The Rusty Patched Bumble Bee Is Disappearing in the US

By Nathaniel Scharping | January 11, 2017 1:38 pm
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A rusty patched bumble bee. (Credit: Christy Stewart)

For the first time, a species of bumble bee has been placed on the endangered species list in the United States. In fact, it’s the first bee of any kind in the contiguous 48 states to land on the list.

The rusty patched bumble bee, Bombus affinis, was once prevalent in 28 states in the Midwest, south and north-eastern U.S., but its numbers have been declining since at the least the 1990s, say researchers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency announced Tuesday that B. affinis had been added to the list, a move that will go into effect February 10. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World

For Rhinos, Social Media Is a Heaping Dung Pile

By Carl Engelking | January 10, 2017 6:01 pm
White rhinos in South Africa. (Credit: Shutterstock)

White rhinos in South Africa. (Credit: Shutterstock)

To get the latest news and notes, white rhinos visit the local dung heap.

Although it’s well known that mammals use scents in urine to convey information about fertility and demarcate territory, the way dung is used to communicate is less established. White rhinos defecate in communal mounds, called middens, and researchers believe these troves of waste serve as important information hubs about their community.

And to test their hypothesis, an international team of scientists pulled a Facebook (circa 2014) and artificially manipulated their “newsfeeds” to see how, or if, the rhinos responded.

Dung Dialogue

To pull off their experiment, researchers from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and the Technische Universitat Darmstadt in Germany needed to get their hands dirty.

They followed groups of white rhinos in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-iMofolozi Park and collected 150 fresh (less than 5 minutes old) dung samples, noting the creator’s sex, fertility and territorial tendencies. Then, they baked those samples in a scientific oven— an analytical method called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry—to identify the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by the dung.

VOCs are chemicals that easily evaporate into the air and are often odorous. In rhino poo, there are some 225 different VOCs.

Researchers discovered rhinos’ VOC signatures changed based on their sex and status, variations that likely stem from the complex relationship between hormones and the bacteria living in their guts. The chemical nonane, which has a “sharp” odor, signaled a male’s territorial dominance, for example, while 2,6-dimethylundecane indicated a female’s fertility. As a next step, researchers wanted to see if they could affect rhino behavior using these chemical signatures.

Artificial Dung

To alter the “news” in a midden, researchers tossed artificially created dung into the mix. They simulated rhino dung using a woven ball of grass, and soaking it in a solution that matched the chemical profile of either a territorial male, fertile female or a control.

When researchers added a “territorial male” dung ball to a midden, the male who ran that chunk of turf visited the collection more frequently, and assumed a vigilant, ready-to-fight posture far quicker than under normal conditions. When they tossed a “fertile female” dung ball into a pile, males spent more time sniffing the artificial dung and visited the pile more often, as well.

It was enough evidence for researchers to conclude that rhinos indeed use these piles as valuable sources of information, or a social network of sorts. Males leave “posts” by digging up the center of the midden (akin to blocking other males) and leave a fresh deposit, while females will drop their dung on the edges of the midden. They published their study Tuesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The authors are calling this a first-of-its-kind analysis of communal defecators. It’s been assumed that coyotes, antelope, gazelles and other animals that use middens rely on them for information dissemination, but, to the authors’ knowledge, no one has taken the extra step of profiling dung VOCs and manipulating behavior using faux feces.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts

In the Brain, Binge-Drinking and Binge-Eating May Go Hand in Hand

By Nathaniel Scharping | January 10, 2017 2:22 pm
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(Credit: g-stockstudio/Shutterstock)

After bartenders announce last call, like clockwork, pizza joints and 24-hour diners fill to the brim with drunk revelers.

It seems counter-intuitive: Alcohol contains ample calories and the body should recognize it as a source of energy, adjusting our appetites accordingly. This predilection for imbibing and pigging out has been a scientific curiosity for some time now, and researchers have attributed the “drunchies” to our sense of smell, our taste buds or our deactivated social inhibitions. But now, a team of researchers from the Francis Crick Institute and the University College London says a mechanism in the brain deserves a closer look for altering our appetite.
Read More

Teaching Our Teeth to Heal Themselves

By Nathaniel Scharping | January 9, 2017 2:18 pm
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(Credit: kurhan/Shutterstock)

Instead of filling our cavity-ridden teeth with putties and cements, a new method that kicks stem cells into action could help teeth repair themselves.

Researchers from King’s College London implanted collagen sponges soaked with three inhibitor,s including a drug which has been tested as a therapeutic for Alzheimer’s, in damaged mouse teeth. Once in place, the drug-infused sponges catalyzed stem cells inside of the dentin — the bony material beneath hard enamel — filling cavities with living tissue and restoring that part of the tooth to health.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts

In 2022, We Might Witness the Explosive End to a Stellar Death Spiral

By Nathaniel Scharping | January 6, 2017 2:28 pm
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V838 Monocerotis (V838 Mon), another red nova captured on camera in 2002. (Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI))

In five years, you could have a front row seat to an explosive event that occurred 1,700 years ago. And all you’ll have to do is look skyward.

Larry Molnar, an astronomer at Michigan’s Calvin College has been studying the behavior of an odd object located in the Cygnus constellation, named KIC 9832227. Discovered a bit over a decade ago, it was recently shown to be a contact binary star — two stars orbiting each other so tightly that their atmospheres are conjoined in a stellar embrace. That discovery was made by Daniel Van Noord, Molnar’s research assistant, and since then, the two have been paying very close attention to the star. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: cosmology, stargazing, stars

What’s the Universe Made Of?

By Bill Andrews | January 6, 2017 10:55 am
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Minerals that are likely to occur at different depths of Kepler 102 and Kepler 407. (Credit: Robin Dienel, Carnegie DTM)

How much of you lies among the stars? How are the elements that make up life distributed among stars and planets? As trippy as the questions seem, astronomers from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) announced today at the 229th meeting of the American Astronomical Society that they knew the answers — or, at least, were starting to learn them.

SDSS, “the energizer bunny of sky surveys,” according to spokesperson Karen Masters, is a massive data collection project that’s been going on for 17 fruitful years. By analyzing and breaking down a star’s light, astronomers can determine the elements within. Do that with enough stars, and you can start to map out the distribution of elements throughout our galaxy. That’s just what the APOGEE (Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment) project did, looking at more than 150,000 stars in the process, using infrared light to peer through the dust that blocks visible light waves.

Of particular importance are the elements necessary for life, nicknamed CHNOPS for carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. APOGEE found a definite pattern, with the greatest abundance of each of these lying closer to the Milky Way’s center. Since the stars there are typically older, it means more of life’s elements came to be in the inner part of the galaxy earlier than in the outer parts. Does this mean there’s a greater chance for life in the center, since it’s been possible for longer there?

The presenter, Sten Hasselquist of New Mexico State University, said that he doesn’t want to speculate about what it means for life, “but it is very interesting.” As much as the reporters tried to get more out of him (“I don’t want you walking out of here writing that we found life!”), the farthest Hasselquist would go was, “The longer timescale is tantalizing.”

One of the other presenters quipped, “There is a reason why they put the Star Wars capital toward the center of the galaxy,” presumably referring to the Republic/Imperial capital world of Coruscant.

Worlds Apart

But of course stars are only half the story for possible life; what about actual planets for it to live on? Astronomers have a few ways to figure out what individual planets are made of — making inferences from the world’s mass and size, trying to catch a glimpse of its atmosphere to break it down spectroscopically — but the most reliable method might just be by studying its host star.

Johanna Teske of the Carnegie Institution for Science described a new study that plugs the SDSS’ latest observations of stars into a model that figures out what kind of planets would form around them. Since stars and their planets ultimately coalesce from the same clouds of gas and dust, it makes sense that a star’s makeup would shed light on the worlds it keeps in tow; while it would provide only a rough guess at a planet’s makeup, the model did reproduce Earth’s makeup well enough to give the researchers confidence.

What does it matter what particular elements make up a world?

In order to find a world with truly Earth-like conditions, and not just a similar mass and size, composition can make all the difference. Life as we know it formed on a geologically active world with plate tectonics and other features that helped make life possible; we don’t know exactly what it takes for life to arise and thrive, but since our only example is Earth, it makes sense to find as close an analog as possible.

In particular, Teske shared the findings for the planet-having stars Kepler 102 and Kepler 407. (The model doesn’t aim to recreate any planet in particular, but rather what a typical planet around those individual stars might be made of.) Even though Kepler 407 is almost identical in mass to the sun, it would likely produce a stiffer planet with no tectonics. Kepler 102, despite being slightly dimmer than the sun, was made of the right enough stuff to make one of its planets more likely to be truly Earth-like.

The goal, Teske said, is to use these models to help astronomers “hone in” on the best targets for next generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope to study up close, the better to find life someday.

But for now, just to be clear (and make Hasselquist happy), Earth remains the only world of its kind, and the only place to produce life. Perhaps, though, that’s just a matter of time.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: exoplanets

3,000 Ride-Sharing Vehicles Could Replace 13,500 Taxis in NYC

By Nathaniel Scharping | January 5, 2017 5:05 pm
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(Credit: Luciano Mortula/Shutterstock)

New York City taxis, they ain’t so smart — yet.

A new study from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) estimates that just 3,000 ride-sharing cars guided by an algorithm could serve the needs of busy New Yorkers. That’s compared to the roughly 13,500 taxis currently in operation in the city, famous for its frenzied rush hours. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts

NASA Plans to Peer Inside a Black Hole

By Alison Klesman | January 5, 2017 3:55 pm

(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Neutron stars, black holes and other remnants of stellar explosions are some of the universe’s most intriguing objects – and some of the hardest to study. But when NASA’s newest Explorers Program mission, IXPE, launches, we’ll see them like never before.

Stellar remnants such as black holes and neutron stars are difficult to see. Because of their tiny size and oftentimes obscuring disks of dust and gas, direct measurements of these objects have long eluded astronomers. However, such extreme objects heat their environments to millions of degrees, which causes high-energy emission in the form of easily-observable X-rays. Studying these X-rays provides a window into the world around otherwise impossible-to-see phenomena. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: black holes

Dad Turns Newborn Daughter’s Sleeping Patterns Into Stunning Graphic

By Carl Engelking | January 5, 2017 2:44 pm
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Andrew Elliot mapped his daughter’s sleeping patterns for the first six months of her life. The circle is oriented like a 24-hour clock with midnight at the top. Each concentric circle represents a day, starting from day 1 in the center. Sleep, or inactivity, is blue and waking hours are tan. (Credit: Andrew Elliot)

Life for a rookie parent can be utterly terrifying. For the first time they’re 100 percent responsible for another human being’s survival. One freshly minted dad, fully comprehending the gravity of the situation, left no stone unturned when it came to caring for his newborn daughter.

In addition to feedings and diaper changes, Andrew Elliot, an industrial designer by day, recorded his daughter’s sleeping patterns to make sure all systems were normal. And after manually collecting six months of daily sleep data using the Baby Connect app, Elliot relied on his technical know-how to extract the numbers and compose a stunning visualization of his daughter’s sleeping habits in the opening days of her life. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
MORE ABOUT: personal health

21st Century Camouflage Confuses Face Detectors

By Nathaniel Scharping | January 5, 2017 11:07 am
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A prototype of the HyperFace design, meant to confuse facial recognition software. (Credit: Adam Harvey)

When it comes to disguises, silly mustaches and fake noses won’t cut it anymore.

As facial recognition capabilities grow more sophisticated, cameras and algorithms can to do more with less. Even grainy images, like those you might find on a gas station surveillance camera, can hold enough information to match a face to a database. But there are ways to hide.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: computers
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