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Ecology

Not Only Can Honeybees Count, They Can Also Do Math

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Honey bees are a great study system to learn about the animal kingdom. They dance (albeit sloppily), they make jelly that turns their larvae into queens, they have crazy tongues … I could go on. Now, researchers have found, honeybees can add.

In a paper out today in Science Advances, a team led by Adrian Dyer at RMIT University in Melbourne put the honey-makers’ arithmetic skills to the test. Instead of written numbers and symbols, they used colors to communicate with the bees. Blue for addition, yellow for subtraction, and a series of shapes to denote the numbers.

They put each honeybee in a Y-shaped maze, where they’d be shown one to five shapes that were either blue or yellow. If the shapes were blue, they needed to fly toward the picture containing one additional shape. If the shapes were yellow, they needed to pick the choice with one fewer shape.

But the bees could still be simply picking the correct answer based on whether it had more or less of the shapes. So, the researchers sometimes made the incorrect choice more, and sometimes less than the correct choice. This ensured the bees had to properly add and subtract to get the answer right.

They trained the bees using a reward-punishment system: sweet sugar solution was a reward for right answers, and a solution of bitter-tasting quinine was punishment for wrong answers. They also mixed up the shapes themselves, their sizes, and which side of the maze held the correct answers, to be sure the bees weren’t picking up on some other clues besides quantity.

Honeybees Can Add

After 100 trials using 14 different bees, the bees’ success rate was around 60 to 75 percent. Perhaps not A+ students; but it’s a passing grade. More importantly, it’s statistically significantly higher than it would be if the bees were just flying around randomly — that would be a 50 percent success rate.

Besides being pretty neat, this opens up the idea that members of the animal kingdom have different cognitive capabilities than we once thought.

A number of animals, including honeybees, have been shown to understand concepts like less versus more or right versus left. But being able to learn a symbolic representation of a math equation, and then solve future “equations,” is another level. Only a couple of species have been shown to do any sort of addition and subtraction besides humans: mostly apes, monkeys, birds, and spiders. If honeybees can add, what else can they do?

“(There’s been) a contentious debate about whether to do math-like thinking, you need a human brain and a very advanced culture to enable that,” says Dyer. “We saw that (the honeybees) can do this task which really does inform us that to do basic arithmetic-type operations you don’t need a large brain.”

Dyer says this opens up the question of how different animals might “have a brain which can also keep a count of quantities and do some basic maths to enable their lives.”

Felicity Muth, who also studies bee cognition but was not involved in this work, says “I definitely think it’s novel and exciting research.”

“I think that it makes sense that a lot of animals should be able to tell the difference between small amounts and larger amounts, it makes sense to be able to tell different quantities of food,” says Muth. “But this is definitely more specific … It’d be interesting to know the ecological context in which bees would use this ability.” Muth is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nevada Reno.

One light-hearted side effect may be motivating young kids to learn their arithmetic, says Dyer. “Saying something like 1, 2, 3, you can count like a bee — it puts in their minds, well, if a bee can do it, it must be pretty easy, I can do it too.”



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Ecology

Pumped Milk Gives Infants Different Bacteria Than Breastfeeding, Study Says

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Mother’s milk provides sustenance for babies. Now researchers find pumped breast milk exposes newborns to more disease-causing bacteria than milk directly from the breast. The discovery suggests breastfeeding practices could shift the makeup of microorganisms in breast milk and infants’ digestive systems.

“We were surprised that the method of feeding was the most consistent factor associated with milk microbiota composition,” said Meghan Azad, a medical geneticist at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba in Canada, who led the new research.

Mighty Milk

Once considered sterile, researchers now know breast milk is full of bacteria. The microbes are thought to help set up infants’ digestive tracts with an ecosystem of microorganisms that will aid the growing human’s digestive and immune systems. Azad and her team were initially curious about this collection of bacteria in infants known as the infant gut microbiome. In an earlier study, they found breastfeeding affected babies’ gut bacteria the most. So, in the new research, the scientists probed the microbes in breast milk.

The researchers checked out the microbes in breast milk from nearly 400 nursing mothers and their three to four month old babies. The mommy-baby pairs are a part of a Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development birth cohort study known as the CHILD study, a long-term project looking to find the source of pediatric allergies. The researchers also looked at other elements — maternal age, smoking status and the microbes in babies mouths, to name a few — that could affect what bacteria are in breast milk.

Pumping Problem

The microbes in breast milk varied drastically between mothers, the researchers found, and both mom and baby mold the milk microbiome.

“Our results suggest that the infant’s oral bacteria are important in shaping the milk microbiota,” said Shirin Moossavi, a medical microbiology student in Azad’s lab, who authored the research.

But the biggest factor was whether babies received breast milk straight from the nipple or from a bottle. A family of bacteria that includes E. coli and salmonella were more abundant in pumped breast milk than direct breast milk, the researchers reported Wednesday in the journal Cell Host & Microbe.

“It is only in recent years that we have started to understand that there might be differences between direct nursing compared to feeding pumped milk,” Azad said.

“In the future, when we understand the mechanisms better, we might be able to provide recommendations about pump apparatus cleaning and milk storage to minimize the impact on the milk microbiota,” Moossavi added.

But no matter the delivery mode, “overall, breast milk is the best for the infant,” the researchers said.



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Ecology

NASA Wants to Return to the Moon as Early as This Year

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NASA has big plans for returning to the moon, but private companies will do much of the work. (Credit: NASA)

In November, NASA tapped nine private spaceflight companies who will be allowed to bid on upcoming projects. Yesterday, they elaborated on what those projects would be during an industry forum. Starting as early as this year, NASA hopes to send commercial landers to the lunar surface as the first step toward returning to the moon, this time for good.

Long Lunar To-Do List

There’s a lot of work to be done before permanent or long-term lunar activities can begin. The first tasks will be to practice launching and landing on the moon, as well as answering questions about its surface. There’s plenty of technology NASA wants to see established on the ground before humans are sent back to the moon – and a lot of it is meant to stand in for future Mars settlement as well.

Some of that technology has to do with a recent buzzword among the space settlement community: in-situ resource utilization, or ISRU. This means using materials and resources already available on the moon and, one day, Mars, rather than carting all our resources with us, as has been standard for space missions. This most commonly means using solar power for energy. On the moon, it will also mean extracting water, which can be used for drinking or to power rockets. Both the hydrogen and oxygen that make up water are powerful fuel materials.

So commercial lunar partners will work on how to mine and recycle resources on the moon and make them available for future mission use. They will test habitation for future crewed missions. They’ll prove that they can collect materials from the lunar surface and return them to space or Earth. And they’ll establish communication networks between robots on the moon’s surface, way stations in lunar orbit, and mission control on Earth.

All these commercial endeavors would also need to integrate with NASA’s planned Lunar Gateway. This would be a space station in orbit around the moon that would serve as Grand Central Station for robotic or crewed missions to the lunar surface, or even for deep space missions. NASA hopes to open the Gateway by 2026, with the first power and propulsion elements entering orbit in 2022.



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Ecology

Climate Change Hearings Signal Congress Is Willing to Address the Issue Again

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Climate change is real. It’s happening now. And it presents significant problems for the U.S. across multiple facets of society, according to a panel of climate and policy experts that testified before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

The testimonials were part of the House Science Committee’s first full hearing of the 116th Congress and one of only a handful in the last eight years to address climate change. But that’s about to change. In her opening remarks, House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said Wednesday’s hearing will be the first of multiple hearings on climate change in the near future.

“Climate change is not just an environmental challenge,” said Robert Kopp, a climate scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, during his testimony. “It’s an economic challenge, an infrastructure challenge, a public health challenge and a national security challenge.”

Carbon Cuts

For the most part, House representatives were in agreement with the panel that climate change is real and harming not only the environment but the economy and Americans. During the nearly two and half hours of questions that followed the researchers’ testimonies, representatives asked the scientists to identify priorities and sought their suggestions for solutions.

“Human emissions of CO2 must be brought as close to zero as possible with any continued emissions of CO2 balanced by human removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” said Kopp, who suggested expanding forests and using new, but little-tested technologies as a start. “The faster we reduce emissions, the less severe the effects and the lower the risk of unwelcome surprises,” he added.

Cities, states and a number of companies are already taking action by adopting emission reduction targets, but Kopp says these efforts need to grow dramatically and rapidly to effectively manage climate risk.

But Joseph Majkut, a policy expert with the Niskanen Center, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., who also testified, acknowledged, “That’s a challenging thing to do.”

“To even get close, we’ll need significant innovation in low-carbon technology, finance and market design in order to be able to provide reliable, affordable and globally accessible low carbon energy,” Majkut said.

Majkut projected that to reach any temperature target, much less the 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) of warming goal set by the IPCC, would require carbon capture and storage of fossil fuels as well as carbon removal technologies in conjunction with renewable energy and storage solutions. He then advocated for research into alternatives to reducing global emissions, such as geoengineering technologies that would offset greenhouse gas production.

The scientists’ recommendations align with many facets of the Green New Deal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) recently proposed. The legislation calls for a massive policy shift that bolsters the U.S. economy and cuts greenhouse gas emissions to zero. Like the solutions Majkut outlined for the House Science Committee, the Green New Deal lists expanding and upgrading renewable energy sources, removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and increasing carbon storage as ways to achieve its goal.

Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) and others raised concerns about the cost of such an initiative, asking “If the Green New Deal were implemented immediately, wouldn’t it devastate our economy?” But, says Majkut, reducing CO2 associated with economic activity is “one of the cheapest elements” of the bill.

Adaptive Measures

The scientists testifying before the House also recommended prioritizing research into the ways society might adapt to climate change and called on federal support for studies of how climate change will affect communities, a research topic Kristie Ebi, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, is already looking into.

Ebi, another scientist to testify at the hearing, investigates how climate change affects human health. Researchers have discovered Americans are already suffering and dying from climate change and the impacts will likely only get worse.

“Risk from vector-borne diseases such as malaria, Dengue fever and Lyme disease are projected to increase with warming from 1.5 to 2 C (2.7 to 3.6 F) including potential shifts in their geographic range to areas previously unexposed to these diseases,” Ebi said. “Further, our healthcare infrastructure is vulnerable to extreme events with, for example, many hospitals and healthcare clinics located in coastal regions subject to flooding.”

Yet, there are achievable ways to alleviate the projected risks and costs associated with climate change’s impacts on communities, Ebi said, such as “developing early notification response plans for extreme heat … and incorporating climate projections into emergency preparedness and disaster risk management initiatives.”

“These steps can protect health now and provide a basis for effective adaptation to our future climate,” she added.

And if the world does not slow the rise of greenhouse gas emissions, Americans’ health and the U.S. economy will suffer because of impacts associated with mortality and the ability of people to work outdoors, scientists say. More extreme weather events will also affect human health and the economy.

“We know that in 2018, the losses due to extreme weather were roughly $160 billion just to the U.S.,” said Jennifer Francis, an atmospheric scientists at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts, during her testimony. “But what keeps me up at night is thinking about my own daughter and the world she will face if we do nothing.”



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