Archive for 'News about research'

Driving trucks at birds – what happens?

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

Q. What happens if you drive a partially camouflaged Ford F-250 truck (travelling at 60 km/h [≈ 37 mph]) towards a group of feeding turkey vultures?
A. They get out of the way [pdq].

journal.pone.0087944.s002This was one of the findings of an experimental study by Travis L. DeVault, Bradley F. Blackwell, Thomas W. Seamans, Steven L. Lima, and Esteban Fernández-Juricic, performed at NASA’s Plum Brook Station, Lake Erie, Ohio, US, in 2011. The team also drove the truck at 90 km/h [≈ 56 mph] and the vultures still got out of the way – but only just.

Please note that no vultures were actually hit during any of the experiments.  See: Effects of Vehicle Speed on Flight Initiation by Turkey Vultures: Implications for Bird-Vehicle Collisions, PLoS ONE 9(2): e87944

The following year, another, perhaps less ornithologically perilous experimental approach was taken by the same team. This time using male brown-headed cowbirds and with vehicles travelling up to a punishing 180 km/h [≈ 112 mph]. At these high speeds, the birds didn’t manage to get out of the way in time. But nevertheless none was injured – because in this experiment the vehicles were virtual rather than real. The birds were watching a video of an approaching truck instead of the truck itself. See: Speed kills : ineffective avian escape responses to oncoming vehicles. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282(1801): 20142188. 2014

Also don’t miss ‘European birds adjust their flight initiation distance to road speed limits’ Biology Letters, October 23, 2013

BONUS (from NASA) ‘Bye Bye, Birdies’  especially vultures.

The Butcher’s Tongue Illusion (update)

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

Could we inform those who wish to experiment in a hands-on practical way with the Butcher’s Tongue Illusion (which we highlighted [highlit?] back in Oct 2014, see:The Butcher’s Tongue Illusion (from the chip-crunch manipulator’), that the paper provides a link to DiscountMagic where fake tongues (like the one used in the experiments) can be purchased for £6.50 (+ “Only another £18.50 for free UK shipping”)

Pigeons as Trained Observers in the War on Cancer

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

Pigeons may be as good as some bad radiologists, in some ways, maybe, suggests this new study:

Pigeons (Columba livia) as Trainable Observers of Pathology and Radiology Breast Cancer Images,” Richard M. Levenson, Elizabeth A. Krupinski, Victor M. Navarro, and Edward A. Wasserman, PLoS ONE, 10(11): e0141357. (Thanks to Ig Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Oberzaucher for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at University of California Davis, the University of Iowa, and Emory University, report:

pigeon radiology

“We report here that pigeons (Columba livia)—which share many visual system properties with humans—can serve as promising surrogate observers of medical images, a capability not previously documented. The birds proved to have a remarkable ability to distinguish benign from malignant human breast histopathology after training with differential food reinforcement; even more importantly, the pigeons were able to generalize what they had learned when confronted with novel image sets. The birds’ histological accuracy, like that of humans, was modestly affected by the presence or absence of color as well as by degrees of image compression, but these impacts could be ameliorated with further training. Turning to radiology, the birds proved to be similarly capable of detecting cancer-relevant microcalcifications on mammogram images. However, when given a different (and for humans quite difficult) task—namely, classification of suspicious mammographic densities (masses)—the pigeons proved to be capable only of image memorization and were unable to successfully generalize when shown novel examples.”

BONUS: The 1995 Ig Nobel Prize for psychology was awarded to Shigeru Watanabe, Junko Sakamoto, and Masumi Wakita, of Keio University, for their success in training pigeons to discriminate between the paintings of Picasso and those of Monet. [details of that research are in the study “Pigeons’ Discrimination of Paintings by Monet and Picasso,” Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, vol. 63, 1995, pp. 165-174.]

BONUS: Surgical pathology and bird-watching

UPDATE (thanks to Tom Levenson): Video that accompanies the study:

BONUS: Kinect and pigeon behavior, with another look at the video of B.F. Skinner explaining how he trains pigeons:

Podcast #38: Color preference in the insane, with frozen mammoth

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

Color preference in the insane, the red sweat of the hippopotamus, the question of whether The Explorer’s Club served a dinner of thawed, roast woolley mammoth, and how surgeons handle pop-up surprises — all of these turn up in this week’s Improbable Research podcast.

LISTEN TO IT! …or click on the “Venetian blinds” icon — at the lower right corner here — to select whichever week’s episode you want to hear:

SUBSCRIBE on, iTunes, or Spotify to get a new episode every week, free.

This week, Marc Abrahams tells about:

The mysterious John Schedler or the shadowy Bruce Petschek perhaps did the sound engineering this week.

The Improbable Research podcast is all about research that makes people LAUGH, then THINK — real research, about anything and everything, from everywhere —research that may be good or bad, important or trivial, valuable or worthless. CBS distributes it, on the CBS web site, and on iTunes and Spotify).

An authoritative answer to the coffee/health question

Monday, November 16th, 2015

A question may be difficult (or impossible) to really answer, but that difficulty does not prevent authoritative people from supplying authoritative answers.

A November 16, 2015 press release brews up a new authoritative answer to the question “Is drinking coffee good or bad for your health”:

Moderate coffee drinking may lower risk of premature death

Boston, MA – People who drink about three to five cups of coffee a day may be less likely to die prematurely from some illnesses than those who don’t drink or drink less coffee, according to a new study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers and colleagues….

“Bioactive compounds in coffee reduce insulin resistance and systematic inflammation,” said first author Ming Ding, a doctoral student in the Department of Nutrition. “That could explain some of our findings. However, more studies are needed to investigate the biological mechanisms producing these effects.”

HuThe study is: “Association of Coffee Consumption with Total and Cause-specific Mortality in Three Large Prospective Cohorts,” Ming Ding, Ambika Satija, Shilpa N. Bhupathiraju, Yang Hu, Qi Sun, Walter Willett, Rob M. van Dam, Frank B. Hu [pictured here], Circulation, online November 16, 2015.

The authors and their institution made a video to inform the public that the coffee question has now been answered:

BONUS ACTIVITY: Read the entire press release, and also the entire study. Count the number of times you see the words “may” or “could“.

BONUS BONUS ACTIVITY: Read several press accounts of this study. For each press account, count the number of times you see the words “may” or “could“. Perhaps begin with these two news reports: “Drink up, coffee’s good for you. (Even decaf!)” and “Coffee could literally be a lifesaver“.

EXTRA BONUS BONUS ACTIVITY, FOR EXTREMELY NERDY READERS ONLY: In the space of one minute (60 seconds), list five reasons why it is difficult or impossible to find the real answer to the question “Is drinking coffee good or bad for your health?”