12, 2008 1:24 pm

blue lightsFeeling stressed or sad? Before you succumb to the blues, try standing under a blue light. Several cities around the world claim to have reduced suicides, crime, and even traffic accidents by installing blue lights in the public spaces.

In Glasgow, Scotland, blue streetlights installed in 2000 have reduced street crimes noticeably. In Japan, a country notorious for its high suicide rates—authorities say in 2007 alone there were 640 suicides attempted by jumping in front of oncoming trains—two railroad companies have turned to light therapy. After blue lights were installed on station platforms and near railway crossings, the number of suicide attempts dropped to zero. Also in Japan, hundreds of blue lights have been installed along highways and rest stops. An expressway operator said trash cans near blue lights received 20 percent less garbage.

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EPA Launches "Most Wanted" List of Environmental Fugitives

By Nina Bai | December 11, 2008 3:21 pm

epaJun Wang dumped fuel from his tanker trunk into Little Beaver Creek in Kettering, Ohio. Allesandro and Carlos Giordano, a father and son team, imported and sold cars that didn’t meet U.S. emissions standards. These are just some of the characters on the Environmental Protection Agency’s new “Most Wanted” list of environmental fugitives.

The list is posted on the agency’s website and includes mugshots of 23 people along with their alleged violations and suspected whereabouts. And the EPA wants your help in capturing them. The Web site has information on who to call if you see any of the suspects—it’s usually the Criminal Investigation Division office in the city where they were charged. There are also Wanted posters you can print out.

But don’t, they warn, take green justice into your own hands:

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MORE ABOUT: crime, environment, EPA

Throw Them a Bone! New Research Shows Dogs Get Jealous

By Boonsri Dickinson | December 11, 2008 12:28 pm

zola.JPGWe know that whales fall in love, horses feel pride, and primates can even become embarrassed and envious. And now it appears that dogs get jealous, too. A new study out of the University of Vienna is the first time scientists have observed and documented envy in a non-primate species, though people who own dogs may have already seen it in action.

The research team asked 14 trained dogs to “shake” in a series of experiments. To test for jealousy, the researchers put the dogs in a room alone, or put them in the company of another familiar dog (either an acquaintance or another dog from the same household). And while the researchers didn’t offer the dogs a bone, they did give one or the other of the dogs either sausage or bread when they wanted to reward the dogs for performing the task. When the hungry dogs realized they were doing the same work but not getting any food in return, they became jealous of their companion, who was getting fed.

In fact, the dogs who were denied treat would eventually stop shaking the researcher’s hand entirely, and would look away from the researcher and even scratch, yawn, and lick their mouths.

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MORE ABOUT: dogs, jealousy, primates, whales

Children’s “Teddy-nauts” Shot Into Space

By Boonsri Dickinson | December 10, 2008 6:34 pm

teddy-bears.jpgFor the past three decades, the U.K.’s space policy has been in favor of sending robots into space, but not humans. And certainly not bears—of the living variety, that is. Last Thursday, a group of British school children tweaked that policy a bit when they sent teddy bears into space.

The project was part of the Cambridge University Spaceflight program, which worked with 11- and 12-year-olds from nearby schools to encourage science education. Not to get too technical, this is how the teddy bears made it into space. First, the students had to design space suits for the bears, so they could withstand the extreme temperatures and pressure present in near space.

On the day of the launch, the space team gathered at Churchill College with four space-suited teddy bears. The bears were placed in a foam box filled with instruments and cameras. When the conditions were just right, the “teddy-nauts” were launched into space with a helium balloon.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Aliens Therefrom
MORE ABOUT: britain, education, space, toys

Move Over, Heroin: "Sugar Addiction" May Be a Reality

By Nina Bai | December 10, 2008 3:53 pm

cookiesMany people (Discoblog editors included) who crave that mid-afternoon cookie fix may joke that they have a sugar addiction, but now scientists have made it official. Researchers at Princeton University report that sugar-loving mice demonstrate all three criteria of addiction: increased intake, withdrawal, and cravings that lead to relapse.

Previous work has shown that mice deprived of food for several hours and then allowed to binge on sugar water (with concentrations similar to that of soft drinks) soon developed addictive behaviors. Sugar intake causes the release of dopamine in the brain, a reward chemical. After a month of sugar binging and increased dopamine levels, the rats’ brains developed fewer dopamine receptors and more opioid receptors—changes similar to those observed in mice on cocaine and heroine.

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MORE ABOUT: addiction, drugs, mice, sugar

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