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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.

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