On August 14th, 2017 we learned about

Humans are adept at appreciating alarm in the voices of animals

You’ve probably never conversed with a groundhog or tree frog, but it might not be as futile as you’d think. Sure, it’s sometimes hard to communicate with other humans that ostensibly speak the same language as you, but there’s a good chance that some of the underlying emotion you want to express gets through in just about any conversation. For all the layers of complexity that language can have, researchers are finding that humans are actually pretty decent at picking up the basic intent of a wide range of vertebrates’ vocalizations. We might not know exactly what details a particular prairie dog has to share, but we can at least tell how strongly that critter feels about what it’s saying.

Sensing species’ sentiment

The study was fairly straightforward, asking 75 humans to listen to recordings of different animals and identify the level of arousal, or emotional energy, of that animal. The humans were native speakers of English, German or Mandarin in order to try and eliminate any bias that might arise from a human language that somehow more closely followed the grammar rules of bush elephants or pigs. In the end, people’s assessments were definitely more accurate than random guesses, although the degree to which people understood each species was sometimes surprising.

Humans could identify higher or lower arousal in other humans quite well, followed by giant pandas, tree frogs, elephants and alligators. We actually did worse with some species pigs, ravens and barbary macaque monkeys, indicating that familiarity or genetic similarities weren’t the key component to communication. Overall, the more a species relied on shifting the frequency, or pitch, of their voice, the more it made sense to human ears. Some samples from the study can be heard here if you want to try it yourself.

Shared origins for animals’ outbursts

We know that animal vocalizations can get very complex, and so nobody was expecting anyone to really parse specific messages in this test. The fact that prairie dogs seem to have specific vocabulary for details in their alarm calls is probably going to be beyond the ear of most human listeners. However, the fact that the sense of urgency of an alarm call in prairie dogs, birds and other animals may be detectable may indicate that all these air-breathing vertebrates share a common foundation in our noise-making.

Even if you’re not about to chat with your local squirrels, this study helps establish aspects of how language may have evolved in the first place. Other work has found that specific vocalizations are often taught from one generation of animal to the next in a process that closely mirrors human language acquisition. For example, baby marmoset monkeys transition from babble to specific calls in a process that is nearly identical to human babies. A baby marmoset will get feedback from adults about specific phonemes it makes, and then learns to refine and rely on those specific sounds for communication as it matures.

Source: Humans identify emotions in voices of all air-breathing vertebrates

On August 14th, 2017 we learned about

Higher prices can have a positive effect on our perceptions

Think of the tastiest candy you’ve ever eaten. Think of the wrapper it came in, how it was presented, and importantly, the price you paid for it. It turns out, that candy could have tasted even better if you thought it was worth more money. Brain scans of people assessing wines have found that this preference for higher-prices isn’t just some kind of post-hoc rationalization to justify spending. Higher prices can trigger more activity in the brain’s reward centers, meaning your that candy that you bought for $1.00 would have been even sweeter if you thought it was worth a $1.50.

How to value vino

Candy prices are kind of predictable though, and unless a specialty shop is involved, it’s hard to be convinced that one Milky Way bar is all that different from another. Wine, however, is sold under many labels at varying prices, and so it was a great way to test how much prices influence people’s perception of quality. Volunteers then sipped wine through a tube while their brains were scanned in an fMRI so that their reactions to both fictional prices and real wine could be tracked. Unknown to the participants, the wines were identical in each round of sips, and the prices were randomly assigned, ensuring that the wine’s “actual” value was not the main factor in people’s perceptions.

As people sipped, they generally favored what they thought were the more expensive wines. This was true whether they thought they’d be paying for wine or being given it for free, indicating that a concern over their resources was not what made something tasty. People weren’t making the most of their available resources— they were instead enhancing the flavor of the wine with a price-based placebo effect.

Believing it’s better

Placebos are usually discussed in terms of health treatments, but the same underlying concept applies were. If a person thinks a pill will make them healthy, that can be enough to convince their body to recover. In the context of wine prices, the so-called “placebo marketing effect” was found to trigger physiological differences in people’s brains. Sipping pricier versions of a wine lead to more activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex and the ventral striatum, the former being tied to price-comparisons and the latter being involved in reward and motivation systems. As far as these people’s brains were concerned, pricier wine was honestly better.

There are limits to this, of course. Putting a $100 price tag on vinegar isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. But for wines, or candies, or anything else that we expect to have variable prices and quality, this can make a difference. It’s something to keep in mind when you make up your mind about a food or experience before you’ve tried it— like a four-year-old who doesn’t want to try a vegetable, you really can convince your brain that something you don’t want will be miserable to have in your mouth.

“So which would you rather have, a new kind of chocolate in a plain wrapper or one in a fancy box?”

“Is it a box I could keep?” asked my third-grader, “because if was going to be thrown away I’d take the smaller wrapper to make less trash.”

After many hypotheticals, I did eventually get her to pick the theoretically pricier chocolate over something cheaper, but the exchange felt like another reason this study was done with adults sipping wine.

Source: Why Expensive Wine Appears To Taste Better, Scienmag

On August 13th, 2017 we learned about

Automated image analysis set to track birds and bats near wind turbines

The outer tip of a wind turbine can move at 180 miles-per-hour. This is slower than a peregrine falcon when it dives, but much faster than the fastest birds (and bats) and move when flying horizontally. It’s a big concern, as flying animals have a bad habit of flying into moving turbines, leading to as many as 320,000 deaths a year. The speed of the blades isn’t the only worry, as stationary buildings also kill hundreds of millions of birds a year. That said, the novelty and expansion of wind-power has people actively looking for ways to reduce animal fatalities, even in the darkness of night.

To reduce the number of animal deaths from spinning turbines, one strategy is to try to deactivate the blades before animals are nearby. Radar is employed to search for flocks of birds, but that doesn’t help smaller groups or single birds. In extreme cases, protected species like the California condor actually wears tracking equipment to provide early warning to the turbine so that it can be turned off as the bird approaches. That’s not practical for every bird or bat in the sky though, and so research is being done to figure out more widely applicable technologies to get stop the turbine blades when necessary.

Vigilance with video

It turns out that some high-tech bird watching is looking very promising. Cameras with thermal imaging, or “night vision” are being augmented with ThermalTracker software to more accurately detect where animals might be flying. The complete package can then look out for birds and bats 24 hours a day, especially in shoreline areas that are harder for people to survey.  The actual observations are carried out by an algorithm that analyzes the movement of an animal’s wings and flight path to determine what kind of animal it is. Tests have found that this system can detect 81 percent of flying birds and bats, correctly classifying them 82 percent of the time.

Expanding this foundation, there are plans to add further sophistication to this system. Software will be refined so that analysis of the video can happen in real time, allowing recordings to be paused when no animal is in the sky. This should reduce costs, making this kind of tracking more accessible to wind farms everywhere. There are also plans to add second cameras, enabling stereoscopic comparisons of the sky. This enhancement would let the system estimate the animal’s distance more accurately, allowing for better judgments of the creature’s size and species. And thanks to the night-vision thermal imaging, it all works in various lighting conditions.

Searching for better sites

All this collected data can then be used to better inform turbine management, giving people a better picture of what species are active in a specific area. This can be crucial, as poorly-selected wind farm locations are actually thought to be the biggest cause of animal fatalities. Not all patches of the sky are equally trafficked, and so knowing who lives in the neighborhood can make a significant impact on conservation efforts.

Source: Night Vision For Bird- & Bat-Friendly Offshore Wind Power by Frances White, Phys.org

On August 13th, 2017 we learned about

Cow pie biogases now provide fuel for farm’s giant feed truck

The average dairy cow produces around 40,000 pounds of manure a year, most of which doesn’t just disappear into thin air. As a cow pie decomposes, some of that solid waste does become a gas, the most notorious of which is methane. Even though you can’t see all that CH4, it makes a big difference to the world since it traps 23 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Fortunately, methane doesn’t need to simply waft away, and farms are now using their cow poop to power everything from buildings to the very feed trucks that carry food to cows in the first place.

Prepping poop for generating power

Unfortunately, you can’t just scoop some poop into a gas tank and be on your way. Cow poop is made of a variety of materials which need to be separated so they can be used more efficiently, not totally unlike the refinement processes for crude oil. To make the most of their manure, farms have to invest in a huge container called a digester. The digester helps maintain an optimal temperature for poop to break down, and conveniently contains the unpleasant “barnyard aromas” at the same time. The products of digestion are fibrous materials that can be used as cow bedding or other products, potent liquid fertilizer, and assorted “biogases,” including methane.

Methane burns easily, which is why it’s the primary component of natural gas. Burned in combustion generator, plenty of electricity can be harvested to power farms, trucks, and even surrounding communities. Again, the methane doesn’t simply vanish into thin air though, and burning methane does create carbon dioxide as one of it’s by-products. Still, since carbon dioxide isn’t as potent a greenhouse gas as methane, most people consider this a win. It doesn’t hurt if farms can be more self-sustaining either.

Dung-fueled driving

The amount of power than can be generated from reused cow poop is significant enough that many farms are looking to expand their capacity. Farmers that have made the investment to set up one digester are often interested in setting up a second. The Straus Family Creamery in California took a different approach, and invested in a lengthy retrofitting project with their International Harvester feed truck. After eight years of work, they converted the diesel truck into a zero-emissions electric vehicle so that it could be powered by their poop-fueled generator. Apparently the creamery feels their cows’ poop can provide even more, and they plan to power a delivery truck with methane-produced electricity in the near future.

Source: Poop-Powered Electric Feed Truck Debuts at Northern California Creamery by Tiffany Camhi, The California Report

On August 10th, 2017 we learned about

Scans of Moschops’ skull suggest that thick bone protected a small brain from headbutting

Over 100 years ago, a fossilized skull was excavated from South Africa. The creature was dubbed Moschops, and it was one of many bones that have since been found in the region. The initial examination found that the heavy-set herbivore probably grew to as long as 16 feet, weighing up to two tons. The creature was nearly all chest and shoulders, with thick legs but a relatively small, bulbous head. And that’s just about where the story would end if not for CT scanners that have now allowed researchers to peer inside this petrified skull to see some of Moschops inner workings, however small they may be.

CT scans, also known as CAT scans, are basically specialized x-rays that allow us to look at internal structures of dense objects. In the case of Moschops, researchers were able to differentiate which minerals were originally skull and which parts of the hard lump were once soft tissues like the brain. This allowed them to gain a much more detailed understanding of the animal’s anatomy, leading to hypothesis about the behavior of this long extinct creature.

Little brain in lots of bone

The most exciting aspect of Moschops‘ brain was how small it was. The rhino-sized animal only had a brain the size of a chicken egg, meaning most of the skull’s domed cap was actually six inches of solid bone. This kind of armor suggests that the brain was being protected for a reason, with speculation immediately pointing to head-butting activity like that seen in modern rams and deer.  Beyond the brain, other sensitive structures, like the inner ear and nerves connecting to sensory organs in the face, were equally protected. In fact, the positioning of the inner ear indicates that Moschops regularly kept its snout pointed to the ground and its forehead pointed forward. This contrast to the positioning of say, a dog, may another indicator that this creature was adapted to crack heads, although it probably also helped with grazing behaviors as well.

Funnily enough, the protection of this tiny bit of gray matter may indicate a considerable amount of sophistication in Moschops behavior. If these herbivores did bang heads like modern rams or deer, it means they had social contact within their species that valued such interactions. These social relationships require a degree of cognitive prowess to pull off, even if you’re impressing your friends by smashing your heads together.

My four-year-old said: It looks like a baby long-necked dinosaur with no neck yet.

The thick build of a Moschops torso and small head is somewhat reminiscent of a sauropod dinosaur like Brachiosaurus, but Moschops wasn’t a dinosaur. It was part of a group called therapsids that predated the dinosaurs by around 30 million years. Also that stubby neck probably would have been better suited for head-butting compared to the hollowboned necks sauropods perched their heads upon.

Source: New insights into the survival techniques of a prehistoric beast by Julien Benoit, The Conversation

On August 10th, 2017 we learned about

For a healthier hippocampus, consider playing more Mario

Is Mario better than Call of Duty? By and large, yes, but beyond the likely enjoyment of playing these games, researchers are finding that that Mario games, or at least the “3D platforming” games like Super Mario 64, may be better for the health of your hippocampus. You want a robust hippocampus for a variety reasons, starting with its role in managing your long-term memory and processing emotional information. As it turns out, exploring complex maps found in these platformers seems to boost the hippocampus, while twitchier action games like Call of Duty or Killzone seem to have the exact opposite effect, reducing the hippocampus in favor of other brain structures.

Learning styles matter

This study started with MRI brain scans of regular gamers, sorted by what kind of game they usually play. Test participants were also asked to navigate a virtual maze to see what kind of learning styles they generally adopted. This stage of testing found a correlation between people who predominantly played high-speed action games and response learning types. In the maze, this meant that these participants were more likely to navigate by memorizing and reproducing patterns of movement, even when those patterns become very repetitive. On the other hand, people who spent more time playing 3D platform games were more likely to be spatial learners, building more of mental map by noting landmarks and spatial relationships.

Researchers then wondered if there was some self-selection going on here. Maybe people who were naturally better at playing out wrote patterns liked the games that rewarded those skills more, and vice versa. To check, a second set of test subjects with less gaming experience were asked to play 90 hours of one type of game or the other, with brain scans being taken before and after to see if any structural changes took place as a result. Indeed, there was a change, but the exact change seemed to depend on just what kind of learner a player was to begin with.

Gameplay that reshapes the brain

Response learners showed a marked reduction in their hippocampus after 90 hours of Call of Duty, but an increase in their caudate nucleus. The caudate nucleus is a separate brain structure that’s associated with reward systems, impulse control processing environmental feedback. Researchers suspect that these action games require very little spatial processing but instead exercise functions found in this second brain structure. That would be fine, except the accompanying loss of gray matter in the hippocampus is slightly concerning, at least for response learners.

Spatial learners may play these first-person shooters very differently, as their brains didn’t show the same shift in resources from the hippocampus to caudate nucleus. Somehow they got a boost in their hippocampus playing both action games and 3D platformers. Response learners’ hippocampi also benefited from some time collecting stars and shines with Mario, making those games the safer option for both player types. So if your memory struggles with complex spatial relationships, Super Mario 64 may help (but the twitch-oriented Super Mario Run probably won’t.)

My third grader asked: What about Minecraft?

While not mentioned in this study, it would seem like the slow pace and sprawling, unmarked world of Minecraft would really give your hippocampus a workout. The paper didn’t list every game they compared, but Call of Duty is somewhat infamous for its linear maps that require very little thought to navigate, and so anything that you can actually get lost in is probably giving the gray matter outside your caudate nucleus a bit more stimulation.

Source: Why ‘Super Mario’ May Be Good for Your Brain, But ‘Call of Duty’ Isn’t by Dave Roos, Seeker

On August 9th, 2017 we learned about

Fossils reveal evolution’s earliest examples of the “flying squirrel” body plan

Who knew gliding between trees on giant armpit pouches was so popular? While this kind of tree-hopping has been proposed as a starting point for winged flight, it’s apparently a successful enough strategy to have evolved repeatedly in the history of four-limbed animals. The two latest examples originate from the Jurassic period in what is now China, and were discovered in fossils so well-preserved the outline of the animals’ skin flaps were visible in the surrounding rock. At first glance, these creatures strongly resembled a modern flying squirrel, but closer examination reveals that they weren’t direct relatives of any modern glider.

The skeletons of Maiopatagium furculiferum and Vilevolodon diplomylos both featured anatomy that indicated they were gliders, even outside the skin flap impressions they were found with. They probably didn’t spend much time on the ground at all, as they had very long limbs and fingers. These wouldn’t have been great for outrunning a predator on the ground, but would have allowed these creatures to grasp and possibly hang from branches like bats without much trouble. Both creatures had a decent amount of hair, all of which makes them seem like a good blueprint for our modern gliding mammals.

A key difference between the two species was their diets. Simpler teeth in M. furculiferum indicate that it was a fruit eater, while more ridged crowns found on V. diplomylos‘ teeth point to that animal being a seed eater. The other big difference was their sizes— M. furculiferum was around ten inches long, close to the size of a modern flying squirrel, while V. diplomylos was more of a flying mouse, only growing to three inches in length. We’re not sure if these species were actually contemporaries of each other, but if so, these differences in size and diet would have helped them avoid competing for the exact same resources in the trees.

Not exactly an ancestor

For all of their similarities to modern gliding animals, we’re sure that neither M. furculiferum nor V. diplomylos were ancestors of today’s gliders because neither were actually mammals. The species were eleutherodonts, a parallel offshoot from the family of animals that also includes modern mammals. They were similar to mammals in most ways, with differentiation being noted in tooth formation, among other details. Eleutherodonts and other mammaliforms in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods actually showed a lot of diversity between species, especially compared to the shrew-like creatures that represent “true” mammals from the same time periods.

For better or for worse, all these specializations, including gliding between trees, didn’t save this lineage from extinction. When the dinosaurs were devastated by the asteroid impact that ended the Mesozoic era, these mammaliforms went extinct too. Eventually, mammals would pick up the gliding lifestyle again, rediscovering it around 50 million years ago.

Source: These Jurassic "squirrels” were the first creatures of their kind to go airborne by Brian Switek, Earth Touch News Network

On August 9th, 2017 we learned about

Racing league looks to push the speed limits of autonomous automobiles

Roborace is coming, but not to your kids’ cartoon lineup. If development continues as planned, the nascent racing league aims will be pitting ten teams against each other to see who can design and refine the best non-human driver. This is because “Robo” isn’t in the name just to attract ten-year-olds, but because the focus of the sport is to push and publicize the upper limits of autonomous cars. While the car designs may look like something that would make Speed Racer reconsider the Mach 5, the larger goal is to show the general public that autonomous cars can safely handle a lot, even our relatively dull trips to the grocery store.

Motors, sensors, but no seats

Currently, Roborace still consists of only four prototype vehicles, all lazily dubbed the “Robocar.” Robocar is powered by four 300-kilowatt motors, and can reach speeds close to 200 miles per hour. It’s unusual silhouette is partially thanks to Daniel Simon, who has helped design vehicles for science fiction movies, but also thanks to not needing a proper cockpit. The only driver on board is made of silicone, and so the usual safety equipment to keep a human alive and functional have been dropped to save space, weight and drag.

That’s not to say that this is just motorized wheels. To make up for the lack of a human’s eyes, ears, touch and cognitive abilities,  the Robocar is loaded with sensors. These include two radars, 18 ultrasonic sensors, two optical speed sensors, six visual cameras, GPS, and five LiDAR sensors, which are a bit like radar, but with lasers instead of radio-waves. The cumulative data is crunched by an onboard computer handling 24 trillion operations per second. Of course, all this hardware is for naught if the car isn’t making the right operations per second, and that’s where Roborace organizers see the real competition heating up.

Cranking up the coding

Right now, Roborace organizers are planning on sharing the Robocar physical design with every team that participates. That’s because they see the real innovation not coming from better sensors, but from the software that uses those sensors. In that sense, the races will be testing each team’s programming, removing physical differences as variables in the races. This puts the focus on making better algorithms that can handle the complexity of measuring ever-changing spacial relationships and making preemptive course corrections in tiny time increments. Ideally, some of those improvements can then be passed on to more consumer-grade vehicles, since presumably a program that can initiate a maneuver to avoid an obstacle while moving at 200 miles per hour should be able to handle a similar dodge when puttering along at 35 miles per hour.

Right now, top drivers can still out perform the Robocar. A trained human brain can make these kind of calculations pretty well when focused on the task, but there’s hope that this kind of competition will help artificial drivers catch up quickly. At the very least, Roboraces should help the public become more familiar, and maybe even comfortable, with autonomous vehicles. In the mean time, let this be fair warning that sci-fi kids’ shows need to step things up a bit, because Robocars are becoming a reality.

Source: Robots, Start Your Engines! by Jesse Dunietz, Scientific American

On August 8th, 2017 we learned about

The ups and downs of a deer’s annual investment in disposable antlers

For all of the underlying biology we share with other animals, it’s hard to relate to antlers. They grow on heads, but they’re not hair. They’re not the cellular equivalent of fingernails that we find in rhino horns or porcupine quills. Instead, antlers are weird, bony growths that sprout anew every year, demonstrating just how much of a strain and specialization a body can go through in the name of sexual selection.

Exhausting anatomy

An antler starts growing on a deer’s head in early spring each year. Unlike the inert keratin that makes up your fingernails or hair, antlers are made of living cells, and grow inside a fuzzy layer of skin called “velvet.” As the antlers develop over the summer, it’s composed of active blood vessels, nerves and bone cells, all of which can grow up to three-quarters of an inch per day. Keeping this tissue alive isn’t free though, and deer will often have to strip nutrients from other anatomy to keep their growth on track. On top of everything else, it’s an investment that deer make annually, as unlike the horns of rams or rhinos, antlers are shed every year.

Great …or good enough

Theoretically, it’s all worth it though. Deer courtship places a lot of emphasis on antlers both as display structures and weapons. Male deer will butt heads and lock antlers to demonstrate their fitness. Like other famous bits of animal anatomy, bigger antlers help attract and impress mates while staving off potential challengers.

There’s a limit to all that “fitness” though, and studies have found that sporting the biggest rack is not always the most winning reproductive strategy. The increased metabolic demands and risks associated with bigger antlers seems to have given rise to a more subtle population of deer that get by just fine with more modestly-sized head ornaments. The assumption is that smaller antlers are just big enough to catch a mate’s eye without demanding too much upkeep. The fact that they’re less likely to get caught on a tree branch may also help keep their owner alive to try to mate again another year.

Cellular secrets

This isn’t meant to diminish how impressive these head-bones are though. Regardless of an antler’s size, scientists have been studying their cellular properties that let them grow so quickly while also being so resilient. The fibrous structures that compose the bone grow in a staggered pattern that helps them stand up to stress without being damaged. Antlers have been transplanted to other body parts, and even other animals like a mouse, and they keep growing like they were still on a deer’s noggin. Scientists aren’t looking to affix spikes to people’s heads exactly, but the fact that nerves can grow so quickly in an antler may be a model for human therapeutics some day.

My third grader asked: Do only boy deer grow antlers?

Outside of some unusual anomalies, its fair to say that antlers are a male appendage in just about every species of deer. The notable exception is reindeer, as both male and females grow antlers each year. It’s thought that the antlers help females claim territory that might hold precious bits of food. Coupled with a scarcity of predators on the tundra that the deer would need to hide from, it seems that having antlers ends up being a good thing for each and every reindeer.

Source: Antlers Are Miraculous Face Organs That Could Benefit Human Health by Jason Bittel, Smithsonian

On August 8th, 2017 we learned about

Cocoa plants get protection from their healthy neighbors’ leftover leaves

The next time you’re about to enjoy a bite of chocolate, take a moment to thank the fungi and other microbiota that made it possible. Like the microbes humans start picking up at birth, organisms like Colletotrichum tropicale come to live on cocoa plants, helping them be more resilient to pathogens that would otherwise destroy the plant. Fortunately for farmers, and chocolate lovers, experiments suggest that this kind of fungal protection isn’t hard to spread between cocoa plants— sharing a bit of leaf litter from healthy neighbors should do the trick.

One of the biggest concerns for a cocoa, papaya and other tropical plants is Phytopthora palmivora, the “plant destroyer.” Once infected, a plant will start rotting at a variety of locations, from the roots to the fruit, and thus is a huge problem for farmers. The pathogen can be found in soil and water throughout tropical ecosystems, but fortunately protective fungi like C. tropicale aren’t too hard to come by either. Just as microbes can be shared between people when they touch, contact with leaf litter from healthy plants seems to be a good way to spread preferred microbes.

Testing leaf-based transmission

Researchers tested the effectiveness of leaf litter with cocoa plants initially grown from sterile seeds in sterilized chambers. Their leaves were verified as being fungus free before one-third of the plants had dead leaves from healthy cocoa plants placed in their pots. Other plants got mixed leaves from the forest, and some had none at all. They were all given a little time to grow outdoors in more “natural” conditions before purposely being exposed to P. palmivora. After three weeks, the plants with healthy cocoa leaves on their soil fared the best. DNA sequencing also confirmed that these plants leaves had a considerable population of the helpful fungus, C. tropicale.

While growing up in the leave litter of a healthy plant seems beneficial, there are limits to proximity. If a parent plant is infected, it can just as easily spread pathogens to its offspring. So cocoa farmers need to keep an eye on their plants to make sure the healthier plants are the ones dumping their leaves their neighbors.

Source: Litter Bugs May Protect Chocolate Supply, Scienmag