SciTechBlog
May 4, 2009

See a squirrel, become a "citizen scientist"

Posted: 09:09 AM ET

In today's Tech section I write about how "citizen scientists" around the world are collecting data that helps professional scientists do their research.

The movement is gaining steam as climate change and biodiversity loss ramp up. Especially with so much changing, scientists can't be everywhere.

Here are a few of the citizen science efforts I found interesting while I was reporting the story. It's by no means an exhaustive list, so feel free to tell us in the comments about other cool sites.

Squirrel sightings: http://www.projectsquirrel.org/

Bird photos: http://www.audubon.org/Bird/cbc/

http://ibc.lynxeds.com/users/josep-del-hoyo

http://www.birds.cornell.edu/citscitoolkit [includes a big list of citizen science sites ... thanks to Rick Bonney and a commenter for the link]

Ant anthologies: http://www.antweb.org/bayarea.jsp

All species: http://eol.org/

Water quality info: http://www.worldwatermonitoringday.org/

Beetle hunts: http://www.hort.cornell.edu/vlb/

Firefly tracking: http://sciencecheerleader.com/2009/04/firefly_day_this_saturday/

Toad enthusiasts: http://toadnuts.ning.com/ and http://bgis.sanbi.org/uploadyourtoad/

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Filed under: Animals • Birds • citizen science


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April 8, 2009

Meat for sex?

Posted: 11:51 AM ET

Have you ever treated a date to an expensive meal in the hope of "getting lucky" afterwards? A new study finds that this may actually work - if you're a chimpanzee.

Sagu, an adult male chimpanzee, holding a piece of meat from an animal he caught.

Scientists studying chimps in the Ivory Coast discovered that males give meat to females in exchange for mating access ­– a win-win exchange for both primates. And in this primitive style of wine-and-dine, it turns out the more meat you share, the more sex you get in return.

Researchers Cristina Gomes and Christophe Boesch from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropoloy in Germany published their new findings in the journal PLoS ONE on Wednesday.

"Our results strongly suggest that wild chimpanzees exchange meat for sex, and do so on a long-term basis. Males who shared meat with females doubled their mating success, where as females, who had difficulty obtaining meat on their own, increased their caloric intake, without suffering the energetic costs and potential risk of injury related to hunting," said Gomes, lead author of the study.

Male chimpanzees also were more likely to share a piece of meat with random females who displayed signs of being sexually excited, although their mating "score" rate remained high with female chimps who weren't in heat - as long as the females got fed.

This study specifically looked at the long-term (22 months) effects of meat-sharing, which proved more fruitful for both sexes than short-term exchanges.

"These finding are bound to have an impact on our current knowledge about relationships between men and women; and similar studies will determine if the direct nutritional benefits that women receive from hunters in human hunter-gatherer societies could also be driving the relationship between reproductive success and good hunting skills," Gomes said.

For now, though, it's just "monkey business."

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Filed under: Animals


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April 2, 2009

Renewable energy could threaten wildlife

Posted: 12:27 PM ET

In a weird sort of environmental paradox, the Natural Resources Defense Council on Wednesday released maps of the American West showing areas that would be damaged if they're developed for renewable energy.

Renewable energy expansion is a priority of the Obama administration, but some of the land that could be used for wind or solar power also is home to endangered and threatened species.

It's an interesting example of environmental issues butting heads. Environmentalists generally support renewable energy projects because they reduce the amount of heat-trapping gases going into the atmosphere - and therefore help to slow global climate change. But this could be a sign they may oppose some wind and solar projects.

NRDC says the issues don't have to be in opposition. Careful planning could solve the conflict, the group says.

You can check out the maps on Google Earth.

Here's one example: a birding group mapped areas of Wyoming where the sage-grouse lives.

In my previous life as an environment reporter in Oklahoma, I wrote about how wind farms in that state are crossing paths with a funky bird called the lesser prairie chicken. The bird is so popular it even has YouTube videos.

What do you think? Can we ditch fossil fuels and protect wildlife? What should be the priorities?

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Filed under: Animals • Birds • climate change • endangered species • Energy • environment • Politics • solar energy


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March 12, 2009

Whale sedated at sea - a scientific first

Posted: 11:33 AM ET

Two drops of whale tranquilizer is enough to kill a person.

But last week, scientists used rifle-like guns and foot-long needles to shoot two cups’ worth of the stuff into an endangered whale off the coast of Georgia.

Scientists on Friday use poles and knives to try to untangle a whale off the coast of Georgia from fishing line.

And, for the first time, it worked.

Never before Friday had a wild whale been successfully tranquilized and freed from an entanglement that threatened its life, researchers told CNN. (See video of the dangerous encounter.) The whale - a rare, school-bus-sized whale named Bridle - was freed from hundreds of feet of fishing line that threatened the whale's life, scientists said.

That’s big news in the whale world, said Jamison Smith, large whale disentanglement coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It means that researchers have a new tool to help whales in dangerous circumstances.

Previously, when scientists tried to sedate whales, nothing noticeable happened.

The scientists cautiously upped the dosage until they were successful. The fear of using too much tranquilizer on a whale is great, because it could cause a whale to stop swimming and drown, he said.

Bridle is a North Atlantic right whale, which is one of the most endangered large whales on earth. Only about 400 of the school-bus-sized creatures remain, and scientists are worried by the fact that they’ve seen more of the rare whales entangled in fishing lines and gear this year than ever before.

Some of the right whales are giving birth through the end of the month off the Atlantic coasts of Georgia and Florida. Record numbers of whales are being born - which is a great thing, since scientists say each one gives the species a slightly better chance for survival.

But five whales have been found entangled in fishing line in the last six weeks, Smith said. He called that news "alarming," and said it's unclear what's causing the increase.

The lines wrap around their bodies and cause cuts and infections that often prove fatal.

Bridle, the whale that was sedated, was named because it had a rope strung through its mouth, like a bridled horse, said Katie Jackson, a marine mammal biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. (Read more about how Jackson and others free the whales.)

Friday was the fifth time scientists had tried to free Bridle. In other attempts, he didn’t respond to sedation and dove deep into the ocean and turned sharply to avoid tiny boats filled with rescuers, Jackson said.

Smith said the whale’s injuries are extensive. So, despite the fact that the whale was freed from hundreds of feet of rope, his chances for survival are still uncertain.

Jackson said Bridle’s recovery partly will depend on the whale’s will to survive.

“He’s a little bit emaciated and has been having to deal with this entanglement for months now - at least. So he’s not doing well overall,” she said. “He still may not be able to survive this ordeal. It’s just going to depend on him really - and his ability to bounce back from it.”

To learn more, check out these right-whale resources online:

Watch video of scientists trying to disentangle Bridle

– See a CNN report on efforts to save these 'ugly' whales, which are slow swimmers and have funny warts on their heads

– Listen to a scientist tell the stories of individual right whales - from Stumpy to Van Halen

– And flip through a catalog of right whale sightings to learn more about their stories.

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Filed under: Animals • environment • Oceans • Scientists • whales


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February 25, 2009

Don't mess with this gang (of birds)

Posted: 10:53 AM ET
Common ravens, contrary to what was thought, sometimes forage in gangs.
Common ravens, contrary to what was thought, sometimes forage in gangs.

You may think of ravens as solitary creatures rapping at chamber doors, but new research shows that some of young ones form gangs when they look for meals, which consist of animal carcasses.

Gangs, in this context, mean groups of juvenile ravens that forage together and overwhelm the territorial adults defending the animal carcass, said researcher Sasha Dall of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, in an e-mail. In other words, the kids get together try to chase off the adults defending the food, which may influence their social standing among their peers.

This is the first time that flock foraging has been observed in common ravens, Dall said. In a typical raven roost, a bird attains dominance by finding a carcass alone.

"Since most birds will therefore have to suffer being bullied a lot, there is a strong advantage to doing things to avoid giving any one bird such finder advantages," Dall said. "Turns out foraging in gangs is one such tactic."

In fact, the birds' behavior can be explained by game theory, a branch of mathematics that looks at strategic interactions, Dall's research found. The ravens forage in gangs when searching for food alone is no more efficient than foraging with others, the model shows. It's unlikely that the birds are consciously making such calculations, however, and these responses are likely hard-wired, Dall said.

Any analogies to human behavior are limited, but the research does illustrate how food availability, environment, and other external factors can influence social advancement and the stability of groups, Dall said. Scientists believe human ancestors also faced problems of food scarcity, and one solution to surviving in particular environments is to pool the food-finding efforts. If the group solution works in particular circumstances, it's "nevermore" to individual foraging.

The research is published Wednesday in the journal PLoS One.

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Filed under: Animals • Birds


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February 19, 2009

Shooting endangered whales with a crossbow

Posted: 11:32 AM ET

ST. AUGUSTINE, Florida - Katie Jackson has one of those jobs that must be fun to explain at a cocktail party: She uses a crossbow to fire darts at endangered whales.

whale.rescue.florida

When right whales become entangled in fishing rope, Katie Jackson and crew throw grappling hooks from a boat to try to disentangled the endangered mammals.

The marine mammal biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission uses her sharpshooting skills to try to protect the North Atlantic right whale, which, with a population of only 400, is thought to be the most endangered large whale in the world.

This time of year, the whales are giving birth off the coast of north Florida and Georgia (see CNN.com story here).

After new calves are born, Katie and crew are close behind in a boat. She fires a crossbow dart at the rump of the baby whales, which already weigh a ton. The hollow point of the dart removes a chunk of tissue scientists use to learn about the genetics of each whale.

Katie says the darts don't hurt the whales. They feel about like a paper cut would to a human.

The genetic samples are important, she says, because not much is known about right whales. The information helps researchers set up family trees for the whales. They also use the close encounters as a rare chance to observe the right whales' habits.

So far, scientists are on track to see a record number of new calves this year. The birthing season comes to a close at the end of March.

But scientists also are seeing more right whales entangled in fishing rope. The ropes restrict their movements and can cause cuts and infections that kill the whales. Katie's team also works to free entangled whales. From the front of an inflatable boat, she and other scientists toss grappling hooks toward the whales, hoping to catch and then remove the lines that threaten to kill them.

– John Sutter, CNN.com

Filed under: Animals • environment


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February 17, 2009

Whales' 'first line of defense'

Posted: 11:30 AM ET

FLAGLER BEACH, Florida - The wind is out today in Florida, and that means my quest to see one of the most endangered whales in the world will be shifted a bit.

whale.watchers.florida

Patsy Sater and Paul Henderson watch for endangered right whales from a restaurant balcony in northern Florida.

I had planned to venture into the Atlantic Ocean in an inflatable boat with scientists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to search for right whales. But the wind gusts are too strong, which makes boat trips like this risky and unproductive. It's difficult for the researchers to spot the whales in choppy waters.

So I went to my plan B, which ended up being tons of fun: I traveled by foot and car up the Florida coast with a group of retirees who look for the school-bus-sized whales from the shore.

Right whales are sometimes called “urban whales” because they live in waters so near the East Coast of the U.S. These volunteer whale watchers say the massive black whales sometimes come very near to the beach. Last Friday they spotted 11 of them at once - a group of juveniles playing.

Armed with binoculars, they troll up and down the coast looking for blackish blobs of whale on the horizon. John Kostiak, 62, told me the whales look like black Sharpie marks on the blue ocean.  When they spot a whale, they call in backup from scientists who then alert the shipping community to their presence. Collisions with ships are a major cause of right whale deaths, and these volunteers see themselves as a first line of defense. If they see a whale before a ship does, they could save a life. Only 400 of these whales exist, so each is critically important to the species' survival.

The volunteers showed true dedication: One wore whale earrings and a whale necklace. Another goes out on these watches four days a week - spending four hours each day just looking for the behemoths. They all spoke of the intense joy they feel when they find a whale. That's relatively rare, though. One told me he's only called in two sightings in eight years.

Like others, they hope their efforts contribute a small part to protecting a creature they’ve come to love. They also say they're raising whale awareness through their efforts. Many people - even in this part of north Florida - don't realize right whales give birth right off the coast here, well within eyesight.

Each morning, the volunteers are doing their part to change that.

– John Sutter, CNN.com

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Filed under: Animals • environment


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January 16, 2009

Would you eat a sea kitten?

Posted: 12:46 PM ET
You can make a cute little sea kitten character like this at the new section of PETA's Web site, peta.org/sea_kittens.
You can make a cute little sea kitten character like this at the new section of PETA's Web site, peta.org/sea_kittens.

You don't have to look at the page views of Web sites like cutelittlekittens.com to know that a lot of people adore kittens. Conversely, not as many people adore fish - in fact, cutefish.com has only the number 0.

The animal rights campaign group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA, has decided to play off of our awe of kittens by re-branding fish as "sea kittens" in order to discourage people from killing and eating them.

"Would people think twice about ordering fish sticks if they were called Sea Kitten sticks? Help us save fish by changing their names!" PETA writes on its Web site.

The new sea kitten Web portal is complete with a petition, cute little stories about sea kittens - some attend Clamster University! - and a tool to design your own sea kitten. The petition has more than 4,544 signatures as of this writing.

"Given the drastic situation for this country's sea kittens - who are often the victims of many major threats to their welfare and ways of life - it's high time that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) stop allowing our little sea kitten friends to be tortured and killed. Who'd want to hurt a sea kitten anyway?!" the Web site says.

How far will this "sea kitten" label extend? Will people find themselves ordering the "Chilean striped sea kitten with mashed potatoes"?

Certainly there are already vegetarians out there who do not consume fish for ethical reasons. Princeton professor Peter Singer, famous for his arguments about why not to consume meat, similarly advocates avoiding eating fish in Animal Liberation, although notes that things do get fuzzier when considering simpler forms of marine life, such as mollusks and oysters.

Of course, besides being a favorite delicacy at restaurants and family dinners, fish also form part of specific eating rituals in certain cultures. For example, in China, the fish is served whole - with the head and tail intact - to represent prosperity, especially on Chinese New Year’s Eve. In Slovakia, it is traditional to let a carp swim in the family bathtub in the days before the feisty critter becomes part of the Christmas meal. And, it is a Jewish custom eat fish on the Sabbath, one reason being that the numerical value of the Hebrew word for fish, "dag," adds up to 7, and the Sabbath is the 7th day.

So what do you think: Is it ethically acceptable to eat fish? Will the sea kitten campaign be effective? Would your goldfish mind being called a sea kitten?

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Filed under: Animals • Oceans


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November 11, 2008

Evolution Revolution: "We haven't scratched the surface"

Posted: 01:29 PM ET

Galapagos tortoises and finches may be the first creatures that come to mind when we think of evolution. But as intriguing as Charles Darwin’s discoveries were, he didn’t write the only book on evolution. In fact, a lot of books on the subject haven’t even been written yet.

New understanding of evolutionary concepts could help humans understand contemporary problems, from renewable energy to health care. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Scientists have only discovered and named about ten percent of the plant and animal species on earth.

“There’s a huge amount to learn, we have not scratched the surface,” said Professor David Lynn, chair of the chemistry department at Emory University.

Lynn was among organizers of an Emory workshop, “Evolution Revolution: Science Changing Life.” It was aimed at high school teachers trying to rev up their students’ interest in how evolution is changing our world now.

The gathering is getting a head start on celebrating Darwin’s 200th birthday next year. It’s also the 150th anniversary of “On the Origin of the Species,” Darwin’s pioneering research on one of the most important concepts in science.

Darwin described natural selection, the concept that individuals who are better adapted to their current environment have an advantage over those not so well adapted. "Survival of the fittest" is sometimes used to describe natural selection. But it's not always the biggest and toughest who win in the long run. Evolutionary fitness sometimes involves cooperation with other organisms and the ability to reproduce and pass those genes on. Researchers in scores of different fields are constantly updating this elegant idea.

“Technology moves very quickly, and even scientists have a hard time keeping up,” said Lynn, professor of biomolecular chemistry. That’s why the evolution workshop reached out to the community, and to people in the arts as well as science.

Understanding evolution today could help with contemporary challenges, from harnessing new biofuels to understanding communicable diseases to developing new strategies for health care.

(And before you ask, yes, the Emory scientists did discuss with teachers how to answer questions about creationism and “intelligent design.” But no, that wasn’t the focus of their meetings. )

Mostly, said Lynn, “Teachers were interested in the best way to teach this marvelous discovery, with questions like, ‘How do I explain this concept to my tenth graders in a digestible, artistic way?’”
Hundreds of people, from students to tweedy professors to plenty of locals packed Emory’s Glenn Memorial Auditorium to hear Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson’s address on “Darwin and the Future of Biology.”

Wilson is known as the “father of biodiversity” (as well as the guy who is so passionate about ants he wrote a 700+ page book about their behavior that earned him the Pulitzer prize for literature).

Wilson provided a glimpse into Darwin’s life, including his five- year journey on H.M.S. Beagle, from 1831-1836.

“He was a 21 year old, newly escaped from Cambridge University, on a five year journey with no TV, no radio, no newspapers,” said Wilson.

The world, Wilson said, was Charles Darwin’s to possess. And perhaps, during his six weeks in the Galapagos Islands, came his “aha” moment. The captain pointed out that the turtles, and the finches, were different from island to island. Which got Darwin thinking, “Maybe they’re changing?”

By 1838 Darwin had conceived of evolution by natural selection. In 1871 he published “The Descent of Man,” applying the theory directly to human beings. But members of Victorian society were limited in their embrace of scientific theory. Most folks were okay with plants and other animals evolving. But, said Wilson, “They were scandalized by apes as OUR ancestors.”

But the reason Darwin’s work holds up today, said Wilson, was because he was the epitome of a disciplined scientist.

“This man was irritatingly accurate. He was very careful.”

By Marsha Walton, CNN Science and Technology Producer

Filed under: Animals • Birds • Politics • Religion • Scientists • teachers


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November 7, 2008

One campus's solution for "Squirrels Gone Wild!"

Posted: 11:06 AM ET

Squirrels at the University of California-Davis have it made.

5300 acres of lush habitat.

The eastern fox squirrel is living large on the University of California Davis campus. Wildlife scientists will use a contraceptive vaccine to try to control the population. Photo courtesy UC Davis

More than a few crumbs from students and faculty who enjoy meals and snacks outside.

(And we're not talking the average "frugal student" ramen noodles and peanut butter and jelly. UC-Davis is home to The Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.)

With nary a predator, there's been a population explosion of the non-native eastern fox squirrels, from zero to about 400 in the past seven years. And now there's worry the critters might get more aggressive, biting the collegiate hands that feed them. Squirrels can carry bacteria that is harmful to humans. And an unchecked population could become a threat to the regional economy, spreading to nearby farmland and chomping away at the local fruits and nuts.

When college officials searched for answers to these potential nuisances, they had to go no further than scientists on campus.

And as one might expect from a campus in California, the plan is to control the population with no harm to the animals involved.

Squirrel contraception.

"This new birth control method may potentially help control squirrels or other species, such as white tailed deer," said Sara Krause, a doctoral student in ecology who designed the plan.

"If we can test a birth control method and find it safe and effective, there's a possibility of it being a breakthrough method in both urban and suburban areas," she said.

Continued unchecked procreation and expansion of their territory could mean farmers and ranchers would put an end to the invasive fox squirrels permanently. Squirrels can do serious damage to almond and walnut orchards.

The birth control method being used is a vaccine, called GonaCon.

Krause explained that it's an immunocontraceptive vaccine, blocking the pathway to the production of sperm and eggs. One shot leaves the animals sterile for about two years. And the same vaccine works on both males and females.

(Now there's a concept that every female on the planet can appreciate.)

Krause and others have just begun placing 20-40 humane traps around the campus. The traps will be checked two to four times a day. On this first round, captured animals will be examined, marked with a nontoxic dye, and let go. The squirrels will be observed until next summer, when they'll be re-captured. Then, some will get the contraceptive injection, others a placebo. Again, they'll be set free to roam the campus.

If the experiment works as planned, the number of squirrels will decline to a sustainable number within ten years. And federal wildlife biologists could use the contraceptive on other prolific progeny producers.

By Marsha Walton, CNN Science and Technology Producer

Filed under: Animals • environment • science


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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