The Whale With a Human Voice

Just a quick post today–to direct your attention to a fascinating new paper published in Current Biology: “Spontaneous human speech mimicry by a cetacean.” In it, researchers document the remarkable case of NOC, a beluga whale that learned to imitate human voices. As the researchers write:

After seven years in our care … a white whale called NOC began, spontaneously, to make unusual sounds. We interpreted the whale’s vocalizations as an attempt to mimic humans. Whale vocalizations often sounded as if two people were conversing in the distance just out of range for our understanding. These ‘conversations’ were heard several times before the whale was identified as the source. The whale lived among a group of dolphins and socialized with two female white whales. The whale was exposed to speech not only from humans at the surface — it was present at times when divers used surface-to-diver communication equipment … The whale was recognized as the source of the speech-like sounds when a diver surfaced outside this whale’s enclosure and asked “Who told me to get out?” Our observations led us to conclude the “out” which was repeated several times came from NOC.

The sounds NOC was making were several octaves lower than typical whale sounds and had a rhythm similar to human speech. That’s especially impressive when you consider that whales normally produce sounds in an utterly different way than we do–using their nasal cavities rather than the larynx, as we do. To imitate human voices, NOC had to alter the pressure inside his nasal cavities and make other adjustments. Listen to NOC.

Read the paper here.

Ridgway, S., Carder, D., Jeffries, M., & Todd, M. (2012). Spontaneous human speech mimicry by a cetacean Current Biology, 22 (20) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.044

Category: Animals | 1 Comment

A President’s Best Friend

The presidential election is just three weeks away and it remains a tight race. Most pollsters and pundits are giving President Obama the edge, though only the narrowest of ones. But President Obama, if you want to put this thing away, right here, right now, I’ve got a piece of simple, peer-reviewed advice for you: Unleash the beast.

No, not the metaphorical beast. Instead, Obama should unleash his actual, physical animal: his Portugese water dog, Bo.

Presidential pets get a fair amount of mainstream media attention. But they’ve gotten little serious analysis by scholars. This summer, a team of political scientists from George Washington University aimed to remedy this deficiency with their paper: “Unleashing Presidential Power: The Politics of Pets in the White House.”

Despite the occasional groan-inducing pun, the paper is a joy to read. It’s packed with great trivia about presidential pets (Did you know that President Garfield had a dog named Veto?) and cites memoirs “written” by prominent first pets (“Millie 1990,” “Socks 1993″). But it’s also a serious effort to answer a real political science question: How do presidents deploy their pets on the public stage?
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Category: Animals, Pets, Politics | 1 Comment

Small Wonders: October 8, 2012

In this edition: video games for animals, lab-grown leather, and how to cook like a futurist.

* Crop circles have nothing on these strange, underwater sand circles.

* Computers (mostly) learn to recognize human sketches of animals, with sometimes hilarious results.

* Could your pet become a gamer?

* The strange deaths of two sisters in Thailand.

* Enslaved ants sabotage their masters.

* Can the Kickstarter model fund science?

* Strange sex in the animal kingdom.

* An eagle gets a prosthetic beak.

* A vegetable farm that fits in a parking space.

* Forget Petri dish meat. Bring on the lab-grown leather.

* Even brain cells in a dish need shut eye.

* Killing trees to learn how to save them.

* When sleep turns violent.

* What neuroscience really says about female desire.

* How to cook like a futurist.

* The secret to the world’s shiniest fruit.

Vindicated! (Sort of).

* Are you too drunk to edit? A test.

Do animals get depressed?

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The Father and the Fetus

I’m a little behind on my reading, so I just noticed that in Sunday’s paper, Judith Shulevitz wrote about a subject that’s near and dear to my heart: epigenetics and fatherhood. The crux of the piece is that men’s lifestyles–what they eat, drink, and more–can alter the little molecular tags that are affixed to their genes. These tags essentially act as switches, telling a man’s body when and where to express a certain gene and governing how strongly a gene is expressed. But a man can also pass these genetic settings onto his offspring, which means that a man’s lifestyle and his environment can influence the health of his future children. It’s a fascinating link that deserves much more attention. As Shulevitz puts it:

Think of epigenetics as having ushered in a new age of sexual equality, in which both sexes have to worry about threats to which women once felt uniquely exposed. Dr. Malaspina remembers that before she went to medical school, she worked in a chemical plant making radioactive drugs. The women who worked there came under constant, invasive scrutiny, lest the toxic workplace contaminate their eggs. But maybe, Dr. Malaspina points out, the plant managers should have spared some concern for the men, whose germlines were just as susceptible to poisoning as the women’s, and maybe even more so. The well-being of the children used to be the sole responsibility of their mothers. Now fathers have to be held accountable, too. Having twice endured the self-scrutiny and second-guessing that goes along with being pregnant, I wish them luck.

I also wrote about this topic a few years ago. In addition to looking at the science of the father-fetal connection, my story explores why the link doesn’t get more attention.

Despite the accumulating findings, the idea that fathers can somehow contribute to birth defects has gained little traction in the public sphere. Cigarette packs have no warnings about the association between male smokers and birth defects. A woman who drinks while she’s pregnant can be prosecuted, but most men have no idea that drinking in the months before conception is risky.

“Why would we not look at the paternal side of the equation? To me that’s really a social and political puzzle,” says Cynthia R. Daniels, a political scientist at Rutgers who studies gender and reproductive politics. “We seem to politically be in a place where we overprotect and over-warn women, but where men and fathers remain almost completely invisible. You’re not likely anytime soon to see signs in bars that say, ‘Men who drink should not reproduce.’”

Epigenetics and fatherhood is a huge public health story that’s being largely overlooked. (The one exception: A subset of research showing that older fathers are more likely to have children with autism and schizophrenia. These studies always seem to garner a flurry of media attention. But these findings are only a small piece of a much larger puzzle.) I hope the Times story helps change that.

Category: Genetics, Medicine, Men, Parenting, Sperm, Women | Comments Off on The Father and the Fetus

Nature’s Tricks: New Biomimicry Column

For the last two months, esteemed science writer–and friend–Christopher Mims has been writing a column called Nature’s Tricks for BBC Future. The column is about biomimicry and how nature can inspire solutions to all sorts of human problems. For instance, Christopher wrote about how bacterial foraging algorithms can help alleviate traffic congestion and what the Department of Defense can learn from the octopus.

But now, sadly, Christopher’s reign over at Nature’s Tricks is ending. The good news, I suppose, is that I’m taking over. Starting today, I’ll have a new column up every two weeks. Check out my first one–about how cuttlefish have inspired new color-changing materials.

Category: Animals, Biomimicry | 2 Comments

Small Wonders: August 21, 2012

In this edition: music and mental illness, sexual seasons, and the menu for Mars.

* An adorable gopher lives beneath a rocket launch pad in Russia.

* The history of the theory that music can cause illness.

* Would you volunteer to stand directly below an exploding nuclear bomb? These guys did.

* ‘Tis the season–for sex.

* How to be a scientific fraud.

* Species named after famous people.

* “Is mental health a smoke screen for society’s ills?”

* A Spanish geneticist IDs missing children.

* Planning the menu for a Mars mission.

* Animals fossilized in the act of doing embarrassing things.

* Do animals get high?

* Another pressing question: Why do we wear pants?


Category: Small Wonders | 1 Comment

Plants with Personality

If you had to be an endangered animal, you’d be better off as a tiger than a toad. If you were a tiger, filmmakers might cast you in wildlife documentaries and journalists might write heart-rending stories about the disappearance of your kind. Your furry mug might appear on magazine covers and postage stamps. And conservation organizations just might make you their flagship species, a stand-in for all the critters whose survival is threatened. In other words, if you were a tiger, you might have a fighting chance of at least making humans care about your predicament.

That’s a taller order if you’re a toad, an animal that wins over few human hearts. Instead, we prefer the so-called “charismatic megafauna,” funneling our emotional and conservational energies into species like tigers, lions, elephants, dolphins, pandas, and the like.

A number of psychologists and biologists have begun to uncover why some species appeal to us more than others, identifying a number of factors that make certain kinds of critters especially attractive. For instance, we have a soft spot for our fellow mammals, and we  prefer big beasts to smaller ones. We’re also strongly attracted to “neotenic,” or juvenile-looking, features. The youngsters of many species have large heads, large eyes, big foreheads, and snub noses. Human infants have these characteristics, as do puppies, kittens, and all sorts of other critters that we find cute. In some species, adult animals retain features associated with youth–such as oversized eyes–and we’re naturally drawn to these neotenic faces.
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Category: Animals, Plants, Psychology | 3 Comments

Always Check Your Beer for Rattlesnakes

Just a quickie today. I recently came across this 100-year-old story about four Iowa men who died after drinking from beer from a keg harboring a dead rattlesnake. Given my past history of covering all things alcoholic and reptilian, I couldn’t, in good conscience, resist passing this along.

Four young men living in Cerro Gordo county, near the Minnesota line, purchased and drank a keg of Eastern-brewed beer some days ago, and as a result three of them have died and the fourth is now in terrible agony, and is reported to be on the point of death.

The day was warm and the beer was consumed hurriedly by the friends, who little realized that they were sipping a death-dealing draught. They were all taken sick immediately, and although a physician was soon summoned, the taking off of three of the young bibbers could not be prevented.

To ascertain, if possible, the strange cause of the sickness, the keg was broken into and the decomposed remains of a genuine rattlesnake was found.

For more, continue reading here.

Category: Alcohol, Animals | 1 Comment

Small Wonders: July 13, 2012

In this edition: dog yawns, superhero journalists, and babies named for hurricanes.

* A visual history of alchemy and transmutations.

* The debased behavior of penguins finally comes to light. (Choice quote: “…these birds, like men, degenerate in idleness.”)

* Dogs yawn in response to their owners’ yawns.

* The unintended consequences of the CIA’s polio vaccine cover story.

* The challenges of landing on Mars, via an incredible video from NASA.

* Anthropologists study our tchotchkes.

* Superhero journalists do not have a super sense of ethics.

* The robot that cannot lose at rock-paper-scissors.

* Authorities shut down 9-year-old’s blog on school lunch.

* Bots publish books composed solely of YouTube comments.

* Deborah Blum reminds us that “naturally occurring chemistry can be just as wicked as anything we dream up in a laboratory.”

* Why we accidentally name babies for hurricanes.

* Stunning anatomical illustrations of turtle anatomy. (Seriously, check them out.)

* Autism researchers need more brains to study.

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A Frog in the Throat

I was recently doing some research on species that have gone extinct in my lifetime. And I discovered the coolest frog: the gastric brooding frog. There are actually two species of these frogs, Rheobatrachus vitellinus and Rheobatrachus silus, both native to the Australian rainforest.

As their common names suggest, the frogs have a highly unusual reproductive strategy: after the females lay their eggs and the males fertilize them, the mothers swallow the whole clutch of frogs-to-be. Over the next six to seven weeks, the eggs develop into tadpoles, and then little froglets, inside the mother’s stomach. When this transformation is complete, the female regurgitates her offspring–as many as two dozen of them–out into the world. (There are a couple great photos of this, but alas, I do not have permission to repost them here. But I urge you to take a look.)

This brooding behavior is made all the more remarkable by the fact that a female frog’s  stomach is awash in hydrochloric acid–not exactly a hospitable place for a youngster to develop. But the gastric brooding frogs have that covered, too. It turns out that the young frogs themselves secrete a compound known as prostaglandin E2, which inhibits the production of stomach acid. (Unfortunately, before scientists could unravel exactly how this process worked, the gastric brooding frogs went extinct, so the precise details will forever remain a mystery.) In other words, the little froglets keep themselves safe during development by producing a substance that shuts down their mothers’ digestive systems. It’s a beautiful bit of evolution.
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Category: Animals, Evolution | 1 Comment