101: Butterfly Invasion. Good News on Heart Attacks. Climate Strike!

Spring has arrived! It’s been a cold, snowy, and wet winter in North America while the rest of hemisphere seemed much warmer than normal. But hope springs eternal with the new season. Flowers are blooming, birds are singing, and young people are on strike for climate action.

There’s something in the air, that’s for sure.

On This Week’s Show

  • Switch to soft foods affected human speech
  • An invasion in California
  • Good news when it comes to heart attacks
  • An explanation for my magnetic personality
  • The Climate Lounge
  • Pub Quiz

Science News with Sophie McManus and Chris MacAlister

Ancient switch to soft food gave us the ability to pronounce ‘f’s and ‘v’s

Sophie McManus

This is so interesting! I can blame evolution for my horrendous need for braces as a teenager. Maybe.

This story concerns a study recently published in the journal Science by an international team of researchers, with affiliations in Switzerland, the US, France, Russia, the Netherlands and Singapore.

The emergence of agriculture allowed early human diets to change, meaning they began to eat softer, more processed food (a trend that continues to this day…). This shift in lifestyle actually altered the shape and structure of the human jaw, leading to overbites becoming more common – that’s the conclusion of this paper. A consequence of developing an overbite appears to be an enhanced ability to pronounce words with ‘v’ and ‘f’ sounds in them. The newly favored consonants, known as labiodentals, apparently helped spur the diversification of languages in Europe and Asia at least 4000 years ago.

Postdocs Damián Blasi and Steven Moran set out to test an idea proposed by the late American linguist Charles Hockett. Hockett noted in 1985 that the languages of hunter-gatherers lacked labiodentals, and conjectured that their diet was partly responsible: Chewing gritty, fibrous foods puts force on the growing jaw bone and wears down molars. In response, the lower jaw grows larger, and the molars erupt farther and drift forward on the protruding lower jaw, so that the upper and lower teeth align. That edge-to-edge bite makes it harder to push the upper jaw forward to touch the lower lip, which is required to pronounce labiodentals. But other linguists rejected the idea, and Blasi says he, Moran, and their colleagues “expected to prove Hockett wrong.” However, their computer modelling actually supported Hockett’s ideas.

Linguist Nicholas Evans of Australian National University in Canberra finds the study's “multimethod approach to the problem” convincing. Ian Maddieson, an emeritus linguist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, had a couple of queries about their methodology, but agreed overall that the study shows external factors like diet can alter the sounds of speech.

The findings also suggest our facility with f-words comes at a cost. As we lost our ancestral edge-to-edge bite, our pronunciation may have become more sophisticated, but our jaws also got more crowded leading to more tooth problems – and a higher likelihood of needing fillings! That’s an f word right there.

Science


Huge migration of painted lady butterflies in California

Chris MacAlister

There are some saying that the apocalypse is here. Well that’s not news, there’s always someone saying that the apocalypse is here. But the new group of people being associated with this phrase (even if they aren’t personally using it) are entomologists. It is becoming increasingly clear that we are experiencing an unprecedented decline in all types of insect life.

Why is this happening? For the same reasons that other species are declining. The difference with insects is that there are so many of them that you need to have a dramatic drop in them before you begin to notice the difference. Regardless of whether you like creepy-crawlies or not, this potentially has massive implications for all of us but the bigger implication right now is that this is isn’t what this story is about.

Because, amid the backdrop of this entomological endgame there is a success story to be seen in a butterfly, the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). California has been inundated with them this month as they migrate from the Mojave & Colorado deserts up to Oregon, Washington, possibly further North.

So how are these lepidoptera bucking the trend? Well it seems that what was meant when they were called painted ladies was actually warpainted bad-asses! They are the most abundant butterfly in the world. They are resistant to a bewildering range of plant toxins, which gives them an impressively diverse pallet, they can shiver to generate their own body heat and, despite only living for some 25 days, they have been known to migrate up to 2,500 miles!

But even these superpowers don’t protect them from everything. Their numbers took a real beating last year, so what’s the difference this year? Rain. Desert rain has brought a plant bonanza, creating the conditions for caterpillar ladies that lunch.

New York Times, LA Times


U.S. heart attack mortality hits a two-decade low in 2014

Sophie McManus

A good news story! Heart attack acute mortality fell from 20% to 12% in the States over two decades. What’s more, fewer people are HAVING heart attacks, quite apart from the fact fewer sufferers then die. Declines were seen across sex, race and age in over 4 million patients, all over 65 years of age.

Why is this? The causes for these improvements appear to be the following – more consistent application of effective treatments, as well as a greater focus on diet and exercise. What confuses me is the fact that obesity is more prevalent in the US (and the world) now than it was 20 years ago. So i would not expect there to be a big improvement in diet and exercise uptake in that time.

Science News


Human brains can detect Earth’s magnetic field

Chris MacAlister

The Earth has molten rock deep beneath its surface. The iron moving in this molten rock creates a magnetic field around the Earth, and this is a good thing. Mainly because this electromagnetic field deflects harmful radiation from the sun, thus preventing it from irradiating all life Earth, which is nice.

The other helpful byproduct of this magnetic field is that it can help us find our way around. Whilst many animals naturally can detect this magnetism and use it to help them navigate, humans have built tools that allow us to do the same (like a simple compass).

But now there has been a study released claiming that humans can indeed directly detect this magnetic field. This is an impressive claim considering that various people have been looking for evidence of this since the 1980s and have, rather ironically, ended up a bit lost.

The success of this study, where others have previously failed, is due to brain waves. There are various patterns of electrical activity seen in the brain, and these patterns change in response to external stimuli. For example, alpha brain waves get calmer when you detect a signal like light or sound.

This study put people into a darkened room and then messed around with the magnetic field in there, and what they found is that certain changes in the field did generate a dampening of these alpha waves.

The problem with this study is its size. There were only thirty-four people tested in this way, and out of those, only four showed this reaction.

But regardless of the reliability of the study, the overwhelmingly obvious fact is the humans are unable to use this ability, even if they do have it. People lost in the wilderness are reputed for walking in circles, which is something that you would argue people would avoid doing if they could.

So this low rate of detection in humans, coupled with our apparent inability to be able to use magnetism has lead some to suspect that it is vestigial; like the tonsils of the brain. It is possible that some of our non-human ancestors may have possessed this ability, but with no selection pressure to keep this ability working to perfection the system begins to break down. It doesn’t just vanish overnight. It maybe that we have discovered this ability at it’s 3am stage. There’s some evidence that it was at the party but the memory is pretty vague and you wouldn’t trust it to drive just yet.

Live Science, New Scientist


The Climate Lounge

Climate Strike!

Tom Di Liberto

I complain about a lot of things. Some of them are real complaints. Others not so much. Okay, most of them not so much. But for the most part, my complaints stop right there. I imagine I’m like a lot of you. We don’t like something. We think something is wrong. We complain about it, but we don’t know what to do beyond that. What’s that next step?

For me all too often the next step is moving on. You can see how bad this is if the thing you are complaining about actually is really important. I say all of this because right now, kids… KIDS(!), a generation that always gets stereotyped as coddled and lazy are mobilizing en masse to deal with climate change. They complained, THEN DID SOMETHING. Revolutionary if you ask me.

On Friday, 15 March 1.4 million children from 123 countries went on a climate strike to demand stronger climate policies from their respective governments. It was likely one of the largest environmental protests in history. The strike leader was Greta Thunberg who I’ve talked about before. Her reason for the movement? She said, “This movement had to happen, we didn’t have a choice. We knew there was a climate crisis. We knew because everything we read and watched screamed out to us that something was very wrong.”

What do they want? From an op-ed in the Guardian, “they want to keep fossil fuels in the ground, phase out subsidies for dirty energy production, seriously invest in renewables and start asking difficult questions about how we structure our economies and who is set to win and who is set to lose”.

The other goal is to simply get more people talking about climate change, and elevating the conversation. One good way to do that is to get 1.4 million people to march. Of course, this needs the media to join as well. And as we all know the media tends to not focus on climate change even though the problem will likely dominate the discourse over the next century.

So if the media won’t talk about it the grassroots have to force the conversation. Now things seem to be changing in the US as folks advocating for reality, I mean climate action, are playing the offensive. With this strike, the Sunrise Movement, the Green New Deal, and even a major party presidential candidate Jay Inslee making climate change the focus of his run.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t people tut-tutting all of this. From Theresa May to whole political parties in the US, and others in Australia and elsewhere. There are still plenty of obstacles in the way of a proper response to climate change. But in order to finish an obstacle race, you need to start it.

VoX NatGEo CNN


Pub Quiz

The latest science news in quiz form. Can you beat the Blue Streak team?


In Closing

That concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.

If you have any suggestions or comments email us at podcast@bluestreakscience.com

You can subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and any number of podcast directories.

If you have an iOS device like an iPhone or an iPad you can get the Blue Streak Science app from the App Store.

This show is produced by the Blue Streak Science team, and edited by Pro Podcast Solutions.

Our hosts today were Sophie McManus, Chris MacAlister, and Tom Di Liberto

I’m JD Goodwin.  

Thank you for joining us.

And remember…follow the science!

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