May 8, 2014

"Where's Mommy?"     Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto/NatMel

Birds Can't Find Their Way

Because our devices make so much noise

Wavelength interference from electronics and AM radio stations disrupt the internal magnetic compasses of European migratory birds, explains a report published yesterday in Nature.

Seven years of double-blind experiments (new researchers replicating old experiments) led the report's co-author, Henrik Mouritsen, of the University of Oldenburg, Germany, to conclude that cities disrupt migratory bird patterns.

The Earth's magnetic field, virtually mapped for the first time earlier this week, clues in European robins to their migratory direction, the report details. But when electromagnetic waves from our devices pollute the atmosphere, the birds don't know which way to fly.

Mouritsen covered wooden huts housing his robins with aluminum plating (the traditional method of blinding birds from magnetic clues such as the sun or stars, Nature writes). When his team grounded the plating—reducing the electromagnetic interference on campus from 50 kilohertz to five megahertz—they found that the birds could orient themselves. Ungrounded, however, the frequencies were so strong that the bird could not find their way.

Until Mouritsen moved his experiment from a rural field site into the college town, there was very little evidence of humans' electromagnetic radiation affecting birds' migratory patterns.

He poses this question to Nature: "If birds can't use one of their most significant compasses when they are in towns, what effect will that have on survival?"

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He was probably overthinking it.     Photo: Purestock/Thinkstock

Here's Why You Choke

Study: Fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy

It's been three months since the Denver Broncos got walloped in Super Bowl XLVIII, and you can bet that Peyton and Co. are still trying to make sense of their collapse. We've already determined that because the game was played at a neutral site, home field advantage wasn't the culprit—but new research suggests Denver players simply might've been more afraid of failure than their Seahawk counterparts.

This week, British sports scientists will present research at the British Psychological Society's annual conference confirming that when athletes fear losing, they're more likely to choke.

"Our research indicates that heightened cognitive anxiety, brought on by the competitive scenario, really does affect performance abilities in physically active people—and the same is likely to apply even for trained athletes," said Dr. Michael Duncan, the study's lead author and a professor at Coventry University.

Duncan distinguished cognitive anxiety—such as the fear of failure—from somatic anxiety, which generates sensations like butterflies in the tummy when responding to tension. Athletes might feel unaffected physically by their anxiety, but cognitive stress can cause them to choke. 

To gather their evidence, Duncan and his colleagues tested study participants' ability to anticipate and coordinate actions, known as coincidence anticipation timing, in practice and competitive scenarios. Anxiety proved most detrimental during the most physically challenging parts of the competitive trials, but had negligible effects during practice situations. 

So, while we know it might be hard, the next time your favorite team is losing, cut them some slack. They might just be stressed out.

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A close approximation of sunbathing.     Photo: pasukaru76/Flickr

Study: Avoiding Sunshine Will Kill You

Lack of vitamin D just as bad as skin cancer

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. This is the takeaway from a new 20-year, 30,000-person Swedish study that claims not getting enough sun might be just as likely to kill you as getting too much. As it turns out, you need vitamin D as much as you don't need skin cancer.

According to researchers at the Karolinska Institute, state-sponsored advisories telling people to stay indoors and to wear plenty of sunscreen if they do venture into the hell-void of the outdoors could be doing more harm by depriving populations of an essential nutrient. Vitamin D, which is created in the body through exposure to sunshine, is known to keep conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and rickets at bay. Without it, it's open season. "The results of this study clearly showed that mortality was about double in women who avoided sun exposure compared to the highest exposure group," said lead study author Dr. Pelle Lindqvist. "The mortality rate was increased twofold among avoiders of sun exposure."

The study followed 29,518 women, recruited between 1990 and 1992, and asked them to record their sunbathing habits. Of the 2,545 deaths that occurred over the study's 20-year arc, researchers were surprised to discover that the death rate was twice as high (three in 100 compared to 1.5 in 100) in women who actively avoided sun exposure.

A spokesperson for Public Health England told the Telegraph that they would take the data into consideration when making their next public health recommendation. "Public Health England constantly reviews scientific research, and our experts will consider this paper along with other peer-reviewed research into this issue as part of that process," they said.

So grab a towel and go outside. Or don't. The world is a death trap.

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Incompetence on the part of a landscaping company put a colony of herons in critical condition.     Photo: Fernando Flores/Flickr

Baby Birds Fed into Wood Chipper

5 herons rescued, at least one dead

Out of negligence or malice, five federally protected black-crowned night herons nesting above an Oakland post office experienced eviction and treatment worse than that of junk mail.

In response to birds defecating on mail trucks, the Civic Center Annex Oakland Post Office hired Campos Greenview Tree Service to remove overgrown branches above the facilities. The branches were fed into a wood chipper—along with at least six one- to three-week-old birds.

Landscaping supervisor Joe Campos insists the crew had no knowledge of the birds, barely more mobile than rag dolls, which were mangled in the wood chipper and plummeted more than 25 feet to the ground.

"They were new. It'll never happen again," Campos said in an interview with SFGate. "It's a big deal, though—we don't want to destroy anything."

Photographs show at least one dead baby heron dangling from a branch. Police arrived on the scene and stopped the bloodshed after neighbors began protesting outside the post office, which deeply regrets the incident and is pursuing damage control lamer than the evicted birds.

"I can certainly understand why people are upset," said Postal Service spokesperson Augustine Ruiz. "The post office would never do anything to hurt wildlife. In fact, we issue stamps to protect birds. This is very unfortunate."

Conservationists like Lisa Owens Viani, director of Raptors Are the Solution, managed to collect five baby birds from the scene. The survivors—which suffered injuries ranging from scrapes to ruptured air sacs to a beak mangling that required surgery—are recuperating at International Bird Rescue in Fairfield.

"It was awful," Viani said. "It's especially appalling because these birds are so vulnerable and such a valuable part of the ecosystem."

At less than two pounds fully grown, black-crowned night herons are the second most populous heron in the continent, living in the shadow of the better-known great blue heron. These birds are far from endangered and are sometimes considered threatening to other species, but Oakland has enjoyed the herons’ presence since the birds arrived in town a few years ago after construction projects and competing bird populations pushed them from other habitats.

Even if the community hadn't taken to the herons, killing nesting migratory birds is a misdemeanor under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act. According to Steve Martarano, U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman, the act stipulates $2,000 fines per animal and up to six months in jail.  

Martarano's California equivalent, Andrew Hughan, said both USFW and California Fish and Wildlife officials are investigating the matter.

"If we decide to pursue this matter, it would most likely be criminal and go through a district attorney," Hughan said.

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Increased carbon dioxide often means an increase in crops, but they might not be as good for you.     Photo: Neil Howard/Flickr

Rising CO2 Zaps Crops of Nutrition

Grains and legumes shown to lose zinc, iron

Climate change may have granted us a short-term gain in the length of our growing season, but as we learned on Tuesday, our food system might be in trouble over the long term. A new study adds to the list of concerns, finding that higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can yield less-nutritious crops.

The study, published in Nature, found that increased CO2 levels during the growing process sapped as much as 15 percent of the zinc and iron from certain grasses and legumes. Seeing as how these two minerals alone are the two most abundant in the human body, that could pose a significant public health problem.

What's more, the crops discussed in this study include many of our old standbys: wheat, rice, barley, soybeans, and corn. Of course, there was some variability in how each plant responded to the increased CO2, which scientists matched to levels we might expect over the next four to six decades. Some kinds of rice actually became slightly more nutritious. We also know that more CO2 often means a higher crop yield.

However, the increased volume of crops likely didn't influence that drop in nutrients. The researchers said that there are unknown factors at play here, and they plan to get cracking on exactly what those are. It's just another step toward staving off malnutrition in our changing world.

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Old Faithful erupts every 91 minutes, like clockwork.     Photo: Getty Images

Yellowstone Geysers Predict Volcanic Eruptions

New study finds intervals between eruptions influenced by underground factors

Yellowstone's Old Faithful has been known to be one of the most predictable geographical features on earth, erupting every 91 minutes, like clockwork. 

But a new study published by Dr. Shaul Hurwitz and his team of researchers in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth has found that the intervals between geyser eruptions depend on a delicate balance of underground factors. Some of these variables include heat, water supply, and interactions with surrounding thermal springs.

Scientists can use this analysis for more than just predicting hot springs. The findings might also help us predict when volcanoes will erupt.

Hurwitz and his team focused their analysis on possible correlations between the geysers' in-between eruptions (IBEs) and outside forces such as the weather, earth tides, and earthquakes. 

What they found: There is no link between weather and Old Faithful's IBEs, but Daisy Geyser's IBEs correlated with cold temperatures and high winds. In addition, Daisy's IBEs were significantly shortened following the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Alaska in 2002.

Scientists hope continued research in this field will allow them to accurately predict the formerly unpredictable eruptions of cone geysers and volcanoes, thereby helping us avoid things like this from happening.

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