Orangutan Kicks the Habit.
An orangutan in an Indonesian Zoo became habituated to smoking thanks to some irresponsible zoo visitors. By throwing burning cigarette butts into her enclosure, Tori picked up, literally, the smoking habit. When she wants a cigarette, Tori puts two fingers to her mouth and beckons the staff. When she doesn’t get a cigarette, she becomes quite agitated. Now zookeepers are trying to break the orangutan’s smoking habit by moving her away from the visitors. Apparently the allure of nicotine is not just for humans.
Read more at The Guardian.
Prince Charles the Frog.
Prince Charles of England is a well-known champion of the world’s vanishing rainforests. In his honor, and as a twist on the fairy tale, a new frog species discovered recently in Ecuador has been named Hyloscirtus Princecharlesi, which translates to Prince Charles Steam Tree Frog. In response, the Prince was gracious as well as witty. He quipped, “I’m very touched. It’s very nice. I have a lump in my throat—it must be a frog.”
More at NTD.
Arsenic Loving Bacteria Not As Alien As Once Thought.
In 2010, NASA scientists discovered a bacterium that lived in the arsenic-concentrated sediments in a California lake. That led to popular speculation that the species was evidence of an “alien” form of DNA. If true, the bacterium, GFAJ-1, would have been of great interest to astrobiologists who have been looking for a non-standard DNA profile that would comport with the theory that some life on earth had extra-terrestrial origins. However, the latest research indicates that the speculation was unwarranted. Now it appears that phosphorus, rather than arsenic, is the essential key to GFAJ-1’s strange existence. Moreover, the bacterium’s DNA has been linked to other clearly earth-bound bacteria.
More at National Geographic.
Controlling Mosquitoes Through Genetic Modification.
Mosquitoes carry Dengue Fever, a serious viral infection that causes scores of deaths in Latin America and Asia. Oxitec, a British laboratory, has produced a genetically modified mosquito that cannot spread Dengue Fever. Although the modified insect has been released by the company in few countries and its effects have reduced Dengue Fever outbreaks, its introduction in Florida has spawned protest. A petition to bar the modified insects has gained 96,000 signatures so far. Oxitec officials have been unable to calm the fears of Floridians even though the mosquitos being released are sterilized males that cannot spread the disease and cannot pass on their modified genes.
More at Red Orbit.
Counting Fruit Flies.
Scientists believe that there exists a genetic basis for the ability to count — the most basic arithmetic skill. To test the theory on fruit flies, they used distinct flashes of light to associate with an unpleasant stimulus, violent shaking. Two and four flashes were followed by the shaking while three flashes signalled no change to the fruit flies’ peace of mind. The first batch of fruit flies could not draw an association between the number of flashes and its immediate consequences. However, scientists report that after 40 generations of the fruit flies, they gained the ability to make the distinction — in effect, they could count. Now the search is on for the genetic change in the fruit flies that might provide insight into the genes involved in arithmetic appreciation.
More at Nature News Blog.
Furry Pets Lead to Healthier Lives?
A study in Finland was constructed to compare the health effects of having contact with a dog or cat in the first year of a person’s life. Tracking 397 children who either had or lacked exposure to a pet in the first year of their lives, researchers reached the conclusion that early exposure to a pet actually decreases the incidence of respiratory illness and the need for antibiotics. (The study seems to echo findings that farm-raised children suffer from asthma at a much lower rate than city-raised children.)
More at Discovery.
Avoiding Aircraft Bird Strikes by Thinking Like a Bird.
The increased concern over bird and airplane collisions has led scientists to try to analyze why they occur in the first place. Researchers for Indiana State University and Purdue University realized that preventing bird strikes requires us to understand how differently birds see from the way people do. Birds will respond to aircraft as a threat and avoid them if aircraft are made to look the part. Using a system of lights on aircraft — a relatively easy modification — might do the trick. The right lighting systems along with a more predator-like paint scheme for aircraft might in the future radically reduce the bird strike problem.
More at Science Daily.
Do Trout Smell North?
The debate over how fish and birds can navigate by the compass took another turn as a study revealed that trout noses contain magnetic olfactory cells. When viewed under a microscope, these cells “swivel like tiny compasses to line up with a nearby magnet.” The fact that the cells contain a iron compound which is extremely sensitive to magnetic fields is the latest strong evidence that cells in the nose of navigatory creatures help them discern compass directions. Very few cells contain the magnetite, but the ones that do move and twist when exposed to a strong magnetic field. Next to be determined is exactly how the brain receives a signal from these cells.
More at Science News.
Another Feathered Dinosaur Found.
Paleontologists have unearthed another feathered dinosaur. This specimen comes from southern Germany and is one of the best preserved yet found. The dinosaur was an early carnivore from 150 million years ago named Sciurumimus albersdoerferi and it is covered with fine hair-like feathers. In real life, it would have had a bushy appearance, perhaps fluffy like a baby chick. Not only will this specimen ultimately reveal the color of its feathers, but it also contains complete bones and even bits of flesh. Since this is the first dinosaur outside of Asia to show clear evidence of feathers, some scientists are wondering if virtually all early dinosaurs had feathers.
More at Science News.
Colorado River to Run Through the Grand Canyon Once More
Earlier this year, the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved a plan to create a series of controlled floods to the Grand Canyon’s long-dry Colorado River. Large amounts of water and sediment would be released from the Glen Canyon Dam, pushing water down the Colorado River in an effort to prevent further beach erosion downstream. The floods are expected to occur about twice a year, and could begin as early as the Fall. However, the decision has been met with resistance by some hydropower companies.
More at NPR.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.