On March 18th, 2018 we learned about

Platypus milk fights bacteria with specially-folded proteins

When you’re as weird a mammal as a platypus, some compromises are to be expected. As monotremes, platypuses hatch their kids out of eggs instead of giving live birth, although mammals don’t really have a monopoly on that bit of child-rearing in the first place. Platypuses do try to stick with the signature mammalian ability to feed milk to their offspring, even if they lack the lips or nipples to make feeding time a tidy process. This kind of milk secretion has required its own set of adaptations, and one of them may prove to be very helpful to humans, regardless of how we nurse.

When a platypus feeds her young, it does so by secreting the milk through special patches of skin around her belly. That milk dribbles into grooves in the mother’s skin where it can be more easily lapped up, or saturate her fur where babies can suckle. The potential complications in this path means that the milk needs extra protection from bacteria who might hitch a ride into the baby’s mouth, and researchers now believe they’ve gotten a handle on the protein responsible.

The protein itself isn’t as exciting as the way it functions. Researchers from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) isolated the protein, then rebuilt it in the lab to more closely observe how it worked. The way the protein folds into a series of curly loops that not only helps fend off bacteria, but also earned it the nickname “Shirley Temple,” after the actress’ hair. If researchers can replicate those properties in other proteins, we can incorporate them into medicines without needing to specifically suck on monotreme stomach hair.

Antibiotics in other mammals’ milk

As special as these proteins are, platypuses aren’t the first mammal to load their milk with bacteria-fighting ingredients. Human milk can also fend off bacteria like Group B. Streptococcus, although we do it with sugars instead of proteins. Those sugars don’t seem to be produced equally by every mom, so researchers are now trying to figure out exactly how they work so their antibiotic properties can be added to more accessible media.

Source: Saving lives with platypus milk by CSIRO, Phys.org

On March 18th, 2018 we learned about

Calculating what kind of push could prevent a large asteroid from colliding with the Earth

Kids supposedly want to know why the sky is blue, but that question doesn’t grip their imaginations like potentially being killed by an asteroid hitting the Earth. It’s not illogical, since knowing that giant dinosaurs were driven extinct by an asteroid strike 65 million years ago makes it clear that such an event is a severe and nearly hopeless scenario. Factor in how hard it is to explain the statistical unlikelihood that a world-ending asteroid would hit the Earth, and it’s easy to see how a kid might think that adults are weird for not worrying about suffering the same fate as the dinosaurs. Thankfully, some adults are thinking about rocks falling from space, and working out possible responses to larger asteroids that might be headed our way.

Bumping asteroids without breaking them

101955 Bennu is an 87-million-ton asteroid that passes by the Earth every six years. It’s close enough that we can track it with some certainty, and have realized that it does stand a chance of hitting our planet on September 25, 2135. At this point there’s only a 1 in 2,700 chance that it will actually collide with Earth, which is four-times lower than your odds of dying in a car crash in the next year, but it’s a good target to explore potential safety measures that could shield us from being hit.

With an object as large as Bennu, there’s already consensus that we need to nudge it, not blow it to pieces. Aside from the difficulty of really obliterating that much mass, exploding a large asteroid would probably just mean the Earth got hit by lots of smaller rocks instead of one big one. That’s arguably better nothing, but an early adjustment to the asteroid’s orbit would be preferable, and given enough time, a tad more practical.

Adjusting orbits with HAMMERs and explosions

To alter Bennu’s orbit, one proposal is to basically launch a large, Delta IV rocket at it, tipped with a 8.8-ton spacecraft called HAMMER (Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response vehicle). As you might guess, HAMMER would fly into an asteroid like Bennu to try to slow it down and alter its orbital path a small amount. If done early enough, even a small push can lead to big shifts in the asteroid’s trajectory years later. It’s a sensible plan until you work through all the math, at which point it becomes clear that 8.8 tons isn’t going push a big asteroid far enough on its own, even if they collide years in advance. One estimate found that 34 to 53 HAMMER spacecraft would be needed to move Bennu to a safer orbit if given a 10 year lead time. If the project started 25 years before 2135, the orbit could be sufficiently adjusted with only 7 to 11 spacecraft, although that still requires an enormous amount of resources with little room for error. Developing HAMMER spacecraft isn’t a totally lost cause though, as one such craft could probably divert a 295-foot asteroid if given a 10-year head start.

If HAMMER doesn’t look practical right now, an alternative idea is to deflect asteroids like Bennu with a nuclear explosion. Again, the goal wouldn’t be to destroy the rock, but to divert it before it gets to Earth. With that in mind, a warhead would be detonated near the incoming rock, hitting one side of the asteroid with radiation. That radiation could vaporize the surface of the asteroid, essentially turning that entire face into a giant, if gentle, thruster. As vaporized rock pushes off the asteroid, it would push Bennu in the opposite direction, hopefully nudging it over just enough to miss the Earth years later.

Planning for all the possibilities

Hopefully this will all be academic by 2135. As that date approaches, astronomers will track Bennu’s orbit and be able to refine their predictions about its eventual path. Even if it never intersects the Earth, figuring out responses is still worth while though. Bennu is one of 10,000 objects that NASA tracks at this point, but they can’t see everything. It’s possible that a ten-year head start to build a response will be all our planet gets, in which case these early planning exercises will save us all a bit of very precious time.

Source: Scientists design conceptual asteroid deflector and evaluate it against massive potential threat by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Phys.org

On March 15th, 2018 we learned about

Scans show that Archaeopteryx’s arm bones were able to flap like a pheasant

For over 100 years, the biggest point of fascination on Archaeopteryx fossils wasn’t the animal’s bones, but its feathers. When first discovered in the 1860s, people were understandably fixated on the impressions of the specimens long feathers left in the rock around the skeleton. They appeared to be long and rigid like a modern bird’s feathers, right down to tiny, interlocking barbules that would give each feather more strength. On the other hand, Archaeopteryx’s skeleton seemed to contradict this bird-like anatomy, as its long tail and toothed mouth aren’t found in any modern avians, and its breast bone lacked the large keel that modern birds use to attach powerful chest muscles needed for flapping. To dig in a little deeper, the latest study of Archaeopteryx looked inside the animal’s bones, and found that they probably could fly like a bird, but only those birds that stay close to the ground.

X-ray scanning for signs of strength

With the exterior of Archaeopteryx’s fossil having been extensively documented, researchers opted to look at the inner structure of each bone in the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. The powerful x-rays would let them look at delicate structures inside these 150 million-year-old fossils with amazing resolution without needing to damage them in the process. The goal was to measure the arm bones’ torsional resistance, which is how well they would stand up to being twisted when used in flight. Since modern birds that do a lot of continuous flying have higher torsional resistance than birds that don’t, this measurement could be used as another way to assess how flight-ready Archaeopteryx was, regardless of feathers or breast bones. To make sure they weren’t missing a larger pattern, the bones were also compared to crocodilians and pterosaurs as well.

To nobody’s surprise, Archaeopteryx didn’t soar like an eagle, or even a Quetzalcoatlus. However, its arms did appear to handle more than just crawling around, most closely resembling birds like quails and pheasants that are known for short bursts of flight, usually to avoid danger. The x-ray scanning also revealed a large number of blood vessels in Archaeopteryx’s skeleton, a trait associated with high growth rates and metabolism. This would indicate that while the dinosaur wasn’t a bird itself, it probably grew and moved like one.

Not a fully-fledged flyer— yet

This still doesn’t make Archaeopteryx the world’s first bird, or even a bird ancestor. Other species have been found with feathers, even predating Archaeopteryx. We also don’t believe that Archaeopteryx was part of the raptor lineage that eventually developed into modern birds, and instead was a case of convergent evolution. In this case, that convergence would be the capacity for short, evasive flight, which makes sense as avoiding predators has been found to be the most likely reason any species develops wings in the first place. The one catch is how Archaeopteryx would ever get off the ground in the first place. Until evidence of something like a breast keel made from cartilage can confirm its flapping strength, we’re still not sure how well the animal could defy gravity to get itself airborne.

Source: This Famous Dinosaur Could Fly— But Unlike Anything Alive Today by Michael Greshko, National Geographic

On March 15th, 2018 we learned about

Burning coal was likely the key component of the world’s worst extinction event

As dramatic as a good asteroid strike can be, giant falling space rocks aren’t the only thing that has wiped out life on Earth. The mass extinction that ended the Age of Dinosaurs was actually the fifth time nearly everything died. Before the first dinosaur was ever born, an extinction event known as “The Great Dying” took place, a horrific series of events that choked, poisoned or burned multitudes of animals on both the land and in the seas. 70 percent of terrestrial vertebrates and 90 percent of sea life went extinct during this time 252 million years ago, with the devastation taking at least 10 million years to show signs of recovery. While many of the terrible details about how things died have previously been discovered, research out of Utah is helping piece together what started all this destruction in the first place.

Indirect effects of eruptions

With no sign of an asteroid strike in sight, researchers have been looking for other events that might have knocked the world’s climate and atmosphere so far out of balance that it became toxic for most creatures to breathe. There’s evidence that massive volcanic eruptions took place in Asia around the end of the Permian period, but they predated the fossil records of the Great Dying by 300,000 years. Furthermore, analysis of rock layers from Utah don’t show signs of direct volcanic impact at that time— instead of the metals like nickel that you’d expect to  be carried from underground by a volcano’s magma, deposits from the end of the Permian have extra mercury, lead and carbon-12, all of which are associated with burning coal.

The picture that then emerged was one where volcanic eruptions were a trigger for The Great Dying, but not the exact cause, as their ash wasn’t influential enough to reach around the world, such as to what is now Utah. Instead, the erupting lava seems to have hit and ignited massive coal beds that were originally deposited in Asia in the Carboniferous period. As that coal burned, it spread around the world, setting off the bigger chain of events that led to mass extinctions.

From coal to corrosion

The fallout from the burning coal might be enough to make a prehistoric therapsid dream of asteroid strikes. The soot from the coal led to severe changes in the planet’s climates, raising temperatures, and acidity, of the oceans. As the oceans warmed, barium levels indicate that more methane was released from the sea floor, trapping even more heat in the atmosphere. After all this, an abundance of pyrite that was formed at this time suggests that the oceans became depleted of oxygen, naturally leading to more dead marine animals. Those deaths were so abundant that the bacteria that set to work consuming corpses released an immense amount of hydrogen sulfide gas (H2S), bringing us to what happened to the poor creatures living on land.

Hydrogen sulfide gas is toxic in large doses, but more importantly can react with moisture in the air to form acidic sulfur dioxide (SO2). So as bacteria tried to clean up the oceans, their waste led to acid rain that started killing plant life on land. Between the toxic, burning atmosphere and a lack of plants, the food chain understandably would have collapsed, taking both herbivores and the carnivores that ate them with it.

Current costs of burning coal

The scariest part of all this is probably just how mundane the idea of burning coal seems today. Thanks to industrialization, we don’t even need the help of a volcano to burn massive amounts of the stuff around the world. Thankfully, air quality legislation has managed to take steps to reign in acid rain, so we’re not corroding our forests into pulp right now. However, the seas do seem to be starting to relive some of the Great Dying, as temperatures and pH levels have been rising in various patches of the ocean. Thankfully, unlike a volcano or asteroid strike, there’s more we can actually do to head off The Great Dying II, because that’s definitely a sequel nobody wants to ever see.

Source: Burning coal may have caused Earth’s worst mass extinction by Dana Nuccitelli, The Guardian

On March 13th, 2018 we learned about

Wing size gives larger hummingbirds an edge on metabolic efficiency

Hovering is an enormously demanding task for hummingbirds. The smallest bee hummingbirds (Mellisuga helenae) to the largest Giant hummingbirds (Patagona gigas) all have to flap their wings at least 50 times a second to stay aloft. Since they all feed on nectar from flowers and feeders, it makes sense that these creatures would invest in this ability, but that doesn’t explain their size differences. What advantage would a Giant hummingbird, which has ten times the mass of a bee hummingbird, gain by weighing so much more? An investigation into the birds’ metabolisms found that fighting gravity isn’t the only concern a hummingbird faces when flying out for feeding time.

It is true that larger animals face a bigger tug from gravity, and have more inertia to overcome when they want to move. Other studies have even found a sort of speed-limit for creatures of different sizes, as being big just requires more work. However, being tiny doesn’t always mean a creature is more efficient in its movements. The fact that smaller hummingbird species generally have to flap their wings more times per second suggests that they may have inefficiently small wings. Thus slightly larger species may be making up for their extra weight by simply being better at pushing air with their wider wingspans.

Measuring burn-rates in their breath

Instead of measuring the lift capabilities of each bird’s wings, researchers quantified hummingbird efficiency by seeing how hard their metabolism worked while hovering. Birds from 25 different species of hummingbird were trained to use special feeders equipped with something like a breathalyzer, but instead of measuring alcohol, it measured the bird’s oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. By comparing how much oxygen was inhaled, and how much carbon dioxide was exhaled, the rate of metabolic activity could be calculated and compared, allowing researchers to skip worrying about aerodynamics, weight, etc. The effect of all those factors would be boiled down to just how hard each bird had to work in order to stay in the air.

As predicted by the wing flaps, larger hummingbirds turned up with slower metabolic function than smaller hummingbirds. As they a body gets bigger, it seems that the gains from the wings outpace the penalty of extra mass, at least to a point (even Giant hummingbirds weigh less than an ounce.) Researchers suspect that this may explain why larger species generally live at higher elevations. Higher elevations have thinner air with less oxygen, and so the birds that live their need to be more efficient with their movements to get by. If smaller species tried to live in the same environment, they’d have to flap even faster to stay in the air, burning that limited oxygen even more. The difficulty of that scenario means that they stayed where the air is thicker, seceding that ecological niche to their larger kin.

Source: When it comes to fuel efficiency, size matters for hummingbirds by University of Toronto, Phys.org

On March 13th, 2018 we learned about

America’s mostly-successful history with student science fairs

My third-grader will be entering a project in her first science fair this week, and while she and her partners at least aimed higher than a vinegar volcano, nobody’s expecting to found a new company from their work either. That’s fine- the point of a science fair, particularly in elementary school, isn’t to set a kid up for a Nobel Prize. Even if one’s experiment (or let’s be honest, demonstration) isn’t completely successful, the real goal of a science fair is to give kids a hands-on opportunity to work within the scientific method. Unless, of course, we’ve somehow lost sight of why science fairs were ever started in the first place…

Shows for students to share the natural world

The earliest science fair on record was more of a general exposition, in 1828. The American Institute of the City of New York assembled exhibits on a variety of topics, from agriculture to manufacturing to the arts. The engineering on display included show-stoppers like an iron plow, so it wasn’t exactly a showcase of scientific progress. Still, kids did participate, although they were noted for doing things like making black veils instead of growing flowers in food coloring.

100 years later, the American Institute organized the first Children’s Fair. While there was more of a scientific focus, the mission of these events was to get high school students thinking about nature. In that context, it makes sense that the top entry from 1931 was a diorama about how dogwood trees function in their habitat at different times of the year. The Children’s fairs were popular, although by 1941, the American Institute realized they couldn’t financially support them any longer. This created the opening for what most consider to be the first ‘modern’ science fair for students.

Competitions to launch careers

In 1942, a non-profit institution called Science Services worked with Westinghouse to launch The Science Talent Search. World War II had demonstrated the utility of science and engineering most convincingly, and the competition was squarely focused around promoting what we now call STEM careers for high school students. Westinghouse has been replaced as the primary sponsor by Intel, and later by Regeneron, but mission to promote up-and-coming scientists has been consistent throughout the completion’s history. Out of the nearly 150,000 high school students who have participated, alumni have gone on to win 13 Nobel Prizes, two Fields Medals, 11 National Medals of Science, 18 MacArthur Fellowships and more.

Students finding their way forward

A fair majority of those winners probably didn’t need a ton of encouragement though. Since 1942, students from specialized, science-focused schools have garnered the lion’s share of semi-finalist and finalist accolades, suggesting that they were starting from a substantially different position than most students in the United States. For many kids, a science fair is one of their first times thinking about how to come up with a testable question, make observations, etc. For many parents who are recruited to help see these projects through to competition, it’s a time filled with stress as they balance managing their kid’s progress while also allowing the student to have enough leeway to still learn something useful. Many parents report not knowing how to help, a dynamic that’s sadly reflective of survey results that show many American parents want their children to be well-versed in science, but also feel like it doesn’t really intersect with their own lives. We don’t have numbers on how many kids are scared away from science because of a bad project, but these factors probably don’t make for a good introduction to science or engineering.

Obviously, no iteration of science fairs or expos was meant to be confusing and frustrating. Fortunately, steps are being taken to help guide students if they don’t have all the resources they need to get started. ScienceBuddies.org is a website designed to help students find a project that is not only interesting, but practical as well. Aside from the pragmatic assistance this provides, it also seems to be looking to make science accessible to a wider audience, which is just what (I think) a science fair should do.

Source: The Rise of Science Fairs (And Why They Matter) by Rebecca Hill, Parent Map

On March 12th, 2018 we learned about

The Chirocopter drone observes bats from up close by flying among them

Bats are some of the most advanced aerialists on the planet, but they’re hard to observe in the wild. Between flying in the dark and navigating with ultrasonic sounds human ears can’t hear, it’s difficult to make observations about how bats conduct themselves without the help of technology. For a long time, that’s been done with microphones and cameras on fixed towers, although that limits the distance and viewing angles from which researchers could gather data. Now with a modified quadcopter, nicknamed the Chirocopter, biologists can gather much more dynamic, detailed data on bat behavior from within the moving center of colony of flying bats.

Observing from the air

The Chirocopter gets its name from bats’ scientific order Chiroptera, although the device doesn’t bear much resemblance to the animals it’s meant to study. Like other bat observation posts, the drone carries thermal imaging cameras and microphones to listen in on bat’s high-pitched vocalizations. The major advantage is that Chirocopter’s mobility allows it to position these tools in much closer to proximity to the animal’s its observing, allowing researchers to more easily match specific echolocation vocalizations to activity seen on the camera. This should allow them to start to ‘decode’ when a bat uses a certain squeak, and how it then uses that information to plot its trajectory, somehow avoiding collisions with the thousands of swarming animals flying around it.

Of course, Chirocopter’s four propellers aren’t exactly silent either. To avoid overwhelming their recordings with sounds of the buzzing motors, or reflecting the bats’ echolocation, Chirocopter’s microphone was housed in large, Styrofoam ball, which acted as a lightweight but effective insulator. Overall, Chirocopter was likely quite conspicuous to the bats it observed on its initial test runs, but that probably helped avoid any collisions between the flying mammals and the drone.

Chirocopter’s first tests were just outside a cave in New Mexico, recording 84 minutes of activity from a colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats. At heights ranging from 16 to 160 feet above the ground, the drone recorded 3,847 echolocation signals, or around 46 chirps per minute. When comparing that activity to what was seen on the quadcopter’s camera, researchers realized that bats were sometimes diving at speeds of up to 62 miles-per-hour.

Smarter drones and safer bats

The success of Chirocopter is suggesting a number of paths for further development. Once the methods of the bats’ flight are better understood, that data may help inform how we program future drones to fly and maneuver without collisions. In the more immediate future, researchers are looking to expand where Chirocopter will be used, such as near wind turbines that may be a health hazard for bats in flight. Chirocopter’s microphones may also be altered to target other ranges of sound, making the device useful for tracking other animals’ vocalizations, although that would also require a new name, of course.

Source: With “Chirocopter” Bat-Detecting Drone, Scientists Are No Longer In The Dark by Sarah Whittaker, Drone Below

On March 12th, 2018 we learned about

We started saying ‘hello’ to attract attention on the telephone

Saying hello is now synonymous with greeting someone. It’s a word that, with some necessary spelling changes, is spoken in languages around the world, and at first glance seems appropriate for all kinds of contexts. However, its usage is actually pretty limited, only going back around 150 years. It’s not that people haven’t always greeted each other when they met, but that seeing someone in person wasn’t nearly as alarming as hearing their voice on a telephone.

We take the ability to speak on the phone for granted now, to the point that many of use avoid using a device that was once considered a marvel of modern technology. When it was invented, the phone was a totally new social space for people to make sense of, requiring its own set of etiquette to go with it. Alexander Graham Bell felt that this long-distance communication would make sense borrowing nautical terms for some reason, and always answered the phone with ahoy. Thomas Edison, perhaps noting that ships aren’t known for facilitating direct conversation, pushed the idea of hello, although that word carried a bit more impact in the 19th century than it does today.

Hello’s history as hail

The word hello comes from variations of hail, and as such is closely related to holler. It was used as a greeting, but often in bigger, public declarations than a one-on-one conversation, such as “hail to the king!” By the 1800s, hello’s exclamatory value was central to its usage, and it would be used mostly to show surprise or draw attention to something exciting, such as “Hello! What’s this?!” So Edison’s use of hello on a phone wasn’t really a socially bland greeting as much as a punctuated call for an answer from a distant shore. Aside from ahoy, which wasn’t going over with anyone, hello was actually competing with phrases like “Are you there?”

Hello is now used around the world, but mostly in the context of phone calls, showing how hearing a voice over a wire still occupies a particular space in our brains. Popular alternatives to hello or allo often retain the flavor “are you there.” In Spanish, diga is technically asking if you can be heard on the other end of the line. In Russian, я слушаю is basically saying “I’m listening,” again drawing attention to the fact that you’re in a conversation with someone that can’t see you. As forms of written communication like text messaging occupy larger portions our telecommunications, will hello simply shed this notion of an excited shout through the void, or will it fade away altogether?

Hi and hey

If hello really has peaked, it’s a safe bet that hi will be a replacement. As comfortable as hi feels in a text message or email, it actually has a very similar history to hello. It’s thought to be a variation on hey, which of course could also be shouted to draw attention to something of interest. Nonetheless, hi has brevity on its side, making it an easier word to use when you can already trust their phone to have gotten their attention for you.

Source: Where Does 'Hello' Come From?, Words at Play

On March 11th, 2018 we learned about

People benefit from the dog-centric diets of leopards living in Mumbai

In 2014, researchers scoured Mumbai for poop to learn about the diet of the local leopard population. Around 35 of the big cats were known to live in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which is basically surrounded by human development. This obviously cut the leopards off from their usual menu of hooved mammals, so researchers were worried that they’d find a lot of livestock in the feces they collected. As it turned out, the leopards were eating some livestock like goats, but the majority of their meals were actually domesticated dogs (and cats), which may be really good news for the people living near the park.

Reducing the spread of rabies

As alarming as living near 35 hungry leopards may sound, the cats aren’t nearly the problem the 100,000 feral dogs are. It’s estimated that most of Mumbai is populated by around 1,700 dogs per square mile. Those dogs and their kin across India are thought to be responsible for the majority of the 20,000 people that die of rabies infections every year. So while leopards had seven reported attacks on humans in 2017, dogs are making a much bigger impact on life in the city. With laws restricting population control measures to sterilization programs, meaning the leopards are the most direct way to reduce the number of feral, and possibly rabid, dogs in Mumbai.

Based on the aforementioned fecal analysis, leopards appear to eat around 1,500 dogs per year, accounting for 39 percent of their diet. By eating that many dogs, researchers estimate that the leopards are saving humans from 1,000 bite incidents and as many as 90 cases of rabies. In doing so, they’re also effectively saving the overall community around $18,000 per year, factoring in medical costs, lost work time, and more direct animal management issues. These benefits aren’t equally distributed though, as the leopards only hunt near the park where they live. While the leopards are bold enough to stalk through parking garages, it’s only in their limited territory that dog populations are reduced to around 42 dogs per square mile.

Ecosystems produced by people

Going forward, researchers want people to better understand how these leopards are helping their community, partially saving them from a problem the humans created. Aside from human developments building over the leopard’s habitat, the dogs have likely gotten out of control thanks to a plunge in vulture populations across India. For the last 20 years, a drug used to treat cattle has been killing vultures that feast on carcasses, leaving that carrion for feral dogs instead. Dog populations grew, getting us to a point where they’ve become the focus of leopards’ diets. It may seem nice that the leopard’s are proving to be so adaptable, but researchers are concerned about how dependent they’ve become on human activity for their food. In a weird way, it’s almost like the early stages of domestication, but for large, bone-crushing cats instead of the dogs they’re now feeding on.

My five-year-old asked: How can they eat a goat? Can they eat the horns? Also, it’s sad that they eat kitties.

I wasn’t able to find proof of a leopard eating a goat’s horn, but big cats do regularly chew up and swallow the bones of their prey. Since horns are basically specialized bone tissue, a leopard could probably crush through it if the horn wasn’t too thick.

Not sure what to say about the feral cats getting eaten though, besides that my son is apparently not a dog-person.

Source: Urban Leopards Can Save Lives By Eating Feral Dogs by Matthew L. Miller, Cool Green Science

On March 11th, 2018 we learned about

Chewing gum stays off the streets when its polymers are recycled into other plastic products

The average piece of chewing gum is tasty for less than six minutes. You might gnaw longer on the flavorless gum a bit longer, but once you toss it out, the synthetic rubber in that gum will keep it from completely biodegrading for hundreds years. When you add in the fact that cities often spend nearly 70 million dollars per year to clean used gum off of sidewalks and streets, and a few moments of tasty chewing starts to look like a major investment, at least for the community at large. Anna Bullus, a designer from England, has some ideas on how to make a dent in the impact of your chewing and bubble-blowing, which is to start recycling it into products you’ll want to keep instead of sticking on the bottom of your chair.

The fleeting flavor of chewing gum is thanks to ingredients like corn syrup or beet juice, but the component that makes it so durable in our mouths (and on our sidewalks) is polyisobutylene. It’s derived from petroleum, and is most often used for its ability to be air-tight and stretchy at the same time. As such, it turns up in gas masks, air bladders in soccer balls, car tires and even explosives like C4. With a resume like that, polyisobutylene can obviously stand up to being chomped by your teeth, but it’s also really difficult to actually destroy. For instance, swallowed gum will survive a trip through your digestive tract essentially unscathed, which means that the millions of tons of gum that ends up in landfills each year will be sitting there for ages to come.

Gathering used gum

Fortunately, polyisobutylene can also be recycled, albeit not in the blue bins you may have at your home or office. We’ve been recapturing polyisobutylene from old tires for years, and it turns out that extracting it from wads of chewing gum is a feasible process as well. So instead of sitting on sidewalks or in landfills for ages, the synthetic rubber can be remade into reusable cups, galoshes, or even shoe soles. The catch in this kind of recycling is simply getting the gum gathered up in the first place.

Getting people to specifically recycle their gum may be Anna Bullus’ major innovation. While she’s been coming up with attractive products that promote gum as a recyclable material, she’s also made Gumdrop bins, which are special bins meant to exclusively collect old chewing gum. The bright pink, spherical bins are placed at eye level, with the intent of being as conspicuous as possible so people will pay more attention to how they dispose of their gum. They’re obviously not widely available yet, but cities and campuses that have been using them have seen some success. Aside from the rain boots and other products that can be made from the recycled polyisobutylene, there’s also been a reduction in the amount of gum dropped off the ground. Since scraping gum off a sidewalk can be ridiculously expensive, simply giving people more reasons to keep their gum off the ground makes this kind of recycling cost effective.

Tasty tree sap

If you don’t have anything like gum drops in your area, your community would probably appreciate it if you at least switched to chicle-based chewing gum. Chicle is made from tree sap, making it a bit more renewable than anything made from petroleum. It also biodegrades more quickly, so while it won’t be made into shoes, it won’t be sitting on sidewalks for quite so long either.

Source: World Hacks: A surprising new afterlife for chewing gum by Dougal Shaw, BBC News