Blue Marble - March 2011

Science Shots: the Birds and the Moths

| Wed Mar. 9, 2011 7:09 PM EST

This issue of Science Shots is taken entirely from today's Proceedings of the Royal Society B (early view)—an unusually lively collection of forthcoming papers.

First up, a fascinating look at the long-distance migration strategies of birds and moths—specifically of songbirds (generally, the small twitterers) and noctuid, or owlet, moths (generally, the heavy-bodied moths that fly into lights at night).

The moths, as might be expected, attain self-propelled flight speeds only a third as fast as the flight speeds of songbirds. Yet the radar data used for this study show that during high-altitude migration, the moths fly as fast as the songbirds. So how do they do it?

Moths achieved fast travel speeds in seasonally appropriate migration directions by exploiting favourably directed winds and selecting flight altitudes that coincided with the fastest air streams. By contrast, [songbirds] were less selective of wind conditions, relying on self-powered flight in their seasonally preferred direction, often with little or no tailwind assistance. 

 

Heart and dart moth, Agrotis exclamationis. Credit: ©Entomart.ins, via Wikimedia Commons.Heart and dart moth, Agrotis exclamationis. Credit: ©Entomart.ins, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

For a long time now we've known that most birds that practice monogamy also cheat on their partners—what biologists call social monogamy (versus sexual monogamy). The basic hypothesis has been that cheating offers genetic benefits to the female by, for instance, mixing up her DNA with a male with different traits and potential talents.

The study used 18 years of data from wild song sparrows to examine the survival rates of the chicks born out of bird-wedlock compared to the chicks born within bird-wedlock. Lo and behold, not what anyone expected.

On average, there was no difference between chicks born in and out of wedlock (measured for hatching, fledging, recruitment, and total lifespan). However, chicks born out of wedlock consistently tended to be less likely to survive. Here's where it gets interesting: the difference was sex specific:

  • Female chicks born out of wedlock were less likely to survive to independence and recruitment than female chicks born within wedlock
  • Female chicks born out of wedlock lived fewer years than female chicks born within wedlock
  • Male chicks born out of wedlock were similarly or slightly more likely to survive and to live more years than male chicks born within wedlock

The findings tend to raise more questions than they answer, paradoxically a mark of scientific progress.

 

Song sparrow, Melospiza melodia. Credit: Ken Thomas, via Wikimedia Commons.Song sparrow, Melospiza melodia. Credit: Ken Thomas, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Finally, in another paper, researchers attempted to discern the level of empathy domestic hens feel for their chicks. The premise here being that empathy—the extent to which an animal is affected by the pain or distress of one of its own kind—likely evolved first among parents for their young and later spread to others, at least in some species.

So how do you test for empathy in chickens? The authors of this study conducted a series of experiments that involved exposing hens and their chicks to puffs of air and then measuring the hens' behavioral and physiological responses.

  • In one group, air puffs were directed to chicks every 30 seconds
  • In another, air puffs were directed to hens every 30 seconds
  • In one control group, the sounds of air puffs were played to hens and chicks
  • In another control group, hens and chicks were left undisturbed

The findings: Hens showed increased alertness, decreased preening behavior, and a reduction in eye temperature when their chicks were getting air blown at them. No such changes occurred during any control period. Hens also responded with increased heart rates and more vocalizations when their chicks were getting puffed, even though the  chicks produced few distress vocalizations. Conclusion:

The pronounced and specific reaction observed indicates that adult female birds possess at least one of the essential underpinning attributes of empathy.

 

 

The papers:

  • Thomas Alerstam, et al. Convergent patterns of long-distance nocturnal migration in noctuid moths and passerine birds. Proc. R. Soc. B. DOI:
  • Rebecca J. Sardell, et al. Sex-specific differential survival of extra-pair and within-pair offspring in song sparrows, Melospiza melodia. Proc. R. Soc. B. DOI:

  • J. L. Edgar, et al. Avian maternal response to chick distress. Proc. R. Soc. B. DOI:

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The "Most Anti-Environmental" Bill in 40 years?

| Wed Mar. 9, 2011 5:51 PM EST

If you're following the budget fight, Wednesday marked a new round of debate over what it will look like. With no resolution yet reached between Democrats and Republicans, the Senate debated and voted on two separate options for the seven-month spending plan, known as the continuing resolution, neither of which mustered the 60 votes needed to move forward.

It's worth revisiting just how bad the House-passed CR is when it comes to environmental matters. It would block the Environmental Protection Agency from moving forward on greenhouse gas regulations, which has drawn quite a bit of attention already. But it also specifically bars the EPA from acting on a number of other regulatory issues—like coal ash, toxic pollution from coal-fired power plants, emissions from cement kilns, and particulate emissions.

On top of those specific riders, it cuts the EPA's budget by a third—effectively limiting its ability to uphold basically every environmental law in this country. Scott Slesinger, legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council has a recap of what he calls the "most anti-environmental bill to come before Congress in the last 40 years."

The Democrat's budget plan includes some cuts to environmental programs, but nothing close to what the Republican version calls for. But since both versions failed, senators will have to take another stab at negotiating something, which means major cuts to environmental programs are still in play.

Fear of Terrorism Inverse to Actual Threat

| Wed Mar. 9, 2011 8:07 AM EST

As you may have heard, there's this self-contradicting and rather paranoid dude out there, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who's holding a Congressional hearing tomorrow on the dangers of homegrown terrorists. Not the Timothy McVeigh, Jared Loughner, or Unabomber kinds of terrorists: the real ones. The Muslim ones. (Cue ominous music here) But King's hearing isn't the only one on terrorists in the US: Far from it. From 2004 to 2011 there have been approximately 933 Congressional hearings on terrorism, despite the fact that terrorism only kills around 30 US citizens a year, and that includes Americans killed overseas. Instead, heart disease remains the #1 killer of Americans, killing around 600,000 of us every year. Terrorism, on the other hand, is a negligible death threat. You're about 45 times more likely to accidentally poison yourself than you are to be the victim of a deliberate terrorist. As a 66-year-old white male, King is much more likely to die from heart disease or cancer than he is from terrorism. But good to know he's keeping an eye out, just in case.

This isn't to say we shouldn't have concerns about terrorism. Of course we should. 9/11 was a horrible tragedy and we should do what we can to prevent something similar from happening again. But the fact remains that the #1 killer of Americans is at least partially preventable, and we don't seem to be that concerned about it. At least, not that much compared to terrorism. Charts below.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stat note: Numbers for death chart are as of 2007, most recent year for which US Census mortality data was available. Numbers for Congressional hearing chart are results of Congressional LexisNexis searches.

China's Coal Reserves "Will Make it New Middle East", Says Energy Chief

| Tue Mar. 8, 2011 6:02 PM EST

This post first appeared on the Guardian website.

Vast reserves of coal in the far west of China mean it is set to become the "new Middle East", a leading figure in the global coal industry has claimed. Fred Palmer, the chairman of the London-based World Coal Association and a key executive at Peabody Energy, the world's largest privately owned coal company, also said that China is leading the US in efforts to develop technology to "clean" coal of its carbon emissions by burying them underground.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Guardian, Palmer dismissed the idea that the world might ever experience "peak coal" – the point at which maximum global coal production rate is reached. "The Dakotas, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas all have large, large amounts of lignite [brown coal]," he said. "Or in western China and Mongolia you have lower-ranked coals. So I don't think there's a peak coal problem. I think Xinjiang province in the west of China, where they say there's a trillion tonnes of resources, will be the new Middle East. Anyone who has the notion that we're going to move away from fossil fuels just isn't paying attention."

Happy Birthday 1946 Cohort!

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 6:27 PM EST

Photo by Kopfjäger, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In one of the most interesting epidemiological studies ever conducted, British scientists began to track 5,362 of the 16,695 babies born in England, Scotland, and Wales during the first week of March, 1946. As of today, these "babies" have just celebrated their 65th birthdays.

Researchers and funding have come and gone, died and retired, yet miraculously the birth cohort study has continued uninterrupted for six-and-a-half decades—the longest-running cohort study to date. The findings of the National Survey of Health and Development are sweet, startling, depressing, and encouraging. In short, the panoply of life.

An overview of the study's results—so far—appear in the current Nature. It began like this in 1946:

Health visitors carefully recorded the weights of the vast majority on a four-page questionnaire, along with countless other details including the father's occupation, the number of rooms and occupants (including domestics) in the baby's home and whether the baby was legitimate or illegitimate. Over subsequent years, the information files on more than 5,000 of these children thickened, then bulged. Throughout their school years and young adulthood and on into middle age, researchers weighed, measured, prodded, scanned and quizzed the group's bodies and minds in almost every way imaginable.

A few of the findings:

  • The heaviest babies were most at risk of breast cancer in later life
  • Children born into lower socioeconomic classes were more likely to gain weight as adults
  • Women with higher IQs underwent later menopause than other women
  • Young children who spent more than a week in hospital were more likely to suffer learning and behavioral problems later on
  • Cohort members with the lowest birth weights had higher blood pressure as adults
  • Babies who grew fast postnatally had more cardiovascular risk in adulthood
  • Regular physical exercise in a person's 30s and 40s can slow cognitive decline with age

Here's some of what researchers are working on now. From the Nature piece:

In the latest round of data collection, running from 2006 to 2010 and costing £2.7 million [$4.4 million], study members underwent almost every modern biomedical test, including echo­cardiograms, measures of blood-vessel function, whole-body bone, muscle and fat scans, and tests of blood, memory and how quickly they could get up from a chair. The data will provide a detailed starting point from which to measure the cohort members' inevitable decline, and the opportunity to analyse the information is already swelling an extensive network of collaborators. Some are testing how genes interact with a lifetime of experiences to lead to obesity or disease; others plan to scan participants' genomes for 'epigenetic' marks—molecular traces left, perhaps, by early birth weight or by life's inequalities—that alter gene expression and might provide a molecular explanation for effects in later life. Greg Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine, who studies the impact of child poverty, hopes that follow-up studies could help to answer a question arising from the earlier findings on socioeconomic status and health: "What are the active ingredients in social class?"

And an interesting enigma in the data:

Diana Kuh [head of the UK National Survey of Health and Development] points out a blue line representing a group of women from better-off backgrounds, whose death rate is about half that of everyone else. Kuh has not been able to attribute the effect to less smoking or other obvious factors, and she suspects that these women took advantage of the educational and health opportunities afforded by post-war Britain to improve themselves. "They really changed their lives with education. The girls, if they got through [the limited educational opportunities], they did really well."

Waxman: House GOP More Anti-Science Than Ever

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 4:50 PM EST

Over the years, there have been plenty of hard-fought environmental skirmishes in Congress, but Henry Waxman thinks the latest battle over the future of climate policy in the US could be the toughest one yet. In remarks at the Center for American Progress on Monday, the California Democrat, who helped to usher in 1990's landmark Clean Air Act amendments, accused his Republican colleagues of taking an increasingly anti-science bent.

"Protection of the environment is now a partisan battleground," Waxman said. "On climate change, we can't even agree whether there is a problem." That's not to say things were peachy in the past; there were of course major battles over measures to curb acid rain, toxic power plant emissions, and other environmental protections. But, Waxman said, "I've never been in a Congress where there was such an overwhelming disconnect between science and public policy."

His remarks come at the beginning of what is shaping up to be an interesting week on that front. On Tuesday, the House subcommittee on energy and power will hold a hearing on climate science and the Environmental Protection Agency's new greenhouse gas regulations. And on Thursday, Republicans on that committee plan to move forward with legislation that would decimate those rules.

House and Senate Republicans have put forward a joint proposal that would not only amend the Clean Air Act to say explicitly that it does not apply to greenhouse gas emissions, but would also nullify the EPA's scientific finding that those gases pose a threat to humankind (a conclusion that even the Bush-era EPA had reached).

But before House Republicans begin marking up the legislation, Waxman, the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), the ranking member of the energy and power subcommittee, asked the majority to grant at least one hearing on the science underpinning the EPA's greenhouse gas rules. The Republicans agreed, and even granted the Dems the larger of witnesses. Of the seven witnesses appearing Tuesday, four were selected by the Democrats. The Republican witnesses include two climate change skeptics and, oddly, some guy whose main focus is promoting DDT, the pesticide banned in the US back in 1972 because of the risks it posed to public health and the environment. (See a good breakdown of the witnesses here).

But it's doubtful that anything the experts say tomorrow will dissuade the Republicans from moving ahead with the anti-EPA measure. House Republicans succeeded last week in adding three Democrats as co-sponsors of the EPA-handcuffing legislation—Reps. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, and Dan Boren of Oklahoma. On the Senate side, Republicans picked up Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) as a cosponsor.

Waxman says the passage of the measure through the House is basically a foregone conclusion. But that doesn't necessarily mean it will become law, he said, referencing his own climate and energy bill that passed in June 2009 only to hit a brick wall in the Senate. Waxman, and most of his Democratic colleagues, are hoping this anti-EPA measure will suffer the same fate. In the meantime, Waxman's hoping that the Democrats can at least use tomorrow's hearing to, once again, hash out the science.

"The new Republican majority has a lot of leeway to rewrite laws," he said, "but they don't have the ability to rewrite the laws of nature."

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Do Green Cars Just Make People Drive More?

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 6:30 AM EST
Flickr/chrishammond

Treehugger reports that in Sweden, purchases of fuel-efficient cars are on the rise, but so are emissions. So does this mean that Swedes are actually driving more (and thus creating more emissions) because their new green cars allow them to do so more cheaply?

This question is an example of the Jevons Paradox, which David Owen recently wrote about in the New Yorker: Make something more efficient, and people will use it more. "This effect is usually referred to as 'rebound'—or, in cases where increased consumption more than cancels out any energy savings, as 'backfire,'" he writes. (Owen uses the example of refrigerators and air conditioners in the piece, but the general principle can be applied to anything that consumes energy.)

Carl Safina's Excellent View

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 3:46 PM EST

I had the distinct pleasure of appearing with Carl Safina at the Song for the Blue Ocean Symposium at Oregon State University last month. One aim of the meeting was to explore whether or not scientists should use their knowledge to advocate for policy change.

The alternative—and, until recently, the status quo—is for scientists to simply deliver their results into the hands of policymakers and the public and let them hammer out our future as best they can. The flaws in that system are pretty obvious.

Safina's been a powerful pioneer in advocacy since his 1999 book Song for the Blue Ocean appeared—when he stepped out from behind the curtain of science and spoke directly to the public about the issues affecting our oceans.

 
 Photo courtesy Carl Safina.Photo courtesy Carl Safina.
 

 Safina's new book, The View From Lazy Point, is a meditative journey around the world and through the seasons, from coral reefs in Belize to penguin rookeries in Antarctica—though its heart beats at the northeastern tip of Long Island. There, he writes, "I became the owner of a beach cottage that had fallen into such disrepair that I could afford it." He continues:

As much as I admire Henry Beston's classic The Outermost House, this is not a story about getting a little place out past the edge of the world and finding one's self in solitude and peace. This story is, though, partly about going home, about immersing in rhythms that come naturally... But this story's also about a kind of heartbreak for a world that remains so vitally unaware of how imperiled it is. The more I sense the miracle, the more intense appears the tragedy.

 
Photo by somenametoforget, at Flickr.Photo by somenametoforget, at Flickr.
 
 
Writing about miracles and tragedies has come at a cost for Safina: The loss of his scientific research. Here's what he told me recently.
 

Carl Safina: I'd been studying mainly terns and their foraging ecology, until I realized that while we're learning increasingly minute things about the workings of these systems, we're losing great things like large populations of fish. So I started working on the issue of driftnets. And when the next tern field season rolled around, I realized I couldn't just quit advocacy. I thought I'd miss one field season. Then I missed two. As the marine advocacy field grew, I moved into what I do better: writing and talking. Now I get my research fix through invitations to visit scientists whose work I'm most interested in during their field seasons. 

 

Least tern, Sternula antillarum, with chicks. Photo by Dan Pancamo, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Least tern, Sternula antillarum, with chicks. Photo by Dan Pancamo, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

I asked Safina where The View From Lazy Point—his fifth book, released last month—fits into the trajectory of his writing life. 

Carl Safina: I used to think my work was all about marine conservation. But the climate issue has blurred everything. You can't worry about coral reefs without worrying about the people living around coral reefs who depend on them. The climate issue has blurred the lines between our peace and security and, say, the fate of sea turtles. In The View From Lazy Point, I cast my widest net yet, following the ripple effects.

I asked him why we're so slow to get any traction of the global issues facing us.

Carl Safina: Our institutions are fundamentally irrational. Economics, including capitalism, our wisdom traditions, like religion, are all hundreds or even thousands of years old. They're born from a time when we thought the world was unchanging and unchangeable. Not until science came along did we understand that the world can and does change, and that we have the power to change the world for better or worse.

I asked what themes he was working on in the book and he described one that emerged only late in the writing.

Carl Safina: That nature and human dignity require each other. When nature is destroyed—Haiti is a case in point—people can't get back on their feet and lose their ability to live a dignified life. When people are oppressed beyond human dignity, then there's no ability to care for nature.

 Photo by Fred Hsu, Fredhsu, at Wikimedia Commons.Photo by Fred Hsu, Fredhsu, at Wikimedia Commons.

 

The View From Lazy Point is a synthesis of deep storytelling and deep thinking. Its muscular language makes for an uncommonly good read: far from doom and gloom, rich with anecdotal rewards and practical solutions. It's infused with Safina's own signature blend of fisherman-scientist-philosopher wisdom. Here's one of my favorite passages: 

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that, though I'm a secular person and a scientist, I believe that our relationship with the living world must be mainly religious. But I don't mean theological. I mean religious in the sense of reverent, revolutionary, spiritual, and inspired. Reverent because the world is unique, thus holy. Revolutionary in making a break with the drift and downdraft of outdated, maladapted modes of thought. Spiritual in seeking attainment of a higher realm of human being. Inspired in the aspiration to connect crucial truths with wider communities. Religious in precisely this way: connection, with a sense of purpose.

   

 

You're Trammeling My Bears

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 2:47 PM EST
Crazy George/Flickr.

When Congress passed the Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964, they defined "wilderness" as an area "untrammeled by man." The thinking was that if only certain activities like hiking, camping and biking were permitted in a space, the human impact would be negligible. But a new study published on March 3 in the open access journal PLoS ONE shows that even these minor activities alter the ecosystems we want so badly to preserve.

A group of researchers at the University of Calgary in Canada placed more than 40 cameras on hiking trails and roads in the Rocky Mountains in Alberta to observe how even mild human traffic alters the ecosystem. They found that on roads and trails trafficked by more than 18 visitors a day, large predators like wolves, black bears, grizzlies and cougars were less abundant than they would be in the wild. Furthermore, they found that on roads trafficked by more than 32 people a day, the number of small prey increased by 300%.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday March 4

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 8:57 AM EST

Opting Out: States could opt out of health care reform as early as 2014.

End of Life: Huckabee admits if he gets really sick later, he won't be able to pay for it.

Come Together: DoD and VA could cut costs by consolidating drug programs.

Killer Plan: The gentleman from Wyoming has a climate plan: do nothing.

Billion Dollar Babies: Pa. law cuts health care for the poor, benefits big businesses.

Q&A, Hold the A: Pro-life organization refuses interview, then blasts journalists.

Funding Gap: GOP proposes no federal funding for abortions, even though there's none presently.

Big Band: Elphants play drums and percussion, displaying intelligence and rhythm.

BP's Back: BP's just been approved to start deep-water drilling again.