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This week we look at a "fresh, new" idea for stopping future pandemics, what really counts when the going gets tough, a clever way dolphins get their dinner, lengthy lightning, and more.

When are fish like popcorn?

When dolphins chase them into empty snail shells. Bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia have been observed guiding fish into the shells of giant snails. They then bring the shells to the surface and shake the fish into their open mouths, like a human finishing off the last of a bag of popcorn. 

<strong>Bottlenose dolphins</strong> learn new tricks from their friends when it comes to food. They chase fish into empty snail shells and then shake the fish straight into their mouths. Courtesy US National Park Service.This is exciting not just because of the further evidence of dolphins using tools but also because the dolphins learn this clever maneuver by watching their friends. Such social learning has rarely been observed outside primate species like chimpanzees.

In this particular case, the dolphins seem to have increased their trap-and-feast technique during a 2011 heat wave that killed off a lot of sea snails—leaving a bonanza of conveniently empty shells. Researchers think this kind of flexible learning may boost a species' chances of survival in a changing environment.

Sweltering in Siberia

Speaking of changing environments, the New York Times reported last week that temperatures in Siberia are more akin to what you’d expect in Arizona. Towns well inside the Arctic circle (that are normally still snowmobiling at this time of year) recently recorded a high of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

100 degrees Fahrenheit. Siberian cities above the Arctic Circle are experiencing record-breaking high temperatures this summer. Courtesy Al-Jazeera.

Wildfires are spreading, fish and animals are suffering, mosquitoes are swarming, and the permafrost is melting. When the large chunks of ice just under the surfaces of thousands of acres of land across Russia, Canada, and Scandinavia thaws, fields and pastures flood, roads collapse, and infrastructure crumbles.

So while Siberian residents are practicing their breaststroke in the local lake and enjoying a longer growing season for their backyard vegetables, it’s uncertain what the future holds.

What does it take to be truly tough?

What does it take to be a member of an elite military force? Is it how far you can run or how many push-ups you can do? Or maybe it’s how much pain you can take. 

<strong>The few, the proud, the extroverted.</strong> A recent study found that attitude was a far better predictor of a trainee's ability to pass a grueling military training course—much more so than physical health or fitness. Courtesy US Marines.Turns out it’s none of the above. Researchers followed three consecutive classes of Marines enrolled in a training course so rigorous that only slightly more than half would successfully complete it. To track them, trainees wore a specially designed mobile app that collected continuous daily measures of their activity, heart rate, hydration, nutrition, mental status, and physical pain.

The scientists found that there was no correlation between finishing the course and performance on physical training standards or physical markers such as heart rate and sleep status. Instead, it was all about attitude. Trainees who identified as extroverts with the ability to cultivate a joyful attitude were most likely to complete the course.

“These findings are novel because they identify traits not typically associated with military performance,” says Leslie Saxon, MD, of the USC Center for Body Computing. “[It] show[s] that psychological factors mattered more than physical performance outcomes.”

Pandemics aren’t going away

If we’ve learned anything from the global COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that we weren’t very well prepared. More comprehensive disease surveillance could help us stay on top of things during the next outbreak.

<strong>Seeking clues to the next outbreak.</strong> A global observatory of blood that uses automated methods to detect every virus known to affect humans could provide early warning when a new pandemic is still in the early stages. Courtesy US Food and Drug Administration.That’s why Michael Mina wants to create a global observatory of blood to monitor for signs of new diseases spreading through the population. The project would test as many as 100,000 samples per day in the US alone, collected from sources like blood banks and newborn needle sticks. The samples would be anonymized and only identified by geographical area.

Blood antibodies appear 1-2 weeks after infection and can be detected by existing chip-based technology. If these tests—which can detect any virus type know to affect humans—were scaled up to examine larger batches of samples it would provide information about outbreaks far faster than the current reporting system.   

Infectious disease special William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical Center calls the proposed blood observatory, “The kind of fresh, new thinking we need in public health.”

World record of lightning

The new world’s record for the longest single lighting flash covered a horizontal distance of 441 miles across southern Brazil in 2018. This is about the distance from Phoenix, AZ to Los Angeles, CA.

<strong>Megaflash.</strong> While this lightning may look impressive, it has nothing on a single flash that stretched 441 miles across Southern Brazil in 2018. Courtesy Jeremy Weber. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/'>(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)</a>This megaflash was verified with new satellite imagery technology by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and more than double the previous record of 200 miles in Oklahoma. Space-based lightning mapping offers the ability to measure flashes over larger geospatial areas that ground-based lightning mapping arrays.

This new information about the scale and duration of lighting is important for engineering and safety concerns. Scientists suspect that even greater extremes exist.

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