Quirks & Quarks

Jun 18: Black Death origins, chicken domestication, the life of a mastodon and more…

Elephant seal whiskers and ‘The Secret Perfume of Birds’

Elephant seal whiskers and ‘The Secret Perfume of Birds’

A chicken with fluffy orange feathers like a crown on its head.
Beautiful chickens like this were worshipped long before they found their way to the supper table. (Greger Larson)

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

The Black Death was history's most lethal plague. Now we know where it started

A team of historians, archeologists and geneticists, including Philip Slavin from Stirling University in Scotland, has identified what they believe to be ground zero in the medieval bubonic plague pandemic known as the Black Death. They've found a graveyard in Kyrgyzstan where gravestones identify victims of a "pestilence," dating to just before the plague exploded around the world in the late 1340s. DNA recovered from the victims also has the fingerprint of the tell-tale plague bacteria. Their research was published in Nature.

When we first kept chickens it was likely because they were pretty, not tasty

Research by Greger Larson from the School of Archeology at The University of Oxford, and his colleagues, has established a new timeline for the domestication of chickens. They've found the association between chickens and humans goes back about 3500 years to Southeast Asia and the rise of rice farming. There the wild ancestor of the modern chicken, emerged from its jungle habitat to eat the grain which initiated a coexistence with humans. Interestingly, it took centuries before the chicken was commonly used for food. The research was published in the journals Antiquity and PNAS.

A mastadon fossil, with its massive tusks on full display.
A mounted skeleton of the Buesching mastodon, based on casts of individual bones produced in fiberglass, on public display at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History in Ann Arbor. (E. Bronson, Michigan Photography)

Fossil tusks tell the life story of a mastodon that died by violence

Scientists have used chemical analysis of the growth layers in the tusk of a 13,000 year-old mastodon fossil to reconstruct its life and migrations. Joshua Miller, an assistant professor of geology at the University of Cincinnati, matched chemical isotopes found in the tusk to particular geographic locations at particular times in the mastodon's life to map out where it travelled. It thrived in childhood, had a rough adolescence and annually migrated to mating sites as an adult, where it ultimately met its end in a fight as another mastodon's tusk punctured its skull. The study was published in the journal PNAS

Elephant seals feel their way to prey using whiskers in the deep, dark ocean

Elephant seals hunt at depths of 400 to 800 metres, where surface light can't penetrate and it's impossible to see prey. Researchers put infrared cameras on the seals' cheeks, and observed how the animals use their ultra sensitive whiskers to detect disturbances in the water that can lead them to delicious fish. The team, led by Taiki Adachi at the University of California Santa Cruz, found that the seals used their whiskers similar to radar, cycling back and forth through the water, scanning for disturbances that indicated movement. Once they detected movement, the whiskers aimed forward, as the animal lunged towards its prey. The research was published in the journal PNAS.

A seal's whiskers, lit in red light, as they undulate through the water.
Researchers attached cameras with red lights to the cheeks of elephant seals to see how their whiskers detect motion of prey fish in deep waters. The slow swishing motion of the whiskers characterized their hunt for prey. (©Adachi et al. 2022)

How do birds smell? A new book says very well, and sometimes very good

Until recently many biologists thought that birds had little or no sense of smell. But researchers like Danielle Whittaker have changed that misconception, with work that's given deep insight into the rich olfactory avian world. Whittaker speaks with Bob McDonald about her work and her new book, The Secret Perfume of Birds: Uncovering the Science of Avian Scent. In it, she describes how she and other researchers followed their noses to investigate the role scent plays in the lives of birds, from predator detection to mate choice.

Cover illustration of the book, "The Secret Perfume of Birds," with the title and two colourful birds.
In the book, "The Secret Perfume of Birds," researcher Danielle Whittaker explores the research that overturned a popular, albeit misguided, belief that birds do not have a sense of smell. (Johns Hopkins University Press)


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