28 Dec 2012

Crunchy Science

There are a lot of bugs in Hawaii. Most of them make loud, crunchy sounds as you ride over them with your bike, or accidentally squish them with your sandals. Not once have I ever thought to collect them and serve them up for dinner. The local term for delicious, "broke da' mouth", would certainly not apply to these oreo cookie sized cockroaches.
Which brings me around to the pictures above taken at a recent dinner party at our home as part of the Celebrate Science annual dinner with the authors. Each year we try to have a themed dinner for our illustrious guests. One year it was a trip to the Wine Research Centre at UBC. Another year it was the Science of Wine and Cheese where we learned that the perfect cheese to pair with Ice Wine was oddly stinky blue cheese.
It was with great trepidation and a serious amount of alcohol that a somewhat reluctant group of science lovers enjoyed some unusual appetizers or pupus as we call them on the big island.
Professor Murray Isman, Dean of Land and Food Systems fried up a pan of juvenile and mature locusts and baked a tray of meal worms for our enjoyment. The Dean's wife, Susie gave it a wide pass as she is allergic to shellfish and much to her glee, the locusts have outer coatings which contain chiton, the same material that is found in shrimp and lobster. As for taste, anything with enough garlic, butter and a dash of liqueur is pretty good. The locusts were crunchy and quite good, while the meal worms were somewhat like peanuts. They were an acquired taste.
While I might not want to serve these on a regular basis, about half the world includes insects as part of their diet. Bugs, as it turns out are the perfect food.
The average beef burger contains only 18% protein and 18% fat; the same amount of grasshopper would give you 60% protein and only 6% fat. The fat in insects is unsaturated, making them a healthier alternative to meat. Beef contains 9 mg of iron- while there is 2 mg for the same weight in grasshoppers.
Now getting into the eat locally trend, locusts can be home grown. They have a very small carbon footprint . If you raise your own they don't have to be transported over any distance by truck, train or plane. No machines are used to harvest them and obviously pesticides can't be used in raising them. They don't need steroids or additives. No questions about ethically raising these bugs and killing is done in the pan. Grasshoppers and their like are not GMO as who in their right mind would want to create cow sized bugs?
There is no shortage of these creatures around the world. Earthworms, meal bugs, locusts and other edible creepy crawlies are found in abundance everywhere. Before you get too self righteous about eating bugs, don't be so smug. Ground up bits of bugs find their way into processed foods every day. In fact you would be surprised just how many you are eating each time to have a something powdered, baked or floured.
Next year instead of carving up a roasted turkey for the holiday, try making an entree of sautéed locusts with a side of meal worms. The earth will thank you for it.
Mele Kalikimaka (Hawaiian for "Merry Christmas". The language hasn't anything for Happy Chanukah)

22 Dec 2012

Fuel Spills

Do science and outdoor sports go together for you? They do for me! I do a lot of thinking when out in my kayak. Sometimes the things I see when kayaking remind me of birdwatching and climate change science. But most recently, while out in my kayak I passed a floating plastic bag that might have blown off a boat, and a sunken tin pie pan that was probably frisbee-ed from shore. Seeing human trash reminded me of why I had to get to my computer and write this post. There have been a series of fuel spills locally, where I live in Saanich, part of Victoria.
You can read about one of the first recent spills in the Saanich News in their article appropriately titled "Oil spill stains urban miracle." It's on the front page, with a sub-heading "Catastrophe strikes Coho-laden creek." I hadn't thought of an urban creek being the subject of study for working biologists, but it is. And there are school visits to the creek as well, so that students can learn about Nature in their own home neighbourhood.
My friend John Herbert took this photo of Colquitz Creek. That's the salmon stream that we've written about here, the one that runs from Beaver Lake through Panama Flats to Portage Inlet.
This spill was from a home heating oil tank that leaked. It happened when a fuel delivery was made to the wrong address, and the wrong home's unused tank was filled with home heating oil. A pipe leading from the fuel tank sprung a leak, and over a few days released an estimated 1,000 litres of heating oil into Swan Creek, which drains into Colquitz Creek. Once the oily sheen on the stream was pointed out to Saanich municipal workers, they traced the fuel up to the source of the leak. Other leaks have since been traced back to other tanks.

These fuel tanks weren't mine or in my own neighbourhood, but I must have walked within a hundred yards of them several times before eating and relaxing at a nearby home of friends or family. That's it, for me. Not in my back yard. Not in my friends' and families' back yards. Accidents happen, but fuel tanks are owned by people who can look after them. No excuses. When I walked back from the beach, I put the kayak away and looked at my landlady's fuel tank. No visible leaks. Not in my yard.
I'm no fuel-servicing expert. I'm not a marine biologist, or a fresh-water biologist either, but I do get out on the water often in my kayak. Every small boat user interacts hands-on with the water in a personal way. We can understand the effects of fuel spills on waterways, effects that some people don't easily understand because they don't see the plants and animals like we do. Now I'm trying to put that understanding to use.
Another recent spill of home heating fuel into the watershed in Greater Victoria can be read about here at the Times-Colonist newspaper website. The Times-Colonist article noted that:
A fact sheet from the provincial Environment Ministry says homeowners are potentially liable for cleanup costs whether they are aware of the existence of an oil tank or not.
Scary thought, eh? And home insurance doesn't cover fuel spills. One of the recent cleanups cost the homeowners $35,000.
Apparently, an old fuel tank can go from "looks ok" to "leaking" pretty darned fast... even when it's been checked by an expert from the fuel oil company. As one homeowner with an unexpected leak said to the Saanich News:
We had a platinum protection plan where (our oil company) would do sonic testing of the tank to check the thickness of the walls. We were also using their oil that’s supposed to have additives in it that retards corrosion,” Keith says. “We were sort of relying on that plan, to some extent, to give us a head’s up if something was up. At the end of the day that didn’t help us out. We’re kicking ourselves now – it was an old tank, why didn’t we just replace it? For $2,000 we could’ve avoided a ton of grief.”

It seems that tank leaks can happen suddenly and aren't as obvious as the crack along the coaming in my second-hand Pamlico kayak from Wilderness Systems.
So I will remember the statements by experts in the local newspapers: twenty-year-old fuel tanks can and do fail suddenly. I don't have to be a fuel expert to help my landlady make a proper plan for the fuel tank at her house! That's practical science we can put to good use. With planning, this home heating system will never be the cause for an expensive and environmentally damaging spill.
We can't stop all the fuel spills in the world, but we can each look after our own equipment. And if you see any fuel spilled on the ground or water in BC, in town or out in the boonies, call the 24-Hour Spill Line toll-free at 1-800-663-3456.

7 Dec 2012

Talking to Your Dog is Not As Crazy As You Think

by L E Carmichael

Any dog owner will tell you that their pet understands them - recognizes words, follows commands, and somehow knows when they need a sympathetic snuggle.  Scientists call this communicative skill and intelligence "social cognition."  It's the set of knowledge and behaviours that animals - including humans - need in order to survive in social groups.  In the case of the dog, humans are a natural part of that social group, and language is one of the major ways humans communicate.  Use of human language by dogs is a developing field of study.

Thanks to Othal via Wikimedia Commons for this
gorgeous border collie photo!
Take Rico, for example.  Rico's owners claimed that the border collie knew the names of 200 objects, and would retrieve each item on request.  Scientists were skeptical at first - after all, a horse known as "Clever Hans" wasn't actually counting, but reading his trainer's body language.  However, when Rico had to go into a separate room to find the toy his owner asked for, where he couldn't receive any additional clues, he still got it right 37 out of 40 times.  

Rico's vocabulary, though on par with trained apes, dolphins, and parrots, wasn't that interesting to scientists.  What they wanted to understand was how Rico learned the names of new objects.  They placed unfamiliar items in the room with toys that he knew, then asked him to retrieve using a brand new word.  Seven out of 10 times, Rico brought the new object.  He was using exclusion learning - "I know the names of all of these things, but mom used a different word, and therefore...."  This "fast mapping" is the same technique human children use during language learning, and Rico's success rate was comparable to that of an average 3-year-old.

Scientists have shown that when humans generalize new words to categories of objects, they do so based on shape, rather than size or texture.  For example, if shown a ball for the first time, kids will extend that label to other spherical objects.  Similarities in size and texture are less important - a golf ball and a whiffle ball are both balls.  Would the same true for dogs?

A second border collie, Gable, was taught that the word "dax" represented a small, fuzzy, U-shaped object.  He was then asked to identify the dax among objects with different sizes, shapes or textures.  Unlike people, Gable generalized the word dax to objects the same size, not shape, as the original.  He also used texture as an indicator.  

Scientists believe that humans rely on shape because, in general, vision is our dominant sense.  It's less clear why dogs may be relying on different indicators, but the results suggest that there could be fundamental differences in the way dogs and people learn and understand language.  Which makes it even more incredible that we manage to communicate at all!


The video of Gable is from: van der Zee et al (2012) Word Generalization by a Dog (Canis familiaris): Is Shape Important? PLOS ONE: e49382.  You can find more videos at the article's home page.