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[LINK] “Underwater Victory Squeals Signal a Job Well Done”

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Wired‘s Mary Bates notes new evidence for a high level of intelligence among cetaceans: they celebrate with speech acts.

Sam Ridgway first noticed the sounds he would come to call ‘victory squeals’ in 1963. When three new dolphins arrived at his research facility, an engineer placed underwater microphones in their pool. As the researchers tossed in mackerel for these animals who had not eaten in 36 hours, Ridgway noticed that each dolphin gave a squeal as it seized a fish.

In the over fifty years since that day, Ridgway has heard this sound thousands of times. In echolocation circles, the sound is known as a feeding buzz. Like bats, dolphins and some other cetaceans use echolocation to find their prey. As they close in on a food item, the animals emit more rapid pulses. After a cetacean catches a fish, the clicking becomes so fast that it sounds like a squeal to human ears.

Ridgway, however, thought this squeal indicated more than just the capture of a fish. Unlike bats, cetaceans continue the feeding buzz after they have captured their prey, suggesting the sound may also have emotional content.

“When we train dolphins and belugas, we reward them with fish for correct responses,” Ridgway says. The trainers whistle after the animal performs the correct response, a sound that indicates to the animal that it will get a fish reward. Ridgway and his colleagues were surprised to notice that dolphins and belugas gave the squeal not only after receiving their fish, but after the whistle, as well.

Ridgway started calling this sound a victory squeal after an experiment in the 1960s with a dolphin named Tuffy. To see how deep Tuffy could dive, Ridgway and his colleagues set up a task in which the dolphin had to dive to the bottom of the ocean to turn off a tone by flipping a switch. “Each time the sound went off, the animal would squeal,” Ridgway says. “When he accomplished the deep dive, it certainly seemed to us to be a victory.” On hearing the squeal, Ridgway’s wife Jeanette said it reminded her of a child’s squeal of delight; hence, the victory squeal.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 23, 2014 at 7:52 pm

[LINK] “The Mathematics of Ebola Trigger Stark Warnings: Act Now or Regret It”

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Terrible news about the prospects for Ebola in West Africa, as reported by Wired‘s Maryn McKenna.

The Ebola epidemic in Africa has continued to expand since I last wrote about it, and as of a week ago, has accounted for more than 4,200 cases and 2,200 deaths in five countries: Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone. That is extraordinary: Since the virus was discovered, no Ebola outbreak’s toll has risen above several hundred cases. This now truly is a type of epidemic that the world has never seen before. In light of that, several articles were published recently that are very worth reading.

The most arresting is a piece published last week in the journal Eurosurveillance, which is the peer-reviewed publication of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (the EU’s Stockholm-based version of the US CDC). The piece is an attempt to assess mathematically how the epidemic is growing, by using case reports to determine the “reproductive number.” (Note for non-epidemiology geeks: The basic reproductive number — usually shorted to R0 or “R-nought” — expresses how many cases of disease are likely to be caused by any one infected person. An R0 of less than 1 means an outbreak will die out; an R0 of more than 1 means an outbreak can be expected to increase. If you saw the movie Contagion, this is what Kate Winslet stood up and wrote on a whiteboard early in the film.)

The Eurosurveillance paper, by two researchers from the University of Tokyo and Arizona State University, attempts to derive what the reproductive rate has been in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. (Note for actual epidemiology geeks: The calculation is for the effective reproductive number, pegged to a point in time, hence actually Rt.) They come up with an R of at least 1, and in some cases 2; that is, at certain points, sick persons have caused disease in two others.

You can see how that could quickly get out of hand, and in fact, that is what the researchers predict. Here is their stop-you-in-your-tracks assessment:

In a worst-case hypothetical scenario, should the outbreak continue with recent trends, the case burden could gain an additional 77,181 to 277,124 cases by the end of 2014.

The Eurosurveillance paper is here.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 19, 2014 at 7:49 pm

[LINK] “Japan to Resume Whaling Next Year, Defying International Whaling Commission”

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Oh, Japan. From National Geographic News:

Japan announced Thursday that it will restart its scientific whaling program next year in response to a new resolution adopted by the International Whaling Commission placing stricter regulations on scientific whaling.

This new nonbinding resolution—proposed by New Zealand—adopts the criteria used by the UN’s International Court of Justice earlier this year when it ruled that Japan’s current whaling program was not scientific.

The new guidelines establish criteria for the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) scientific committee to consider when it reviews whaling plans submitted by member countries. The criteria include consideration of whether a program needs to lethally sample whales to obtain data, how many whales a scientific program will take, and whether the number to be taken is justified.

At this week’s IWC meeting, Japan’s representatives stated the country’s intention to revamp its scientific program based on “international law and scientific evidence.” They planned to submit their proposed program to the IWC’s scientific committee this fall, with the aim of conducting scientific whaling next year.

If Japan were to abide by the new regulations, the country would have to submit a plan to the scientific committee next year, delaying the start of its whaling activities until 2016, says Leigh Henry, a senior policy adviser for wildlife conservation with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Washington, D.C.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 19, 2014 at 7:42 pm

[LINK] “Radiation Blast Delays NASA Spacecraft’s Arrival At Dwarf Planet Ceres”

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Universe Today’s Elizabeth Howell notes that NASA space probe Dawn will be delayed in arriving at dwarf planet Ceres by a month. All seems well otherwise, thankfully.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft experienced technical problems in the past week that will force it to arrive at dwarf planet Ceres one month later than planned, the agency said in a statement yesterday (Sept. 16).

Controllers discovered Dawn was in safe mode Sept. 11 after radiation disabled its ion engine, which uses electrical fields to “push” the spacecraft along. The radiation stopped all engine thrusting activities. The thrusting resumed Monday (Sept. 15) after controllers identified and fixed the problem, but then they found another anomaly troubling the spacecraft.

Dawn’s main antenna was also disabled, forcing the spacecraft to send signals to Earth (a 53-minute roundtrip by light speed) through a weaker secondary antenna and slowing communications. The cause of this problem hasn’t been figured out yet, but controllers suspect radiation affected the computer’s software. A computer reset has solved the issue, NASA added. The spacecraft is now functioning normally.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 18, 2014 at 1:57 am

Posted in Science

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[NEWS] Some Tuesday links

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  • Al Jazeera notes the breakdown of the Libyan state.
  • Bloomberg mentions Finland’s new interest in NATO, notes European Union plans to strengthen sanctions against Russia, takes note of China’s vetoing of democracy in Hong Kong and looks at China’s strengthening of its South China Sea holdings, and in West Africa notes the unburied bodies in the street in countries hit by Ebola and observes the apparent spread of the epidemic to Senegal.
  • Bloomberg View observes how the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong is alienating Taiwan, notes that Scotland may secure its future in the European Union by leaving a United Kingdom hoping to leave, looks at the frightening military theories of Russia, considers whether taxation may spur corporate consumption in Korea, wonders if France’s Hollande can pull off Mitterand’s turn to the right, examines secular stagnation, considers the issues of Macau, and warns Israel about economic issues ahead.
  • CBC looks at how walking bichir fish may explain how vertebrates moved onto the land, notes that Canadian federal government roundtables on the sex trade aren’t inviting sex workers, and notes that convicted serial killer Russell Williams has settled lawsuits made by some victims and their families.
  • Defense One notes that the Islamic State controls mainly areas around roads (but then, the roads are usually the areas that are controlled).
  • The Inter Press Service examines the settlement of Somalian refugees in Istanbul, considers the future of Ukrainian agriculture, looks at the spread of jihadi sentiments in Tajikistan, points out that the United States and Brazil will soon improve genetically engineered trees, examines anti-gay persecution in Lebanon, and looks at the legacies of the balsero migration from Cuba 20 years later.
  • National Geographic examines the positions of Yazidis in northern Iraq versus the Islamic State, notes the mobilizatin of Assyrian Christian refugees in the same region, and notes that more trees in the mountains of California means less run-off.
  • Open Democracy notes the precedents for Russian policy in Ukraine two decades earlier in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and provides a critical tourist’s perspective on Belarus.
  • Universe Today notes an ancient star that preserves legacies of the first generation of stars to form, and observes the preparation for the landing of the Philae probe on the surface of its comet.
  • Wired examines sriracha and maps where future roads should be placed.

[BLOG] Some Tuesday links

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  • Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait notes that claims Arctic ice cover is recovering are ill-founded.
  • blogTO shares some of the most notable catastrophes from Rob Ford’s days coaching high school football.
  • Centauri Dreams shares a new map of Triton, Neptune’s moon.
  • The Cranky Sociologists map the distribution of different religions and the unaffiliated around the world.
  • Crooked Timber has at the old canard about Silent Spring‘s DDT ban killing millions with malaria.
  • Discover‘s Crux notes how GPS location services owe their existence to relativity.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze links to a paper examining how rocky asteroids can be detected around white dwarfs.
  • The Dragon’s Tales note that tuberculosis was in the Americas before Columbus.
  • Eastern Approaches notes an appeal by Polish intellectuals to support Ukraine.
  • The Frailest Thing’s Michael Sacasas wonders what if, instead of imagining worst-case scenarios for new technologies, we imagine positive things.
  • Language Hat comments on a new book on Russia in the Napoleonic Wars that mentions how Latvian was used as a code.
  • Language Log notes that technology is not dehumanizing us.
  • Marginal Revolution notes that the biggest split in Ukraine is between supporters of European and Eurasian integration, and notes that Putin’s Russia has kickstarted a new era of global politics.
  • James Nicoll reviews Heinlein’s juveniles.
  • Otto Pohl notes that modern Kazakhstan can trace its history directly only to the Soviet era, not to earlier states.
  • Registan looks at the Chinese geopolitical concept of continentalism.
  • Towleroad looks at a controversial gay club poster featuring two notable male writers kissing.
  • The Volokh Conspiracy reminds readers of the Crimean annexation and doesn’t think eastern Ukraine has a compelling moral case at all for secession.
  • Window on Eurasia notes the economic costs to Tatarstan of remaining Russian, reports that Russian neo-Nazis are fighting in Ukraine, looks at how past actions are being seen in a more biased light, and quotes Vladimir Lukin to the effect that Russia wants Donbas to stay in Ukraine so as to prevent the country from looking to NATO.

[LINK] “Grizzly bears can use tools, study shows”

CBC shares an article by the Associated Press’ Shannon Quinn about the latest animal species that, on closer examination, turns out to have high intelligence: bears. It does make sense, in that bears like humans are fairly flexible omnivores. Surely both species would need a similar kind of intelligence.

It may no longer be good enough to hang your food in a tree to keep it away from bears when you go camping, according to a first-of-its-kind study at the Washington State University Bear Research Education and Conservation Center.

Some — but not all — grizzlies can use primitive tools to thwart your efforts, veterinary student Alex Waroff found this summer in an experiment assisted by Charlie Robbins, WSU bear centre director, and O. Lynne Nelson, assistant director and professor of cardiology at WSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Nelson said the idea for the study came from a report in a peer-reviewed journal of “first tool use” by a brown bear in Alaska.

“The bear was observed to pick up a rock or shell and use it to scratch his face,” Nelson said. “Those of us who work with bears read the report and essentially said, ‘Really? Is that the best you have?’ “Nelson said the idea for the study came from a report in a peer-reviewed journal of “first tool use” by a brown bear in Alaska.

Nelson said she, and others who work with bears, see evidence of bears manipulating objects for a specific goal all the time — the definition of tool use.

“Of course, all of these observations are anecdote,” she said. “So we decided to put this problem-solving skill to standardized research protocol.”

Written by Randy McDonald

August 25, 2014 at 7:23 pm

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