Top Story: July 26, 2012

Polar Bears, Drought and Rain

hummingbird

Some recent headlines offer updates to stories we’ve run in the past few months.

Oops!

Last winter we attended the AAAS Meeting in Vancouver, BC and listened to the University of Texas’ Charles Groat downplay the effects of fracking. We posted a bit of that news in an article about increased fracking regulations in April.

This week, Science Insider reports that Groat neglected to mention that he serves on the board of (and receives quite a bit of funding from) an oil and gas company that conducts fracking. Sounds like a bit of a conflict of interest, doesn’t it?

Really Old Polar Bears

In April we also ran a story about polar bear evolution. Researchers, studying nuclear DNA, put polar bears’ origin to 600,000 years ago.

But a new study, published earlier this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that polar bears evolved into a distinct species as many as 4-5 million years ago and did not recently descend from brown bears, despite shared genetic material.

The authors conclude that brown bears and polar bears interbred intermittently over the years. The New York Times compares this to humans in a funny, relatable way:

The progress of species formation, at least in this case, is a bit like a long, ambivalent divorce in which the two parties separate but occasionally fall back into bed even after the official decree.

Drought

Last week, we wrote about the devastating drought engulfing our country. This week Brandon Keim, writing in Wired, describes how this tragedy could reach beyond our borders and create global unrest.

Reporting on a recent study by the New England Complex Systems Institute, Keim says that commodity speculation (that food prices will rise due to the drought) may drive conflict in developing countries. The study reports that recent history demonstrates this trend:

During the last six years, high and fluctuating food prices have lead to widespread hunger and social unrest.

An article in Nature also explores this global impact.

Rain, rain…

Finally, earlier this summer, before drought was a harsh reality, we described mosquitoes amazing ability to fly through the rain. Now, a new study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, demonstrates that hummingbirds are equally as adept in heavy downpours.

According to the abstract, UC Berkeley’s Victor Manuel Ortega-Jimenez and Robert Dudley found that:

…birds hovering in heavy rain adopted more horizontal body and tail positions, and also increased wingbeat frequency substantially, while reducing stroke amplitude when compared with control conditions.

These dynamics can be applied to robots, say the authors. No surprise, given both scientists are part of Berkeley’s Integrative Biology department—where many bio-inspired robotic ideas come from.

Image: User:Mdf/Wikipedia

comments

Previous Top Stories

Browse
 

About Science Today

Science Today is the California Academy of Sciences’ channel for current stories on cutting-edge technologies, life, Earth, space and sustainability. Content is produced in-house and is distributed throughout the museum, on the internet and through various partners. Please share your comments on what you find important in the changing world of science.