12 Jul 2019

Snakes at the Seaside and Birds in the Bush

By Claire Eamer

"Snake!" yelled 8-year-old Carys, and dove for the grassy bank beside the trail. She emerged clutching a deeply puzzled garter snake at least 60 centimetres long, with elegant checkerboard markings on its sides and a jagged yellow stripe running the length of its back.
Western garter snake, found at Pipers Lagoon Park, Nanaimo.
The rest of the group -- more than two dozen kids and adults, with an age range from 8 to 80-ish -- crowded around to admire her catch. Our leader, biology professor Tim Goater of Nanaimo's Vancouver Island University (VIU) identified it as a female western garter snake (Thamnophis elegans), almost certainly pregnant, and the largest specimen he had seen at Pipers Lagoon, the small seaside park we were exploring. Western garter snakes have a variable diet, depending on where they live, he explained. Carys's prize catch would specialize in hunting intertidal fishes among the park's rocks and tidepools.

Professor Tim Goater with
a large clam at Pipers Lagoon.
Once everyone had admired the snake, we put her back on the slope beside the trail and watched, fascinated, as she disappeared into the grass and undergrowth in less than a second.

The mixed group of kids and adults wasn't just a casual group of visitors to the seashore. We were students in a class called Explorations of Animal Diversity, one of 10 offerings at this year's edition of Grandkids University. The two-day program is open to kids aged 7 to 13 and to their grandparents or grandparent-equivalents (other senior relatives or special friends).

Carys, left, entranced by birdbanding.
Carys and I (I'm her great-aunt) were in our second year at Grandkids University this year. Her brother, Rowan, was in his third year. He and his special friend, Susan, spent two days in the chemistry lab, making soap, slime, invisible ink, instant ice cream, and pop-bottle rockets -- and learning a considerable amount of chemistry along the way.

Over two days, Carys and I got to see and handle garter snakes both in the lab and in the field, peer at insects through a dissecting microscope, search for animals in the intertidal zone, visit a bird-banding station, dissect a ratfish in search of parasites, and tour VIU's International Centre for Sturgeon Studies.

Master bander Eric Demers shows the wing feathers
of a Common Yellowthroat.
And, at the end of the two days, we all attended a graduation ceremony in the university's theatre. VIU's symbols -- a mace and a beautifully decorated steering paddle -- were formally piped through the theatre to the stage. Then, the VIU registrar, in full academic robes, presented each adult and child with a completion certificate. Kids and adults who had attended Grandkids University for 5 years also received "Masters" medals. (Both Rowan and Carys are determined to get their Masters!)
A female American Goldfinch receives its individualized band.
This is the 11th year for VIU's Grandkids University, and it drew a record 163 participants. Almost a dozen former kid participants have grown up to become VIU students, and a number of the participating adults also take VIU classes. Clearly it's part of the university's recruiting program, but it does more than just generate students.

Carys found a seastar that had lost one arm
and was still regrowing its replacement.
Both the kids and the grandparents learn things -- about the subject they are studying and about each other. For two days, they are equals, experiencing the pleasure of learning something new and interesting. The kids can see that adults don't know everything, but that they can learn. The adults get a chance to see how bright and capable the kids are.

And everyone is reminded that learning isn't drudgery. It's fun.

All photos by Claire Eamer.

5 Jul 2019

The (Missing) Link Between Smartphones and Horns

by L. E. Carmichael

Last weekend, suffering from an airplane cold and soaking my coughing muscles in a hot tub while listening to old episodes of The Daily Show on Sirius on Demand, I heard an incredible story about how smartphone use is causing millennials to grow horns. Here's the link to coverage at the BBC.

Image by Shahar D. and Sayers M., Scientific Reports, 2019/CC BY 4.0

Hacking up my second lung, my first thought in reaction to this story was, well, sure. Because I use the internet regularly and have therefore been exposed to a lot of conversation about the evils of both millennials and smart phones, so the equation

millennials + smartphones = inevitable emergence of inner demons

seemed completely logical.

My second thought, emerging from my life-long exposure to both the sciences and oft-times sketchy science reporting, was that this story was indeed incredible, in the  sense of "impossible to believe."

My second thought was the way to go, as this plain-language article from PBS outlines in some detail.

TL/DR version: the authors of the original study didn't actually measure cell phone use in their subjects, meaning they are blaming a skeletal anomaly on a specific behaviour based on... absolutely no data.

Another red flag? The authors recommend preventative postural education, and one of them runs an online store that sells posture-correcting pillows.

In science speak, that's called a conflict of interest. It doesn't necessarily mean that the results of the research are biased, but it absolutely means that readers should apply an extra filter of critical thinking before accepting them.

I encourage everyone to read the PBS article, because it's a great primer on scientific literacy that provides tools for assessing all science reported in the media. In the meantime, you can probably stop poking your skull in search of horns.

What are your thoughts on this story? Do you have other favourite examples of incredible results to share?

7 Jun 2019

Why NASA monitors Penguin Poop (and Other NASA Stuff You Didn't Know)

Yes, they really doo-doo. Sorry. Yes, they really do. Back in 1966 NASA launched the Landsat program – a bunch of satellites which orbit the earth recording images at various wavelengths (blue, green, red, infra-red, etc.) The latest satellite – Landsat 8 – scans 11 different wavelengths at a resolution of 30 meters. Since Adélie penguins are mostly a lot smaller than 30 meters across, they can’t be seen individually. But where there's a will, there's a way. Male and female penguins take turns in incubating the eggs in their nests. With no bathroom breaks the penguin poo (called guano) builds up around the nest. From space, the area of the guano is easily measured, and from that the number of penguins can be estimated. It’s a lot easier, warmer and less smelly to do this observation using NASA pictures than by going onsite. 

A satellite image showing penguin poop, with a picture of the culprit in the middle.
Photo courtesy NASA.

Scientists have been concerned about a decreasing Adélie penguin population and have speculated that a change in diet may have been the cause, possibly from being able to eat less krill. Krill are tiny crustaceans which are a major part of the Antarctic food chain. Penguins (and seals and whales) are having to compete with commercial trawlers for krill. The colour of penguin poo varies from white (from eating fish) to pink or red (from eating krill). Landsat imaging was able to determine from space that penguin diets have had no long term pattern of change. 

Long Term Landsat Images

Over 50 years of data is enormously useful in tracking changes. 

The two images below show how part of the Exelcior glacier in Alaska has melted into a lake during the last 32 years.  Since 1994, Excelsior Glacier has retreated about 200 meters per year—nearly twice as fast as the previous 50 years.

This image was acquired in October 1986. You can see a darker blue area neara the bottom where melting ice has started forming a lake.
Landsat imagery courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and U.S. Geological Survey.

This image was acquired in October 2018. You can see the lake is fully formed. It's more than five times the size of Central Park in New York City, and it even has a name!
Landsat imagery courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and U.S. Geological Survey.

Short Term Landsat Images

Landsat images can also be useful for real-time action. A few weeks ago a cyclone devastated several cities in eastern India. The storm left millions of people homeless, and damaged or destroyed energy infrastructure, leaving around 3.5 million households without electric power for days after the storm hit.

The images below are data visualizations of where the lights went out in the city of Bhubaneswar. The two images show city lighting on April 30 (before the storm) and on May 5, 2019, two days after the cyclone. The Odisha State Disaster Management Authority requested the data from NASA for use in risk assessment and disaster recovery.

Landsat imagery courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and U.S. Geological Survey.

More Landsat Images

You can find hundreds of other fascinating images at https://landsat.visibleearth.nasa.gov/


 Mars Mission

Next year NASA is planning to send a rover to Mars. Among other things it will look for any evidence that may show if any life has existed on Mars. Here’s an artist’s impression of the rover. 

Although you can’t go along on this flight, NASA is allowing you to send your name to Mars. You’re invited to submit your name at this site:  https://mars.nasa.gov/participate/send-your-name/mars2020/

The Microdevices Laboratory at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will use an electron beam to stencil the submitted names onto a silicon chip. The lines of text will be smaller than one-thousandth the width of a human hair (75 nanometers). At that size, more than a million names can be written on a single dime-size chip. The chip (or chips) will ride on the rover under a glass cover.

If you accept the offer to send your name to Mars, you’ll get a boarding pass like the one below, complete with a tally of your frequent flyer points.

It’s an open question whether any possible Martian life will be able to read your name, but we can hope. 

Finally: Everything Old is New Again

The second Orion exploration mission is currently scheduled for 2022 or 2023. It will be a crewed jaunt around the moon and back. This will the furthest distance from earth that any humans have traveled. It will be a significant step forward in NASA's plans to return humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and future missions to worlds beyond, including Mars.
Some of the tests for this mission are to demonstrate the capability of navigation in deep space. And how do you navigate in deep space if you have serious problems with the technology? It's back to basics in a worst-case scenario. In the 18th century sailors used a sextant to measure the angle between celestial bodies (sun, moon, stars and the horizon), so as to be able to calculate their longitude and latitude. Astronauts on Orion 2 will test the use of a sextant for emergency navigation. 
Astronaut Alexander Gerst calibrates and operates the Sextant Navigation device that is testing emergency navigation methods such as stability and star sighting in microgravity for future Orion exploration missions.
Photo: courtesy NASA.