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Science News

Beak Heat: Evolutionary Theory of Bird Bills May Need Revision

New research on song sparrows offers a new take on bird-beak evolution that is more nuanced than earlier ideas based on finch studies
Image: Greenberg et al/Evolution 2012By Sarah Fecht

A finch's beak evolves according to the size and shape of available seeds. That conventional wisdom is one of the most accepted facts in science—it has been proved again and again in research that began in the Galápagos Islands, and stretches from Charles Darwin in the 1830s through to the modern work of evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant. Case closed—right?

Not necessarily. Two new studies, led by Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute ornithologist Russell Greenberg, strengthen a budding theory that beak size may also be an adaptation to regulate temperature and conserve water. "Very few people ever stop to think that maybe these birds actually need water," Greenberg points out.

Years ago Greenberg noticed that sparrows who live in freshwater-stressed salt marshes tend to have larger bills than their relatives who live just a few kilometers inland. Then, in 2009, he read that thermal imaging revealed that toco toucans lose as much as 60 percent of their body heat through their bills. That got him thinking that maybe birds evolve larger or smaller beaks based on their need to either shed or conserve heat.

How Earth's 'hums' could give us a heads up on earthquakes

Ambient noise monitored to see if cataclysmic events can be forecast at all
This crack in the Earth was left by the 2004 Parkfield earthquake that ruptured along the San Andreas Fault.By Becky Oskin

Forecasting earthquakes has long been an elusive goal for geoscientists, even along the San Andreas Fault, one of the most well-studied and active earthquake faults on Earth.

Detecting changes in the Earth's crust before a quake is one way to determine whether faults send out early warning signals, which could offer the possibility of short-term earthquake predictions.

One way to potentially detect these warning signals is using a process called ambient noise tomography. Vibrations from ocean waves and the wind make the Earth constantly hum. Scientists can tease out detailed images of the Earth's crust from the murmuring as the velocities of the vibrations change as they move through different rock types.

"The ambient noise in the Earth is just sound waves. It illuminates the structures in the Earth like ambient light illuminates a room," said seismologist David Schaff, a professor at Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory in New York.

Technology News

Millions Of Facebook Accounts Found To Be Illegitimate

Image Credit: Photos.comLee Rannals for

Facebook said in filings published this week that it has more than 83 million illegitimate accounts on its social network.

Of the 955 million active accounts, Facebook wrote in its 10-Q filing with the U.S. Securities Exchange and Commission that 8.7 percent of them are not legitimate profile pages.

The undesirable accounts included fake names intended to be used for purposes that violate the terms of services, such as spamming.

Facebook said that the “false” accounts are divided into two categories: misclassified accounts, and undesirable accounts.

The misclassified accounts consist of profiles for a business, organization, or non-human entity like a person’s pet.

The company said that 4.8 percent of its user accounts are actually just duplicate profiles, while 2.4 percent were profiles for businesses or pets. Another 1.5 percent of users were described as “undesirable” by the social network.

Designing 007: A look at Bond's luxurious life

The James Bond film series turns 50 years old this year, and its founders pull out all the stops with a massive reveal of memorabilia.
Sean Connery leans on an Aston Martin DB5 while taking a break from shooting 'Goldfinger' in the Swiss Alps. (Click to enlarge.)by Christopher MacManus

When the world first met James Bond on-screen in the 1962 film "Dr. No," it changed the way many people imagined the life of a secret agent.

Six actors and nearly 25 films after Bond's film debut, the Barbican Centre in London is commemorating the dapper life of James Bond with "Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style." The massive exhibit features 400 effects from the Bond movie franchise, ranging from rarely seen conceptual art and on-set photos to original costumes and props.

Visitors can see how set designers like Sir Kenneth Adams originally imagined memorable locales such as the hidden volcano hideout in "You Only Live Twice," and gape at famous props like the original golden gun in "The Man with the Golden Gun" created by special-effects wizard John Stears.

Those with a fondness for vehicles featured in the movies can observe Connery's favorite 1964 Aston Martin DB5 or Pierce Brosnan's BMW motorcycle from "Tomorrow Never Dies."

Environmental News

Greenhouse Gas Continues To Be Absorbed By Carbon Sinks

Image Credit: jorg rose-oberreich / ShutterstockApril Flowers for

In the last 50 years, man has quadrupled his CO2 output, primarily through the burning of fossil fuels. That is a startling and sobering concept. So far, though, Mother Nature seems to be keeping pace.

In a new study released August 2, 2012, in the journal Nature, researchers from NOAA and the University of Colorado assert that Earth’s carbon sinks continue to soak up roughly half of the carbon output. Carbon sinks are areas of carbon storage, whether by land or sea. The scientists analyzed 50 years of global carbon dioxide (CO2) measurements and found that the processes by which the planet’s oceans and ecosystems absorb greenhouse gas are not yet at capacity.

“Globally, these carbon dioxide ‘sinks’ have roughly kept pace with emissions from human activities, continuing to draw about half of the emitted CO2 back out of the atmosphere. However, we do not expect this to continue indefinitely,” said NOAA’s Pieter Tans, a climate researcher with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado.

“What we are seeing is that the Earth continues to do the heavy lifting by taking up huge amounts of carbon dioxide, even while humans have done very little to reduce carbon emissions,” said Ashley Ballantyne, University of Colorado post-doctoral researcher and lead author agrees. “How long this will continue, we don’t know.”

Great Lakes Trout Serve as Barometer for Global Pollutants

Whenever chemicals have been found in lake trout, they have also been found in people throughout North America as far as the Arctic
Image: flickr/Neil916 By Brian Bienkowski and Environmental Health News

 When one thinks of iconic fish, Lake Ontario’s lake trout probably don’t come to mind.

They don’t have the spear of a marlin or the taste of a tuna. There are no singing, dancing lake trout hanging on cabin walls. Great Lakes anglers often catch them while targeting the more popular chinook and coho salmon.

But the white-bellied natives of these deep, cold transnational waters have a unique reputation – one considerably nobler than taking bait or adorning plates: They are a barometer for global pollutants.

For almost 50 years, whenever chemicals have shown up in the lake trout of Lake Ontario, they also have contaminated animals and people throughout the Great Lakes and farther north, in the Arctic.

Its role as a toxic harbinger, begun in the late 1960s, continues as researchers recently discovered another unfamiliar flame retardant – Dechlorane 602 – in the trout and in the Canadian Arctic’s beluga whales. This study, the first to detect dechlorane compounds in Arctic wildlife, shows that Dechlorane 602 is persistent in the environment, migrates long distances and accumulates in the food web.

Medical News

It's in Our Genes: Why Women Outlive Men

Newborn baby boy and girl. Scientists are beginning to understand one of life's enduring mysteries -- why women live, on average, longer than men. (Credit: (c) Barbara Helgason / Fotolia)Monash University

ScienceDaily (Aug. 2, 2012) — Scientists are beginning to understand one of life's enduring mysteries -- why women live, on average, longer than men.

Published August 2 in Current Biology, research led by Monash University, describes how mutations to the DNA of the mitochondria can account for differences in the life expectancy of males and females. Mitochondria, which exist in almost all animal cells, are vital for life because they convert our food into the energy that powers the body.

Dr Damian Dowling and PhD student, Florencia Camus, both from the Monash School of Biological Sciences, worked with Dr David Clancy from Lancaster University to uncover differences in longevity and biological aging across male and female fruit flies that carried mitochondria of different origins. They found that genetic variation across these mitochondria were reliable predictors of life expectancy in males, but not in females.

FDA Approves Tiny Computer Chip As Internal MD

Image Credit: Photos.comJohn Neumann for

Following four years of discussions, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a computer that can monitor the health of a patient from within their body. The Ingestion Event Marker from Proteus Digital has received approval for the very tiny (less than 1/10th inch) computer chip it plans on using as an internal MD.

Once a sensor on the chip, which is swallowed, comes into contact with stomach acids it acts as an electrolyte, generating 1-2 volts of power between the copper salt cathode and a magnesium anode, reports Iain Thomson for The Register.

“We are thrilled to have achieved this important milestone to market our ingestible sensor in the United States now, as well as in Europe,” Dr. George M. Savage, co-founder and chief medical officer at Proteus Digital Health, said in a press release.

The few volts that are generated provide just enough power to relay a signal that documents exactly when the pill was swallowed. Data is then transmitted to a battery-powered patch worn on the skin which has a life span of seven days, collecting several metrics, including heart rate, temperature, and body position, which is also relayed to a mobile-phone app.

Space News

Vaporizing Earth in Computer Simulations to Aid Search for Super-Earths

Scientists at Washington University have simulated the atmospheres of hot Earth-like planets, such as CoRoT-7b, shown here in an artist’s conception. CoRoT-7b orbits so close to its star that its starward side is an ocean of molten rock. By looking for atmospheres like those generated by the simulations, astronomers should be able to identify Earth-like exoplanets. (Credit: A. Leger et al./Icarus)Washington University in St. Louis

ScienceDaily (Aug. 2, 2012) — In science fiction novels, evil overlords and hostile aliens often threaten to vaporize Earth. At the beginning of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the officiously bureaucratic aliens called Vogons, authors of the third-worst poetry in the universe, actually follow through on the threat, destroying Earth to make way for a hyperspatial express route.

"We scientists are not content just to talk about vaporizing the Earth," says Bruce Fegley, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, tongue firmly in cheek. "We want to understand exactly what it would be like if it happened."

And in fact Fegley, PhD, and his colleagues Katharina Lodders, PhD, a research professor of earth and planetary sciences who is currently on assignment at the National Science Foundation, and Laura Schaefer, currently a graduate student at Harvard University, have vaporized Earth -- if only by simulation, that is mathematically and inside a computer.

 Curiosity to look for habitable environs

Mars mission will probe Red Planet’s past, present
NASA’s rover Curiosity is aiming to land on August 5 in Gale Crater, an enormous impact basin with a large mountain in the middle. There, Curiosity will search for signs of life-friendly environments — past or present — and attempt to assemble an environmental history of the Red Planet.By Nadia Drake

If, late in the evening of August 5, NASA’s Curiosity rover survives what might be the most daring interplanetary touchdown in history, the six-wheeled robot will find itself in a dramatic landscape ripe with research opportunities: Gale Crater, an enormous basin with a 5-kilometer-tall mountain in the middle, called Mount Sharp. There, Curiosity will look for evidence of water, energy sources and organic carbon — the hallmarks of life-friendly environments, past or present.

By reading the rocky clues hidden in that mountain, the rover will also try to peer back in time and learn what environments on ancient Mars were like. For 98 weeks — one Mars year — the rover and its 75 kilograms of science instruments will attempt to probe the deep Martian past.

Though the mountain is the mission’s primary target, scientists hope the rover will first alight on one particularly intriguing patch of rock.

“We don’t really know what that material is,” says project scientist John Grotzinger of Caltech.

Odd News

Scientists Answer: Where Do Cold Feet Come From?

Image Credit: Photos.comMichael Harper for

Cold feet are often equated to cowardice or second-thoughts when it comes to making a life-changing decision, such as going through with a marriage. Cold feet can also be more than just a joke people tell to be folksy. In fact, many people complain about their cold feet or the cold feet of a partner. Now, some physiologists have set their brains about figuring out why some people constantly have cold feet, saying a biological mechanism in a person’s feet might be to blame.

Scientists led by Selvi C. Jeyaraj of the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital have conducted the study and have found an interaction between a series of molecules and receptors on muscle cells could give many people the chills in their toes.

Combining their study with that of an editorial by Martin C. Michel of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, and Paul A. Insel of the University of California at San Diego, this new research finds contributors to cold feet and even finds that nearly everyone has experienced this condition at one point in their life. Some are plagued by it with some frequency, a symptom which could point to a more serious condition, such as Raynaud’s disease.

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