Smelling Cancer, Killer Whale Sonar, Zebra Finch IQ, Planet Trifecta, Dark Banquet



 

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Smelling Cancer


nose.jpg Putting the nose in diagnoses - from Wikimedia Commons

Remember Dr. McCoy's tricorder on Star Trek? He was able to pass it over a patient's body and get an immediate diagnosis. Of course, it was complete sci-fi, but Dr. George Preti has made the first steps towards creating a similar technology. Dr. Preti, a researcher with the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadephia, has managed to detect the chemical changes in patients with a form of skin cancer. By analyzing the air directly above a skin tumour, Dr. Preti was able to detect chemical differences in normal and cancerous skin. Dr. Preti explains that it's a similar process to what our noses do when we detect a scent. It's a long way away from being as sophisticated as Dr. McCoy's handy gadget, but it could potentially lead to a new way of diagnosing skin cancer or other diseases.


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Killer Whale Sonar


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If you've ever bobbed for apples, you know how hard it can be to grab a mouthful of food underwater with your eyes closed. Well, the killer whales off the coast of British Columbia and Washington State face a similar problem: they make their living feeding on salmon in dark, murky waters. Yet, somehow, they're surprisingly good at their job. Not only do they catch their fill, they can actually cherry-pick their favourite kind of fish -- chinook salmon -- out of the murky depths. What's even more impressive is that chinook make up only about 15 percent of the salmon species in these waters. Dr. John Horne, an Associate Professor at the University of Washington's School of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, has discovered that killer whales are able to differentiate between three different species of salmon -- chinook, sockeye and coho -- by using sonar signals. He says the distinctive "sound" of chinook salmon gives their location away to hungry killer whales.


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Zebra Finch IQ


zebra_finch.jpg courtesy Neeltje Boogert

Ever wonder exactly what male song birds are trying to convey to prospective mates, when they belt out their song? Sure, they sound pretty, but maybe there's more to their song than just a catchy tune. Neeltje Boogert, a doctoral student in biology at McGill University, has been asking this same question. She's found that snazzy songs may be a sign of intelligence in male zebra finches. Ms. Boogert compared the complexity of male zebra finch songs and then had each bird take the bird equivalent of an IQ test (which involved foraging for food in a very complex apparatus). It turns out that the males with the most complex song are also best at foraging for food -- they also tended to do better with the ladies. Ms. Boogert says she expects female birds may be tuning in to male songs in order to pick the best and brightest mate.


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Planet Trifecta


three_planets.jpg courtesy National Research Council

Researchers have been indirectly detecting planets around nearby stars for more than a decade now, but actually taking pictures of stars has been beyond the reach of astronomers. That's now changed. Dr. Christian Marois, a researcher at the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Victoria, led a team that has captured the image of three giant planets orbiting a star, a little more than a hundred light years away. It took huge telescopes and some clever techniques to capture the light from the solar system and tease out the dim planets from the bright light of their star.


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Dark Banquet


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For those of us who get queasy at the sight of blood, Dr. Bill Schutt's new book, Dark Banquet, is sure to send shivers up your spine. Dr. Schutt, an Associate Professor of biology at Long Island University, specializes in studying vampire bats, which are creepy enough to begin with. But Dr. Schutt also discusses the hidden lives of Nature's other blood-feeding creatures -- from leeches and ticks to vampire finches and bloodsucking catfish.


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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein. Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0