February 5, 2014

White lioness Azira with two of her three cubs that were born last week in a private zoo in Borysew, Poland.     Photo: Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Rare White Lion Triplets Born in Poland

Triple the amount of "awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww"

A two-and-a-half-year-old white lioness named Azira gave birth to three healthy cubs in a private zoo in Borysew, Poland, on Tuesday.

Lion triplets are rare, and of those that are born, healthy trios seldom occur because deliveries are complicated and mothers sometimes reject the babies. 

Andrzej Pabich, head of the zoo, told the Associated Press he feels three times as lucky that none of those concerns hindered the birth. "We had doubts whether it would be all okay; won't [she] reject them, will she have milk? But all went luckily well in the end. The mother accepted [the cubs], is feeding them, and is very caring."

White lions are not albinos but a rare color mutation of the Kruger subspecies of African lion found in some wildlife reserves in South Africa. Fewer than 100 white lions currently exist in captivity and in the wild.


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Watts and Dixon take the Jamaican sleigh to Sochi.     Photo: Courtesy of the Jamaican Bobsled Team

Uncool Runnings

Jamaican bobsled team loses luggage, misses training

The sled is in Sochi. The athletes are in Sochi. But the rest of the equipment—the blades, the uniforms, etc.—that the two-man Jamaican bobsled team needs to train with? It got lost on its way to Russia, the BBC reports.

"It's really frustrating," says driver Winston Watts, who has competed at three Games. "We have just got all the funding together and have arrived at the Olympics—but then this happens."

The mix-up was due to changes in a connecting flight change when the weather took a turn for the worse. The team hopes to take part in training by Thursday. 

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The Olympic debut of snowboard slopestyle begins February 6.     Photo: Sport Communities/Flickr

White Drops Olympic Slopestyle

Claims injury risk is too high

After a tumultuous week on the Sochi slopestyle course, one of the Olympics' biggest stars has dropped the event altogether. The news hit this morning as the Today show's Matt Lauer opened the program with Shaun White’s surprising decision.

White confirmed the news with a post on his Facebook page.

“After much deliberation with my team, I have made the decision to focus solely on trying to bring home the third straight gold medal in halfpipe for Team USA. I know my fans will have my back on this difficult decision. Thanks for the continued support.”

White and several other slopestyle riders were injured during training runs this week and have expressed concerns about the course. “With the practice runs I have taken, even after course modifications and watching fellow athletes get hurt, the potential risk of injury is a bit too much for me to gamble my other Olympics goals on,” explained White.

The Olympic debut of the snowboard slopestyle event will begin with qualifying rounds on February 6.

Canada’s Sebastien Toutant, a slopestyle medal favorite, didn’t take long to share his opinion.

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    Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Are Better Athletes Better Looking?

New study examines connection

Does excelling at endurance sports make us better looking? Or, equally important, do more-attractive people perform better?

Those are questions raised in a new study published in the journal Biology Letters. The report says that when people rated the attractiveness of 80 participants in the 2012 Tour de France, the ratings tended to track with the riders’ performance. Racers in the top 10 percent of the race also scored 25 percent higher on looks than those with the worst race results. In other words, there appears to be a strong connection between whom we find attractive and who’s the best endurance athlete.

The project was conducted by Erik Postma, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Zurich who usually studies the breeding habits of sparrows and the genetics of alpine voles. All of his research addresses a common question: What drives the evolution of a species?

A cycling fan, Postma was also curious to see if there’s something about the looks of people with more physical endurance that makes us find them more appealing. Are we drawn to people with an endurance edge, like, say, top Tour de France racers? And can we read it in their faces? One theory of human evolution, popularized in the book Born to Run, is that early humans relied on long-distance running to chase down large animals. If so, being better at wearing down a gazelle in a marathon pursuit would be a very appealing skill. Perhaps we can detect these attributes in peoples' faces, and it makes them more attractive.

Postma had 800 people take an online survey to look at 80 different Tour racers' headshots. They gave each photo an attractiveness score from 1 (ugly) to 5 (cue catcalls). The people taking the survey didn’t know how each cyclist did in the race.

When Postma crunched the data, he found a clear link between attractiveness and race performance. He’s not sure what people are seeing that draws them to the stronger cyclists. An air of confidence? A certain angle of cheekbone? Did they just look healthier and more fit? After subjecting the results to various statistical tests, he’s certain it’s not just a fluke. “I was frankly skeptical myself that I would find something,” said Postma, a recreational cyclist and mountain runner. “I think I've done everything I could to disprove myself, but it seems very robust.”

While there’s been little previous research on endurance athletes and attractiveness, there are studies of whether overall fitness tracks with what catches our eye. One study found women more attracted to the faces of highly rated NFL quarterbacks than to those with lower performance. But it’s not always so clear-cut. In another study, women were more drawn to the bodies of men who scored better on fitness tests, but the researchers saw no link between athletic ability and facial attractiveness.

Postma said his findings were greeted with skepticism at a scientific conference. One colleague suggested that better-looking athletes get better sponsorships, and so they wind up on stronger teams. Another questioned whether the faster cyclists looked healthier because they were doping.

Also, some of the top riders were left out of the photo selection; 2012 winner Bradley Wiggins and his teammates were left out, for example, because each of them was wearing a hat or sunglasses. Moreover, the top-ranked sexy cyclist, with an average attractiveness score of 4.21, was Frenchman Amaël Moinard, of the U.S.-based BMC squad. He finished in 45th place that year.

In a statement released by his team, Moinard said he was stumped how looks and performance might be connected, but he took some encouragement from it, adding, “Now that I know that, maybe I will perform even better!”

Postma noted that people readily accept that other species might have evolved to prefer certain physical characteristics in a mate. Female elk, for example, are drawn to males with the loudest call. But when it comes to humans, it’s a different story. Postma finds people more resistant to the idea that unconscious forces stemming from our evolutionary past can influence our attraction. “A lot of people tend to think that as humans we stand above,” he said, “that we are not animals anymore.”

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    Photo: WilfLifeRisk

Activists Bust Illegal Shark Factory

Slaughtering 600 protected sharks annually

A factory in the Zhejiang Province of China has been busted for the illegal slaughter and export of multiple internationally protected shark species.

Hong Kong–based conservation organization WildLifeRisk began investigating China Wenzhou Yueqing Marine Organisms Health Protection Foods Co Ltd. three years ago. The group's agents posed as members of an international seafood company in order to gain access.

During three visits inside the factory, agents determined that the factory was slaughtering more than 600 protected sharks annually, selling their skins as leather, and their lips, stomachs, and flesh to restaurants as food. Shark oil, extracted from their livers, is also highly prized as an ingredient in various skin care products and cosmetics. A single shark fin can sell for as much as $31,000.

The sale of these products is in direct violation of the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an agreement that China has signed. However, the local government has yet to take action or comment on the findings.

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Crowds can alter referees' decisions.     Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Home Field Advantage Is Real

Will Russian athletes dominate Sochi?

Turns out that Olympic host cities such as Sochi could be bidding for more than national pride and distinction. That's because scientists have confirmed the benefits of home field advantage, according to a new study in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The article, authored by two British psychological scientists, investigates two possible models of home field advantage: the standard model and the territoriality model.

The standard model observes factors influencing the attitudes of competitors, coaches, and officials that could shift the advantage toward home athletes. One familiar example is crowd noise. When crowds cheer for a team, officials are more likely to make discretionary decisions (such as awarding extra time) in favor of the home team. They're also more prone to punish the visitors harshly.

The standard model also applies regardless of spectators, because teams often suffer travel fatigue. Home team advantage increases 20 percent for every time zone a visiting team has to cross.

On the other hand, the territoriality model involves the players' primal instinct to defend their homes. Soccer players who were studied showed higher testosterone levels when playing at home.

On the other hand, playing on the home field has a major drawback: As athletes consider pleasing their fans in high-stakes situations, they sometimes modify typically second-nature movements and lose focus, resulting in diminished performance.

Sorry, Broncos fans, don't blame Sunday's loss on this news—Super Bowl XLVIII was played at a neutral site.

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People who engage in risky behavior might have poor self-control.     Photo: Hazan/Shutterstock

Why We Take Risks

Probably due to poor self-control

A BASE jumper who pitches herself off a cliff might not be crazy. She might just lack self-control, according to a new study.   

Findings published this month suggest that when we engage in risky behavior, it’s not because our brain's desire system is too active. It’s probably because we simply can’t stop ourselves.

A team of researchers used brain scans to study the correlation between brain activity and how people make decisions. They hooked up 108 participants to an MRI scanner and let them play video games that simulated risk taking.

By analyzing brain regions typically involved with functions such as control, working memory, and attention, scientists could predict a person’s future choices. They concluded that risky decisions stem from a failure of our control systems.

“We all have these desires, but whether we act on them is a function of control,” reported Sarah Helfinstein, a researcher at University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the study. The report will appear online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists hope the new research will help doctors treat mental illness and addiction. The findings might also give us a better idea of what our brains look like on adventure.

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