To Bug a Mockingbird, Acid Volcanoes flex Mussels, Basking Shark's Disappearing Act, Ancient Mercury Mines, How the Bees' Knees Get a Grip, This is Your Brain on Fat

 

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To Bug a Mockingbird


Mockingbird.jpg A mockingbird similar to the ones Dr. Levey studied -- courtesy Louis Guillette

We may be underestimating the cognitive capacity of our feathered friends. Dr. Doug Levey, a professor of biology at the University of Florida, Gainesville, thinks they may not be quite as bird-brained as we think. Dr. Levey has recently found evidence that mockingbirds can recognize specific humans. Studying mockingbirds on the university campus, he and his colleagues found that the birds would cry out and attack a person who had previously touched their nest, as soon as that person came withing a few meters of it. On the other hand, the birds didn't seem to mind when several other people came within close proximity of their nest. Dr. Levey thinks this ability to recognize individual humans may help explain why mockingbirds have thrived so well as an urban species.

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Acid Volcanoes Flex Mussels


hydro-thermal-vent.jpg Carbon dioxide bubbles out from an underwater volcano -- courtesy Kim Davies

Dr. Verena Tunnicliffe studies deep-sea hydrothermal vents and underwater volcanoes, so she's used to extreme environments. Even she, however, was surprised to see liquid carbon dioxide bubbling from an undersea volcano, 1600 meters below the surface. Even more startling was that mussels were carpeting the area nearby, despite the acidic conditions which would normally dissolve their shells. Dr. Tunnicliffe, a professor in the Department of Biology and Canada Research Chair in Deep Ocean Research at the University of Victoria, discovered how the mussels adapt - using a wetsuit-like membrane to protect themselves from the acidic water in which they live.

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Basking Shark's Disappearing Act


Basking_Shark.jpg A Basking Shark - courtesy Chris Gotschalk

The basking shark is the world's second largest fish, and during summers, it lives a peaceful life sifting plankton from temperate ocean waters. It leads a mysterious double life, however, as during the winter, it simply disappears. Dr. Greg Skomal, a marine biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries in Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, used special tags to track the sharks' movements during the winter. He discovered that these huge animals were sneaking off for southern vacations, travelling thousands of kilometers to tropical waters in which they'd never been seen before. He suspects these trips are to the secret nursery where the basking sharks bear and raise their young.

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Ancient Mercury Mines


Andean_Lake.jpg One of the lakes Mr. Cooke sampled for its mercury content -- courtesy Colin Cooke

Renaissance Spain is well known for having conquered much of South America and plundering its gold and silver mines. But the Spanish also mined other minerals, such as cinnabar, which they valued for its mercury content. Colin Cooke, a PhD student in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science at the University of Alberta, was studying the mercury content in lake sediment high in the Peruvian Andes, looking for evidence of atmospheric mercury pollution from old Spanish mining operations. Cooke found what he was looking for but, to his surprise, he also found evidence that people were mining cinnabar as far back as 1400 B.C.

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How the Bees' Knees Get a Grip


Bee_on_Flower.JPG A honeybee gathering nectar on a flower -- TTaylor, Wikimedia Commons

Flowers go out of their way to attract pollinators. Many of them have spent their entire evolutionary history making themselves more appealing to insects like honeybees. Their succulent scents, captivating colours and nourishing nectar are all lures developed to encourage a pollen-laden bee to visit. Of course, once a bee does land, it has to stick around for a while in order to serve the flower's purpose. Dr. Beverley Glover, a plant scientist at the University of Cambridge, has recently discovered a subtle ploy flowers have developed to help bees stick around.

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This is Your Brain on Fat


Marinated_olives.jpg The fat found in olives may help lay down strong long-term memories -- Juhanson, Wikimedia Commons

Ever wonder why you can remember every detail of that delicious fat-laden meal you had three months ago, but can't remember the last salad you had? Well, the answer may be linked to the fact that certain kinds of fat seem to help lay down strong, emotion-laden memories. Dr. Daniele Piomelli, a pharmacologist at the University of California, Irvine, has been studying how certain kinds of fat affect our memory. Dr. Piomelli explains that when we eat certain fats, like the kind found in olive oil, our bodies convert it to a molecule called OEA, which helps rats form strong long-term memories, when they are injected with the substance. Dr. Piomelli thinks animals -- including humans -- may have evolved to take advantage of the memory-boosting compounds of fatty foods because it would have helped them locate future food stores in an environment where a good meal was hard to come by.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein.
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