Thursday, December 29, 2011

Year in Review

As the date of the penultimate post shows, this blog has been quiet for some time—a year, to be more precise.

The reason is pretty simple: Any and all spare time went to feeding the creature that is Retraction Watch.

That's not entirely true, however. I did manage to do a little pitching in 2011. The problem—if it IS a problem—is that it was successful. As near as I can recall, nothing missed.

Here, then, are links to those articles:

1. From Scientific American Mind, a piece about how we choose our neighbors, and vice versa.

2. From Pharmaceutical Executive, a feature article on how academics and industry can play together better.

3. From Proto, a short piece on anesthesiologist-ethicist Henry Knowles Beecher.

4. From Technology Review, an article on the use of nanotechnology to cleanse the bloodstream.

5. And from Nature, more than you ever wanted to know about the ostrich penis.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Ball 16. Graceful Guillemot Doubles as Robotics Muse

Engineers hoping to build a robot that can both swim and fly have
so far been frustrated by the design challenges of creating a
machine that moves well in water and air.

But one group of researchers has turned to nature for inspiration, in the form of the common guillemot, which has the uncommon ability to swim and fly with equal grace.

Richard Lock, a robotics expert at the University of Bristol, U.K., and his colleagues have been modeling the wing movements of the guillemot with the ultimate goal of building a mechanical version of the bird. Such a device, they say, could be helpful for a variety of marine pursuits, from off-shore oil rigs to counter-terror surveillance operations.

In a recent paper in the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, Prof. Lock's group presents elaborate mathematical models for how the birds fly and swim, paying particular attention to the way they hold their wings during each activity. Guillemots, and some of their seabird relatives, are able to flex their wings in the water in such a way as to derive substantial power for swimming strokes. Water, after all, is 800 times denser than air.

The modeling is a key step toward helping the robotics researchers
build a machine that can mimic the guillemots' movements. But they're still a ways off.

Professor Lock:
"There are many obstacles in the way before getting a functional
prototype but we believe we're at least heading along the right track. And the guillemots make it look so easy!"

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ball 15. Fish Whispers

Rolf Korneliussen listens to fish. The Norse acoustician has been studying ways of using sound waves to identify fish species deep below the ocean surface. His research has shown that it’s possible to catalog telltale echo signatures, basically acoustic fingerprints, of species such as mackerel, capelin, squid and Norway pout.

Although even a weekend angler’s 14-footer can be rigged with a fish finder, the relatively crude sonar technology does little more than reflect the presence of a moving thing below the boat—possibly a fish, but not necessarily. More sophisticated sonar devices have had somewhat better luck identifying individual species, although they are far from reliable.

As a result, sonar has been of limited use to marine biologists concerned with monitoring vast—or, as the case may be, dwindling—stocks of critical ocean species like mackerel, herring and cod.

Korneliussen’s software relies on a technology called frequency-dependent backscatter—the reflection of sound waves in their direction of origin—as the main method for identifying fish species underwater. To improve the accuracy, it also incorporates measures of backscattering strength, geographical position, school-shape and other details that can be unique to particular species.

Korneliussen, of the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, said the system

can be trained to identify several species. Currently our identification library contains Atlantic mackerel, herring, capelin, southern krill, northern krill, sand-eel and squid

However, he added, for some species the technique remains less definitive than it is for mackerel.

For the moment, the acoustic technology is best suited to scientific research, as it requires calibrated echosounders, but it has significant implications for the commercial fishing industry, Korneliussen said.

In Norwegian waters, any fish that is caught has to be delivered on land, so catching the wrong species—or catching a species at the wrong time of year—could cost quite a bit in lost income.

However, he added,

the scientific software has been modified to fit the commercial fishing fleet since we feel obligated to make new scientific methods available to them, but the software is currently not ready for general use by fishermen.

Korneliussen reported his latest findings in the ICES Journal of Marine Science.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Ball 14. When Pool Filters Attack

"Life," Woody Allen once quipped, "is divided into the horrible and the miserable." He clearly didn't spend a lot of time on Pubmed, else he would have come up with a third category to explain this:

"Swimming pool filter-induced transrectal evisceration in children: Australian experience."

The article comments on a case series reported last May in the Medical Journal of Australia of this terrible (and, in all seriousness, terribly traumatic for the victim) event that, unlike a lot of other medical conditions requires no translation.

"the long-term functional outcomes in the three cases of swimming pool filter-induced transrectal evisceration described by Price and colleagues are excellent and significantly better than many other cases described in the literature."

Many other cases described in the literature? How many cases of pool filters attacking Down Under could there be?

Quite a few, it seems. Reports of similar incidents date back 1982, and, while sporadic, aren't difficult to find. At least one myth-debunking site, Stupid People Tricks, describes a case in North Carolina while dispelling the similarly gruesome, but apparently apocryphal, stories of intestinal misadventures in airplane lavatories. (The lawyer in that case? A young John Edwards, who won millions of dollars for the family of the young girl injured in the episode.)

The lesson is simple: Pools are attractive nuisances and no matter how high the fence, they're always a threat. Anyone who owns one should exercise the utmost caution to avoid injury.

Well, okay, that's a lesson, I guess, but another message is that the human body truly is an amazing thing: No matter how obscure the mechanical invention, we'll find a way to let it maim or kill us.

(Disclaimer: I didn't pitch this as a story ... yet.)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ball 13. Make Mine Cow Patty

Dung beetles are nature's sewage workers, toiling in obscurity to
break down animal waste. Insect experts have long assumed that these
beetles are promiscuous decomposers, favoring no form of dung over another.

But a new study suggests that dung beetles are far choosier than they've
been given credit for, and that their choice of dung appears to be
hard-wired at birth.

The study, by French researchers, showed that dung beetles gravitate toward
cow patties, and, as a second choice, sheep droppings.  As it happens, cow
dung is rich in the volatile chemicals to which the beetles are attracted.

The findings appeared in a recent issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Ball 12. The Truthiness of Animal Signals

Another one from the bird files:

The natural world has no equivalent of the Federal Trade Commission to monitor truth in advertising. Boasts about reproductive fitness—elaborate plumage, antlers and other ornaments—must be sincere because the physical costs of producing gaudy displays are so high. Animals with the most impressive finery have the physical robustness necessary to develop the flourish while fighting environmental threats like predators and infections.

Biologist Gary Bortolotti, of the University of Saskatchewan, says:

Signals have to be honest or cheat-proof and it is their cost that prevents cheating. Peahens like peacocks with big trains. Only the best quality males can pay the price and grow a big train. If it were cheap every male would grow one.
(See Ball 11. Begging to Differ)

As intuitive as it seems, however, proving the honesty of ornamentation is tricky. But Bortolotti and his colleagues have found compelling new evidence that, at least for one species of game bird, the cocks of the walk really strut the talk

The study found that the size (and, presumably, the attractiveness to females) of decorative combs above the eyes of red grouse depend largely on how much recent environmental pressure the birds endured. In particular, the researchers showed that levels in the birds’ feathers of the stress hormone corticosterone were linked to the height of their crimson courtship tufts. What’s more, the study also found that infecting the grouse with parasites diminished the size of the ornamental plumage—consistent with the idea that the wage of cultivating displays is reduced immunity.

We all know too well the important role of stress is in our own lives. How well an animal copes with the many, often concurrent, challenges in the environment may be one of the more meaningful, if not the best, overall measure of its ‘quality’ and fitness potential.

The researchers reported their findings in PLoS ONE.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ball 11: Begging to Differ — New research challenges conventional wisdom about why animal babies grovel for food

Begging may be distasteful in polite society, but it’s a routine means of communication between animal offspring and their parents. Bird experts have assumed for two decades that they understood why chicks beg for food. But a group of scientists say the accepted theory is almost certainly wrong.

The prevailing view, solidly in place since the early 1990s, is that babies beg “to indicate how pathetic and needy they are,” says Douglas Mock, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Oklahoma. Their pleas signal parents to their most pressing desires—hunger to be sated—triggering a care-giving response that nature can’t ignore.

That theory resonated with our own cultural values,” Mock says. “We claim to love all of our children equally, we try to get everybody through by giving extra to the ones that need the most.

The problem, Mock says, is that the evidence doesn’t support the hypothesis.

I’ve been doing field work since 1970s and I seldom see it working the way these happy faced thoughts seem to be taking us.

Virtually any life form that features progressive provisioning of dependent offspring from birds to mammals, even insects and probably a lot more plants than anybody has contemplated, Mock adds

Researchers can’t measure true need in animals. After all, one more grub in the gullet is unlikely to improve a baby indigo bunting's prospects to a detectable degree, Mock notes. But the basic message that the chick is ready for another gulp is easy to test. And scientists can observe the way adult birds respond to the signals of their chicks.

Mock says:

If the signal of need idea is correct, then parents should do whatever they need to do to get food to the runts, but it turns out that parents more often than not bias deliveries of food to the bigger chicks.

Instead, Mock and his colleagues believe the true impetus for begging could be the opposite of a signal of need. Or, they say, it may be nothing more than a reporting of desire, like a child's letter to Santa.

In other words, he says, perhaps the only thing a begging baby bird communicates is the fact that it’s hungry. Yet the parents look at which baby is doing well and ask themselves, Is this a season that the family budget can support everyone, so I should shunt food to the runt, or is this a typical lean season when feeding the runt is a mistake?

Mock’s group, who presented its argument at a recent meeting of the Animal Behavior Society, takes another whack at the conventional wisdom about begging.

For a signal to be honest, the energy required to produce it can’t outweigh the potential upside. Consider the peacock, whose gaudy tail feathers boast of genetic fitness—yet serve as an “eat here” sign to predators.

Only a really strong male can carry around the drag queen paraphernalia. In effect, he's demonstrating that he can escape from predators even with the outrageous plumage. And that may indicate that his offspring will escape predators as well, Mock says.

For peacocks, the prospect of more frequent mating is worth the risks of ostentation, Mock says. But what’s the upside of a chick that so obviously advertises its need, in this case, hunger? Not much, he says.

The chick is supposedly announcing that it is weak and imperiled. It's giving a supposedly costly signal that it can ill afford to give, because it's so weak, but hoping to reap a disproportionate windfall.

Mock, who has spent his career studying siblicidal herons and egrets—sib-killing is also found in various hawks, owls, cranes, boobies and laughing kookaburras—says that for certain bird species, displays of weakness in the nest are death sentences.

If nothing else, one wonders why [a begging chick’s] stronger nest mates are suppressing their own, easily affordable signals, thereby stealing the spotlight and the meal. Sibling altruism certainly can evolve, but that cannot be assumed.