Good morning! It’s National Autonomous Vehicle Day, which rolls around once a year. It’s only in its fifth year, but driverless cars have hit the streets in big cities all over the U.S. Keep an eye out for phantom drivers behind the wheel while you read on about jackdaws, meek male mice, and roasted giant bird eggs.
Although we don’t usually mean a literal quick bite, this VIDEO shows dozens of sharks chomping on a humpback whale carcass. The footage — maybe not quite what the travelers staying at the beach campground had expected to see — was captured by their personal drone in western Australia.
Jackdaw birds have preflight confabs to reach consensus
Groups are noisy, and flocks of small crow relatives called jackdaws (Corvus monedula) are no exception. On their winter roosts, jackdaws “chjack chjack” loudly during the hours leading up to sunrise. A new study shows that what sounds like friendly chatter is meaningful communication.
Researchers video-recorded at six jackdaw roosting sites around Cornwall, UK for about two weeks each. Following their chorus of “chjack chjacks,” birds left the roosts in a mass lift-off typically lasting less than four seconds. Their calling intensity increased during the pre-departure hour, and experiments with playback affirmed the correlation of departures with calls.
Like pilots pre-takeoff, the jackdaws appear to be coordinating their daily departures from winter roosts. "Large animal groups can use decision-making processes to overcome their individual differences and reach a kind of 'democratic' consensus," says study author Alex Thornton, University of Exeter.
Given that jackdaws roost in groups of 160 to nearly 1500 individuals, that’s a lot of consensus-building! Maybe it’s worth it for the group member benefit of being less vulnerable to predators. Listen to jackdaws revving for takeoff HERE.
Evidence that early Australians ate Thunderbirds to extinction
The first Australians were living among gigantic animals, including the thunderbird (Genyornis newtoni), who at 500 pounds had about the heft of two ostriches. Now, a study finds evidence that the first Australians regularly roasted thunderbird eggs over the fire, so regularly that they may have driven the birds to extinction.
Burnt eggshells at sites across Australia were the smoking gun. Although researchers could not extract useful DNA from the shells, they analyzed eggshell proteins and found that the sequences were completely different from what you’d see in ancient chicken-like birds, leaving thunderbirds as the likely victims.
But how did people get the eggs? “It’s quite possible humans were successful at chasing birds off the nest. The most efficient way to cause an extinction is to capture the young," says study author Gifford Miller. Facing off with a 500-pound angry bird parent sounds hazardous, but ultimately the birds lost out, going extinct by 45,000 years ago.
Why male mice get scared when they sniff banana scents
The billion-dollar rodent control industry has created an arsenal of mouse repellents: peppermint oil sprays, bright lights, and ultrasonic noises. But perhaps they’ve overlooked a fruitful opportunity — the everyday banana.
A McGill University study of hormonal responses in male mice (Mus musculus) accidentally discovered their reaction to banana smell. Males exposed to cotton balls soaked in banana oil got stressed out, evidenced by hormone spikes and natural pain resistance kicking in as if facing a fight.
Surely a male mouse is not planning to fight a banana. The researchers explain that the compound “n-pentyl acetate” giving bananas their smell is also found in female mouse urine. Because males have the unfortunate habit of killing offspring they didn’t sire, females emit a chemical signal immediately post-partum that warns male mice to keep their distance.
Says study author Jeffrey Mogil, “The females are telling the males to stay away, otherwise be prepared for me to beat the crap out of you if you touch my pups."
So, bananas might not make a great repellent, but they’ll get male mouse hair standing on end.
The first official robot manufactured for commercial use was Unimate, a 1961 invention inspired by Asimov’s science fiction. Reading commands from a magnetic drum, Unimate won a place on the General Motors assembly line to complete hazardous tasks like welding and die-casting. Unimate was the hard-working predecessor of today’s robots, which trend towards smaller, smarter, and more artistic.
Meet the crab robot, for example, recently showcased by Northwestern University engineers. As the smallest remote-controlled robot ever built (less than a mm long), its future may include running around inside human bodies to conduct delicate surgeries like plucking out cancer tumors.
It’s hard to compete with that action, but GE’s Pipeworm Robot boasts already having a job. Inspired by a giant earthworm-like tunneling robot designed to power out tunnels for military operations, the more diminutive Pipeworm Robot does its work in sewer systems and oil and gas pipelines.
But it’s not all about size. These robots are also championing “physical intelligence,” the ability to navigate various situations because of smart materials. The crab robot scuttles via shape changes to its elastic body. A new noodle-shaped robot can tumble through a maze through releases of stored energy – snaps – that bounce it around corners. Says mechanical engineer Jie Yin, “The soft robot we’ve made in a twisted ribbon shape is capable of negotiating these obstacles with no human or computer intervention whatsoever.”
And then there are robots that are not compact, but competent in tasks previously assumed unique to humans, like art and music. This 2-armed robot plays stringed instruments. Built by a Swedish composer, the robot rosins the bow, tunes it up, and skillfully frets with one arm while drawing the bow across the strings with the other.
Perhaps this month’s most unusual robotics announcement was for the first robot solo art show, exhibiting multimedia works by humanoid robot Ai-Da, including a dazzling portrait of Queen Elizabeth. If robots can exhibit in Italy’s famous Giardini Palace of Exhibitions, what was it that we humans are good for?
Next time we’ll be looking at how dolphins stay healthy and keep track of their friends.
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