Showing posts with label Nature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nature. Show all posts

November 9, 2016

We Don’t Understand Human Intelligence Compared to Animals

The guests lining up outside a Brisbane gallery were not your typical culture vultures; in fact, until recently they’d never seen a painting in their life. But with just a little training, they developed their own artistic taste, showing a clear preference for Picasso’s crystalline constructions or Monet’s dreamy soft focus as they wandered lazily through the different rooms.
It’s little wonder that their talents created such a buzz, considering that they were working with a brain smaller than a pin head: these bona fide art critics were your common or garden honey bees, trained to find a syrupy surprise behind one or other of the artists' work.
(Credit: Getty Images)
 We have around 100 billion neurons, giving us a huge brain compared to our relatively puny bodies (Credit: Getty Images)
In fact, the ability to recognize artistic style was just the latest in a long list of achievements. Honey bees can count up to four, read complex signs, learn from observation and talk to each other in a secret code (the famous ‘waggle dance’). When foraging, they can weigh up the distance to different flowers, planning complex routes to collect the most nectar with the least effort. And within the hive, their individual responsibilities can include cleaning, undertaking (as they tend to the dead) and even air-conditioning, as they collect water to drop on the honey comb during hot weather.

The human brain has nearly 100,000 times as many neurons as the bee brain, yet the rudiments of many of our most valued behaviours can be seen in the teeming activity of the hive. So what’s the point of all that grey matter we hold in our skulls? And how does it set us apart from other animals? These are some of the questions that will be discussed at the BBC Future’s World-Changing Ideas Summit in Sydney on 15 November.
About one-fifth of all you eat is used to power the electrical chit-chat between your 100 billion little grey cells. If a big brain didn’t give us any advantage, that would be an enormous waste.
And there are some clear benefits. If nothing else, it makes us more efficient at what we do. If honey bees are searching a scene, for instance, they will consider each object one by one, whereas larger animals have the extra brainpower to process it all at once. We can multi-task, in other words.
A bigger brain also boosts the amount we can remember: a honey bee can grasp just a handful of associations between signs signaling the presence of food, before it starts getting confused, whereas even a pigeon can learn to recognise more than 1,800 pictures, and that’s nothing compared to human knowledge. For a comparison, consider that a memory champions can remember the sequence of Pi to literally thousands of decimal places.
(Credit: Getty Images)
Magpies are known to be among some of the most cognitively advanced birds (Credit: Getty Images)
Darwin described these kinds of distinctions as “differences of degree, not kind” – a conclusion that some might find frustrating. If you look at human civilization and all we have achieved, surely we must have some particularly special ability that is completely lacking in all other animals?
Culture, technology, altruism and many other traits have all been touted as signs of human greatness – but the more you look, the narrower that list becomes.

Macaques, for instance, have long been known to pick up stones to crack nuts while New Caledonian crows can craft hooks from a broken stick to help them pick up food - both rudimentary forms of tool use. Even invertebrates are getting in on the act. Veined octopuses, for instance, appear to collect coconut shells, dragging them along the sea floor for later use as a shelter. 
A chimp in Zambia, meanwhile, has been caught wearing a fetching tuft of grass in her ear – apparently for no other reason than that she thought it looked nice. Soon, many of the other chimps in her group copied her fashion statement, a form of adornment that some researchers have interpreted as a form of cultural expression. 
Many creatures also seem to have an innate sense of fairness, and may even feel empathy for others – as our colleagues at BBC Earth recently explored – again suggesting a kind of rich emotional life that was once thought to be our specie's domain. Consider the case of a humpback whale, which was recently seen saving a seal’s life, protecting it from a killer whale attack – evidence that we are not the only animal to behave altruistically.
Perhaps the answer instead lies in a “sense of self”, a creature’s ability to recognise itself as an individual. This navel gazing would be a rudimentary
(Credit: Getty Images)
Elephants can recognise their own reflection (Credit: Getty Images)

 form of consciousness. Of all the different qualities that might make us unique, self-awareness is the toughest to measure with any certainty – but one common test involved daubing a spot of paint on the animal, and putting it in front of a mirror. If the animal notices the mark and tries to rub it off, we can assume that the animal recognises its reflection, suggesting it has formed some kind of concept about itself.
Humans don’t develop this capacity until they are around 18-months-old, but a handful of other animals appear to demonstrated this kind of awareness, including bonobos, chimps, orang-utans, gorillas, magpies, dolphins and orca whales.

Not so fast. A couple of mental capacities may be purely our own, and they are perhaps best understood by considering a family’s conversation around the dinner table.
The first astonishing fact is that we can speak at all, of course. No matter what you’ve been thinking and feeling throughout the day, you will be able to find words to express the experience and describe it to those around you. 
No other creature can communicate with such freedom. The honey bee’s waggle dance, for instance, can relay the location of a flower bed, and it can even warn the other bees about the presence of a dangerous insect, but it can’t express everything the bee has experienced: it is limited to a few facts about the immediate circumstances. Human language, in contrast, is open-ended. With infinite combinations of words to choose from, we can articulate our deepest feelings or lay down the rules of physics – and if we can’t quite find the right term, we can just invent a new one.
(Credit: Getty Images)
Bees may be stuck in the present, with no concept of future or past (Credit: Getty Images)
What’s even more remarkable though, is the fact that most of our conversation is not rooted in the present, but revolves around the past and the future, which brings us to one of the other traits that may define us. We’ve already explored how we may be able to recall more facts than most animals. This is ‘semantic’ memory. But as Thomas Suddendorf at the University of Queensland will point out at the World-Changing Ideas Summit, we also have ‘episodic’ recall – the ability to mentally relive past events, picturing them in multi-sensory detail. It’s the difference between knowing that Paris is the capital of France, and being able to bring back the sights and sounds of your first trip to the Louvre.

Crucially, the ability to think back to the past also allows us to imagine the future, too, as we use previous experiences to predict future scenarios. You might imagine your next holiday by recalling all your past trips, for instance, allowing you to picture what kind of hotel you like, plan the sights you want to visit and build a menu of food you want to eat.
No other animal appears to have such elaborate personal memories, combined with the ability to plan whole chains of actions in advance. Even bees, with their complicated housekeeping in the hive, are probably only responding to their present circumstances; their thoughts don’t go beyond the next flower they would like to visit or the danger of an intruder. They are not going to reminisce about what it felt like to be a larva. 
Together with language, mental ‘time travel’ allows us to share our experiences and our hopes with many other people, building networks of combined knowledge that are continually growing with each generation. Science, architecture, technology, writing – in short, everything that allows you to read this article – would be impossible without it.  
  • David Robson
David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.

September 28, 2016

The Worse Killer in Nature Because It Kills It’s Own

Researchers compiled a list of more than 1,000 mammals based on how many deaths were caused by members of the same species.

The meerkat had the highest rate with 19.4 per cent of all deaths the result of an attack by another meerkat, the academics reported in the journal Nature.

The carnivore, which lives in mobs of up to 50 mostly in the Kalahari and Namib deserts in southern Africa, is known for infanticide in particular.

It was closely followed by Schmidt's guenon, a type of monkey, (18.2 per cent) and the red-fronted lemur (16.7 per cent). Some of their close relations also had similarly high figures.

Others in the top 10 include the New Zealand sea lion (15.3 per cent), long-tailed marmot (14.5 per cent), lion (13.3 per cent), banded mongoose (13 per cent), grey wolf (12.8 per cent) and Chacma baboon (12.3 per cent) with the diademed sifaka and long-tailed chinchilla tied in 10th place on 12 per cent. 
There were a number of unexpected findings. For example, the Dama gazelle is responsible for 11.8 per cent and the California ground squirrel accounts for 11.9 per cent of the respective species’ deaths – more than the jaguar (11.1 per cent) or cougar (11.7 per cent).

The lead author of the paper, Dr José María Gómez, of Granada University in Spain, told The Independent in an email: "It is surprising that a priori cute and pacific animals, like meerkats, marmots and ground squirrels, have high levels of mortality to conspecifics [members of the same species]."

The research was done to help scientists estimate the rate of intentional killing among humans when Homo sapiens first evolved and they put this at about two per cent. That was more than six times higher than the average among the 1,024 mammal species of just 0.3 per cent.
“Many primates exhibit high levels of intergroup aggression and infanticide,” the researchers wrote in Nature.

“Social carnivores sometimes kill members of other groups and commit infanticide when supplanting older members of the same group.  Even seemingly peaceful mammals such as hamsters and horses sometimes kill individuals of their own species.”

Primates seemed to have a greater tendency towards violence, something that was associated with living in social groups and maintaining a territory. Chimpanzees cause nearly 4.5 per cent of deaths of other chimps, while eastern gorillas account for five per cent of their species.

But other primates are extremely peaceful. The figure for the famously pacific bonobo was just 0.7 per cent but the western gorilla was even less likely to resort to deadly violence with a rate of just 0.14 per cent.

Indian rhinocerous (1.01 per cent), tigers (0.88 per cent), the African forest elephant (0.29 per cent) and vampire bats (0.1 per cent) also had low rates, at least relative to early humans.

Some animals did kill each other at all. Among more than 10,000 deaths of zebras, there was not a single example of a same-species killing. 

Thomson’s gazelle (zero out of 410,000 deaths), the margay, a cat native to South and Central America (zero out of 1000,000) and multiple species of bats (zero out of hundreds of thousands) also appeared not to kill each other.

September 3, 2016

Millions of Dead Bees in a Nuked Looking Area After Zika Spraying

On Sunday morning, the South Carolina honey bees began to die in massive numbers.
Death came suddenly to Dorchester County, S.C. Stressed insects tried to flee their nests, only to surrender in little clumps at hive entrances. The dead worker bees littering the farms suggested that colony collapse disorder was not the culprit — in that odd phenomenon, workers vanish as though raptured, leaving a living queen and young bees behind.
Instead, the dead heaps signaled the killer was less mysterious, but no less devastating. The pattern matched acute pesticide poisoning. By one estimate, at a single apiary — Flowertown Bee Farm and Supply, in Summerville — 46 hives died on the spot, totaling about 2.5 million bees.
Walking through the farm, one Summerville woman wrote on Facebook, was “like visiting a cemetery, pure sadness.” 
A Clemson University scientist collected soil samples from Flowertown on Tuesday, according to WCBD-TV, to further investigate the cause of death. But to the bee farmers, the reason is already clear. Their bees had been poisoned by Dorchester’s own insecticide efforts, casualties in the war on disease-carrying mosquitoes.
On Sunday morning, parts of Dorchester County were sprayed with Naled, a common insecticide that kills mosquitoes on contact. The United States began using Naled in 1959, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which notes that the chemical dissipates so quickly it is not a hazard to people. That said, human exposure to Naled during spraying “should not occur.”
In parts of South Carolina, trucks trailing pesticide clouds are not an unusual sight, thanks to a mosquito-control program that also includes destroying larvae. Given the current concerns of West Nile virus and Zika — there are several dozen cases of travel-related Zika in South Carolina, though the state health department reports no one has yet acquired the disease from a local mosquito bite — Dorchester decided to try something different Sunday.

The Zika virus, explained

Play Video3:07
Everything you ever wanted to know about the Zika virus and its spread across North and South America. (Daron Taylor, Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)
It marked a departure from Dorchester County’s usual ground-based efforts. For the first time, an airplane dispensed Naled in a fine mist, raining insect death from above between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. Sunday. The county says it provided plenty of warning, spreading word about the pesticide plane via a newspaper announcement Friday and a Facebook post Saturday. Local beekeepers felt differently. 
“Had I known, I would have been camping on the steps doing whatever I had to do screaming, ‘No you can’t do this,'” beekeeper Juanita Stanley said in an interview with Charleston’s WCSC-TV. Stanley told the Charleston Post and Courier that the bees are her income, but she is more devastated by the loss of the bees than her honey.
The county acknowledged the bee deaths Tuesday. “Dorchester County is aware that some beekeepers in the area that was sprayed on Sunday lost their beehives,” Jason Ward, county administrator, said in a news release. He added, according to the Charleston Post and Courier, “I am not pleased that so many bees were killed.”

Planes spray pesticides aimed at mosquitos carrying Zika in Florida

Play Video1:02
Officials in Miami are hoping pesticides sprayed from the skies will be enough to kill the mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus there. Florida health officials have identified 15 Zika cases spread by local mosquitoes. (Reuters)
Spraying Naled from the air is not unprecedented, particularly when covering areas that cannot be reached by truck. In a single year in Florida, more than 6 million acres were fumigated with the chemical, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency argued in January that the technique should be used to curb Zika in Puerto Rico. 
But the insect neurotoxin cannot discriminate between honey bees and bloodsuckers. A profile of the chemical in Cornell University’s pesticide database warned that “Naled is highly toxic to bees.”
Although the insecticide was known to kill bees, to South Carolina beekeepers spraying had not been as significant a concern as parasites, disease and other hive threats. As South Carolina Beekeepers Association President Larry Haigh told the Post and Courier in June 2015, many counties will spray at night, when honey bees do not forage for pollen. Plus, given sufficient warning, beekeepers will shield their hives and protect the bees’ food and water from contamination.
Sunday was different. Summerville resident Andrew Macke, who keeps bees as a hobby, wrote on Facebook that the hot weather left bees particularly exposed. Once temperatures exceed 90 degrees, bees may exit the nest to cool down in what is called a beard, clustering on the outside of the hive in a ball. Neither Macke nor Stanley had covered their hives.
And then came the plane. 
“They passed right over the trees three times,” Stanley said to ABC 4 News. After the plane left, the familiar buzzing stopped. The silence in its wake was like a morgue, she said.
As for the dead bees, as Stanley told the AP, her farm “looks like it’s been nuked.”
A Summerville resident started a petition calling for Dorchester County to halt aerial Naled spraying. It is unclear whether those who lost bees are pursuing other recourse. 
Update: Dorchester County administrator Jason Ward wrote to The Washington Post in a statement on Thursday, clarifying that the county sent out a press release at 9:15 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 26.
“The beekeepers that were on the county’s contact list that were in the zone to be sprayed were called with one exception. Mr. Scott Gaskins, who runs the Mosquito Control program, failed to call Mitch Yawn, Ms. Juanita Stanley’s business partner,” Ward said in the email.
“The second issue regarding beekeepers like Mr. Andrew Macke revolves around the fact that the county did not have these locations on its list. However, we have reached out to the Lowcountry Beekeepers Association and they provided us with the names and locations for other beekeepers in Dorchester County.” 
“They passed right over the trees three times,” Stanley said to ABC 4 News. After the plane left, the familiar buzzing stopped. The silence in its wake was like a morgue, she said.
As for the dead bees, as Stanley told the AP, her farm “looks like it’s been nuked.”
A Summerville resident started a petition calling for Dorchester County to halt aerial Naled spraying. It is unclear whether those who lost bees are pursuing other recourse.
Update: Dorchester County administrator Jason Ward wrote to The Washington Post in a statement on Thursday, clarifying that the county sent out a press release at 9:15 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 26.
“The beekeepers that were on the county’s contact list that were in the zone to be sprayed were called with one exception. Mr. Scott Gaskins, who runs the Mosquito Control program, failed to call Mitch Yawn, Ms. Juanita Stanley’s business partner,” Ward said in the email.
“The second issue regarding beekeepers like Mr. Andrew Macke revolves around the fact that the county did not have these locations on its list. However, we have reached out to the Lowcountry Beekeepers Association and they provided us with the names and locations for other beekeepers in Dorchester County.”

How the Zika virus affects an infant's brain

Play Video1:38
Doctors confirmed the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly in April. While the most visible sign of microcephaly is the small size of the head, its actually inside the brain where the most damage occurs.
 (Whitney Leaming, Julio Negron/The Washington Post) 

December 19, 2015

Elephants Fear of Bees Could Save Their Lives


“To sit in the open on a fine day and look at the Thriving life of nature could in itself be a life extender.” [lagos]

Elephants don’t like bees; farmers don’t like elephants; farmers and bees get along smashingly. The idea behind the Elephants and Bees Project—a collaboration between Save the Elephants, the University of Oxford, and the Disney Conservation Fund—is to put the tiny bee to work both making honey for local farmers and protecting humans and elephants from each other.

Though poaching for ivory is a primary threat to dwindling elephant populations, human-animal conflict further destabilizes the species’ future. As their habitats get smaller, these mammals wind up roaming toward human settlements, where they often find the most delicious source of food are farmers’ crops. Not only do these 5,000- to 14,000-pound elephants cause a lot of damage to the ground they trample, but they eat about 900 pounds of food each day. For a small farmer in Africa, where the average farm is only 2.4 hectares (compared with 178.4 hectares in the United States and 1.8 hectares in Southeast Asia, where Asian elephants reside and cause similar problems), an elephant crop raid can be an income-crushing act.

The usual response to these raids—which often happen at night—is for farmers to throw rocks or shoot firearms into the air to scare off the elephants. But this often prompts them to become aggressive, causing injuries and even deaths on both sides. Elephants that have been wounded or whose family members have been killed by humans may also be more aggressive toward people in the future.

Conflicts between wildlife and farmers can be found all over the world, including right here in the United States, where ranchers do battle with everything from coyotes to deer in the name of protecting their livestock (albeit with debatable success). But what do you do when the pest is an elephant, and killing it is illegal (as is the case in Kenya)?

If you’re Elephants and Bees, you look to animal behavior for solutions. “Most people seem to start with the human/farmer side of the problem and don’t do enough research into the natural behavior of the animal with which they are having conflicts with,” said project leader Lucy King. “We are fundamentally a scientific research organization who focus on elephant behavior first, so we know what they need before we try to implement management solutions.” One of the first important discoveries the group made was that elephants avoided acacia trees with active honeybee nests in them. To test whether they could put the elephant’s natural fear of bees into practice, King and her team recorded bee sounds and played them from a hollowed-out tree near a group of elephants. King wrote in an article, “Sixteen of 17 elephant families that heard the bee sounds ran away shaking their heads as if to knock any bees out of the air.”

King offered free hives to a local beekeeping group in Kenya if it would “go along with my crazy idea,” she said. One of the pilot beekeepers—who started with 12 hives—has expanded to 41 on his own. “In Africa, beekeeping is pretty common, so it’s not like we’re introducing a totally foreign concept,” King said. “Everyone loves honey no matter what religion, race, or gender you are.” The main tweak that had to be made to turn beehives into an elephant-proof fence was to move them from treetops, where they’re traditionally hung by beekeepers, to “new locations around the farm boundary,” King said. Compared with building an expensive electric fence to keep out elephants, this beekeeping initiative gives farmers extra income and incentive to keep the hives going, reducing conflict without violence—aside from the occasional sting, of course.

Yet many other animals that wind up in the midst of regular human-animal conflict can’t be dealt with so easily. What if a key trait that can become a tool for management strategies—that elephants are afraid of bees, in this case—simply doesn’t exist? Deer populations in the U.S. provide one example of a harder-to-control animal. They have a high reproductive rate, their natural predators in North America have been largely killed off, and people have differing opinions of them, explained Don Wagner, deer unit manager in the Department of Animal Sciences at Pennsylvania State University. Clear-cutting forest to make more farmland has caused an explosion in the deer population by creating more potential habitats for the “edge species.” He added that many areas have a mixture of farmers (whose crops the deer eat), people who like hunting deer, and those who want to protect the wide-eyed creatures.

One way of managing deer numbers is to confine a herd by building an eight-foot-or-taller deer-proof fence—but if there's population control, the numbers will quickly become unsustainable for the food sources available. (“Depending on how hungry the deer are, they can learn to get through different types of fences,” Wagner said.) Though fewer deer causes less damage, hunting them does nothing to keep them from devouring local crops.

Elephants are a far better candidate for this kind of behavior-based conservation—they reproduce slowly and are illegal to kill. Furthermore, because the bee fence is built from living creatures, there’s a much lower chance of the elephants becoming habituated. “The live bees are the key element that make the system work,” King said. (Another issue with keeping deer out through scenting boundaries with the smells of natural predators: They learn that they’re not going to get eaten after all.) Elephants that decide to break the “fence” can get stung around the eyes, mouth, and “watery end of the trunk,” King explained. “When one bee stings, the pheromone released triggers the rest of the bees to attack; it’s not one bee the elephant is scared of—it’s 1,000 bees all potentially coming to sting the same spot.”

That’s a lot of discomfort even for a 15,000-pound animal.

Tove Danovich is a journalist based in New York City.

August 27, 2015

Do You Like Horses and Beavers? You will find them on your Burgers


 If you’re a health-conscious carnivore browsing for bison brisket online—or maybe you're a new Paleo diet devotee trolling the grocery store for a package of ground beef—you probably pay close attention to what's on the label. Was the animal organically raised? Was it grass-fed and not treated with antibiotics, or was it fattened up with feed dosed with pesticides? Like most folks you probably assume that what you’re purchasing is what the package claims it is. But according to the results of a pair of new studies, you might be buying ground horse or a fancy slab of American beaver instead.

That’s the finding of two studies produced by Chapman University’s Food Science Program that will be published in the January 2016 Food Control journal. The researchers conducted DNA testing and other scientific analyses on samples of ground meat (such as turkey, pork, chicken, and beef) found in brick-and-mortar grocery stores and on samples of specialty game meat (including bison, pheasant, and bear) sold online. About 20 percent of the time, the label on the package didn’t line up with what was inside.  

Of the 48 fresh and frozen samples of ground meat found in traditional markets, 10 were mislabeled. Nine of those 10 packages contained a mix of meat species—partially what the label indicated and partially some other animal. The tenth sample was meat from a completely different creature than what the label suggested.

Unintentional contamination at meatpacking plants may account for some of this, according to the study’s authors. If a processor handles pork, beef, and turkey, for example, and doesn’t fully clean the equipment, DNA of one animal can, in varying degrees, end up in the packaging for another. 

The researchers also speculated that “lower-cost species [are] being intentionally mixed in with higher-cost species for economic gain.” In particular, that raises a concern about the ethics of the $39 billion specialty game meat market in the U.S. 

Indeed, the second study tested 54 samples from that lucrative online market and found 10 packages were mislabeled. One bundle of black bear burgers was actually beaver, two packages of pricey bison burgers and one package of expensive yak burgers were plain old domestic cattle, and a container labeled as pheasant was helmeted guinea fowl. The retailer, of course, pockets the difference.

That's troubling enough, but the researchers also found that two of the ground meat samples contained horsemeat, which is illegal to sell in the United States.

“Although extensive meat species testing has been carried out in Europe in light of the 2013 horsemeat scandal, there has been limited research carried out on this topic in the United States,” Rosalee Hellberg, an assistant professor at Chapman University and coauthor of both studies, said in a statement.

It's not hard to imagine all the vegetarians out there breathing a sigh of relief—after all, kale is undoubtedly kale. Sure, we’re more than a century removed from the filthy descriptions of meatpacking plants in Upton Sinclair’s classic, The Jungle, but these studies might be another red flag about the overall cleanliness and safety of meat producers in the United States.

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

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