Archive for June, 2009

World Conference of Science Journalists – New media new journalism

By Ed Yong | June 30, 2009 6:46 pm

In the opening salvo of the World Conference of Science Journalists, three speakers debated the role of new media in the science journalism of tomorrow. What follows is an account of the session and personal opinions on some of the issues raised.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Journalism

Live-tweeting the World Conference of Science Journalists

By Ed Yong | June 30, 2009 12:38 pm

For the next three days, I will be at the World Conference of Science Journalists live-tweeting the sessions I’m attending. The talks so far have been excellent but so far, the live-tweeting experience has been a revelation. I have Word open on the right of my screen for note-taking and Tweetdeck on the left for tweeting and collating what others are saying with the #wcsj hashtag. I was initially very sceptical of doing this but the perks have been numerous.

Most of all, it’s a strangely exhilarating experience to hear what other people think and respond to while the talks are actually happening. No more hushed inaudible whispers or knowing, ambiguous glances with the person next to you. In its place comes real-time, direct feedback on the event, like a group of people having their own silent simultaneous discussion. Does anyone remember the show Mystery Science Theatre 3000, where three characters would provide voiceovers over bad B-movies? Following a conference hashtag on the go is a remarkably similar experience.

The price of that is, of course, distraction – occasionally missing out on important points that people have raised. But what’s this? Other people have tweeted what I’ve missed and some way or other, it arrives in my brain.

The benefits really come into their own during breakout sessions. Today, there was a toss-up between a discussion on the science journalism crisis and Nick Davies’s talk about his Flat Earth News theory (more on that later). I switched over to the latter at the last minute, but about five minutes in, realised that Tweetdeck was providing me with a summary of the best bits from the other session too. The only thing holding me back from going to every breakout at the same time is a lack of active Twitter users among the gathered delegates.  

Yesterday, I was worried about choosing which of the simultaneously scheduled sessions to attend. Tomorrow, I’m going to go to all of them.

For anyone who’s interested, you can follow my 140-character-long rambles. Otherwise, I’ll be writing up some of the themes of the day shortly…   

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Journalism

Monkeynomics – monopolies, markets and exchange rates in wild monkeys

By Ed Yong | June 30, 2009 7:30 am

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIn a classic episode of the Simpsons, Homer’s brain explains to him that “money can be exchanged for goods and services”. That’s obviously true for humans (even cartoon ones) but monkeys use an altogether different form of payment – grooming. It’s as close to a currency as monkeys have and it can be redeemed against a wide range of goods and services including more grooming, a free pass from aggression, permission to handle babies, back-up in fights and even sex.

The purposes of these exchanges go well beyond cleaning. Grooming, it seems, is also an enjoyable activity that releases brain signalling chemicals involved in pleasure and rewarding feelings. It’s a social bonding activity, the monkey equivalent of a human hug. Grooming does have costs though, despite its appearance as a leisurely activity. For a wild monkey, time spent cleaning a peer is time that’s not spent foraging yourself or watching out for predators. So it pays an individual to groom only as much as it needs to.

Cecile Fruteau from the University of Tilburg has been studying the exchange of grooming among wild vervet monkeys in South Africa’s Loskop Dam Nature Reserve. Through her experiments, she has shown that vervet grooming works like a biological market, governed by the laws of supply and demand. The amount that any individual is willing to give in exchange for a service depends on how rare or abundant it is.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Animal behaviour, Mammals, Monkeys

500 posts! Woo, and I might add, hoo…

By Ed Yong | June 30, 2009 6:30 am

100 in four months – not too shabby.
A fitting way to mark a week of blogging with pure caffeine replacing my bloodstream. 3 posts up already, three more written and two further on the way. It’s a good news week.
That and I’m off to the World Conference of Science Journalists to discuss the future of science news reporting with a bunch of (possibly) like-minded people. I may or may not live-tweet it in which case my musings will be found here. I’ll probably end up blogging reports of the conference.
See you then.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal

From Spanish to swine – how H1N1 kicked off a 91-year pandemic era

By Ed Yong | June 29, 2009 6:58 pm

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThe swine flu pandemic (S-OIV) currently sweeping the world is the result of an influenza H1N1 virus that made the leap from pigs to humans. But this jump is just the latest leg of a journey that has taken over 90 years and shows no signs of finishing.

Today’s pandemic is a fourth-generation descendant of the 1918 flu virus that infected around a third of the world’s population. This original virus is an incredible survivor and one that has spawned a huge legacy of daughter viruses. By importing and exporting its genes, it has contributed to several new strains that have been responsible for at least three further pandemics, including the current one.

In an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, David Morens says, “We are living in a pandemic era that began around 1918.” This is one of two papers that narrate the incredible story of the 1918 virus and its descendants – a thrilling tale of survival, adaptation, extinction and resurrection.

All influenza A viruses contain 8 different genetic segments that they can freely exchange with one another. Morens beautifully compares each virus to a squad of eight players, rather than a single entity. For the viral team to be successful, its eight-person genetic team has to work together. Their individual skills become more or less useful with time and the team will often swap its members for fresh faces that add something new to the mix. In technical terms, they “reassort”.

To do that, viruses need to infect the same cell and they find communal ground in the internal passages of birds, pigs and humans. Animal bodies are essentially viral networking events where different squads can meet and exchange players.

In 1918, one such squad of players went on an infamous world tour. H1N1 influenza viruses had been around for a long time, but the story of the current “pandemic era” really begins in that year. While H1N1 was busy killing humans in our millions, pig farmers at the Cedar Rapids Swine Show in Iowa also noticed something unusual. Even though H1N1 had never been described in pigs before, their herds were suffering from an unusual respiratory illness, whose symptoms were very similar to those afflicting the world’s humans. Swine flu had landed.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Medicine & health, Viruses

Frigid echidna sex – competition drives males to mate with hibernating females

By Ed Yong | June 29, 2009 9:30 am

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIf the idea of a cold, motionless sexual partner isn’t one of your turn-ons, then you’re clearly not an echidna. The males of these spiny Australian animals will happily mate with females even if they’re hibernating.

Gemma Morrow and Stewart Nicol from the University of Tasmania have spent the last decade studying the short-beaked echidnas of Tasmania. Over that time, they discovered many instances of males mating with torpid females in deep hibernation, or with females who roused themselves briefly only to re-enter their deep slumber. Over the last two years, the voyeuristic duo use a combination of cameras, radio-trackers and infrared motion detectors to get a more intimate glimpse at the bizarre sex life of these animals.

They found echidnas having sex on 26 occasions over the last two years. In 11 of these sessions, the female was accompanied by more than one male and one three occasions, she was with no less than four!  Over a third of the females were torpid – slow to react to things going on around them, and with body temperatures of 10 to 29 degrees Celsius. The males, on the other hand, were always active and had the normal echidna body temperature of 32C.  When the duo swabbed the genitals of some of the hibernating females, they found that the majority were full of sperm, some of it fresh and often from the same male

Morrow and Nicol think that these sexual habits are the result of extreme competition among males, who have large ranges in a relatively small island. This competition is apparent elsewhere in Australia. On Kangaroo Island, echidnas often form “mating trains”, where up to 11 males and females gather together and follow each other around for 2-6 weeks in intense bouts of courtship and sex. On Tasmania, when a male finds a female, he’ll mate with her – hibernating or not – and guard her from rivals for some time.

Timing is also an issue. Males and females hibernate with slightly offset schedules so that males rouse from their wintery slumbers about a month before females do. This means that there’s a chunk of time every year, round about July and August, where the Tasmanian countryside is rife with randy males and sleepy females.

Bumbling echidna, filmed by me at Tower Hill Game Reserve

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MORE ABOUT: echidna, hibernation, sex

Does having more competitors lower the motivation to compete?

By Ed Yong | June 28, 2009 10:00 am

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research Imagine that you’re taking a test in a large public hall. Obviously, your knowledge and confidence will determine your score, but could the number of people around you have an influence too? According to psychologists Stephen Garcia from the University of Michigan and Avishalom Tor from the University of Haifa, the answer is yes. They have found that our motivation to compete falls as the number of competitors rises, even if the chances of success are the same.

The simple act of comparing yourself against someone else can stoke the fires of competition. When there are just a few competitors around, making such comparisons is easy but they become more difficult when challengers are plentiful. As a result, the presence of extra contenders, far from spurring us on by adding extra challenge, can actually have the opposite effect. Garcia and Avishalom call this the “N-effect” and they demonstrated it through a number of experiments.

First, they showed that US students tended to score more highly in SAT tests in states where there were fewer people on average at each testing venue. For each state, they compared SAT scores in 2005 with the total number of test-takers divided by the number of venues, and adjusted the figures for factors such as education budget, general performance on the SATs and so on. A similar analysis of scores from the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) revealed the same pattern – a greater density of test-takers led to lower average scores.

Obviously, this is a very crude analysis. For a start, crowded testing venues could also be rife with distractions that could lie behind a dip in performance. Garcia and Avishalom knew that they had to come up with better evidence, so they ran an experiment.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Neuroscience and psychology

Clever New Caledonian crows use one tool to acquire another

By Ed Yong | June 27, 2009 10:00 am

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchYou don’t have to be particularly intelligent to use tools – many animals do so, including some insects. But it takes a uniquely intelligent animal to be able to combine different tools to solve a problem. We can do it, the great apes can do it, and now the New Caledonian crow joins our exclusive club.

New Caledonian crows are very advanced tool users.Animals can use tools using little more than pre-programmed behaviour patterns that require little intelligence. But combining tools, or using one tool on another (a metatool, if you will), is a different matter entirely – that takes reasoning. This type of intelligence has been the engine of human innovation. It allowed us to use simple tools to make advanced ones, or to combine different tools into increasingly complex machines.

The majority of animals lack the ability to manipulate tools in this way and in primates, the line is drawn at the great apes – they can (mostly) do it, but monkeys struggle. So it may come as a surprise that a humble bird has now been found to use metatools to the same standard as our ape cousins – the New Caledonian crow.

Of course, anyone familiar with the exploits of the New Caledonian crow probably won’t be surprised at all. These are no bird-brains; they are, in fact, strong contenders for the title of the most intelligent bird, and expert tool-makers to boot. Their ingenuity is most apparent when they are searching for food, converting twigs and branches into hooks and spears for dislodging juicy grubs from hollows in wood.

But while many birds do this, the crows are special. They can spontaneously make new tools from materials they have never seen before, like a hook from a bent wire. They have also been seen manufacturing new tools by altering existing ones and passing their newfound technology onto others, a ability even great apes aren’t known to have. Now, Alex Taylor and colleagues from the University of Auckland have found that they can use one tool on another in the quest for food.

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Why do female seed beetles prefer the sperm of inferior males?

By Ed Yong | June 25, 2009 2:00 pm

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchYou’ve got to feel sorry for the female seed beetle. Whenever she mates with a male, she has to contend with his spiked, nightmarish penis (remember this picture?). And despite the damage that it inflicts, one liaison just isn’t enough; female seed beetles typically mate with many males before they lay their eggs. Surely, she must benefit in some way?

The most likely idea is that she somehow ensures that her eggs are fertilised by sperm from males with the “best” genes – those that either make for particularly fit and healthy young, or that are a compatible match for the female’s own genes. Perhaps these sperm outrace their weaker peers, or maybe the female has a way of selectively letting through the best quality sperm. It would be a reasonable explanation were it actually true. Sadly, reality isn’t that kind to the female seed beetle.

Trine Bilde from the University of Uppsala has found that after females mate with two different males, it’s actually the sperm from the lower-quality specimen that fertilises most of her eggs. Even though the paragon’s sperm would sire more successful offspring, it’s the loser who ends up fathering most of her progeny.

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35,000-year-old German flutes display excellent kraftwerk

By Ed Yong | June 24, 2009 1:00 pm


Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThirty-five thousands years before the likes of Kraftwerk, Nena and Rammstein, the lands of Germany were resounding to a very different sort of musical sound – tunes emanating from flutes made of bird bones and ivory. These thin tubes have recently been uncovered by Nicholas Conard from the University of Tubingen and they’re some of the oldest musical instruments ever discovered. 

The ancient flutes hail from the Hohle Fels Cave in Germany’s Ach Valley, a veritable treasure trove of prehistoric finds that have also yielded the oldest known figurative art. The flutes were found less than a metre away. Together, these finds show that Europeans had a rich artistic and musical culture as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic period, some 35,000 years ago.

Conard unearthed the new finds last year, including several flutes of ivory and bone. One of these was found in 12 separate pieces, but once they were recovered and united, the insturment proved to be remarkably complete. It was so beautifully preserved that we can even work out its source – its maker fashioned it from the arm bone of a griffon vulture, a large species with long bones that make for good wind instruments.

The flute is just 8mm in diameter and has five finger holes along its 22cm length. Around each hole, there are up to four precisely carved notches, which Conard thinks were measurement markers that told the tool-maker where to chip an opening. Two deep, V-shaped notches were also carved into one end, which was presumably where its maker blew into to make sweet, prehistoric music.

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