* Dino's First Steps * Iron in the Ocean * Are Monarch Butterflies on Drugs? * Neptune Not Guilty * Choke: Brain Fail *


So, it's the big day: you've got a crucial exam or test; or perhaps you've got that important job interview; or maybe it's the championship game or the final match in a tournament. You've done all the prep, you know your stuff, you're at the top of your game. But at the critical moment - you choke. And according to our feature guest today, your brain has just experienced what she calls, paralysis by analysis. She's written a book called Choke, and we'll be speaking with her later in the program.

Plus - we'll meet a Canadian scientist who has tested the idea of fertilizing the oceans with iron, to lessen the impact of climate change - and she used a volcano to do it. We'll also learn how monarch butterfly moms use herbal meds to cure their kids; and we'll find out why Neptune is not the badly behaved planet we once thought it was.

But first - dino's first footsteps ...

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Dino's First Steps
Artist's rendition of Protodactylus
courtesy Grzegorz Niedźwiedzki

Stephen Brusatte, a PhD student at Columbia University and a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and his colleagues, have discovered footprints representing the oldest dinosaur ever found.  The footprints are the tiny tracks of a housecat-sized creature that would have lived 250 million years ago, as much as 20 million years earlier than many had thought dinosaurs first appeared.  The tracks are found among much more numerous tracks of often much larger crocodilians and other reptiles, indicating that in those early days, dinosaurs were rare and not at all the dominant creatures they became millions of years later.

Related Links
  • Paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B
  • News from the American Museum of Natural History
  • Stephen Brusatte's web site
  • Scientific American blog
  • Discovery blog

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Iron in the Ocean

In August of 2008, the largest bloom of phytoplankton on record in the North Pacific Ocean was recorded.  Phytoplankton, the microscopic single-celled plants that live in the ocean, are fertilized by nitrogen, phosphorous and iron.  But this part of the Pacific is not abundant in iron, making the growth of phytoplankton slow.  Using a more than 1000km-wide section of ocean as a lab, the challenge for Dr. Roberta Hamme, an Assistant Professor at the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria, was to figure out why this bloom was happening.  The result came by studying a sequence of natural events that occurred together, by luck from the scientists' perspective.  Ash from the volcanic eruption of Kasatochi Volcano in the Aleutian Islands was spread by a perfectly timed storm.  The phytoplankton feasted on the iron-rich particles. But despite the size of the iron-enriched patch, it barely absorbed any CO2 - thus proving that deliberately fertilizing the oceans with iron may not be an effective strategy for mitigating the effects of climate change.

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Are Monarch Butterflies on Drugs?

Stuck monarch.jpg
A parasite-infected Monarch attacked by a wasp
courtesy Jaap de Roode
Milkweed is the favourite food plant for the larvae of the monarch butterfly. But some species of milkweed offer something special.  Research by Dr. Jaap de Roode, an evolutionary biologist at Emory University in Atlanta, has found that the female monarch has the innate ability to choose the milkweed plant that provides medicinal benefit to its larvae, if they are infected by parasites.  Few studies on this form of self-medication have been done on animals, but this research indicates that it may be more widespread than previously thought.  It is also hoped that more research into exactly how this works and what other plants provide medicinal benefit, will eventually translate to human health care.

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Neptune Not Guilty
Artist's rendition of Neptune & KBOs
Alex Parker/University of Victoria

Models of how our Solar System formed have struggled to explain the Kuiper Belt, the distant belt of dwarf planets and smaller objects that orbits the Sun far beyond the planets.  These objects are thought to have formed closer to the Sun, but when the giant planets were scuffling around and looking for space, early in the history of the Solar System, Neptune is thought to have catapulted the Kuiper Belt Objects farther out, to where they are found today.  Now, however, Alex Parker, a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Victoria, has found several Kuiper Belt Objects that are in a delicate binary dance with each other.  They orbit each other but are only held together by the most tenuous gravitational bonds.  Had Neptune been chucking them around, this delicate relationship never would have survived. So astronomers need a new explanation for the presence of these distant dwarves..

Related Links
  • Paper in Astrophysical Journal Letters
  • News from the University of Victoria
  • Alex Parker's web site
  • Nature news story

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Choke:  Brain Fail
We've all seen it.  Many of us have experienced it: The golfer melting down catastrophically on the last hole when par would bring a championship.  The musician suddenly freezing on the biggest stage they've ever performed on.  The young graduate gasping hopelessly in the big job interview.  The phenomenon of the "choke," when despite training, practice, and expertise, we short-circuit under the most important circumstances, is notorious.  Dr. Sian Beilock, a professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago,  has studied the phenomenon, and in her new book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting it Right When You Have To, she explores who chokes, why they choke, and what psychology and neuroscience have learned about what is happening in the brain when we choke.  She also reveals some coping strategies that might just allow us to turn the choke into nothing more than a little cough.

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