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Science News

Why wolves are forever wild, but dogs can be tamed

Differences in timing of sesory development during the critical period of socialization in wolf and dog pups may help to explain why wolves are difficult to tame while dogs are not.Psychology & Sociology

Dogs and wolves are genetically so similar, it's been difficult for biologists to understand why wolves remain fiercely wild, while dogs can gladly become "man's best friend." Now, doctoral research by evolutionary biologist Kathryn Lord at the University of Massachusetts Amherst suggests the different behaviors are related to the animals' earliest sensory experiences and the critical period of socialization. Details appear in the current issue of Ethology. Until now, little was known about sensory development in wolf pups, and assumptions were usually extrapolated from what is known for dogs, Lord explains. This would be reasonable, except scientists already know there are significant differences in early development between wolf and dog pups, chief among them timing of the ability to walk, she adds.

To address this knowledge gap, she studied responses of seven wolf pups and 43 dogs to both familiar and new smells, sounds and visual stimuli, tested them weekly, and found they did develop their senses at the same time. But her study also revealed new information about how the two subspecies of Canis lupus experience their environment during a four-week developmental window called the critical period of socialization, and the new facts may significantly change understanding of wolf and dog development.

Feeling Threatened Makes Us Nicer

Perceived menace makes people kinder to their kin but nastier to outsiders. Whether they use this strategy depends on family size
Image: Jessica Flavin/Wikimedia CommonsBy Luciana Gravotta

The way we behave when threatened sometimes goes against conventional wisdom: we soften up. Andrew White, a PhD student at Arizona State University, and his colleagues analyzed data from 54 nations and found that the more a nation spent on its military (presumably a good index of perceived threat), the higher its people scored on self-report measures of how agreeable they were to others.

This trend, published in the October 2012 issue of Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, held all the way down to the individual level: People who believe the world is a dangerous place reported being more agreeable than those who don’t.

“It is a very nice contribution to the literature on prosocial behavior,” says Paul A. M. van Lange, a social psychology professor at Vrije University Amsterdam, who was not part of this study. “Many people think in terms of mental shortcuts or heuristics: aggression leads to aggression and niceness leads to niceness. But to understand human thought and behavior, one should go deeper.”

Technology News

Inauguration committee clarifies how app collects data

Preparations continue on the US Capitol for the second inauguration of US President Barack Obama in Washington, DC, on January 17, 2013. Obama faces a near impossible task in his second inaugural address on January 21, uniting a nation in which the compromise that oils governing is crushed by deep political divides.By Hayley Tsukayama

The Presidential Inaugural Committee has clarified how the app it released to provide the public with more information about the big event Monday deals with personal data.

Earlier this week, Politico reported that the app and PIC Web site may add unwitting users to the rolls of possible donors for the Democratic Party by collecting e-mails, phone numbers and home addresses.

PIC national spokeswoman Addie Whisenant confirmed in a statement to The Post that the Web site allows PIC to share information “in ways consistent with its mission.” But the app itself, the group said, is far more limited when it comes to collecting personal information.

By design, the app allows — but does not require — users to submit their cellphone numbers and location information. Without that information, parts of the app do not fully function, but users can access things such as news and video on the app without giving up any information. In other words, it’s perfectly possible to use the app without giving anything away.

'Aaron Swartz' Congressional Bill Proposed

Hackerby Nic Halverson

In the wake of Aaron Swartz’s suicide last Friday, Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California took to Reddit yesterday to post a draft copy of a bill that would amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Swartz, co-creator of Reddit, was facing up to 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million after he was indicted for stealing thousands of academic journals from a computer archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The government was able to bring such disproportionate charges against Aaron because of the broad scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and the wire fraud statute,” Lofgren wrote on Reddit.

The bill, which the Democratic congresswoman hopes to name “Aaron’s Law,” aims to modify this scope and exclude terms of service violations.

“It looks like the government used the vague wording of those laws to claim that violating an online service’s user agreement or terms of service is a violation of the CFAA and the wire fraud statute,” Lofgren wrote. “Using the law in this way could criminalize many everyday activities and allow for outlandishly severe penalties.”

Environmental News

Trading wetlands no longer a deal with the devil

This image shows a created marsh in Cook County, IL.Earth & Climate

If Faust had been in the business of trading wetlands rather than selling his soul, the devil might be portrayed by the current guidelines for wetland restoration. Research from the University of Illinois recommends a new framework that could make Faustian bargains over wetland restoration sites result in more environmentally positive outcomes. U of I ecologist Jeffrey Matthews explained that under the current policies if a wetland is scheduled for development and a negative impact is unavoidable, the next option is to offset, or compensate, for the destruction through restoration of a wetland or creation of a new wetland somewhere else. Although the policies previously specified that it be a nearby wetland, regulatory agencies have begun favoring mitigation banking that does not ensure that a wetland with equivalent characteristics to the one being destroyed will be preserved.

"Currently destruction of wetlands can be offset by restoration of wetlands quite a distance away from the wetland that was destroyed," said Matthews. "It's usually within the same large watershed, but if the upper reaches of the watershed up along the small headwater streams are being destroyed and replaced by larger mitigation banks that are perhaps on larger rivers downstream, the species that are characteristic of those small headwater streams may not be the type of species that tend to occur in those larger, main-stem high-order streams." Like Faust's pact, it may not represent an equivalent trade. "A lot of smaller, unique wetlands in a watershed might be traded for one large homogeneous wetland," he said.

A Smut Above: Unhealthy Soot in the Air Could Also Promote Global Warming

Atmospheric black carbon is not only bad for the lungs, but can also act as greenhouse particles under certain circumstances
Image: Robert S. Donovan/FlickrBy Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato

Black carbon, commonly described as soot, may play a larger role in global warming than previously estimated, according to a new study.

Every year in the Northern Hemisphere about 7.5 million metric tons of black carbon, the equivalent of more than 100 times Earth’s total biomass, enters the air from internal combustion engines, forest fires and other sources. The fine material absorbs sunlight almost as well as carbon dioxide—a well-known greenhouse gas—and may contribute to accelerated snowmelts and increased global temperatures.

"We’re trying to figure out how to deal with the greenhouse gas problem " says Sarah Doherty, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle and co-author of the study. The new findings suggest that black carbon mitigation should be part of that strategy.

Scientists have known about the warming potential of black carbon for years, but Doherty's study, published yesterday in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, suggests previous calculations underestimated its impact. Doherty and her colleagues used a compilation of dozens of climate models to look at the life span of atmospheric black carbon. By imputing observational data recorded around the world, they studied the effect this pollutant might have on the Northern Hemisphere.

Medical News

Flu shot during pregnancy is safe, but flu isn't

Illness in mother boosts risk of miscarriage or stillbirth
Flu shotBy Nathan Seppa

Getting the flu appears to nearly double a pregnant woman’s risk of having a miscarriage or stillbirth, data from Norway during the 2009-2010 global flu pandemic show. But getting vaccinated during pregnancy greatly reduces a woman’s risk of flu, researchers report online January 16 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The study also finds that getting a flu shot during pregnancy is safe. Anecdotal reports had suggested that flu vaccination during gestation might have adverse effects on the fetus, but the new study — as well as two previous reports, from Canada and Denmark — now show no such connection.

“I think this is a strong finding,” says Lone Simonsen, an epidemiologist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “It’s good to see a carefully done, large study like this.”

Physician Camilla Stoltenberg of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Oslo and her colleagues scanned Norway’s national registry of medical information and identified more than 100,000 pregnancies during late 2009. More than half of the pregnant women received the flu vaccine, and they were one-third as likely to get the flu as were unvaccinated pregnant women.

“Our results confirm findings from other recent studies that have found no association between [flu] vaccination and stillbirth or other adverse events in pregnancy,” Stoltenberg says.

Depression gene search disappoints

Comprehensive effort to find DNA links to low mood comes up empty
DepressionBy Laura Sanders

A massive effort to uncover genes involved in depression has largely failed. By combing through the DNA of 34,549 volunteers, an international team of 86 scientists hoped to uncover genetic influences that affect a person’s vulnerability to depression. But the analysis turned up nothing.

The results are the latest in a string of large studies that have failed to pinpoint genetic culprits of depression. “I’m disappointed,” says study coauthor Henning Tiemeier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The negative finding, published online January 3 in Biological Psychiatry, “tells us that we have to be very modest,” he says. “Yet we think it’s doable to find some of the genes involved.”

Depression seems to run in families, leading scientists to think that certain genes are partially behind the disorder. But so far, studies on people diagnosed with depression have failed to reveal these genes.

Unlike earlier studies, the new study ignored depression diagnoses and instead focused solely on symptoms. Researchers combined the results of 17 studies that asked volunteers the same set of 20 questions about their emotional health at the time of the questionnaire. A person with many signs of depression scored high on the index (called CES-D), while a person with few signs scored low. The researchers hoped that capturing the continuum of symptoms — instead of a black-and-white depression diagnosis — would be a better way to ferret out the genes involved in depression.

Space News

NASA's U-2 Clandestine Cover Story

U-2By Amy Shira Teitel

On May 1, 1960, Gary Powers’ U-2 was shot down over Sverdlosk in the Soviet Union. When he heard the news, the pilot’s fate wasn’t President Eisenhower’s only concern; Powers had been flying a plane that wasn’t supposed to exist on a mission that wasn’t supposed to exist. In need of a cover story, the President turned to NASA.

The U-2 was built on Eisenhower’s request as a lightweight high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Conceived in 1954, it was reminiscent of a glider with its 103 foot wingspan dwarfing its 63 foot long fuselage. This high lift design combined with its extremely low weight (it weighed just 17,000 pounds on its first flight) enabled the U-2 to cruise at over 70,000 feet. But even from this formidable height cameras could could resolve individual missiles at Soviet firing ranges. The lenses were just that good.

Right from the start, the problem for Eisenhower was that he couldn’t divulge the U-2's real purpose. When the aircraft began flying reconnaissance missions in 1956, the President had NASA’s predecessor organization the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics lay a cover story. On May 7, the agency’s director Hugh Dryden issued a press release saying that the U-2 was an NACA research plane designed to fly high altitude meteorological flight with Air Force support from a base in Watertown, Nevada. A second press release on May 22 gave a similar story to account for U-2s flights overseas.

Orbiting Mars Robot Spies On Curiosity's Tracks

Curiosity's Tracksby Ian O'Neill

Mars rover Curiosity has been making steady progress toward carrying out its first rock-drilling test at “Yellowknife Bay” — a geologically interesting location that, according to mission scientists this week, contains sedimentary rocks veined with calcium sulfate deposits that provide further evidence for an abundance of water in Gale Crater in Mars’ ancient past. But to get to Yellowknife Bay, the nuclear-powered robot had to meander its way across the Martian landscape, a journey that has been closely watched by another robot over 160 miles overhead.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been orbiting the red planet since 2006 and its suite of instruments have transformed our view of Mars. One camera in particular, the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), has been keeping very close, high-resolution tabs on Mars’ surface and the missions we send there. Curiosity is no different. The rover tracks of Spirit and Opportunity have been spotted by HiRISE, but Curiosity’s wheels are much bigger, and therefore they can readily be spied from above. The rover itself, which is the size of a small car, can easily be picked out by the powerful camera’s optics.

When the MRO flew high above Gale Crater on Jan. 2, Curiosity was spotted (the white feature, far right) with wheel tracks rolling over the undulating landscape from “Bradbury Landing,” Curiosity’s landing site (the dark feature, far left) on Aug. 5, 2012.

Odd News

NASA Beams Mona Lisa to Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter at the Moon

To clean up transmission errors introduced by Earth's atmosphere (left), Goddard scientists applied Reed-Solomon error correction (right), which is commonly used in CDs and DVDs. Typical errors include missing pixels (white) and false signals (black). The white stripe indicates a brief period when transmission was paused. (Credit: Xiaoli Sun, NASA Goddard)NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Jan. 17, 2013 — As part of the first demonstration of laser communication with a satellite at the moon, scientists with NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) beamed an image of the Mona Lisa to the spacecraft from Earth.

The iconic image traveled nearly 240,000 miles in digital form from the Next Generation Satellite Laser Ranging (NGSLR) station at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., to the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) instrument on the spacecraft. By transmitting the image piggyback on laser pulses that are routinely sent to track LOLA's position, the team achieved simultaneous laser communication and tracking.

"This is the first time anyone has achieved one-way laser communication at planetary distances," says LOLA's principal investigator, David Smith of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "In the near future, this type of simple laser communication might serve as a backup for the radio communication that satellites use. In the more distant future, it may allow communication at higher data rates than present radio links can provide."

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