Smiling at Horses

Scientists are finally beginning to catch up with cowboys.

Anyone with good sense who has been around horses knows that equines are careful, and expressive, observers of people.

Now, thanks to researchers at the University of Sussex in England, this is a carefully documented fact.

In 2015, Jen Ward and her colleagues enumerated the expressiveness of a horses face—noting that horses control their facial expressions by combining 17 distinct muscle groups—more than dogs (16) or chimpanzees (12) but fewer than humans (27).

Horses, of course, respond to our voices and tonality, to body language, and to gestures. But Amy Victoria Smith, of the University of Sussex’s Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group wanted to know whether horses recognize and respond to human facial expressions, independent of other emotive clue. If you smile at your horse, does he relax? If you frown, does he worry? Previous research demonstrated that dogs respond to human facial expressions. What about equines?

Smith and her colleagues selected 28 horses for their research—21 geldings and seven mares, ages 4-23 years—all from local riding stables. To eliminate factors such as human body language, odors, and sounds, they only showed horses life-sized pictures of either a smiling, happy human, or a very angry, unhappy one.

sn-horses_0.jpgThe horses responded to these two different images in two very different ways.

When viewing the angry face, most horses turned their head to the left, looking at the image with their left eye. Their heart rates rose. The happy face elicited either a first look, turning their heads to the right, and viewing the image with the right eye,

Their heart rates remained stable

Like dogs, horses seem to process negative stimuli and observations with the right side of their brains—which is wired to the left-side of the body—and more positive stimuli with the left side of their brains—which is wired to the body’s right side. Hence, when scrutinizing a frown or a menacing, angry face, they turn their head to the left so that the left eye gets a detailed, monocular view of the situation, and the right side of the brain can process the threat.

What are the practical implications of this research? They might include that it really does pay to simply smile at your horse. Perhaps more importantly, if he turns his head to look at something with his left eye, it’s likely a cause of anxiety. You might want to take a deeper seat. And smile.

To read the entire research papers:

Horse facial expressions: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/ournal.pone.0131738

Horses recognizing human expressions:

http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/12/2/20150907

Return of the Bumblebee?

Bombus occidenatlis is back! And it’s living on Zumwalt Prairie.

Since the mid-1990s, the western bumblebee (Bombus occidentalis) declined from being one of the most common to one of the rarest bumblebee species in the Pacific Northwest. This large, plain-looking black and yellow pollinator has become so rare that it was recently petitioned for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listing as threatened or endangered—the first insect species ever petitioned for listing.

But recent surveys of bees by Paul Rhoades of the University of Idaho and, Sujaya Rao of Oregon State University found small but growing populations of this vanishing bee in widely separated locations—Zumwalt Prairie, the Washington Palouse and the Olympic Mountains.

western bumblebee.jpgThere are 40 species of bumblebee in the western U.S. These animals have large, furry bodies that allow them to fly and work in colder temperatures when other bees are inactive. They are the premier pollinators in alpine and arctic environments. Like honeybees, bumblebees are social insects that live in colonies headed by one queen who is the mother off all the bees in the colony. Colonies usually inhabit abandoned rodent burrows, and prefer open meadows and grassland landscapes.

Native bees and native pollinators are in decline across the globe. The reasons are unresolved, but likely include disease and competition with non-native and commercially introduced species—which are also in trouble. Rhoades suggests that PNW native bumblebee decline is related to competition and diseases related to introduction of non-native bees (Nosema bombi) to pollinate greenhouses in the early 1990s.

Only 2.4 percent of bumblebees collected on the Washington Palouse were the western bumblebee (Bombus occidenatlis) Still, the news that populations may be on the increase, however slight, is heartening. The western bumblebee is especially important because it is a general pollinator, serving wildflowers, fruit trees, and crops that include tomatoes and eggplants.

On Zumwalt, Rhoades and his colleagues documented the presence of the bee. It is a fragile population, constituting only 2% of the 200 bumblebees counted over the two years (2012 and 2014) of the study. In 2011, Sujaya Rao and colleagues from Oregon State University, collected 49 western bumblebees on Zumwalt—the highest number of this species found in one area since its population collapse in the 1990’s.

So this important wildflower pollinator, once-common and now rare, seems to persist on Zumwalt. Researchers note that undisturbed habitat is important to this bee. With its abundance of open space and native grasslands, Zumwalt should provide an inviting habitat for recovery for a native son.

To read the original papers:

Rao: https://www.conservationgateway.org/ConservationByGeography/NorthAmerica/UnitedStates/oregon/Documents/2011-Rao_et_al-NWSci.pdf

 

Rhoades: http://jinsectscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/16/1/20

 

Guide to Bumblebees: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/documents/BumbleBeeGuideWestern2012.pdf

 

The secret of a long life

There may be a cure for cancer lurking in the genes of an ancient fish.  At least, that’s the hope of University of Kentucky genetic biologist Jeremiah Smith.  With a $1.5 million-dollar, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, Smith is working to understand how the lamprey—a fish that is virtually unchanged in the last 450million years—can discard troublesome parts of its genome, and thus, seemingly escape cancers and other genetically-related disease.

Jeremiah Smith became a biologist because he fell in love with fossils.  On his parent’s South Dakota ranch, there were dinosaurs in the hills, fish in the prairie, and more life in the ancient rocks than anywhere else. While he liked everything biological, Smith, now a professor of biology at the University of Kentucky, understood that life has a long history, and that some species of fish, amphibians, and reptiles have remained unchanged for very long time.  That history, Smith noted, was expressed in each organism’s genetic code. And the longer in time that a species has persisted, the more its genome could tell us about its tricks for survival.

Pacific lamprey are among many species of lamprey that discard a portion of their genes as a way of avoiding disease.

Pacific lamprey are among many species of lamprey that discard a portion of their genes as a way of avoiding disease.

Two fish are the undisputed champions of species longevity: the coelacanth and the lamprey. Coelacanths– a lobe-finned fish ancestral to land animals–were thought to be extinct for at least 70 million years.  But in 1938, they were discovered in the ocean depths off East Africa.  Lamprey, an eel-like parasitic fish that lacks jaws, is even older. Lampreys have persisted for at least 450 million years virtually unchanged from their fossilized ancestors.

Smith began his career studying the coelacanth’s ancient genome. Coelacanths– a lobe-finned fish ancestral to land animals–were thought to be extinct for at least 70 million years.  But in 1938, they were discovered in the ocean depths off East Africa.  In 2013, Smith was part of the team that unraveled its genetic code. Surprisingly, results demonstrated that genes involved in immunity and nitrogen excretion were important in adapting to life on land, as well as the more anticipated development of  tail, ear, eye, brain and smell.

Jeremiah Smith and two graduate students are exploring the lamprey genome for clues to curing many human genetic diseases.

Jeremiah Smith and two graduate students are exploring the lamprey genome for clues to curing many human genetic diseases.

Then Smith turned his attention to an even more ancient fish—the lamprey. Smith is working to understand how the lamprey—a fish that is almost unchanged in the last 450 million years—can discard troublesome parts of its genome, and thus, seemingly escape cancers and other genetically-related disease. Decoded, this may contribute to prevention or cures for human cancers immune-system disorders, and other maladies..

Every cell in the human body contains the same DNA.  Lampreys harbor two different sets of DNA.  As embryos, they archive a complete set of genes in their reproductive cells, but then discard about 20% of the DNA from the cells that will become their body and tissues. These are genes that, if damaged or inaccurately reproduced as a cell grows or divides leave lamprey vulnerable to run-away cell division, or to inaccuracies in the cell’s genetic materials–resulting in probable cancer, aging, and other gene-related maladies. While these genes are essential to keep in the reproducive cells, having them in the rest of the body is a liability. “The fact that lamprey are getting rid of these genes suggest they know something we don’t.” Smith noted.

With a 1.5 million-dollar grant from the National Institute of Health, Smith will determine exactly what the discarded lamprey genes control, and, importantly, whether the human equivalent genes behave in the same way.  In the genes of an ancient fish, may lie secrets to curing and preventing much human disease.

And such a mechanism for preventing disease may explain why some species persist unchanged for so long. Another venerable animal, the hagfish, has been unchanged for at lease 500 million years, and may date to the original Cambrian explosion of life.  Like the lamprey, it discards a portion of its genes.  There is, says Smith, some evidence that perhaps the coelacanth does the same.  A valuable lesson, perhaps for leading an uncluttered life, right down to the very basics.

The Future according to the Class of 2017.

Lone treeXxxxwebIf you’ve ever wondered what life will be like in the year 2065, I have some ideas, fresh from the people (Whitman students) who will be guiding us there.
Based upon my observation that when riding a motorcycle, you go where you are looking, I asked the 18-20 year-olds in my Environmental Studies 120 class to write about the world in 2065. They gazed into their crystal balls. Here’s what they saw.
Although most of it is not a pretty picture, they think there’s hope.
IMG_1102Let’s begin with what we fear might be true: “The world is an environmental mess, spiraling downwards towards environmental disaster.” one paper began pessimistically. The issues of 2065 enumerated by students include sediment piling up behind dams, groundwater resources polluted by fracking, and an ocean bereft of life and replete with dead zones. “The world is full of talkers and not enough doers” observes one. Another student, who may have read too much Cormack McCarty in other classes, wrote “In the boy’s drawing, the sky was yellow, the tree was gray with no leaves, and when the teacher asked the boy why there were no birds in his drawing of the tree he responded that he had never seen one.” Then the student notes that this is NOT how she thinks 2065 will be, but how it is liable to be if we continue the way we are.
haboob approachesAMost of these college freshmen are more optimistic. “A move to more local styles of living will reduce future energy needs.” one predicted.. “Because we are focused on preserving many natural landscapes, I would like to think there will still be beautiful landscapes in 2065” said another. Other ideas include cars that derive energy from solar panels embedded in road surfaces, solar-powered trains that provide most of our cross-country transportation, and a world in which we “first-world” humans have learned to live simple lives that require few resources or energy (The Great Simplification.) Another student passed a law that forbade hydrocarbon production of use. One paper suggested, tongue –in-cheek, that with rising sea levels, Manhattan had become “the Venice of the Americas” with Miami following suit, (and filing suit over New York’s trademarked slogan.)
13 mt baker sunset 1BXWho knows whether any of this will happen. (I especially enjoy imagining Manhattan–as-Venice.) We do face daunting problems of climate change, resource depletion, and population growth. Taken at face value, the future looks gloomy. But the freshmen– people who will be elders in 2065–have different ideas. They envision solving global problems.
I know from experience that you go where you look. Or, put another way, by a voice from a different wisdom philosophy that I don’t often quote: “Believe it is possible to solve your problem. Tremendous things happen to the believer. Believe the answer will come. It will.” (Norman Vincent Peale.)

Seven Generations: The long reach of climate change.

IMG_1102Every month, the highly regarded journal Nature: Climate Change refines our understanding of global warming. This month’s revelation is more jaw-dropping than most. Its ominous title: Continued global warming after CO2 emissions stop.
We have naively assumed that if we just Stopped Adding Greenhouse Gases to the Atmosphere, global warming would slow, and then stop. This is a reasonable assumption. Within a year of banning ozone-destroying CFCs, the Hole in the Ozone stopped growing and started shrinking. Voile!
But that is NOT what is going to happen. Instead, the globe will cool – perhaps for a century. Then, after lulling us into complacency, the Earth will begin to warm again, as heat stored in the oceans radiates into the atmosphere. And this second warming episode may persist for hundreds of years. “….surface temperature may actually increase on multi-century timescales after an initial century-long decrease.” In other words: If we stop lacing the air with CO2, it will cool for about a century. But then all the extra heat stored in the oceans will radiate into the atmosphere, heating the Earth even more than before. So it is not just our children who face more desperate lives, but seven generations of humans after us.
This week there is a hopeful sign that maybe we are taking this climate thing more seriously. Less than a month ago, William Nordhouse’s book The Climate Casino was published. It’s the latest climate disaster book. The American economy looms large as a casualty. I’d planned to use The Climate Casino as one of several readings in my environmental studies class Spring term. But the Whitman bookstore can’t get it. It is sold out of the distributor, sold out at Amazon, Barnes and Noble online, The Bookloft in Enterprise, Book and Games in Walla Walla, and even a bookseller in London that I tried to order from. Perhaps Yale University Press only printed 100 copies or so, thinking that climate made dull reading. Evidently they were wrong.
But, while awareness of climate problems rises, we remain reluctant to act. After-all, nothing really bad will happen until long after we are gone. The US has no carbon tax, (17 other nations do, including Sweden, India, Japan, and Norway, and Costa Rica.) and no national cap and trade scheme. We remain conveniently wedded to fossil fuels. But shrugging our shoulders and getting on with life as “normal” is the ultimate cop out. The quality of life for our progeny—for all life—in the next two centuries is in our hands today. Bearing responsibility for the future should be no less a concern than that voiced eloquently by Iroquois tribal leader Oren Lyons: “In our way of life, in our government, with every decision we make, we always keep in mind the Seventh Generation to come. It’s our job to see that the people coming ahead, the generations still unborn, have a world no worse than ours and hopefully better. When we walk upon Mother Earth we always plant our feet carefully because we know the faces of our future generations are looking up at us from beneath the ground. We never forget them.

Nature Climate Change: Continued Global Warming after CO2 Stoppage. Froelicher, et al, 2013:
http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate2060.html
and
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-11/pu-eie112213.php

NY Times review of The Climate Casino: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/01/business/climate-casino-an-overview-of-global-warming.html?_r=0

Long Creek: Bringing Science Home

Long CreekA-1It is almost dawn in one of Oregon’s tiniest towns. Long Creek is 40 miles from anywhere. There is a Post Office, a school with 34 students (counting foreign boarding students, who must think they have been sent to the moon) and a watershed council office for the North Fork of the John Day River. Also a restaurant. And three churches. This is rural, conservative, Grant County, Oregon at its finest.
Last night I gave a talk about Oregon’s Oligocene calderas to pretty much the entire town. There’s not much to do on a Friday evening in Long Creek, and so when anyone comes to town to talk about anything, it’s a grand social event. The Watershed Council invited me. They provided a pot-luck dinner, and a raffle to win several Patagonia jackets, all donated to the watershed, which then donated to the Historical Society to help pay for some of the fixin’s.
Why drive a total of six hours and 300 miles to talk to 50 or so ranchers, loggers, rock-hounds, teachers, and an assortment of elderly ladies and kids about the rocks that rim their valley? Because these are people who incorporate the backcountry, the forests and grasslands, rivers and meadows, and all their wild inhabitants into the intimate fabrics of their lives. Because this generally conservative community represents the soft underbelly of resistance to science, global warming, and a host of other misperceptions based upon misinformation and fear. And because few of the residents of Long Creek have ever met, let-alone know, trust, and have shared meat-loaf, apple pie, and conversation, with a scientist.
In 2005, journalist Chris Mooney suggested that conservatives have become much less trusting of science from the 1970s to the present. This observation was tested—and confirmed — in subsequent studies, most notably by Gordon Gachet (2012). He noted: “….conservatives were far more likely to define science as knowledge that should conform to common sense and religious tradition.” He also noted that conservative audiences are under-served by scientific presentations.
So, what better place than Long creek, in Grant County, to connect landscape and community, as well as provide a portrait of how new discoveries are made, and why they matter to people in eastern Oregon?
Long Creek antelope-x1For a presentation, I chose the story of the discovery of the Crooked River caldera. Until 2005, geologists considered Smith Rock, Powell Butte, and other Central Oregon landmarks as separate volcanic peaks. But then, when a real estate developer could not find adequate water, and state geologists were called in to solve the problem, they found that the structures of a giant, Yellowstone-sized caldera, 29 million years in age, restricted ground water flow—and also connected the multiple, disparate peaks into a single 25-mile-wide supervolcano. Furthermore, there are indications that Tower Mountain, not far from Long Creek, is (or was) a very similar creature that might exert control over more local ground water.
In the 24-slide, 25 minute presentation, there was not a graph to be found. Just nice photographs and (I hope) engaging information, and plenty of good questions at the end. I left with the warm thank-you-s and firm handshakes of 50 new friends, a memory of some of the best questions I’ve been asked, and the tastiest meatloaf and apple pie in memory.
As academic scientists, we too often neglect this kind of American-roots experience. On resumes, a presentation to the American Geophysical Union glistens more brightly than a talk at the Long Creek Community Hall.
N Fork JD River-1But it shouldn’t. After all, the people who live in Long Creek are among those who have funded this research. They are more directly its beneficiaries than anyone at AGU. And they should be counted at least as equals in importance to learn about what they have paid for, and how science fits into their daily lives.
NSF has a requirement now for providing public outreach for most funded projects. Too often (but certainly, not always) this amounts to either a presentation in the school, or a graph and statistic-rich, jargon-laced, talk presented at the investigators behest, or perhaps a press release.
Science needs to refocus at least some of its outreach efforts. After all, loggers, ranchers, and urban and rural conservatives of all stripes are its bread and butter. And its meat-loaf and apple pie, too.

GACHET’S PAPER CAN BE FOUND AT:
http://www.asanet.org/images/journals/docs/pdf/asr/Apr12ASRFeature.pdf

Weather or Not

George SteinmetzSmithsonian
(Dear reader– If you are tired of news (mostly bad) about climate, this is (mostly) not about climate, so you can skip to the third paragraph……)

The tempests seem unremitting. Just as the awful news of Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation fades from the headlines, leaving millions destitute and desperate, tornadoes eviscerate Midwestern towns. In November. November??? The powerful tornado that struck Washington, Illinois is the only November EF-4 in Illinois history; there have been only 20 EF-4′s in recorded history in November for the United States (records began in 1950).
For climate –change deniers, these are unfortunate perturbations in the planet’s normal, chaotic cycle. For climate-change believers they are evidence of yet more horrendous events to come. For Kerry Emanual, a hurricane researcher at M.I.T., computer models predict that as climate warms, tropical cyclones will increase in number and intensity everywhere — except the western Pacific. Go figure.
But whether you are a climate denier, believer, or researcher, there is a new cause for concern. The Antarctic ice sheet may be doomed. Not from warming atmospheric temperatures above, but from volcanic heat below.
The Antarctic continent is infested with volcanoes. They include Mount Erebus (12,500 ft.) and Mount Siple (10, 200 ft.) which are active, and Mount Sidley (13,712 ft.). Stuck in the Earth’s freezer, the volcanoes are quiet and well-behaved. The chain, known as the Executive Range, may represent a mantle plume and possibly a rift zone that is slowly tearing East an West Antarctic apart. Its burbling, basaltic volcanoes are progressively younger from one end to the other.
AntarcticVolcanoes2Now, Doug Weins of Washington University has discovered the onset of new volcanic activity, just south of the youngest volcano, Waesche, and a half-mile beneath the surface of the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Weins expects this rising plume of hot basalt to erupt, though it’s unlikely to breach the surface of the ice.
The more imminent threat, when the 2000 F lava nears the surface, and likely erupts, is it that it will melt millions of tons of subsurface ice. And lubricate the bottom of an already warming ice sheet with millions of gallons of tepid water. The MacAveal Ice Stream is the likely recipient of this watery largess. And it is a major contributor to the Ross Ice Shelf—which has already demonstrated a suicidal talent for heaving vast chunks of itself into the Ross Sea.
The threat of rising seas that come with global warming is solemn enough. When coupled with storms it is hideous. But when geology gets into the act, it begins to seem like a planetary plot. Or maybe an urgent warning.

We still have time before this new and un-named volcano erupts beneath the Antarctic ice cap. The duration and volume are yet unknown. But it seems certain, climate change or not, that we are going to loose more ice, that sea levels will rise, and that , consequently, storms like Haiyon, or Sandy, or Katrina will be more devastating, regardless of their cause.

For the original paper: http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ngeo1992.html