Saturday March 08, 2014

Music Doesn't Move Me * Young Ants Save the Queen * Super-Habitable Planets * Turtle Years Lost and Found * The Monkey's Voyage

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Plants and animals have distributed themselves around the world, finding the most remote corners and isolated islands. But how do plants climb mountain ranges and animals cross great oceans? This week, we'll hear how it must have happened, and about the Monkey's Voyage from Africa to South America. Plus, we'll hear how ants use their young as life preservers; we'll find out why our search for habitable planets may be looking in the wrong places; we'll learn where young leatherback turtles go during their "lost years"; and we'll find out why some people have a great excuse for failing music appreciation.

Music Doesn't Move Me


Music has been thought to be a human universal, appreciated by all individuals in all cultures. Dr. Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist at the Montreal Neurological Institute of McGill University, was interested in testing that fact. There was anecdotal evidence of people who didn't enjoy or appreciate music, and it had been thought that this might reflect some deeper problem, like depression, or an inability to appreciate positive experiences more generally. However, in a study Dr. Zatorre completed with Spanish colleagues, he found that there is, indeed, a small percentage of people who do not respond to music, despite having the ability to perceive it accurately. Further, they respond quite normally to other rewarding experiences, so their lack of appreciation of music apparently is not related to any other deficit.

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Young Ants Save the Queen

Ants forming a raft

Ants forming a raft. (Jessica Purcell)

It had been previously established that some ants make living rafts out of their own bodies, in order to escape from flooded habitats. The rafts - ranging in size from hundreds to many thousands of individuals - can stay afloat for long periods of time and travel considerable distances. But a new study by Dr. Jessica Purcell , a Post-Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, has found that there is a specific order to how the rafts are constructed. The workers create the raft by linking legs and mandibles, the queen is placed at the centre where she is protected, while the brood - larvae and pupae - are submerged, as they provide the greatest degree of buoyancy. Despite being under the water, both brood and workers exhibit high survival rates, which suggests this escape mechanism is not as costly as expected.

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Super-Habitable Planets

Artist's impression of a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B

Artist's impression of a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B. (ESO)

The quest to find life elsewhere in the universe has been focused, so far, on looking for Earth-like planets. But recent observations by NASA's Kepler Telescope have identified at least one-thousand so-called 'super-habitable worlds' - planets or moons that, in theory, are candidates for having a more benign environment for life than our own Earth. Dr. Rene Heller, a Post- Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at McMaster University in Hamilton, hypothesizes that these worlds have all the essential ingredients that may make them even more suited to life than our own planet. This includes size, geological activity, and an ideal location within the habitable zone of the star around which they orbit. This theory proposes that the search for extraterrestrial life should shift in focus to include super-habitable worlds.

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Turtle Years Lost and Found

Turtle fitted with satellite transmitter

Turtle fitted with satellite transmitter. (J Abernathy/NMFS Permit 1551)

​  Scientists who study sea turtles refer to the period of time that begins after the hatchlings make a mad dash from their sandy nests to the safety of the water, as the "lost years". It begins when they are only hours old, and ends years later. Now, having perfected the ability to attach solar-powered satellite tags to the turtle's shells, scientists have been able to unravel the mystery of where they go and what they do. A new study by Dr. Kate Mansfield , an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, has found that the turtles spend a lot of time in the Sargasso Sea - within the Atlantic - where they feed on the mats of floating seaweed there. They also spend more time closer to the surface than previously thought, reaping the benefit of the sun's warmth.

Related Links

  • Paper in The Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences
  • University of Central Florida news
  • Discovery News feature
  • Scientific American news

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The Monkey's Voyage

monkey's voyage

A puzzle for biologists since Darwin has been how plants and animals managed to distribute themselves to all corners of the world - across oceans and to remote islands. In his new book, The Monkey's Voyage - How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life, evolutionary biologist Dr. Alan de Queiroz, an adjunct professor a the University of Nevada, Reno, explores just how everything got everywhere. Darwin himself initially proposed that many species could only have gotten to remote islands by the unlikeliest of voyages. As we realized that land itself could move, through plate tectonics, many scientists adopted that explanation for the distribution of species around the world. But Dr. de Queiroz says that there still must have been unlikely voyages - like the monkey's accidental rafting across the Atlantic from Africa to South America.

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