On Squirrels and Birth Control

October 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Squirrels can breed two to three times a year. Average litter: three pups. Average lifespan: six years. Do the math and that’s a lot of baby squirrels. Photo by likeaduck/Flickr.

There are so many hazards that come with life in a city. Fender benders, high cost of living, pigeon droppings, and acorn bombardments from the squirrels overhead.

For those of us here in the Northeast (and parts of NY and some of the Midwest), that last is probably going to get worse thanks to our mild winter and early spring, according to an AP news report that popped around the dailies last week.

But, just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is also more than one way to deal with an explosion of squirrels. Each comes with their own quirks, however. Poisoning, for instance, is the most straightforward solution but it’s also very frowned up by the public—we’re very fond of our fluffy-tailed tree rats (that’s a term of endearment. I like them too. Except the one that broke my window once). Another option is translocation: picking’em up and putting them down somewhere less problematic. But that not only doesn’t solve the overall problem, but some states like South Carolina prohibit it.

Option number three? Put’em on birth control. Yep. That’s not only a thing, but there’s some very serious research going into it right now, especially at squirrel-ridden Clemson University, where the little mammals have already taken out over 100-some mature trees.

I get into the actually science on this over on National Geographic’s daily news, so head on over and check it out!

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Survival Unlikely When Emotions are Factored into Zombie Apocalypse

October 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

If there’s one thing that’s probably not going to happen this Halloween, it’s a zombie outbreak.

But if I’m wrong (and you never know), our feeble human emotions will also certainly render us all totally screwed—at least according to a new study out in ArXiv.org this week.

Okay, background: as we all know, the fictitious disease that is zombieness is a highly complex one. It has a very short incubation period, results in widespread chaos, and is transmitted by a population so wholly unconcerned with our well-being that not only will they not wash their hands after blowing their noses, but they’ll actively try to bite healthy people—which results, by the way, in guaranteed infection. According to most movies I have seen, there is also no cure and no spontaneous recovery.

Zombies are also very fashionable lately, both in popular entertainment and in science. Several papers have already mapped out the theoretical spread of a zombie outbreak. The CDC once cheerfully attempted to use it as a preparedness example—and later, when several incidents of face-eating broke out, issued a warning that no, really, zombie attacks were definitely not happening.

But there was something about all this, particularly about the models, that gave the authors of this new study pause: the simulations didn’t account for human emotions. Where was the panic? The herd-like stampede into what inevitably proves to be an untimely death? How can we possibly take such cold-hearted zombie simulations seriously? « Read the rest of this entry »

Could Dogs Ever Learn to Game the Adoption System?

October 16, 2012 § 1 Comment

Photo by Liana Aghajanian/Flickr

If you’re a russet lapdog puppy, life in an animal shelter will probably end reasonably well for you. This is not to say it would be fun, but the odds of a happy adoption ending would be heavily in your favor.

Grand for the lapdog puppies, but what about the rest of the animals? Every year, anywhere from five to seven million pets go into animal shelters across the US and three to four million of them are put down. Yeah, that’s down from the 12-20 million euthanized in the 70’s, but it’s a whole lot more than I can think about without wanting to cry.

Despite the numbers though, not a lot of hard research has actually gone into exactly what makes someone adopt an animal. It’s general belief in the shelter community that sociability trumps all, but evidence is touch and go, based largely on basic surveys on which animals get adopted (lapdogs, neutered dogs, and younger animals of both species) and which don’t. A few studies tried to go a little further: a couple years ago, for instance, a pair of Indiana veterinarians found that undergoing obedience training seemed to increase a dog’s adoption chances, although the study was neither blinded nor tightly controlled.

But what if there were something a dog could do that would give him a leg up? Help him out even if he is larger or older than his oh-so-adoptable puppy peers? That was the question asked by a recent study that caught my eye in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. The researchers here used the previous studies as a launching pad from which to say, ok, given that behavior and training seem to be involved, is there something specific within that that would make him more adoptable? « Read the rest of this entry »

How the Flower Learned to Trick the Insect … in Bed

October 10, 2012 § Leave a comment


Flowers might look all pretty and innocent to you and I, but deep down, they’re exploitative little bastards and masters of deceit.

Consider this: at the very least, most flowers will use their nectars and colors to bribe birds and insects into handling their pollinating needs, and more than a few don’t stop there. Serapias orchids and certain irises, for instance, often use their petals to offer deep tunnels and dark colors for their foot soldier bees to rest in overnight or during bad weather—shelter mimicking, it’s called. Craftier yet, Ophrys orchids famously imitate insect shapes (usually bees) and scents to lure lonely male bees onto their petals for a round of faux-sex for the bee and real pollination for the flower.

Now traditionally, three basic premises have shaped researchers’ concept of floral deception. First, only orchids engage in sexual deception. Second, sexual deception and shelter mimicking strategies are mutually exclusive among genera: an iris or a Serapias orchid might offer a bee a place to nap, but would never try to tempt it with its wiles, and vice versa in Ophrys orchids. Third, once a flower species has specialized itself to the point of sexual deceit — a strategy so refined it targets only one gender of a single species of a given pollinator — there’s no real going back. Evolution’s not a two-way street.

But according to a new paper in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, there’s a catch. Ready? The catch is: all three of those premises are wrong. « Read the rest of this entry »

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