Quirks & Quarks

Feb 25: Giraffe romance, CO2 record interruption, Stone Age farmer violence and more…

Recycled water purity and fears of a fungal future.

Recycled water purity and fears of a fungal future.

A male giraffe sniffs a female giraffe as she drinks at a watering hole
A male giraffe performs lip-curling Flehmen response as a female begins to urinate. A new study reveals a unique adaptation that allows male giraffes to find out when females are sexually responsive. (Lynette Hart)

On this week's episode of Quirks & Quarks with Bob McDonald:

Male giraffes drink and savour female giraffe urine to see if she's ready to mate

Female giraffes don't have obvious visual signals of when they're ready to mate. Biologists working in Namibia have been able to observe how they will, upon prodding by males, provide a stream of urine which the male samples. In a new study, Lynette Hart, a professor of anthro-zoology and animal behaviour at the University of California, Davis described how male giraffes analyze the urine using a special olfactory organ in their mouth that can detect the chemical signals of a female's sexual receptivity. 

What scientists do when a volcano upsets their climate change record

The Keeling curve is a high-quality, long-term record of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations that's been vital for understanding our changing climate. The record depends on readings from instruments on Mauna Loa, an active volcano on Hawaii's Big Island that erupted in November 2022. Lava flow from the eruption cut off access and power to the observatory where data for the Keeling curve is collected. A team of researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been working to keep up the curve by taking measurements from the neighbouring volcano on the island, Mauna Kea. Geoscientist Ralph Keeling – the son of Charles David Keeling, who created the curve – says data will be collected from both sites after the Mauna Loa observatory comes back online, to ensure the disruption is minimal. 

An observatory building in the foreground with some cloud cover seen in the background
The Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory sits high atop Hawaii's largest mountain in order to sample well-mixed background air free of local pollution. The eruption of the Mauna Loa volcano has temporarily knocked out power and access to the station. (Susan Cobb/NOAA Global Monitoring Laboratory via Associated Press)

Europe's first farmers suffered more violence than their hunter-gatherer ancestors

An archaeological study of the remains of people who lived throughout Europe between 8,000 and 4,000 years ago reveals the transition to an agricultural society was particularly violent for early farmers. In a study of the remains from 2,300 people at 180 European neolithic archaeological sites, scientists found signs of weapon injuries on the bones of more than one out of every ten individuals. Linda Fibiger, an osteoarchaeologist from the University of Edinburgh, speculates there might have been increased competition for local resources, a battle for dominance or perhaps farmers were just easy targets for raiding bandits. Their study was published in the journal PNAS. 

Four different images show examples of penetrating injuries. An arrowhead pokes through a skull in the top left picture. The image right beside it shows the hole from the underside of that skull. The bottom left picture shows one vertebra with an arrowhead sticking out. The bottom right hand picture shows a portion of an antler deeply embedded in a skull.
Examples of unhealed blunt force trauma with embedded points: leaf-shaped arrowhead in a cranium from West Tump, England, top left, an endocranial view of the same defect showing internal beveling, top right, an arrowhead embedded in a vertebra from Eulau, Germany, bottom left, and an antler embedded in a cranium from Tygelsjö, Sweden, bottom right. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

Recycled wastewater can be cleaner than conventional sources

A new study has found that the processes that clean and purify wastewater – typically from sewage treatment plants – into drinking water are so rigorous that the resulting water is as clean or cleaner than conventionally treated water from rivers, lakes and reservoirs. This should lend confidence, as water shortages in many parts of the world lead to more recycling of wastewater. The study published in Nature Sustainability was led by William Mitch, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University.

Water streaming out of a stainless steel faucet into a glass
As traditional water sources such as rivers and lakes dry up, areas that experience drought may need to rely on recycled wastewater. (Elena Elisseeva / Shutterstock)

Don't worry about zombie fungus. Do worry about other fungal pathogens. 

Fungal diseases have historically been less of a burden for humans than viral or bacterial infections, but thanks to an aging and vulnerable population and to a warming climate, some researchers are convinced they'll be a bigger issue in the future. Antonis Rokas, an evolutionary biologist from Vanderbilt University, tells us about his analysis of what it takes for fungi to evolve into human pathogens. He says we're woefully under-prepared for a potentially catastrophic fungal outbreak — not just one that might cause human disease, but also for fungi that attack agricultural crops or that wipe out entire species of animals. 

By studying natural predator-prey relationships in nature, Pierre Stallforth — from the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology in Germany — said he and his colleagues uncovered a new anti-fungal that packs a powerful and specific punch.

Read more about fungal pathogens

Surgeons in India are operating on an individual. On the screen, you see the area they are targeting to remove black fungus from the patient on the operating table.
Surgeons in India perform a surgery in 2021 to remove black fungus Mucormycosis from a patient who recovered from COVID-19. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)