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Whales and Dolphins Have “Human-Like” Cultures and Societies

Dolphins and other cetaceans have very complex social culture, and they even have regional dialects.
Dolphins and other cetaceans exhibit sophisticated social behaviors such as alloparenting, the parenting of other parents’ young. Photo via Pixabay

Whales and dolphins are increasingly threatened by fishing activities, environmental noise, and other factors. If we don’t take a stand to conserve these creatures, we could end up wiping out two other species with high intelligence and culture.

A recent study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution shows that cetaceans (whales and dolphins) live in tight-knit social groups, talk to each other, have complex relationships, and even have regional dialects.

The study links the complexity of whales’ and dolphins’ culture with the size of their brains.

Researchers from the University of Manchester in England, the University of British Columbia, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Stanford University teamed up to create a large dataset of cetacean brain size and social behaviors.

They compiled information on 90 different species of whales, porpoises, and dolphins. What they found was a massive pile of evidence that cetaceans have social and cooperative behavior traits similar to those found in human societies. The study also showed that these characteristics are linked with encephalization—brain size and brain expansion.

Some of the behavioral similarities they found between cetaceans and humans and other primates include:

  • They form complex alliance relationships. That is, they work together for mutual benefit.
  • They teach one another how to hunt and use tools, also known as social transfer of hunting techniques.
  • They hunt cooperatively.
  • They “talk” to one another using a series of complex vocalizations, and even have regional group dialects to their language.
  • They use “name” recognition. That is, they have “signature whistles” unique to individual members of the pod.
  • They work cooperatively with humans and other species.
  • They look after young members of their pods that aren’t their own—a phenomenon known in science as alloparenting.
  • And, of course, they’re well known to enjoy social play.

Manchester University evolutionary biologist Dr. Susanne Shultz said, “We know whales and dolphins…have exceptionally large and anatomically sophisticated brains, and therefore have created a marine-based culture [similar to that of human society]. That means the apparent co-evolution of brains, social structure, and behavioral richness of marine mammals provides a unique and striking parallel to the large brains and hyper-sociality of humans and other primates on land.”

However, Dr. Shultz added, “they won’t ever mimic our great metropolises and technologies because they didn’t evolve opposable thumbs.”

Dr. Kieran Fox, a neuroscientist at Stanford, said, “Cetaceans have many complex social behaviors that are similar to humans and other primates. They, however, have different brain structures from us, leading some researchers to argue that whales and dolphins could not achieve higher cognitive and social skills. I think our research shows that this is clearly not the case. Instead, a new question emerges: how can very diverse patterns of brain structure in very different species nonetheless give rise to highly similar cognitive and social behaviors?”

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Environmental Hazards, Science

Road Pricing Could Be the Most Effective Solution to Car Pollution

A researcher from the University of British Columbia has concluded that road pricing is the most effective traffic management strategy for reducing urban pollution.
Photo via Pixabay

Motor vehicles are a huge source of pollution in cities. For many years, governments have used traffic management strategies to try and reduce vehicle emissions—but few seem to have made as much of a difference as road pricing.

Road pricing is essentially a “pay per use” plan that levies charges such as road tolls, congestion charges, and charges designed to discourage the use of certain types of vehicles or fuel sources in order to reduce pollution and congestion within city limits.

University of British Columbia transportation expert and civil engineering professor Alexander Bigazzi reviewed 65 studies on traffic management strategies in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. He concluded that road pricing is the most effective strategy to reduce emissions and traffic.

Other traffic management strategies include speed enforcement programs, lane management (e.g., HOV lanes), road and congestion pricing, and trip reduction strategies such as telecommuting or ride sharing.

“The strategies with the best evidence of air quality improvements are area road/congestion pricing and low-emission zones,” Bigazzi said. “Other strategies have potential benefits, but there is less empirical evidence, either because the benefits are very small or because the benefits are offset by some other effect.”

Why are road pricing and low-emission zones so effective? A major reason is that they reduce the amount of driving. They also ease congestion and reduce emission rates. Low-emission zones also encourage people to buy cleaner vehicles.

Of course, road pricing has to be implemented on a pretty large scale in order to be effective. Cities can’t just implement road pricing on certain roads, because motorists would find other ways to get into the city where they are not faced with road pricing or low-emission zones.

“Hundreds of cities in Europe have congestion pricing or low-emission zones in their city centers and are enjoying improved traffic flow and air quality,” Bigazzi said. “These strategies haven’t been embraced in North America in the same way for a variety of reasons, but there are great potential benefits for cities here ready to embrace innovation.”

What do you think? Would you like to see cities use traffic management strategies like road pricing in order to reduce pollution, even if it meant less convenience for you? Do you think road pricing would work in your city? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Conservation, Nature

Parrot Population Threatened By Human Activity

Almost 40 percent of the wild parrot population in the Neotropics is being endangered by hunting and habitat encroachment.
A pair of scarlet macaws in flight. Photo: Shutterstock

A new paper published in the journal Biological Conservation shows that more than 38 percent of the Neotropical parrot population of the American continent (Neotropic) is endangered by human activity.

The main dangers: hunting for the local and international trade, and loss of natural habitat.

Despite the fact that the Wild Bird Conservation Act (1992) and the permanent ban on wild bird trade set by the European Union in 2007, capture for the pet trade has been one of the main threats to wild parrots in the Neotropic region. In Africa, the trade of the gray parrot played the main part in its local extinction in Ghana and other areas of Africa. In Brazil, some of the most threatened species are the Spix’s Macaw and the Red-tailed Amazon. The sun parakeet and brown-backed parrotlet are also vulnerable because of their already-small population sizes.

Although the laws are designed to protect these and other birds, the legal and illegal trade of birds is still a problem in South America, Southeastern Asia, and the Middle East. Mexico and Nicaragua have reinforced their laws to protect wild parrots, but other South and Central American countries still have high levels of bird trade.

Regarding natural habitat, agricultural activity, large-scale logging, and other human activities are contributing to the parrots’ decline. Although the study estimates about 38 percent of the local species are threatened, the experts think the real numbers could be worse.

“It would be necessary to promote actions aimed at the effective preservation of habitats and preserved natural areas,” said researcher Juan Carlos Guix. “Moreover, it should be necessary to create social and educational programs with the people who live around the natural preserved areas, and provide security and the illegal trade audit with more resources.”

The study was conducted by an international team of 101 experts from 76 institutions and non-governmental organizations.

Nature, Science

The Dog Domestication Date Debate Has Been (Sort Of) Resolved

The dog domestication date debate may have been resolved, thanks to scientists from Cornell.
Photo: Shutterstock

You might not know this, but there are two distinct arguments about when dogs were domesticated. One group believes dogs were domesticated in the Paleolithic age (more than 17,000 years ago), and another believes dogs were domesticated much later, in the Neolithic age (17,000 to 7,000 years ago).

So, when exactly were dogs domesticated?

A team of researchers from Cornell University set out to find out which camp is right. They used 3-D scans of fossils to help determine the difference between wolves and dogs by studying ancient fossil canid mandibles (jaw bones) to determine if they were dogs or wolves.

How does mandible evolution distinguish a dog from a wolf? Wolves have fairly straight mandibles, while those of dogs are curved. These features become evident in 3-D scans.

The researchers, led by Abby Grace Drake, a senior lecturer in Cornell’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, found that in the early stages of domestication, canids’ skulls changed shape, but the evolution of the mandible lagged behind.

“A lot of the fossil evidence for the date of dog domestication is based on morpohological [structural] analysis of mandibles,” said Drake, the paper’s first author. “Our study shows that when you measure modern dog mandibles and wolf mandibles using 3-D measurements you can distinguish them, and yet when we looked at these fossil mandibles, they don’t look like dogs or wolves.”

Although the team could distinguish 99.5 percent of modern dogs’ mandibles from those of wolves, a lot of the fossil mandibles couldn’t be classified as either dog or wolf. However, other data proved that the fossils were dog remains.

Other evidence from two Russian sites showed that the canid remains were found with human dwellings, and there were marks that revealed butchery—meaning that the dogs were eaten. In addition, isotope analysis of canid and human remains at both sites indicates that canids and humans both ate fish, and that humans were feeding the canids.

Drake said that since mandibles don’t appear to evolve as rapidly as the skull, they are not reliable for identifying early dog fossils.

However, 3-D analysis of canid skulls uses landmarks across the skull—differences in the angle of the muzzle, snout, and eye orbits—provides more evidence of dogs’ domestication time.

“The earliest dogs I’ve seen in my analysis were from 7,000 to 9,000 years ago,” Drake said.

Green, Sustainability

Texas A&M Student Designs Educational Tool to Teach Kids About Agriculture

A Texas A&M student has designed a product that uses hydroponics and engineering to teach kids about agriculture.
Hydroponic greenhouse. Photo via Pixabay

Alfredo Costilla had a vision: He wanted to provide an educational tool for teachers and parents to educate kids about the world of agriculture.

The Texas A&M Ph.D. candidate developed BitGrange, a process that uses hydroponics and technology to connect elementary school students with the science of agriculture.

Hydroponics involves growing plants without soil, generally by adding nutrients to the water they grow in, according to the BitGrange team.

Costilla grew up in a family of farmers and volunteered with elementary school students, which is how he came up with the idea for BitGrange.

These kids represent a new generation of farmers and entrepreneurs, Costilla said. “We are a new generation of food consumers that can also be food producers,” he added.

Costilla’s BitGrange team is composed of students in a variety of majors, ranging from computer science and engineering, to electrical engineering. He says he thinks that the best ideas come from assembling a diverse team to work on a project.

“Most of your group projects, they’re mainly in your class,” said team member Brandon Neff, a computer engineering major. “Those people are in the same major as you. So this is like the first big project I’ve worked on with a lot more diversity and background.”

Electrical engineering major Marco Farias says he hopes BitGrange will go beyond its interaction with elementary school students. “It’s seeing beyond that and thinking that we’re also able to help future problems like lack of food and scarce resources to feed humankind,” he said.

Costilla said his long-term goal is “to see the largest farm that doesn’t own a single square inch of land.” He wants a user-generated way to produce plants, a concept he says is similar to that of Facebook or Uber.

“It could work. It could not. But definitely I believe that great achievements happen at the edge of uncertainty,” Farias said. “So this is a bet. I’m in with Alfredo and this team to make it work.”

Climate Change, Conservation, Nature

Old Nautical Charts Reveal Coral Loss

British navigation charts from the 1800s show us how much coral has disappeared.
British navigation charts from the 1800s show us how much coral has disappeared. Photo: Shutterstock

Nautical charts mapped in the 18th century are showing modern researchers just how much coral has been lost around the world.

A new U.S. and Australian study has compared early British navigation charts to modern coral habitat maps to determine what changes have taken place over the past three centuries.

The study was led by Professor Loren McClenachan of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, with assistance from the University of Queensland (UQ) in Australia and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies.

Professor John Pandolfi of UQ said that the study used information from “surprisingly accurate” 18th century nautical charts and satellite data to understand coral loss in the Florida Keys.

Professor McClenachan said that more than half of the coral reef habitat mapped in the 1770s was no longer there. In some areas, coral loss was close to 90 percent.

“We found near the shore, entire sections of reef are gone, but in contrast, most coral mapped further from land is still coral reef habitat today,” McClenachan said.

This is one of the first studies where marine scientists have measured the loss of coral reef habitats over a large geographic area. Most studies look more closely at the loss of living coral from smaller sections of reefs.

“We found that reef used to exist in areas that today are not even classified as reef habitat anymore,” Pandolfi said. “When you add to this the 75 percent loss of living coral in the Keys at that finer scale, the magnitude of change is much greater than anyone thought.”

Dr. Benjamin Neal of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine, said that the early maps were remarkably precise.

“They had the best technology and they used it to create new information that conferred a lot of power,” Neal said. “The maps were essential to expansion of the British Empire, and luckily for us, they also included a lot of useful ecological information.”

This research has important conservation implications. As the authors said, when large-scale changes like this were overlooked, scientists could miss out on information about past abundance.

“We tend to focus on known areas where we can measure change. That makes sense. Why would you look for coral where you never knew it was?” McClenachan said.

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards, Nature, Science

Was Hurricane Harvey Caused by Global Warming? Not Entirely

Was Hurricane Harvey caused by global warming? Not entirely.
Cars submerged by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Photo: michelmond / Shutterstock.com

Climate change is responsible for a lot of things, but it may not be directly responsible for Hurricane Harvey.

Harvey is not the first hurricane to hit the Texas coast.  A deadly hurricane struck Galveston in 1900, and that storm caused thousands to lose their lives, primarily due to the lack of warning. Meteorology was not an advanced science at that time, and there were no satellites to track the storms as they moved across the Atlantic Ocean.

However, climate change is almost certainly responsible for the epic rainfall and catastrophic flooding endured by the cities struck by Hurricane Harvey.

“This is they type of event, in terms of extreme rainfall, that we would expect to see more of in a warming climate,” Dr. Friederike Otto from the University of Oxford told the BBC.

In fact, the rainfall was so extreme that the National Weather Service had to add new colors to its rainfall maps to account for the intensity of Harvey’s rains.

There’s a physical law called the Clausius-Claperyon equation, which says that a hotter atmosphere holds more moisture. For every degree Celsius in warming, the atmosphere can hold 7 percent more water, which makes rainfall events more extreme.

The temperature of the seas also contributes to the strength of hurricanes.

“The waters of the Gulf of Mexico are about 1.5 degrees warmer than they were from 1980 to 2010,” Sir Brian Hoskins of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change told the BBC. “This is very significant because it means the potential for a stronger storm is there, and the contribution of global warming to the warmer waters in the Gulf, it’s almost inevitable that there was a contribution to that.”

Although there have been slow-moving storms over Texas in the past, some scientists still attribute the intensity of Harvey to climate change.

Professor Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says that a general slowdown in atmospheric circulation in the earth’s middle latitudes could be a result of changing climate in other parts of the world.

“This is a consequence of the disproportionately strong warming in the Arctic,” Rahmstorf said. “It can make weather systems move less and stay longer in a given location—which can significantly enhance the impacts of rainfall extremes.”

Other scientists think it’s a stretch to believe that the slowly moving nature of the storm is caused by climate change. “I don’t think we should speculate on these more difficult and complex links like melting in the Arctic without looking into these effects in a dedicated study,” said Dr. Otto.

In addition to the damage caused by the flooding, pollution is causing the floodwaters to become a toxic stew of sewage, garbage, chemicals from more than 20 Superfund sites in the Houston area, oil and petrochemicals from damaged refineries, and much more, are causing concern.

“There’s no need to test [the water],” Houston Health Department spokesman Porfirio Villareal told the New York Times. “It’s contaminated. There’s millions of contaminants.”