‘Mum! I’m hungry!’ Hungry chicks have unique calls to their parents

26 01 2011

Scientists studying Jackson’s Golden-Backed Weaver birds have discovered that not only can the parent birds identify their own chicks by the unique sound of their calls, but they can also tell if their chick is hungry, and how hungry.

A press release that I wrote for BioMed Central, following a study published in BMC Ecology, reveals that the more hungry a baby bird is, the more frenetic and unique the call becomes, so that parent birds not only know that they need to gather food for their young, but also how much.

Read the original article at BMC Ecology: The effect of hunger on the acoustic individuality in begging calls of a colonially breeding weaver bird

Read the press release I wrote at EurekAlert: ‘Mum! I’m hungry!’ Hungry chicks have unique calls to their parents

Read some of the press articles that used the press release:

The Science Bit: Part 7 – Oh deer! Christmas trees’ battle with Rudolph

24 12 2010

A lighthearted and seasonal Science Bit for you this month!

Ah, there’s nothing like a real Christmas tree. You can keep your plastic trees, sprayed white and gold or with fibre optic lights – for me, the annual trip to choose and collect our perfect pine tree symbolises Christmas itself and the beginning of festive few weeks of fun with friends and family.

But for some people in North America who also love the real thing, the humble Christmas tree is under threat from a very seasonal character that usually helps Santa rather than hinders him. Forests of Fraser firs in North Carolina are often frequented by deer who damage the Christmas tree crops by butting them with their antlers in order to mark their territory and by nibbling on the young shoots and buds. According to Christmas tree production specialist and agricultural researcher Jeff Owen from North Carolina State University, a single deer can munch a young Christmas tree down to the size of a pencil in no time at all.

Of course, a simple way to keep Rudolph out of the forests would be to erect good quality fencing, perhaps even electrified barriers, however with over 350 Christmas tree farms producing more than 20,000 acres of Christmas trees each year, fencing and fence maintenance is extremely expensive. An alternative is to use commercial deer repellents, but again, this can be prohibitively expensive, with 1lb of repellent costing around $18 USD, and up to 10lbs of product used per acre, two or three times a year.

Funded by the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, Owen and his team have been researching effective deer repellents that would make a viable and cheaper alternative to the existing commercially-available products. Old wives’ tales recommend hair clippings, cayenne pepper and raw eggs to keep deer away, and it turns out that the latter of these isn’t far from the truth. The scientists discovered that a prepared mixture of dried blood and egg powder is the perfect deterrent for Bambi and friends, and can be bought very cheaply at a cost of just $2 per lb of product thanks to the fact that these are common, inedible by-products of the pet-food industry.

Owen says, “These products have an unappealing taste, but the decaying smell actually elicits a fear response in the deer and keeps them away from the crops”.  It is hoped that dried blood and powdered egg could save threatened Christmas tree stocks in North Carolina, and with the team now making headway on extending their research to see if other pet food waste products, like liver powder and fishmeal, are as effective deer repellents, tree farmers all over the States could be spoilt for choice and assured of a sustainable future. Sorry Rudolph!

More from Ecolicious Foods

14 12 2010

Just in case you missed my announcement last month that I’d recently been made chief blogger at the Ecolicious Foods blog, here’s a little update on what’s been going on with the site and the company.

Unfortunately, despite site owner Steve’s infectious enthusiasm for his organic business venture, progress with the main Ecolicious Foods website has been slow. It was hoped that the online store would go live before Christmas, but it’s looking likely that sometime in January 2011 will be a more realistic launch date.

Nevertheless, the Ecolicious blog has got off to a great start with 4 brilliant posts (I can say that; I wrote them!) including a piece about the possible link between pesticide use and the decline in the UK’s population of bees, and, in the midst of the UK government’s spending cuts, particularly in scientific research and education,  an interesting example of how a grant given by the US government is being used to fund research into organic agriculture.

The Ecolicious Foods blog is on hold now until the New Year, but we’ll be back with a vengance in 2011 to unleash Ecolicious Foods onto the world!

Ugly Betty forced to aim for Average Joe

27 08 2010

In my latest foray into the world of PR for the BioMed Central Press Office, this sweetly tragic little PR tells of research into the sexual selection behaviours of the humble house sparrow. Whereas many little girls dream of one day meeting their Prince Charming or being swept off their feet by a knight in the proverbial shining armour, the common house sparrow is apparently none too fussed, unless they happen to be a bit of a minger.

“Good quality” female house sparrows allegedly have no preference for the quality of males they mate with – in this version of survival of the fittest, as long as you’re the fittest bird in the ‘hood, it doesn’t matter what your man looks like! But according to this research from the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Ethology in Vienna, ugly female house sparrows don’t go getting ideas above their station – they’re happy to go for the attractive males as apparently, what they lack in good looks, they make up for in fatherhood skills. Ahhh…

Read the press release at EurekAlert: Ugly Betty forced to aim for Average Joe

Read the original article at BMC Evolutionary Biology: Only females in poor condition display a clear preference and prefer males with an average badge

Here’s some of the media sources that picked up on the story:

The Science Bit: Part 3 – The Biological Effects of the Gulf Oil Spill

20 07 2010

The leak in an underground oil reserve in the Gulf of Mexico, which occurred after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig leased by British Petroleum is, to make one hell of an understatement, an environmental catastrophe. With an estimated 25-40,000 barrels (4-6.4 million litres) of crude oil having leaked into the ocean every day, even though it has now apparently been capped, heartbreaking and sickening photographs and footage of oil-covered beaches and birds, dead turtles and dolphins are becoming more common. This month’s Science Bit investigates some of the oil spill’s devastating biological effects.

The leak in the Deepwater Horizon oil well

As marine organisms naturally die, they sink to the seabed. Under the extremely high pressure and temperature caused by the weight of the sea and more organic material falling on top, the organisms decompose over millions of years into thick, sludgy, carbon-rich crude oil that contains a plethora of different chemicals. It is the carbon-rich property of oil that makes it such a good energy source. By fractioning off and manipulating the different carbon-containing components of crude oil, we can yield petrol, diesel, kerosene and other energy-rich, yet non-renewable, fuels. Yet these fuels, and other components of oil including benzene, mercury and sulphurous compounds, are highly toxic to life.

Simply putting your hands into the oily sea around the Gulf Coast could cause your skin to itch, your eyes to water and your airways to constrict, as in an asthmatic episode. At least we have the advantage of being able to wash off the foul liquid – what about the birds and animals that live in the Gulf region?

Seabirds, such as the pelican pictured, rely on the perfect alignment of their feathers in order to prevent cold water or air penetrating through to the skin. If they become covered in oil however, the feathers matt together and are improperly aligned, which can cause birds to suffer from fatal hypothermia. In addition, the oil adds weight to the body and so renders the birds unable to fly or float on the water’s surface. What’s more, in an effort to preen the feathers and remove the oil, they can end up digesting it, which is hazardous to the internal organs. Sadly, although effective to an extent, washing birds with detergent has a very low success rate because by this time, the birds become so stressed that they die of fright.

Sea-dwelling animals also suffer. For seals, who have an insulating fur covering their bodies, oil has a similar effect to the clogging of bird’s feathers, leaving them unable to regulate their body temperature. The mangrove dwelling dugong, or manatee, already an endangered species because of the destruction of its habitat, suffers damage to the delicate, hair-like sensory cells in their mouths, causing them to starve through not being able to feed properly. Fish and shellfish ingest the poisonous oil, and in turn pass this through the food chain when eaten by larger predators.
Plugging the hole in the leaking oil line is a major step forward in recovering from this disaster, but the effects of the oil will be felt in the Gulf ecosystems for many years to come. Chemical dispersants used to break up the oil can be almost as toxic as the oil itself and the decline in fish, shellfish, marine plant and animal stocks will take a long time to recover, if they ever do.

The Science Bit: Part 1 – Digestive bacteria

20 05 2010

BioMed Central has now published my first column for the staff magazine so I am now delighted to be able to share it with you. Here’s the first installment for your reading pleasure, ever-so-slightly edited to remove BMC in-jokes…

If you’re reading this on your lunch break, then so much the better. Digestion, the process of breaking down the food you have just eaten into tiny, absorbable molecules, is a complex and wondrous thing. Much of the process is controlled by enzymes – protein molecules that speed up the numerous chemical reactions needed to turn your hunks of cheese and bread into particles small enough to pass through a microscopically thin membrane in your small intestine and into your bloodstream.

It’s mindboggling. In your mouth, enzymes in saliva break down some of the carbohydrates in your food and your teeth mash it all up with the liquid so that you don’t choke on chunks of dry bread when you swallow. Muscles in your oesophagus squeeze the food down your throat, it then sits in a stomach acid bath for about an hour and passes into your small intestine. More enzymes and chemicals of all different types are added to the partly digested food and eventually, all the useful molecules from your cheese sandwich end up in the blood. From here, they are transported to wherever they are needed to take part in new chemical reactions, perhaps even ending up as a salivary enzyme again.

This complex process has a flaw – we’re pretty rubbish at digesting fruit and vegetables. Since we don’t make the right enzymes needed to digest all of the plant matter that is good for us, we’ve enlisted the help of bacteria. FYI: you don’t get these bacteria from eating probiotic yoghurts – they’re already there (although the yoghurts may help to replenish them if you’ve been ill and, ahem, flushed them all out). Bacterial enzymes break down the things that our enzymes can’t; the bacteria take some of the nutrients, we take some of the nutrients and everybody’s happy.

A new piece of research in the journal Nature suggests that the enzymes of bacteria in the guts of people around the world may be different, depending on regional diet. In a collaboration between French and Canadian scientists working in Japan, researchers found that bacteria in Japanese guts contained genes from an external bacterium found on seaweed. They believe that in swallowing seaweed-wrapped sushi, surviving sea bacteria on the nori may have transferred their genes to the bacteria in the intestines, thus empowering the intestinal bacteria with the ability to digest seaweed. Since Japanese people eat a lot of seaweed – approximately 14 grams per day – that’s a pretty big boost to their digestive systems.

The study was only small, but it is the first time that bacteria outside of the body, from a completely different ecosystem, have been found to alter the bacteria inside the body. With further research, we may well find that microorganisms, like the nori bacteria, help to shape and evolve the human body and our behaviour in more ways that we previously thought.

Reference: Hehemann et al, Transfer of carbohydrate-active enzymes from marine bacteria to Japanese gut microbiota, Nature 464, 908-912 (2010)

Press releases now on www.biomedcentral.com

9 03 2010

The webbies at BioMed Central have been a bit slow in updating the PR area of the website, but the press releases that I have written are now online at www.biomedcentral.com.

  • Chromosomes make a rapid retreat from nuclear territories
  • Friendly bacteria love the humble apple
  • Shorebirds shape up and ship out
  • Genetics helps to crack down on chimpanzee smuggling
  • Lopsided fish show symmetry is only skin deep
  • I’ve just written another one too, so look out for this in the next few weeks!

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