Scientific news in brief: from wide-eyed eyes to flat pasta that turn in 3D
Birds and buoys: using googly eyes to avoid extinction
Every day, thousands of fish hooks and nets end up catching seabirds – a global problem that is pushing many species of seabirds to the brink of extinction. But perhaps no fishing gear does more damage than the gillnet, which entangles and kills at least 400,000 seabirds each year.
What if all it took to save them were a pair of googly eyes?
It’s not that simple, but a team of scientists, conservationists and engineers are developing a device that has the potential to save many seabirds from gillnets. This device, known as the Looming Eye Buoy, is essentially a floating scarecrow.
A prototype was recently tested on long-tailed ducks in Kudema Bay in Estonia. The results of this study, published on May 5 in the journal Royal Society Open Science, suggest that looming eyed buoys can reduce seabird numbers by up to 30 percent within a 165-foot radius. While the looming eyed buoy won’t completely solve the problem, it’s a step in the right direction, experts say.
It is not easy to prevent albatrosses, petrels, northern gannets, boobies and other seabirds from being caught in gillnets. The smell of a gillnet loaded with fish can attract seabirds from miles away. And when these birds dive into the water to get what they thought was a free meal, they can get tangled in the gillnet and drown.
In 2018, environmentalists at BirdLife International, a conservation organization, began to think about ways to prevent such events.
“We thought if we could prevent vulnerable seabirds from diving too close to gillnets, maybe we could finally tackle bycatch. [the problem of birds or other sealife being caught by accident] Says Yann Rouxel, project manager at BirdLife International and lead author of the new study. It was then that Rouxel and his team had the idea of a sea scarecrow.
He and his colleagues shared their idea with scientists from the Estonian Ornithological Society and engineers from Fishtek Marine, a company that makes fishing gear, and just over a year later the looming eyed buoy was born.
Much like the scarecrows that line cornfields or the plastic owls that sit atop office buildings, the looming eyed buoy deters birds through bullying. The large rotating eye spots that sit atop the buoyancy buoy are designed to resemble the staring eyes of a large predator.
“If we put ourselves in the shoes of diving birds, it’s no surprise that large eyes fixed on the surface of the water can dissuade them from approaching,” says Brendan Godley, professor of conservation science at the University of Exeter in England. Annie roth
Baby mammoths were meals for these saber-toothed cats
In a landscape that would one day become a suburb of San Antonio, mammoths were stalked by predatory cats with scimitar teeth. Cats would catch a juvenile mammoth. After having eaten their fill, they brought the carcass back to their den. It was a meal that could be shared again later.
Researchers recently published an article in the journal Current biology providing evidence to support this scenario. What this also shows is that cats had a different diet than any other large cat, extinct or alive today.
When most people think of saber-toothed cats, they think of the North American Smilodon. But they were prowling the same ground as another fierce but lesser-known feline, Homotherium serum, also known as the scimitar cat. While the authors compare Homotherium to a cheetah in some ways, this cat appears to have been built more for long-distance running than sprinting. Its teeth were sharp and roughly jagged, and its fangs were shorter than Smilodon’s iconic fangs. Perhaps these shorter sabers would have been more effective at cutting than stabbing.
“Everything we’ve looked at has basically told us that Smilodon and Homotherium are totally different cats,” says Larisa DeSantis, lead author of the article and paleontologist at Vanderbilt University. She adds that although they are more closely related to each other than to any species of cat living today, “they may have coexisted in these ecosystems probably due to very different food niches.”
The Friesenhahn Cave outside of San Antonio is a Pleistocene treasure, offering a diversity of fossil species, including a large number of juvenile mammoth bones. The abundance of Homotherium and mammoth suggests they may have been connected. But were they?
To answer this question, DeSantis and his colleagues had to implement the Homotherium diet.
They began with a three-dimensional analysis of the surface of Homotherium teeth, comparing them to those of similar predators during the Pleistocene era as well as those that hunt today. They found that Homotherium ate both soft and hard foods, but not bones. If they ate mammoths, it meant they could eat the hard skins and soft flesh of animals, but avoided biting the bones.
The researchers also found chemical signatures that offered clear evidence that these cats ate herbivores that grazed in open habitats.
This analysis, combined with the discovery of numerous bones of detached mammoth limbs in a cave populated by Homotherium, led researchers to conclude that mammoths were on the menu and the remains were brought home after a successful hunt.
“I really think they would have hunted juvenile mammoths,” says Aaron Woodruff, a paleontologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History who was not involved in this research. “But I don’t think they would have done that often. Jeanne Timmons
Flat pasta that transforms into 3D shapes – just add boiling water
Don’t be fooled. This pasta can look like your regular fettuccine. But cook it for seven minutes in boiling water and it will turn, curling into a neat spiral.
The dynamic noodle is one of many designed and released recently by researchers at a Carnegie Mellon University lab.
Each new pasta design starts out flat and unpretentious, but bounces and swells in three dimensions when boiled. In an article published on May 5 in Scientific progress, researchers say flat to plump pasta is not only fun to make, but uses less packaging, has a smaller carbon footprint, and cooks faster than traditional dried pasta.
“I think it’s really cool and stylish,” says Jennifer Lewis, a biologically-inspired engineering professor at Harvard University who was not involved in the study. “Anytime you can bring science to people through food, it’s a huge victory.”
The research project didn’t start as a culinary attempt to remake one of the world’s most popular foods, says Lining Yao, mechanical engineer at Carnegie Mellon and co-author of the new study. Instead, in 2017, Yao and his colleagues set out to model and build two-dimensional structures that could transform into three-dimensional shapes.
“We thought edibles could be very interesting,” Yao says. “We drew our attention to the pasta.” It’s not only simple and ubiquitous, but has the added benefit of being “very rich in design,” she says.
In the food industry, pasta is typically made by bending or pressing the dough through a metal die and into the desired shape, whether it is a bend, twist, or tube.
For their new shape-changing pasta design, Yao’s team took a different approach. They started with a conventional recipe, mixing a simple combination of semolina flour and water, then using a classic roller to create dough sheets.
Then they strategically stamped the flattened dough to create tiny patterned grooves on its surface. During cooking, surfaces with grooves expand less than smooth surfaces, giving rise to shapes such as boxes, saddles and waves.
“You can just make a modification to a pasta dough and get a very impressive shape change,” says Teng Zhang, a mechanical and aerospace engineer at Syracuse University and co-author of the study.
For the research, Zhang developed a computer model that predicted the final transformation of various models based on factors such as how heat and water would alter the gluten and starch in the dough during the baking process. “It’s more complex than just swelling,” he says.
The resulting models and designs could be useful for delivering food to disaster sites or for astronauts at space stations – two environments where it helps for large amounts of food to take up as little space as possible. Marion Renault
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