* Orangutan Architecture * International Polar Year Revisited * Neighborhood Watch * Rise of the Jellies * Evolving Robots *


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Orangutan Architecture

What's 130 kilograms, hairy, orange, and builds nests in trees?  Orangutans, of course.  For orangutans nest-building is a skill that can take up to five years to master.  Once they learn it, they put it to use building a new nest every day in as little as five minutes.  New research by Dr. Roland Ennos from the Department of Life Sciences and the University of Manchester in England, has determined that the design and structure of their nests requires a degree of sophistication and intelligence not previously recognized in orangutans.  They understand that in order to build a flexible structure that can support their weight, they must crack branches without completely severing them so they retain strength.  Dr. Ennos thinks you could consider orangutan nests a kind of tool used for sleeping.
          
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International Polar Year Revisited

Arctic_ice.jpgArctic Ice, courtesy US Geological Survey
This week in Montreal two thousand polar scientists and another thousand policymakers and other stakeholders are meeting to discuss the results of the huge research initiatives that were part of the International Polar Year.  Spanning 2007/2008, the international polar year was a coordinated international effort to capture the condition of the Arctic and Antarctic, which are on the front lines of climate change.  Dr. Martin Fortier was one of the organizers of the conference this week.  He's the Executive Director of ArcticNet, Canada's Arctic research consortium, and he's also a member of the Canadian Polar Commission.  He joins us to discuss the IPY research and the future of Arctic.
 

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Neighborhood Watch

Great_tit.jpgGreat tit keeps an eye on the neighborhood, copyright B Livingston
The tiny songbirds known as great tits are common throughout Europe, Asia and parts of North Africa.  It had been observed previously that in this species long-term familiarity with neighbours was a benefit to breeding.  Tits were less likely to abandon a nest if they knew their neighbours from a previous breeding season.  But the reason for this was unclear until recently.  New research by Ada Grabowska-Zhang from the Department of Zoology at Oxford University has found that when the tits are familiar with their neighbours, they will join forces to defend their nests.  This includes making alarm calls, flying aggressively and mobbing a predator together.  But the birds need to know their neighbours.   When the neighbours are first time breeders and therefore unfamiliar, they are unlikely to join forces.  
  

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Rise of the Jellies

Chrysaora_jelly.jpgChrysaora jellyfish
Anecdotal stories of increased jellyfish blooms have raised concerns among scientists as this can be a sign of compromised marine ecosystems.  Jellyfish are an important part of the marine ecosystem, but can often thrive where other species are doing badly.  Lucas Brotz, a PhD student with the Sea Around Us project at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre, and his colleagues gathered all available evidence on jellyfish populations worldwide.  Their research shows that jellyfish numbers do indeed seem to be increasing, and this could be a sign of stressed marine systems.
 
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Robot Evolution

Darwin's_Devices.jpg
One of the important differences between animals and robots is that animals are the product of evolution - a couple of billion years of mutation, variation and selection.  Robots, on the other hand, are designed - a product of engineering drawings, computer programs and sophisticated manufacturing.  Dr. John Long, a professor of Biology and Cognitive Neuroscience at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, has been working to change that.  Dr. Long's work is in evolving robots.  He's not trying to create a new breed of robots that will take over the world.  He's attempting to model the early evolution of vertebrates by duplicating that process in simple robots.  His new book is Darwin's Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology.
 
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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0