Elephants “Get the Point of Pointing.”
In the New York Times science section, Carl Zimmer discusses a recent demonstration that puts elephants amongst a select group of animals, including dogs, that understand the meaning of a pointed human finger. One would think that chimpanzees intuitively understand that pointing is meant to draw the individual’s attention to something, but they don’t. However, in a test involving elephants, Dr. Richard Byrne of the University of Saint Andrews, found that elephants understand the concept and get it right at about the same percentage as one-year old human babies.
Big Cats Are Big Suckers for Big Name Perfumes.
Zoo insiders have long known that the big cats respond to perfume scents. But in 2010, the Wildlife Conservation Society decided to do some scientific experiments to see just how the big cats responded. Bronx Zoo curator Pat Thomas describes the reaction of some big cats to perfume sprayed on a tree: “Sometimes they would start drooling, their eyes would half close, it was almost like they were going into a trance.” Of the popular brands, Calvin Klein’s “Obsession for Men,” is quite popular among the big cats. In fact, jaguars in Central America have been persuaded to visit camera traps by a liberal use of the scent.
Do Dogs Really Love Us?
When Gregory Berns lost his dog, Newton, of 14 years, he decided that he wanted to know whether Newton really loved him. And since Berns was a leading expert in interpreting human brain scans, he took a scientific approach to the problem. Using fMRI testing, he soon learned what he, as a dog owner, long suspected. In dogs, as in humans, the same region of the brain, the caudate nucleus, is activated when strong emotional responses are experienced. Bern’s book, “The Emotional Lives of Animals,” explores in details the similarities and differences between the emotional lives of humans and other animals.
Echos of Jurassic Park.
A discovery reminiscent of the story line in classic movie, Jurassic Park, played out in real life. It turns out that a fossil of a 46 million-year-old mosquito encased in amber had been in the possession of a collector for the past 30 years. Recently, Dale Greenwalt, a retired scientist, noticed something unusual about the fossil. The body of the mosquito was obviously engorged by the blood of whatever creature it has last bitten. But here the similarity to Jurassic Park ends. For one thing, dinosaurs were already extinct 46 million years ago. For another, it is unlikely in the extreme that DNA this old can ever be reconstituted.
Armored Fish Resists Piranha.
The arapaima is a fish that lives in a bad neighborhood. Its home in the fresh waters of the Amazon river is shared by the vicious piranha fish, whose razor-like teeth can make fast work of most other fish. However, the arapaima has evolved a suitable defense: scales that act like armor protect it from even the bite of the piranha. Scientists studying the scales of the arapaima have learned that the overlapping scales are composed of spiral like structures that have some elastic properties. This means that when bitten, the arapaima’s scales can distribute the load of the force of the tooth and avoid rupture. In another hats off to nature, there also may be military applications for the arapaima’s unique defense.
Where Are the Moose?
Fifteen years ago, Minnesota’s moose populations were doing quite well. Today, there is a serious decline underway — so serious that all moose hunting has been suspended. This year, the death rate for calves was over 70%, which is far higher than normal. Predation by a larger wolf population may be one factor, but scientists are also taking blood samples to see if some unknown pathogen is involved.
Learning Among Primates Enhanced by Tool Availability.
Just as children learn to use tools by watching adults use them, primate youngsters also learn from example. The more available these artifacts are in a primate population, the more likely that young primates will begin learning to also use them. A key component is the durability of the tools. Stone tools, such as the large stones that are used by some chimps to break open nut shells, are durable and remain within the population group for a long time. These type of artifacts, as opposed to organic matter that disintegrates over a short time, best support the generational transfer of technical learning among primates.
Citizen Scientists Call Out Local Geckos.
In Los Angeles, the natural history museum is extending its resources by enlisting the help of ordinary citizens in identifying new species. For example, the Mediterranean House Gecko was introduced into the LA area in 1910. But how many of these species are around today? Individuals with an interest in science are taking photos and calling in new species at a remarkable rate. Museum curator Greg Pauly says: “With these citizen science programs, we’re learning about these populations at a rapid rate. Every couple of weeks I get a new e-mail, a new observation. It’s shocking how often this is happening right now.” Anyone can play. If you live in the Los Angeles area and have an interesting find, here is the place to send your photos: RASCals (follow link).
An Underwater World Just Off Manhattan’s Coastline.
Live Science presents an OpEd video that depicts a vast and yet poorly understood underwater world just 100 miles off Manhattan’s coast. The beautiful videography in this commentary will introduce you to the plants and animals that inhabit the huge canyons and seamounts that remain hidden from our view. The film was produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which opposes gas and oil drilling.
Last Home of the Neanderthals?
Archeologists believe that a site on the British Isles called La Cotte de St Brelade cave, first investigated in 1910, may be one of the last refuges of the Neanderthals in Northwestern Europe. Using a process called Optically Stimulated Luminesce, teeth found at the site were found in sediment that was dated by the new process at around 47,000 years old, which is younger than previously measured. One of the researchers said: “In terms of the volume of sediment, archaeological richness and depth of time, there is nothing else like it known in the British Isles. Given that we thought these deposits had been removed entirely by previous researchers, finding that so much still remains is as exciting as discovering a new site.”
More at ScienceDaily.
“The Dirt: This Week in Nature” curated and written by Robert Raciti.