Planck Takes the Universe's Baby Picture * Driving Cliff Swallow Evolution * Head Impacts and Brain Decay * The Dracula Ant Drinks its Young * Science and Adventure on the Serengeti


The Planck space telescope team announced this week that they'd completed the best ever "baby picture" of the early universe.  This picture is of the Cosmic Microwave Background, the universe's first light, and this week you'll hear how it might help us understand the deep mysteries of the universe's earliest moments.  Plus we'll find out how we've been driving the evolution of cliff swallows; we'll hear how sports related head injuries might cause the body to attack its own brain; we'll hear how Dracula ants suck the blood of their own offspring; And we'll visit with a Canadian scientist about his life and work on the spectacular Serengeti plain of Africa.


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Planck Takes the Universe's Baby Picture

Planck CMB map - courtesy ESA
This week scientists working with the Planck Satellite released a new map of the Cosmic Microwave Background - the universe's first light.  The Microwave Background was produced 380,000 years after the Big Bang, and is the oldest light in the universe.  In its patterns it preserves the earliest visible structure of the universe - minute variations that ultimately evolved into stars and galaxies.  But the CMB also can provide insights into even earlier times in the life of the universe, and hints about the deep mysteries of the universe's birth.  Dr. Dick Bond is University professor at the University of Toronto, Professor at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, and a director of the cosmology and gravity program at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.  He's been working with the Planck project since its inception.
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Driving Cliff Swallow Evolution

Video - Cliff Swallows nesting on a bridge

Cliff Swallows in Nebraska have taken to building their mud nests on concrete bridges and road culverts - cliffs being in short supply in this part of the great plains.  But this has brought them in closer contact with cars, leading to collisions and dead swallows.  Dr. Mary Bomberger Brown, a research assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska, has been studying these birds for thirty years, and noticed a recent reduction in road-killed swallows.  Examination of their wings over this period suggests the road kill has been selecting for shorter winged, more maneuverable birds. 

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Head Impacts and Brain Decay

Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press
Over the past decade or so we've become more sensitive to issues around brain injury in sports.  Among the biggest concerns is the spectre of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, an alarming decay in the brain found in retired athletes with a history of head injuries.  Researchers have been searching for an understanding of how head injuries in relative youth could lead to CTE later in life.  Dr. Jeffrey  Bazarian, an associate professor of Emergency Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery  the University of Rochester Medical Center, and his colleagues think they may have found a connection.  They've found hints that these injuries may trigger an autoimmune reaction in which the body attacks the brain.

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The Dracula Ant Drinks its Young

Dracula ants paralyze a centipede.  Courtesy Alex Wild
British Columbia has a number of rare species of ant.  None are more unusual than Dracula ant.  It is found mostly in the tropics and in various places in western North America, but in Canada so far only on British Columbia's Cortes Island.  Dr. Robert Higgins, an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Thomson Rivers University in Williams Lake, B.C. has studied this ant and its unique lifestyle.  The dracula ant feeds exclusively on a specific type of centipede.  It paralizes the centipede with its stinger in order to feed it to its larvae.  Once the larvae have devoured the centipede, the adult dracula ants engage in what is referred to as non lethal cannibalism.  Living up to their name, they squeeze the larvae and feed on the blood like juices - hemolymph - inside.  The larvae are scarred as a result but otherwise unharmed in this very unusual behaviour.

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Science and Adventure on the Serengeti

The Serengeti, located in the northern part of Tanzania and south-western Kenya, is one of the world's most important ecosystems, and also home to the world's largest mammalian migration, that of the wildebeest.  Dr. Anthony Sinclair, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia began studying there in the 1960's while still a student at Oxford.  It became both his life's passion and work.  He has chronicled both in his new book Serengeti Story - Life and Science in the World's Greatest Wildlife Region.  In more than 40 years of study, he has come to understand the interactions between animals, vegetation and climate that make this region unique.  Along the way there were many adventures including encounters with both dangerous animals and dangerous bandits.  His experience comes with the warming that the Serengeti is also fragile.  It is threatened by increasing human activity and must be protected.

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