Archive for June, 2010

New Nicaraguan sign language shows how language affects thought

By Ed Yong | June 22, 2010 9:00 am

NicaraguaOne of the signs for “Nicaragua”. Photo by Ann Serghas

In the 1970s, a group of deaf Nicaraguan schoolchildren invented a new language. The kids were the first to enrol in Nicaragua’s new wave of special education schools. At first, they struggled with the schools’ focus on Spanish and lip-reading, but they found companionship in each other. It was the first time that deaf people from all over the country could gather in large numbers and through their interactions – in the schoolyard and the bus – Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) spontaneously came into being.

NSL is not a direct translation of Spanish – it is a language in its own right, complete with its own grammar and vocabulary. Its child inventors created it naturally by combining and adding to gestures that they had used at home. Gradually, the language became more regular, more complex and faster. Ever since, NSL has been a goldmine for scientists, providing an unparalleled opportunity to study the emergence of a new language. And in a new study led by Jennie Pyers from Wellesley College, it even tells us how language shapes our thought.

By studying children who learned NSL at various stages of its development, Pyers has shown that the vocabulary they pick up affects the way they think. Specifically, those who learned NSL before it developed specific gestures for left and right perform more poorly on a spatial awareness test than children who grew up knowing how to sign those terms.

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Chimpanzees murder for land

By Ed Yong | June 21, 2010 12:00 pm


Between 1998 and 2009, John Mitani witnessed 18 murders firsthand, and found circumstantial evidence for three more. But no police were ever called, for these killers were all chimpanzees, from the Ngogo community in Uganda’s Kibale National Park.

Chimpanzees are highly intelligent animals, capable of great acts of empathy, technological sophistication, culture and cooperation. But they can also be murderers. Groups of chimps, mostly male, will mount lengthy aggressive campaigns against individuals from other groups, attacking them en masse and beating them to death. Their reasons for such killings have long been a source of debate among zoologists, but the aftermath of the Ngogo murders reveals an important clue. After the chimps picked off their neighbours, they eventually took over their territory. It seems that chimps kill for land.

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I won the 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize. 'Top quark'. Heh.

By Ed Yong | June 21, 2010 5:59 am

topquarkI woke up this morning to various emails and tweets saying that I’ve just won the 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize for 2010. Monday mornings don’t usually start this promisingly!

For those who haven’t been following, this is the second of what will hopefully be a long-running competition, focusing on science writing on blogs. The winning entry was this post on the gut bacteria of Japanese people, which have borrowed sushi-digesting genes from their oceanic relatives.

It goes without saying that I’ve very grateful to all the readers who nominated posts and voted for them and to the editors of 3 Quarks Daily for organising the competition.

I’m feel very proud of this, especially because this year’s finalists included some of the finest science writers in the market and because it was judged by none other than Richard Dawkins. The latter is important, for The Selfish Gene was hugely influential to me, showing not only how incredible evolution is but how inspirational a piece of good science writing can be. Without it, I would probably be doing something else.

I also wanted to say something about writing competitions, from the perspective of someone who’s currently judging the ABSW ones, and has judged OpenLab entries in the past. These competitions, by their nature, are incredibly and necessarily subjective. There’s no SI unit for writing quality and no standard template for what the ideal, Platonic piece would look like. It’s relatively easy to sort pieces into rough categories of merit but when it comes to discerning between the top entrants at a finer level, personal opinion factors heavily into it. Which is a really roundabout way of saying that getting into the top stratum is a massive honour and I wholeheartedly congratulate all the semi-finalists and finalists for their tremendous work.

And finally, it’s worth mentioning again (given recent accusations that bloggers have the luxury of time – ha!) that most of us write our blogs in our spare moments, often getting nothing in return save a sense of satisfaction and the odd comment or so. These efforts are worth recognising and I thank the editors of 3 Quarks Daily for doing so.


When bacteria fight bacteria, we lose

By Ed Yong | June 17, 2010 3:00 pm


There’s a war going on that you’re completely oblivious to, even though it’s happening right under your nose. Well, actually, inside your nose. Rival species of bacteria compete for precious real estate within the damp linings of your nasal passages. In some cases, this microscopic combat works in our favour, when harmless species repress the growth of deadlier ones. But not always – sometimes a species can only gain the advantage over its competitors by becoming more virulent, and we suffer collateral damage.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Bacteria, Medicine & health

Suicidal menopausal aphids save their colony by sticking themselves to predators

By Ed Yong | June 17, 2010 12:00 pm

A ladybird larva is on the prowl on a witch hazel plant. The youngster is a voracious predator and it’s hunting for aphids. It seems to have found a bountiful feast – a swollen structure called a gall that houses an entire aphid colony. With so many meals in one place, the colony seems easy prey, but it has staunch defenders.

As the ladybird approaches, aphids pour out of the gall and grab the predator by their jaws and legs. It’s a suicide defence. The aphids secrete massive amounts of waxy liquid from their bodies, which quickly solidifies and glues the ladybird to the plant. Unable to walk or bite, the ladybird dies and the aphids go with it. In the video below, you can see what happens when one of these aphids is prodded with a needle.

There is more to these suicidal protectors that meets the eye. Keigo Uematsu and University of Tokyo found that all of them are ‘menopausal’. They are the parents of the other aphids in the gall but their reproductive days are long behind them. With no further opportunities to raise the next generation, their final role is to defend their offspring, with their lives if necessary.

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Sperm whale poo offsets carbon by fertilising the oceans with iron

By Ed Yong | June 16, 2010 8:00 am


While the world wrangles over ways of reducing carbon emissions, some scientists are considering more radical approaches to mitigating the effects of climate change. Dumping iron dust into the world’s oceans is one such strategy. Theoretically, the iron should act as fertiliser, providing a key nutrient that will spur the growth of photosynthetic plankton. These creatures act as carbon dioxide pumps, removing the problematic gas from the air and storing the carbon within their own tissues. When the plankton die, they sink, trapping their carbon in the abyss for thousands of years.

It may seem like a fanciful idea, but as with much of our technology, nature beat us to it long ago. Trish Lavery from Flinders University has found that sperm whales fertilise the Southern Ocean in exactly this way, using their own faeces. Their dung is loaded with iron and it stimulates the growth of plankton just as well as iron dust does.

Sperm whales are prodigious divers, descending to great depths in search of prey like squid. When they’re deeply submerged, they shut down all their non-essential bodily functions. Excretion is one of these and the whales only ever defecate when they reach the surface. By happy coincidence, that’s where photosynthetic plankton (phytoplankton) make their home – in the shallow column of water where sunlight still penetrates. So by eating iron-rich prey at great depths and expelling the remains in the shallows, the whales act as giant farmers, unwittingly seeding the surface waters with fertiliser.

There are approximately 12,000 sperm whales left in the Southern Ocean. By modelling the amount of food they eat, the iron content of that food, and how much iron they expel in their faeces, Lavery calculated that these whales excrete around 50 tonnes of iron into the ocean every year.  And based on the results of our own iron fertilisation experiments, the duo calculated that every year, this amount of iron traps over 400,000 tonnes of carbon in the depths, within the bodies of sinking plankton.

Previously, scientists assumed that whales (and their carbon dioxide-rich exhalations) would actually weaken the Southern Ocean’s ability to act as a CO2 pump. But according to Lavery, this isn’t true. She worked out that the whales pump out just 160,000 tonnes of carbon through their various orifices. All of these figures are probably conservative underestimates but even so, they suggest that sperm whales remove around 240,000 more tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere than they add back in. They are giant, blubbery carbon sinks.

However, their true potential will go largely unfulfilled thanks to our harpoons. Many sperm whales have been killed by industrial whalers, and the population in the Southern Ocean has declined by some 90%. On the bright side, the Southern Ocean’s population represent just 3% of the global total, so this species may have an even greater role as a warden for carbon than Lavery has suggested. Other seagoing mammals probably have a part to play too, provided that they feed at depth and excrete near the surface. Several other toothed whales do this, and some filter-feeding ones may do too.

Reference: Proc Roy Soc B

Image by Cianc

MORE ABOUT: faeces, iron, sperm whale

Vaccine against 2009 pandemic flu also protects mice against 1918 strain

By Ed Yong | June 15, 2010 11:00 am

1918_fluIn 2005, a group of American scientists resurrected one of history’s deadliest killer – the H1N1 flu virus of 1918 that killed approximately 50 million people worldwide. Using samples from a patient buried in Alaskan permafrost, they deciphered the virus’s genome and structure, rebuilt it from scratch and infected mice with it.

The move was understandably a controversial one. It has led to a greater understanding of the 1918 pandemic, and other important flu strains, but scientists have cited the possibility that this infamous killer could be accidentally released from a lab (as has happened before with other H1N1 strains). Worse still, it could be developed into a bioterror weapon. But according to Rafael Medina from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, these worries may be unfounded. He has shown that since 1918, the world has gained an ally that will protect people against the deadly strain should it ever reemerge. That ally is a most unexpected one – the H1N1 swine flu virus from 2009.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Medicine & health, Viruses

Your brain sees your hands as short and fat

By Ed Yong | June 14, 2010 3:00 pm


Knowing something like the back of your hand supposedly means that you’re very familiar with it. But it could just as well mean that you think it’s wider and shorter than it actually is. As it turns out, our hands aren’t as well known to us as we might imagine. According to Matthew Longo and Patrick Haggard from University College London, we store a mental model of our hands that helps us to know exactly where our limbs are in space. The trouble is that this model is massively distorted.

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Saturday links

By Ed Yong | June 13, 2010 12:00 pm

Are science journalists being overly criticised?

By Ed Yong | June 12, 2010 8:00 am

Muzzled_watchdogIn the UK, there is no more famous scourge of bad science journalism than Ben Goldacre, author of the Guardian’s well-named Bad Science column. In last week’s column, Goldacre published a critique of an inaccuracy-laden piece in the Observer, penned by health correspondent Denis Campbell. This triggered a sequence of ripostes including an opinion piece from the Independent’s health editor Jeremy Laurence criticising Goldacre, a response from Goldacre criticising Laurance, and a defence of Laurance from Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre.

I have already commented on Laurance’s frankly appalling view of what journalism is, and I will leave that aside for now. Both he and Fox essentially argue that a critical overview of science journalism is necessary but both advocate a softly-softly approach that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin too much.

Laurence said, “While raging rightly at the scientific illiteracy of the media, [Goldacre] might reflect when naming young, eager reporters starting out on their careers that most don’t enjoy, as he does, the luxury of time.” Fox chimed in with “Ben was well within his rights to do his weekly column on the weaknesses in the Observer report on Omega 3 but he would not have prompted this backlash if he had done it in a different style”, and elsewhere, “I think it’s about the tone of Ben’s particular brand of critique.”

I will summarise these arguments: we like watchdogs, but we’d prefer it if they had no bite.

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