The Juice Mission went Jupiter-bound last Friday after a delay from lightning, but it isn’t carrying cases of fruit juice to the cosmos. It will be characterizing Jupiter’s three icy moons, as well as the gas giant…when it arrives in eight years! Plenty of time to read about banana-eating elephants, robot ping pong, and curious health monitoring tools.
You’d think that an animal as smart as an octopus would act like us, the paragon of intelligence, right? Wrong. Octopus intelligence is better suited to their lifestyle, including how they taste with all eight legs. Each sucker is equipped with taste receptors. While our smarts are concentrated in our brains, octopuses have clever legs.
Elephant learns how to peel bananas her own way from watching humans
Monkeys have gotten all the credit for their banana-peeling skills. Now, a female elephant — “Pha” — is competition. She apparently learned from watching her keepers peel bananas over the 35 years she’s been housed at the Berlin Zoo. But she doesn’t peel just any old banana; she turns up her nose (well trunk) at the brown ones, selecting the yellow ones.
Pha’s accomplishment is impressive enough to warrant a peer-reviewed publication. (Don’t you wish you could get published for peeling fruits?) “What makes Pang Pha's banana peeling so unique is a combination of factors — skillfulness, speed, individuality, and the putatively human origin — rather than a single behavioral element,” glows study author Michael Brecht.
Granted, Pha’s peeling method is messier than your average monkey. See HERE how she uses the tip of her trunk to repeatedly grab strips of peel while tossing the banana to the ground until it’s fully peeled. And she appears to snarf up bananas quickly, peels and all, when there are other elephants around. Is she embarrassed at being the smartest student in the class, or just making sure she eats them before someone else does?!
Playing ping pong with a machine scrambles your brain
You’d think that playing ping pong with a machine randomly ejecting balls would be more predictable, and therefore relaxing for your brain, than playing with another person. But a recent study shows otherwise. Researchers hooked up players’ heads with more than 100 electrodes and analyzed brain activity during ping pong games.
Brain activity got chaotic when playing with the ball machine opponents, with electrocortical activity desynchronized across different parts of the brain. In contrast, a human opponent caused the brain to lock into a more synchronous humming of nerve impulses. Why? A human opponent may provide calming visual cues that they’re about to hit the ball back that the machine does not.
Study author Daniel Ferris compared the difference to being in a synchronized group versus a group of people doing different things. “If we have 100,000 people in a football stadium and they're all cheering together, that's like synchronization in the brain, which is a sign the brain is relaxed.” When playing with the ball machine, it’s more like the challenge of being with 100,000 people who are all having different conversations.
Tasmanian tigers may have outlived their extinction date
They weren’t really tigers, but they were Tasmanian, ranging from Tasmania to Australia and New Guinea. After they were hunted to extinction in the wild, the last “thylacine” (official name; Thylacinus cynocephalus) was this one that died in 1936 in an Australian Zoo. Or was it?
Since then, multiple people reported sightings of the striped, wolf-like creatures nicknamed Tasmanian Tigers. Many of the observations — such as blurry photos — were difficult to verify, but a new study suggests that the species likely persisted beyond 1936.
The researchers examined more than a thousand reports from the last century and found that credible sightings, such as from wildlife professionals, pushed the extinction date as late as the 1960s. Trustworthy sightings reduced to a trickle after that, but with still a few candidates.
Says study author Barry Brook, “If you’re talking about people who knew wildlife, then there are still occasional credible sightings in the 1980s,” such as by a Tasmanian park ranger who didn’t have a camera handy. So, this now-legendary creature may have hung on in the wilds of Tasmania for up to a half-century beyond its declared extinction.
Watch more colorized footage of the animals HERE.
To check your health, have you had your blood pressure measured? Yes, of course. Your temperature taken? Yes, duh! The standard ways of monitoring our health are familiar to all of us. But some other emerging tools take checkups to a whole new level.
A recent study announces a wearable sensor system that monitors the air pollutant nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in your breath and in ambient air. Breathing NO2 can lead to or exacerbate respiratory diseases like asthma. In the prototype, tiny nanogenerators on a person’s shoes collected energy produced while they exercised. The stored energy was used to power the bluetooth NO2 sensors attached to the nose and wrist.
Says study author Cheng Zhang, "With the low-cost and wide availability of materials and tools, this approach could certainly be scaled up for use in the clinical setting." The setup uses common equipment with materials that cost just a few bucks. Still, one has to wonder how much energy someone suffering from pulmonary disease is going to generate by exercising. (Just saying.)
But breath analyzing devices are proving to be useful for targeting specific diseases. An improvement in CoV-2 virus detection includes what’s called a frequency comb breathalyzer — a technology that uses absorbed light to identify the chemical signatures of the 1000+ trace molecules in our breath. (See how it works HERE.) In the new study published in the Journal of Breath Research (yes, there is such a thing!), researchers reported excellent accuracy in detecting a COVID-19 infection from someone’s breath using the breathalyzer coupled with AI.
“Molecules increase or decrease in their concentrations when associated with specific health conditions. Machine learning analyzes this information, identifies patterns and develops reliable criteria we can use to predict a diagnosis,” explains study author Qizhong Liang. And, beyond coronaviruses, the method could be used to detect all kinds of health problems, like lactose intolerance or other gastrointestinal problems.
Considering the broader picture — of how we get exposed to pathogens or contaminants in the first place — is also part of health monitoring. And other species are proving to be some of our best early warning systems.
A recent study analyzed the DNA in debris from beehives to make microbial maps of cities. Hive debris from New York, Sydney, Melbourne, Venice, and Tokyo yielded a distinct set of microbes for each, such as wood rot fungi from Venetian bees (old wood buildings, wood boats, and flooding!).
Study authors write, “Honeybees can be effective collaborators in gathering samples of urban microbiota, as they forage daily within a 2-mile radius of their hive.” Meanwhile, other “collaborator” species (in quotes since collaboration usually requires a two-way benefit) in our environmental health include giant rats that can detect land mines, the APOPO HeroRATs; dogs that help treat mental illness, featured by the American Psychiatric Assocation; and amphibians that tell us about water quality.
Next time we’ll feature some bioengineering advances, like polar bear fabric.
Written by Devin Reese, Edited by Jake Currie
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