Friday, 12 March 2010

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Desperate Efforts to Save Endangered Bats May Fail

Posted: 12 Mar 2010 03:00 AM PST


A desperate attempt to keep endangered Virginia big-eared bats alive in captivity has shown just how difficult that noble task may be.

The effort was prompted by the discovery of White Nose Syndrome, an extremely virulent disease that has killed more than one million bats since 2007, in one of the handful of caves where Virginia big-eared bats live. Of 40 bats moved to the Smithsonian National Zoo last November, just 11 have survived.

"We were not under the illusion that it was going to be easy. It's certainly not a surprise to us that the bats died. But the number of bats that died is greater than we had hoped," said Jeremy Coleman, White Nose Syndrome Coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The captive colony project was controversial from the start. With only 15,000 Virginia big-eared bats in existence — up from 3,500 in 1979, but far below historic levels — risking even a few is no small matter. The project also cost $300,000, a big chunk of the $1.9 million allotted by Congress for research on White Nose Syndrome, or WNS.

In the three years since its original detection in an upstate New York cave, WNS has spread south as far as Tennessee, exterminating bat colony after colony with almost total efficiency. The disease appears to be caused by a fungal infection that rouses bats from hibernation, leaving them weak and unable to find food.

There is no known cure, and scientists say that many cave-dwelling bat species — including the little brown bat, the most common bat in North America — could be extinct in a decade. They call the bat die-off "the most precipitous decline of North American wildlife in recorded history" [pdf].

Early in 2009, WNS was found in a West Virginia cave where Virginia big-eared bats lived. Though infected bats belonged to other species, the discovery was frightening. The Fish and Wildlife Service decided to found a captive colony.

"There were many scientists who didn't think it would work at all, and are philosophically opposed to captive bat populations anyway. The other school of thought is that desperate times call for desperate measures," said Peter Youngbaer, WNS liaison for the National Speleological Society. "If this species was going to get WNS, and if you didn't start an intervention now, you'd never have a chance."

Unlike fruit-eating bats, insect-eating bats like the Virginia big-eared are notoriously difficult to raise in captivity. Accustomed to catching insects on the wing, many of the bats refused to eat worms from pans. Stressed from relocation and habituated to cave-specific temperatures and humidity, others developed runaway bacterial infections. Despite constant attention from researchers, 29 of the bats died.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is now preparing a report on lessons from the experience, though these may be uncertain. "I think they have more unanswered questions than lessons now," said Youngbaer.

And trouble for the remaining wild bats keeps coming. In February, the first cases of WNS were found in West Virginia's Hellhole Cave, home to populations of Indiana bats, little brown bats and almost half of all Virginia big-eared bats.

There are no plans to add more bats to the colony, but Coleman said captive breeding remains an option for other species threatened by WNS. In the meantime, it remains to be seen whether the 11 captive bats will survive and even breed.

"There are so few members of that species left. With the captive colony, the thought was, let's see see if we can get this to work. And then we'll have done what we can to save them," said Youngbaer. "At least we won't have regrets for not having tried."

Image: Healthy Virginia big-eared bat./USFWS

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Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecological tipping points.

The ’70s Photos That Made Us Want to Save Earth

Posted: 11 Mar 2010 05:00 PM PST

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Two years after Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, the new institution sent out 100 photographers to document the nation's environment writ large.

Now, those photos have made it out of the root cellar of the National Archive and onto Flickr Commons, where they are getting a wider viewing than they've ever received. The first group of what will become a 15,000-photo set from the Documerica project are now available online to the public.

The photographers were charged with three broad goals: "to photograph America's environmental problems, to document America's natural and man-made beauty and to photograph the human condition."

The original director of the EPA project, Gifford Hampshire, hoped to recreate the success the Depression-era Farm Security Administration had in calling attention to the plight of the nation's rural poor. The new target was the environment. The visual evidence of the nation's various pollution problems would help justify the existence of the EPA.

But as it happened, the photographers interpreted their task in different ways. What they captured was not simply a portrait of "nature," but the environment as people knew it and lived in it.

"Documerica's official mission effectively focused on popular but valid environmental concerns of the early 1970s: water, air and noise pollution; unchecked urbanization; poverty; environmental impact on public health; and youth culture of the day," wrote archivist C. Jerry Simmons, in a 2009 article on the collection. "But in reaction to the varied pollution, health and social crises, Documerica succeeded also in affirming America's commitment to solving these problems by capturing positive images of human life and Americans' reactions, responses and resourcefulness."

Traffic jams, noise pollution from jackhammers and 747s, and graffiti appear alongside photos of caribou and western landscapes. Coal mining and mudslides mingle with swimming, movie theaters and greased-pig chases.

It's a remarkable portrait of the early 1970s, when manufacturing still ruled the economy and environmental laws had just begun to regulate the air and water. The photographs show people, technology and biosphere colliding, producing both devastating consequences and innovative solutions.

Holmes Road Incinerator

The Holmes Road Incinerator burned all kinds of trash, including, photographer Marc St. Gil claims, automobile batteries and plastic. It was closed by the Houston mayor's executive order in January 1974, two years after this photo was taken. It is now the site of a prospective brownfield 10-megawatt solar farm (.pdf).

Photo: Marc St. Gil/National Archives and Records Administration

You Are a Tamagotchi: Turning Your Health Into a Game

Posted: 11 Mar 2010 02:12 PM PST


In the mid 1990s, a craze swept Japan and crested its way onto American shores: Kids were going crazy for the Tamagotchi, an egg-shaped digital pet. Every few hours, users would press a couple buttons to feed their Tamagotchi, play with it, or clean it up. The game was simple, but intensely rewarding. Users cried when their Tamagotchis got sick or died; they were elated when they were able to raise a healthy, happy pet. More than 70 million have been sold.

thomas_goetzThomas Goetz is the executive editor of Wired magazine and author of the new book The Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in the New Era of Personalized Medicine. As part of the reporting for the book, he had his genome scanned, was screened for more than a dozen diseases, and has tracked his sleep, blood pressure, weight, calories and oodles of other metrics. He holds a masters of public health from UC Berkeley.

The genius of the device was that it was both simple and rewarding: It took just a few clicks a few times a day to keep your TamagotchisTamagotchi in good health. In other words, it rewarded vigilance over neglect, maintenance over obsessiveness (you could overfeed your Tamagotchi or smother it with too much love).

A decade later, there's a new kind of Tamagotchi out there. And it's us.

New health-monitoring tools let us pay close attention to our state of being, how much exercise we're getting, how much sleep we're getting — and they make it easy to set a goal and improve ourselves. In other words, they turn our health into something of a game. And the reward is better health and a better life.

These devices are popping up everywhere: The FitBit is a paper-clip sized device that you can clip onto your belt to monitor cadence, calories and sleep. A genius little display shows a flower that grows the more you move, offering a brilliant bit of feedback. The Zeo sleep system uses a rigorous biometric brain analysis to measure overall sleep quality; you can also drill down into the numbers to ascertain how much time you're spending in light sleep versus deep sleep (the deeper the better). The BodyMedia Fit uses a combination of sensor technology to track cadence and calories, as well as respiration and heartrate. And the Philips DirectLife gizmo turns your data into a personal coaching kit that helps you adjust targets and meet goals.

In the best of these devices, the hardware is simple and unobtrusive, and the software is clean, engaging and easy to navigate through.

The key here is the feedback loop — making it possible for users to collect their own data, making it easy to understand, and then building that data into better decision making. Feedback has been recognized as an effective tool for behavior change since the 1960s. But the challenge is that collecting and organizing data has typically taken a lot of effort, making it something that works for only the most diligent of us.

But the key to these new tools is they make the gathering of personal data — what's called "data exhaust" — an automatic process that requires very little effort on our part. With cheaper sensors and better UI, personal data is becoming ubiquitous and malleable, turning this once academic notion of feedback into a business plan. What's more, sharing this data in social networks increases the utility of the data; it makes it easier for us to turn data into insight into action.

This is the premise behind the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Project HealthDesign, which has hit on the idea of "observations of daily life" — or ODLs — as a powerful catalyst for managing our health. And not just preventive health — Project HealthDesign is funding several projects that let people track ODLs to manage diseases from Crohn's to depression to underweight babies.

Another important element is play, the fact that tracking can be rewarding in and of itself, even fun. Clive Thompson has written about how Weight Watchers — which asks its members to turn their diets into a Points system for easier tracking — is in effect a big game. And HopeLab, an innovative medical research group, has used the principle to create Re-Mission, a videogame for teens with cancer where the kids play by engaging with their disease. A 2008 study in Pediatrics showed that Re-Mission significantly improved outcomes in kids who played the game.

There are, of course, pioneers in this sort of thing — first and foremost diabetics, who've been compelled to rigorously self-monitor their blood glucose and insulin levels for decades. In the past, though, self-monitoring has been seen as a burden for people with diabetes — the tools have been bulky, the interfaces stodgy and medicalized, and the result is lack of engagement.

With millions more people being diagnosed with diabetes each year though, there's a great incentive to create better, smarter and easier tools for self-monitoring — as well as find ways to make diabetics more at ease with the idea of constant self-monitoring. Bayer Healthcare recently worked with Nintendo to develop the Didget meter, a game for children with diabetes that rewards them with points for keeping their blood glucose levels within a personalized target range. The game is designed for kids as young as 5 years old.

The key here seems to be the notion of control (or to use the academic term, self-efficacy) — self-monitoring can give us a way to participate in our health. And turning it into something fun, something that we can play with and improve upon — that can give us not only a role but an authority. We can take control of our health. And we can play to win.

Image: _jennieMarie/flickr, Alexis Madrigal/

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Quantum Computing Thrives on Chaos

Posted: 11 Mar 2010 12:20 PM PST


Embracing chaos just might help physicists build a quantum brain. A new study shows that disorder can enhance the coupling between light and matter in quantum systems, a find that could eventually lead to fast, easy-to-build quantum computers.

sciencenewsQuantum computers promise superfast calculations that precisely simulate the natural world, but physicists have struggled to design the brains of such machines. Some researchers have focused on designing precisely engineered materials that can trap light to harness its quantum properties. To work, scientists have thought, the crystalline structure of these materials must be flawlessly ordered — a nearly impossible task.

The new study, published in the March 12 Science, suggests that anxious physicists should just relax. A group of researchers at the Technical University of Denmark in Lyngby have shown that randomly arranged materials can trap light just as well as ordered ones.

"We took a very interesting, different approach: relaxing all these ordered structures and using disorder" as a resource, says study coauthor Peter Lodahl. "Let it play with you instead of playing against you."

One approach to quantum computing relies on entangling photons and atoms, or binding their quantum states so tightly that they can influence each other even across great distances. Once entangled, a photon can carry any information stored in the atom's quantum state to other parts of the computer. To get that entangled state, physicists pin light in tiny cavities to increase the likelihood of quantum interaction with neighboring atoms.

Lodahl and his colleagues didn't set out to trap light. They wanted to build a waveguide, a structure designed to send light in a particular direction, by drilling carefully spaced holes in a gallium arsenide crystal. Because the crystal bends light much more strongly than air does, light should have bounced off the holes and traveled down a channel that had been left clear of holes.

But in some cases, the light refused to move. It kept getting stuck inside the crystal.

"At first we were scratching our heads," Lodahl says. "Then we realized it was related to imperfections in our structures." If imperfect materials could trap light, Lodahl thought, then physicists could couple light and matter with much less frustration.

To see if disorder could help materials trap light, Lodahl and colleagues built a new waveguide, this time deliberately placing the holes at random intervals. They also embedded quantum dots, tiny semiconductors that can emit a single photon at a time, in the waveguide as a proxy for atoms that could become entangled with the photons.

quantum_peaksAfter zapping the quantum dots with a laser to make them emit photons, the researchers found that 94 percent of the photons stayed close to their emitters, creating spots of trapped light in the crystal. That's about as good as previous results using more precisely ordered materials. Intuitively, physicists expect light to scatter in the face of disorder, but in this case colliding light waves built each other up and collected in the material.

The quantum dots also emitted photons 15 times faster after a light spot formed around them.

"This is the essence of our discovery: We used localized modes not just to trap light but to enhance interaction between light and matter," Lodahl says.

That's the first mile marker on the road to entanglement, notes Diederik Wiersma, a physicist at the European Laboratory for Non-linear Spectroscopy in Florence, Italy. "It has not been achieved as quantum entanglement yet, but it's the important step that everyone has to make to get there."

The system produced several separate light traps at once. If the light traps can be entangled with each other, the system could someday lead to a quantum network in a randomly organized crystal.

Wiersma thinks of the potential product as a "quantum brain." Like a human brain, a quantum brain is not a perfectly ordered structure, he says. "Nature doesn't need a symmetric structure. It just needs your brain to be working."

Images: 1) Artist' impression of light emission in a disordered photonic crystal waveguide./Soren Stobbe. 2) Light bouncing around a disordered crystal spontaneously arranged itself in bright spots, represented by the tall spikes./Luca Sapienza.

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Your Chilean Sea Bass Dinner Deprives Killer Whales

Posted: 11 Mar 2010 10:51 AM PST


A one-of-a-kind killer whale population appears to be threatened by human appetites for Antarctic toothfish, better known to restaurant-goers as Chilean Sea Bass.

As fishing fleets patrol their waters, catching what was their primary source of food, the whales are vanishing. It's not certain whether they've only moved on, or are dying out, or both. But something is happening, with potentially dark implications for Earth's last pristine ecosystem.

"There's been a dramatic disappearance of the whales," said biologist David Ainley of ecological consulting firm H.T. Harvey and Associates, and co-author of a March Aquatic Mammals article on the whales' disappearance. "We think they're having a harder time trying to find food. Whether that leads to population decrease, hopefully we won't find out. But we will find out, if it continues."

Antarctic killer whales form two types of populations, known to researchers as ecotype-B and ecotype-C. While the former resemble killer whales found elsewhere, ecotype-C whales are much smaller, with different markings and a tendency to gather in especially large groups. Many researchers now consider them a distinct species.

Dubbed Ross Sea killer whales, ecotype-C whales are found only in the Ross Sea, an expanse of water off Antarctica's southern coast, flanking the France-sized Ross Ice Shelf. Many scientists consider the region to be the last pristine ecosystem on Earth, the only remaining piece of pre-industrial nature.

The Ross Sea, however, isn't what it used to be. About 25 years ago, North American diners discovered the Chilean Sea Bass, the market-friendly name of the Patagonian toothfish. It is a large, codlike Southern Ocean fish that lives for a half century, breeds infrequently and is both tasty and easy to cook, and its populations were soon devastated. Fishing fleets moved into the Ross Sea, searching for its close relative, the Antarctic toothfish.

Antarctic toothfish are now called Chilean Sea Bass, too. They're thought to be the primary food of Ross Sea killer whales, which were described as common by the first Antarctic explorers and subsequent visitors. Just a few years ago, boats headed into the McMurdo research station on Ross Island were "literally surrounded by killer whales out toward the horizon," write the Aquatic Mammal researchers. Not any more.

Though ecotype-B whale sightings have remained steady, Ross Sea killer whale sightings are down by two-thirds in the last five years, and big groups no longer gather.

"We don't know for sure what this means. But we do know that they eat the toothfish, and we know that the toothfish industry has taken off in the last 10 years," said study co-author Grant Ballard, a Point Reyes Bird Observatory biologist.

If the whales have moved elsewhere in search of food, there is no guarantee of success. Other, smaller fish can be harder to catch, making them an inefficient source of nourishment. Even if other food is available, the whales may not eat it. Hunting is a behavioral tradition — even, arguably, a culture — for these highly social animals, and not easily changed.

In a possibly analogous situation from the northeast Pacific, a population of historically salmon-eating killer whales appears doomed by the fishes' decline, though seals and sea lions are an abundant alternative source of prey.

After more than a decade of studying penguins, Ballard said he's yet to see a Ross Sea killer whale eat one.

"I was hoping I'd see them eating one, and it never happened. There are plenty of penguins around for them to eat," he said. "The arrows point at this type of killer whale being a toothfish eater, and not knowing how to change."

anttoothfishHow long Antarctic toothfish can survive human pressures is an open question. After just a couple decades of modern fishing, Patagonian toothfish were mostly gone. They bred too slowly to keep up with losses. Even in areas where fishing has ceased, the Patagonian toothfish, and other local deep-sea species fished during the 20th century's latter half, have not come back. Like the cod of North Atlantic, they appear to have hit some sort of tipping point beyond which recovery may not be possible.

"The fact that these stocks haven't recovered suggests that some ecological mechanism has been turned off, that the ocean has changed in the meantime, to the extent that the fish can't recover," Ainley said.

Should Antarctic toothfish and Ross Sea killer whales vanish, the ecological impacts could be profound. Existing at the center of marine food webs, such high-level predators are important to regulating ecosystems. In their absence, food webs take different shapes. That's what appears to have happened in the western North Atlantic. With cod fished to near-extinction, it's now dominated by small fishes and crabs.

As a stopgap solution, Ainley and Ballard want diners to avoid Chilean Sea Bass, though that strategy did not save the Patagonian toothfish. Despite attempts to educate the public, Chilean Sea Bass remained a popular menu item in upscale American restaurants.

Their greater wish is for the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the international body charged with protecting the continent, to declare the Ross Sea a protected area, off-limits to all fishing.

That's not just sentimental enviromentalism, but economic practicality, Ainley said. "If you have areas with no fishing, it ensures that there will still be fishes caught around the edges of the reserve. Protecting the Ross Sea could probably ensure the continuation of that fishery. Otherwise, it's going to go economically extinct," he said.

But Ballard is more idealistic. "We're talking about the last pristine ecosystem. It's important to have one of them left," he said. "Going forward, people won't have reference points to what we used to have. We'll get used to a more and more degraded Earth. And I think we're running into that here. It's the last stand."

Image: 1) Ross Sea Killer Whale./Jaime Ramos, National Science Foundation. 2) Antarctic Toothfish./Alexander Colhoun, National Science Foundation.

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Citation: "An Apparent Decrease in the Prevalence of "Ross Sea Killer Whales" in the Southern Ross Sea." By David G. Ainley, Grant Ballard, and Silvia Olmastroni. Aquatic Mammals, Vol. 35 No. 3, March 2010.

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecological tipping points.

Image: 1. Ross Sea killer whale/Jaime Ramos, National Science Foundation 2. Antarctic toothfish/Alexander Colhoun, National Science Foundation

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Citation: "An Apparent Decrease in the Prevalence of "Ross Sea Killer Whales" in the Southern Ross Sea." By David G. Ainley, Grant Ballard, and Silvia Olmastroni. Aquatic Mammals, Vol. 35 No. 3, March 2010.

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecological tipping points.