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Canaries in the coal mine: a cross-species analysis of the plurality of obesity epidemics

December 3, 2013 Comments off

Canaries in the coal mine: a cross-species analysis of the plurality of obesity epidemics
Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society

A dramatic rise in obesity has occurred among humans within the last several decades. Little is known about whether similar increases in obesity have occurred in animals inhabiting human-influenced environments. We examined samples collectively consisting of over 20 000 animals from 24 populations (12 divided separately into males and females) of animals representing eight species living with or around humans in industrialized societies. In all populations, the estimated coefficient for the trend of body weight over time was positive (i.e. increasing). The probability of all trends being in the same direction by chance is 1.2 × 10−7. Surprisingly, we find that over the past several decades, average mid-life body weights have risen among primates and rodents living in research colonies, as well as among feral rodents and domestic dogs and cats. The consistency of these findings among animals living in varying environments, suggests the intriguing possibility that the aetiology of increasing body weight may involve several as-of-yet unidentified and/or poorly understood factors (e.g. viral pathogens, epigenetic factors). This finding may eventually enhance the discovery and fuller elucidation of other factors that have contributed to the recent rise in obesity rates.

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An experimental investigation into the effects of traffic noise on distributions of birds: avoiding the phantom road

November 7, 2013 Comments off

An experimental investigation into the effects of traffic noise on distributions of birds: avoiding the phantom road
Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Many authors have suggested that the negative effects of roads on animals are largely owing to traffic noise. Although suggestive, most past studies of the effects of road noise on wildlife were conducted in the presence of the other confounding effects of roads, such as visual disturbance, collisions and chemical pollution among others. We present, to our knowledge, the first study to experimentally apply traffic noise to a roadless area at a landscape scale—thus avoiding the other confounding aspects of roads present in past studies. We replicated the sound of a roadway at intervals—alternating 4 days of noise on with 4 days off—during the autumn migratory period using a 0.5 km array of speakers within an established stopover site in southern Idaho. We conducted daily bird surveys along our ‘Phantom Road’ and in a nearby control site. We document over a one-quarter decline in bird abundance and almost complete avoidance by some species between noise-on and noise-off periods along the phantom road and no such effects at control sites—suggesting that traffic noise is a major driver of effects of roads on populations of animals.

See: Negative Effects of Road Noises On Migratory Birds (Science Daily)

Bird song and anthropogenic noise: vocal constraints may explain why birds sing higher-frequency songs in cities

January 11, 2013 Comments off

Bird song and anthropogenic noise: vocal constraints may explain why birds sing higher-frequency songs in cities

Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society B

When animals live in cities, they have to adjust their behaviour and life histories to novel environments. Noise pollution puts a severe constraint on vocal communication by interfering with the detection of acoustic signals. Recent studies show that city birds sing higher-frequency songs than their conspecifics in non-urban habitats. This has been interpreted as an adaptation to counteract masking by traffic noise. However, this notion is debated, for the observed frequency shifts seem to be less efficient at mitigating noise than singing louder, and it has been suggested that city birds might use particularly high-frequency song elements because they can be produced at higher amplitudes. Here, we present the first phonetogram for a songbird, which shows that frequency and amplitude are strongly positively correlated in the common blackbird (Turdus merula), a successful urban colonizer. Moreover, city blackbirds preferentially sang higher-frequency elements that can be produced at higher intensities and, at the same time, happen to be less masked in low-frequency traffic noise.

See: Clamorous City Blackbirds: Birds Can Sing Louder at Higher Frequencies to Make Themselves Heard Over Traffic Noise (Science Daily)

Low fertility increases descendant socioeconomic position but reduces long-term fitness in a modern post-industrial society

September 14, 2012 Comments off

Low fertility increases descendant socioeconomic position but reduces long-term fitness in a modern post-industrial society

Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society

Adaptive accounts of modern low human fertility argue that small family size maximizes the inheritance of socioeconomic resources across generations and may consequently increase long-term fitness. This study explores the long-term impacts of fertility and socioeconomic position (SEP) on multiple dimensions of descendant success in a unique Swedish cohort of 14 000 individuals born during 1915–1929. We show that low fertility and high SEP predict increased descendant socioeconomic success across four generations. Furthermore, these effects are multiplicative, with the greatest benefits of low fertility observed when SEP is high. Low fertility and high SEP do not, however, predict increased descendant reproductive success. Our results are therefore consistent with the idea that modern fertility limitation represents a strategic response to the local costs of rearing socioeconomically competitive offspring, but contradict adaptive models suggesting that it maximizes long-term fitness. This indicates a conflict in modern societies between behaviours promoting socioeconomic versus biological success. This study also makes a methodological contribution, demonstrating that the number of offspring strongly predicts long-term fitness and thereby validating use of fertility data to estimate current selective pressures in modern populations. Finally, our findings highlight that differences in fertility and SEP can have important long-term effects on the persistence of social inequalities across generations.

Evidence that ship noise increases stress in right whales

February 12, 2012 Comments off
Source:  Proceedings of the Royal Society (Biology)
Baleen whales (Mysticeti) communicate using low-frequency acoustic signals. These long-wavelength sounds can be detected over hundreds of kilometres, potentially allowing contact over large distances. Low-frequency noise from large ships (20–200 Hz) overlaps acoustic signals used by baleen whales, and increased levels of underwater noise have been documented in areas with high shipping traffic. Reported responses of whales to increased noise include: habitat displacement, behavioural changes and alterations in the intensity, frequency and intervals of calls. However, it has been unclear whether exposure to noise results in physiological responses that may lead to significant consequences for individuals or populations. Here, we show that reduced ship traffic in the Bay of Fundy, Canada, following the events of 11 September 2001, resulted in a 6 dB decrease in underwater noise with a significant reduction below 150 Hz. This noise reduction was associated with decreased baseline levels of stress-related faecal hormone metabolites (glucocorticoids) in North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis). This is the first evidence that exposure to low-frequency ship noise may be associated with chronic stress in whales, and has implications for all baleen whales in heavy ship traffic areas, and for recovery of this endangered right whale population.

See: Lull in Ship Noise After Sept. 11 Attacks Eased Stress On Right Whales

Online social network size is reflected in human brain structure

October 22, 2011 Comments off

Online social network size is reflected in human brain structure (PDF)
Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society

The increasing ubiquity of web-based social networking services is a striking feature of modern human society. The degree to which individuals participate in these networks varies substantially for reasons that are unclear. Here, we show a biological basis for such variability by demonstrating that quantitative variation in the number of friends an individual declares on a web-based social networking service reliably predicted grey matter density in the right superior temporal sulcus, left middle temporal gyrus and entorhinal cortex. Such regions have been previously implicated in social perception and associative memory, respectively. We further show that variability in the size of such online friendship networks was significantly correlated with the size of more intimate real-world social groups. However, the brain regions we identified were specifically associated with online social network size, whereas the grey matter density of the amygdala was correlated both with online and real-world social network sizes. Taken together, our findings demonstrate that the size of an individual’s online social network is closely linked to focal brain structure implicated in social cognition.

See: Number of Facebook Friends Linked to Size of Brain Regions, Study Suggests (Science Daily)

Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold

September 14, 2011 Comments off

Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold
Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society

Although laughter forms an important part of human non-verbal communication, it has received rather less attention than it deserves in both the experimental and the observational literatures. Relaxed social (Duchenne) laughter is associated with feelings of wellbeing and heightened affect, a proximate explanation for which might be the release of endorphins. We tested this hypothesis in a series of six experimental studies in both the laboratory (watching videos) and naturalistic contexts (watching stage performances), using change in pain threshold as an assay for endorphin release. The results show that pain thresholds are significantly higher after laughter than in the control condition. This pain-tolerance effect is due to laughter itself and not simply due to a change in positive affect. We suggest that laughter, through an endorphin-mediated opiate effect, may play a crucial role in social bonding.

Automatic imitation in a strategic context: players of rock–paper–scissors imitate opponents’ gestures

July 21, 2011 Comments off

Automatic imitation in a strategic context: players of rock–paper–scissors imitate opponents’ gestures
Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society

A compelling body of evidence indicates that observing a task-irrelevant action makes the execution of that action more likely. However, it remains unclear whether this ‘automatic imitation’ effect is indeed automatic or whether the imitative action is voluntary. The present study tested the automaticity of automatic imitation by asking whether it occurs in a strategic context where it reduces payoffs. Participants were required to play rock–paper–scissors, with the aim of achieving as many wins as possible, while either one or both players were blindfolded. While the frequency of draws in the blind–blind condition was precisely that expected at chance, the frequency of draws in the blind–sighted condition was significantly elevated. Specifically, the execution of either a rock or scissors gesture by the blind player was predictive of an imitative response by the sighted player. That automatic imitation emerges in a context where imitation reduces payoffs accords with its ‘automatic’ description, and implies that these effects are more akin to involuntary than to voluntary actions. These data represent the first evidence of automatic imitation in a strategic context, and challenge the abstraction from physical aspects of social interaction typical in economic and game theory.

Accuracy and reliability of forensic latent fingerprint decisions

June 9, 2011 Comments off

Accuracy and reliability of forensic latent fingerprint decisions
Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The interpretation of forensic fingerprint evidence relies on the expertise of latent print examiners. The National Research Council of the National Academies and the legal and forensic sciences communities have called for research to measure the accuracy and reliability of latent print examiners’ decisions, a challenging and complex problem in need of systematic analysis. Our research is focused on the development of empirical approaches to studying this problem. Here, we report on the first large-scale study of the accuracy and reliability of latent print examiners’ decisions, in which 169 latent print examiners each compared approximately 100 pairs of latent and exemplar fingerprints from a pool of 744 pairs. The fingerprints were selected to include a range of attributes and quality encountered in forensic casework, and to be comparable to searches of an automated fingerprint identification system containing more than 58 million subjects. This study evaluated examiners on key decision points in the fingerprint examination process; procedures used operationally include additional safeguards designed to minimize errors. Five examiners made false positive errors for an overall false positive rate of 0.1%. Eighty-five percent of examiners made at least one false negative error for an overall false negative rate of 7.5%. Independent examination of the same comparisons by different participants (analogous to blind verification) was found to detect all false positive errors and the majority of false negative errors in this study. Examiners frequently differed on whether fingerprints were suitable for reaching a conclusion.

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Growth in emission transfers via international trade from 1990 to 2008

June 9, 2011 Comments off

Growth in emission transfers via international trade from 1990 to 2008
Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Despite the emergence of regional climate policies, growth in global CO2 emissions has remained strong. From 1990 to 2008 CO2 emissions in developed countries (defined as countries with emission-reduction commitments in the Kyoto Protocol, Annex B) have stabilized, but emissions in developing countries (non-Annex B) have doubled. Some studies suggest that the stabilization of emissions in developed countries was partially because of growing imports from developing countries. To quantify the growth in emission transfers via international trade, we developed a trade-linked global database for CO2 emissions covering 113 countries and 57 economic sectors from 1990 to 2008. We find that the emissions from the production of traded goods and services have increased from 4.3 Gt CO2 in 1990 (20% of global emissions) to 7.8 Gt CO2 in 2008 (26%). Most developed countries have increased their consumption-based emissions faster than their territorial emissions, and non–energy-intensive manufacturing had a key role in the emission transfers. The net emission transfers via international trade from developing to developed countries increased from 0.4 Gt CO2 in 1990 to 1.6 Gt CO2 in 2008, which exceeds the Kyoto Protocol emission reductions. Our results indicate that international trade is a significant factor in explaining the change in emissions in many countries, from both a production and consumption perspective. We suggest that countries monitor emission transfers via international trade, in addition to territorial emissions, to ensure progress toward stabilization of global greenhouse gas emissions.

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Parasite prevalence and the worldwide distribution of cognitive ability

April 7, 2011 Comments off

Parasite prevalence and the worldwide distribution of cognitive ability (PDF)
Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society

In this study, we hypothesize that the worldwide distribution of cognitive ability is determined in part by variation in the intensity of infectious diseases. From an energetics standpoint, a developing human will have difficulty building a brain and fighting off infectious diseases at the same time, as both are very metabolically costly tasks. Using three measures of average national intelligence quotient (IQ), we found that the zero-order correlation between average IQ and parasite stress ranges from r ¼ 20.76 to r ¼ 20.82 (p , 0.0001). These correlations are robust worldwide, as well as within five of six world regions. Infectious disease remains the most powerful predictor of average national IQ when temperature, distance from Africa, gross domestic product per capita and several measures of education are controlled for. These findings suggest that the Flynn effect may be caused in part by the decrease in the intensity of infectious diseases as nations develop.

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