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Bora’s Picks (April 5th, 2013)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Domesticated bees do not replace declining wild insects as agricultural pollinators by Lacey Avery:

Sprinkled with pollen, buzzing bees fly from one blossom to another, collecting sweet nectar from brilliantly colored flowers. Bees tend to symbolize the pollination process, but there are many wild insects that carry out the same function. Unfortunately, wild insect populations are in decline, and, according to a recent study, adding more honey bees may not be a viable solution…

By building “fairy circles,” termites engineer their own ecosystem by Kate Shaw:

The Namib Desert is dotted with thousands of mysterious “fairy circles,” which are near-perfect circles of barren soil two to fifteen meters wide, rimmed by tall grass. They are unmistakable and stretch for miles, giving the landscape an ethereal and otherworldly feel. Many possible explanations have been proposed, including toxic substances in the soil, meteorites, termites, UFOs, and the ghosts of dead natives. But the circles are extremely remote—more than 110 miles from the nearest village—and have been difficult to study scientifically. Despite decades of research, the cause of these bizarre circles has remained elusive….

Stranded Sea Lion Pups Arrive in Northern California by Nadia Drake:

Malnourished sea lion pups have started arriving in Northern California – by the vanload. It’s a three-day, two-night trip for the weary mammalian travelers, with overnight stops in San Luis Obispo and Moss Landing. At the end of the road: The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, where the pups will be cared for and returned to health…

Mollusk medicine: Cone snail bacteria may yield new opportunities for drug development by Katie Hiler:

Subic Bay lies on the western coast of the Philippine island of Luzon and sweeps westward in a brushstroke of aquamarine until it blends into the South China Sea. The region is home to as many as 122 species, including the Philippine gecko and the endangered Luzon forest frog. Fifty feet beneath the glassy surface, one of the bay’s humbler marine inhabitants inches imperceptibly across the sandy bottom….

Microbes Buried Deep in Ocean Crust May Form World’s Largest Ecosystem by Hannah Waters:

If you were to hit the seafloor and continue to travel down, you’d run into an ecosystem unlike any other on earth. Beneath several hundred meters of seafloor sediment is the Earth’s crust: thick layers of lava rock running with cracks that cover around 70% of the planet’s surface. Seawater flows through the cracks, and this system of rock-bound rivulets is enormous: it’s the largest aquifer on earth, containing 4% of global ocean volume, says Mark Lever, an ecologist who studies anaerobic (no-oxygen) carbon cycling at Aarhus University in Denmark…..

Driverless cars will make your city vast and boring by Arielle Duhaime-Ross:

If driverless cars have taught us anything, it’s that we are all very bad drivers. In a world of robocars, scientists predict that driving will be a much safer and more efficient way of getting around due to a dramatic reduction in traffic jams, Sunday drivers and road rage. But more than how we get around, driverless cars will change the way our cities are built….

What the heck is the polymerase chain reaction? by Andrew P. Han:

In a world without PCR, there would be no Human Genome Project. No genetic tests for disease, paternity, or crime-scene DNA. No way to tell whether the sushi you got for lunch is actually tuna. This cornerstone of modern biology copies a twisted, double-strand of DNA over and over until there is enough to sequence and analyze….

Taking shots in the dark: Coyote populations continue to grow, despite being a popular hunting target by Nick Stockton:

The best time to hunt coyotes is at between dusk and dawn. Once you scout a good spot you try to lure the beasts in, using hand held instruments to mimic the calls of different woodland animals. Maybe you choose to be a distressed rabbit, which sounds like a squealing baby. If that doesn’t work, you can yelp like a turkey or cackle like a Pileated woodpecker. On top of your head is a dim red light to help you spot movement. If you’re lucky, a pair of eyes shines back. After turning on the high powered beam attached to your rifle, you have a few seconds to determine what type of predator you’re looking at before you take your shot….

DNA Detectives, Mongoose Edition by Anne-Marie Hodge:

In case you’re wondering why this blog has been a bit quiet, I am currently in Kenya conducting the first data collection session of my PhD. My research focuses on the effects of rainfall on mesopredator release responses, and so far things are going very well. The majority of what I’m doing right now is live-trapping mesopredators—in this case the cast of characters includes genets, several species of mongoose (dwarf, slender, and white-tailed), and black-backed jackals. For a discussion of what exactly a mesopredator is, see this post from my series of field updates on the Scientific American ‘Expeditions’ blog….

Booting up idea to soothe horse legs by Claire O’Connell:

You could say it was horse sense. Four years ago, Louisa Williams was watching a horse trying to get some relief from sore legs, and she hit on the idea of massaging those aching equine limbs. Four years later, the idea has developed into a massaging and cooling “boot” that is sold around the world. …

How to Count Komodo Dragons by Douglas Main:

Camera traps worked about as well as physical traps at detecting the presence of Komodo dragons―and, in certain areas, did even better, an analysis reveals. The finding is significant because Komodo populations are threatened by human activities…

Adult advancement by Laura Geggel:

The bulk of autism research has focused on children, and studies of adults with the condition are scarce. A new perspective published in February’s World Psychiatry suggests that adults with autism fare better now than they did in the 1960s, when research into older age groups began….

Head-Bobbing Sea Lion May Keep the Beat Better Than You by Nadia Drake:

A sea lion trained to bob her head in time to music not only appears to have better rhythm than many people, but she is also challenging researchers’ notions about beat-keeping in animals. Previously, the only non-human animals shown to keep a beat were birds with exceptional vocal mimicry skills, such as Snowball, the dancing cockatoo. As a result, scientists had suggested that learning such skills required a talent for vocal mimicry….

Why you hate the sound of your own voice by Jordan Gaines:

I love home movies. I was lucky to grow up during the years where parents lugged gigantic, boxy camcorders over their shoulders to document our first toddles and words, and I recently reveled in watching myself grow up when my mom transferred all our old tapes to DVD…

Robot jellyfish to be environmental watchdog by Rebecca Burton:

While jellyfish aren’t a beach goer’s favorite sea creature, these blob-like organisms–or at least robotic prototypes designed to look and move just like them– could be used to patrol the ocean, looking for signs of environmental despair in the near future…

If Your Plane is Going Down, It’s Better to Sit in the Back by Rose Eveleth:

The set-up included a Boeing 727, 38 specialized cameras, over $500,000 worth of crash test dummies, a crew of pilots who bailed out of the plane with parachutes before the crash, and a simple question: where’s the safest place in the plane?…

As White House Embraces BRAIN Initiative, Questions Linger by Emily Underwood:

For neuroscientist Rafael Yuste, sitting in an ornate White House chamber yesterday listening to President Barack Obama heap praise—and some $100 million—on a brain-mapping initiative that he helped hatch was a “luminous” experience. “It felt like history,” says the researcher, who works at Columbia University. …

Mayors group focuses gun debate on domestic violence, background checks by Kelly Poe:

Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a national campaign for tighter gun regulations, is highlighting the connection between guns and domestic violence with a new television advertisement and a series of events in about a dozen communities across the country Wednesday, including Cary…

One of Napoleon’s Generals Was More Interested in Gathering Beetles Than Fighting at Waterloo by Rachel Nuwer:

Count Pierre François Marie Auguste Dejean was a peculiar fellow. Born in 1780 just north of Paris, by the time the young Frenchman turned 13 he already displayed a conspicuous interest in insects. He started with butterflies and moths but soon matured into a love for all things beetle. At the age of 15, he decided to devote his life to collecting and studying these insects. But that plan was interrupted. Dejean enrolled in Napoleon’s army…

Did We Just Find Dark Matter? by Colin Schultz:

The first results are in from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a super-expensive detector that is currently hurtling overhead at a brisk 17,500 miles per hour from its perch aboard the International Space Station. That detector, designed to measure high-energy particles such as cosmic rays and the antimatter particle positrons, was designed to finally pin down the elusive dark matter….

New Giant Tarantula Discovered in Sri Lanka by Nadia Drake:

A new type of tarantula about the size of your face has been found in northern Sri Lanka. Scientists found the spiders — with a leg span up to 8 inches across — living in trees and the old doctor’s quarters of a hospital in Mankulam….

Riddles in the Dark by Maryam Zaringhalam:

To the obligate land-dweller, life underwater is just about as foreign as life on other planets. Hidden from our land-centric consciousness, the average human seldom considers our aquatic counterparts, even though they frequently end up on our dinner plates. Out of sight. Out of mind. And yet, all modern life—aquatic and land-dwelling—was born from water. We share a common unicellular ancestor that serendipitously emerged in the water 3.5 billion years ago. So in the grand scheme of things, these aquatic aliens are actually more like our long-lost cousins….

The resistible rise of Hal -9000 by Oluwalogbon Akinnola:

If you’re reading this then you are one of countless consumers of the many fruits of the efforts of scientists and engineers. Technology permeates almost every part of our life, and as it continues to develop at ever increasing speeds its reach spreads further and further. In our generation alone we’ve seen activities such as finding your way in a new city, researching your coursework and watching a film transform from isolated, focus-intensive past times to things we do on the fly. This of course raises many poignant questions such as “Are we eroding away our concentration spans and impeding the development of key skills such as map-reading?” However, one question is especially pertinent for me and no doubt numerous other sci-fi fans: How long do we have before our iPads become our iMasters? …





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