I thought this was already known

Doting killer whale grandmothers help their grand calves survive, particularly in times of food scarcity, scientists reported in a paper that sheds new light on the evolutionary role of menopause.

Orca females stop reproducing in their thirties or forties but can continue to live for decades more, a phenomenon known only to exist in humans and four other mammal species, all of which are whales.

It has been suggested that the trait evolved because it allowed post reproductive females to help their wider kin – referred to as the “grandmother effect” in people, but the theory had not been tested in whales until now.

I knew about the menopause bit and also the grandmother effect in people. But I thought that one of the reasons I knew about it was because it had been observed in whales – the only other species(es) which have the menopause.

Correlation, correlation

The team from the National Museum of Natural History and the University of Lyon recorded the occurrence and extent of toe mutilations from pigeons eking out their time in 46 sites across Paris.

They found that human pollution likely played a part in nearly all cases of missing toes and that pigeons living in areas with higher rates of air and noise pollution tended to have fewer digits than those that lived in leafier environs.

Perhaps most strikingly, the team noticed that toe mutilation “tended to increase with the density of hairdressers” – suggesting the birds often lose their extremities by getting them entangled in human hair.

We need to work out causation here. More hairdressers means shorter human hair out on the street, no? Less being left to float around the streets, certainly.

Thus, more likely, there are more hairdressers in tighter urban environments, the tighter urbanity causing the toe loss.

Well, sorta

Sooner or later the number of positions on our family tree are filled with the same people over and over, until at some point all the branches coalesce. Everybody now is descended from everybody then. For Europe, that time is about a thousand years ago. All people of long-standing European descent have the same ancestors a thousand years ago.

On average this might well be true. Not necessarily for each and every one though.

Not exactly, no

Largest ever study of African genome will help fight racial bias in medical data, say experts

What we’re actually trying to do is get more racial bias into our medical data.

We know that genes vary across human groupings. We know that disease incidence varies across human groupings. We’d like more information about how the one affects the other. We want to have more racial bias to our research ,not less.

Obvious really, but great

The Eagle phones home to say it has landed. But the texts are no crossing a border, bankrupting the monitoring budget.

Once he landed near a rubbish dump in Iran, it began sending hundreds of text messages of GPS data, costing the programme’s shoestring budget up to 7,000 roubles (£85) a day. Each text from Iran is priced at 49 roubles, about 25 times more than in Russia and three times more than in Kazakhstan.

Min’s data quickly used up all the researchers’ phone credit, which had already been depleted by three other eagles that flew to Iran, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, SibEco Centre ornithologist Yelena Shnaider told The Telegraph. The researchers even had to take out a loan.

“He wasn’t in touch all summer … We were happy to get a text from him,” she said. “We had expected to get it from Kazakhstan but suddenly he’s in Iran, and we started to get his summer locations at three times the price.”

“But Min’s a good boy, about a week ago he left Iran and went to Saudi Arabia where it’s cheaper,” she added.

Since she called on supporters to “put money on the eagle’s phone,” more than 250,000 roubles (£3,000) have been raised, enough to track all 13 birds through the end of the year.

Rather a fun story. No grand point to it, just like it.

Entirely believe the what, it’s the why…..

A new study found would-be mothers who feel overwhelmed or depressed are at greater risk of suffering a miscarriage if they are pregnant with a boy.

Scientists at Columbia University in New York said that, in many cases, women will not yet have realised they have conceived when the pregnancy fails due to stress.

The team correlated birth outcomes in a group of 187 pregnant women with 27 indicators of psychosocial, physical and lifestyle stress.

They noted that the boy-to-girl ratio in women who were physically stressed was 4:9, and 2:3 in women who were psychologically stressed.

This is compared to 105:100 boy-girl ration across the whole population.

Published in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study appears to explain longstanding trends showing an increase in births of girls relative to boys following national traumas, such as 9/11, the assination of JFK and various earthquakes.

The researchers believe the phenomenon may be explained by the fact male foetuses take longer to complete their early developmental stages, leaving them more vulnerable to sub-optimal conditions in the womb.

Sure. And we see much the same, tho’ stronger, in times of real stress like near famine. Male female ratio at conception stays the same. Girl ratio at birth soars. There’s selective abortion (not, perhaps, spontaneous as it’s being caused, but not consciously) going on. Even if it’s abortion by unthinking hormones rather than adult human action.

The argument deployed. Children born after a pregnancy at a time of stress are usually smaller. Assuming that the stress lasts for some time they’ll also be nutritionally deficient during childhood – the chances of stunting rise.

Male children who grow up runty lose out in the having grandchildren stakes. Female children, assuming that times aren’t so hard that the plumbing still works, will still have those grandchildren even if runty.

The aim of life is grandchildren. Thus, selective abortion of male foeti in times of stress. Why bother to invest in what won’t produce the point of the exercise? Clear it out and start again, better luck next time.

We’re really pretty sure this is true of famine and near. So, why not with other forms of stress?

BTW, this is also used as the reason for Downs rising with maternal age. It’s not eggs decaying. Rather, when there’s plenty of time for another conception why not clear out the near failure. But when this might well be the last one then why not carry on?


Helps to explain why the zebra has stripes:

Painting a cow to look something like a zebra has been found to reduce fly bites by 50%.

Which leads to something I don’t know. Tsetse flies mean chunks of Africa can’t be used for cattle raising, nor, I think, horses. Not so much the fly I think, but some parasite their bite passes on. (!?!)

Zebras are of course closely related to horses, it’s possible to breed a zhorse or summat, as with a mule from a horse donkey combination – and the donkey zebra cross is definitely possible – but what is it that leaves the zrbra free to breed in tsetse areas? Is it immunity to the parasite? Or being bitten less? And if the second, is that the reason for the stripes? Or even, did they develop before the immunity did.

And another question. I know there was a big trade in horses from the steppes down into India. And also from N Africa down into tropical.


Is it because horses don’t breed, or don’t do so well, in hot climates? Or just the economics of billions of acres of grassland?

Not how evolution works, no

Professor Gerard Karsenty, of Columbia University, said: “The notion that bone mediates the stress response is totally novel, as is the notion that the adrenal glands do not mediate the stress response.

“This verifies the concept that bone was invented in part as a tool to fight acute danger.”

He added: “If you think of bone as something that evolved to protect the organism from danger – the skull protects the brain from trauma, the skeleton allows vertebrates to escape predators, and even the bones in the ear alert us to approaching danger – the hormonal functions of osteocalcin begin to make sense.”

Bone didn’t evolve to do anything at all. That it evolved through random mutation then provided the benefits which are being spoken of.

Yes, yes, I know, he’s a professor and an expert and all that. But I simply don’t trust such who cannot even get the basics right. After all, we do have an example of a know nothing professor to marvel at…….

Not quite how genes work

The study is a fascinating one, using thousands of brain scans and hundreds of thousands of sequenced genomes to look for associations between genes, brains and hands. It found that, in left-handers, the left and right hemispheres had stronger links in the regions associated with language, which could correlate with greater language ability.

It also found “significant positive correlation” between left-handedness and mental health outcomes such as sensitivity, having “fed-up feelings” and being a “worrier”. Look, I’m no scientist, but that feels extremely real.

Left-handedness runs in families and identical twins are more likely to have the same hand dominant than are fraternal twins and siblings. This implies that the genes do have some influence, but are not the whole story. Previous studies have suggested left-handedness is about 25% heritable, with the other 75% of the variation accounted for by environmental factors – although what those factors are remains elusive.

Err, no.

No, I am not about to insist that I know what causes sinister. Rather, just to make a point about genes.

Yes, inheritable. Sometimes, often, whatever. The trait at least might be inherited, and different ones more strongly or weakly.


But that doesn’t mean that something that you parents don’t have is therefore environmental in cause. For there is always that random mutation in each and every generation, isn’t there?

We thus have three – inherit, rising anew through genes/chromosomes/whatever in this generation and environmental causes.

Entirely possible

An Indian minister has claimed that Indian scholars discovered gravity centuries before Issac Newton’s famous encounter with an apple, and called on the country’s scientists to promote more homegrown theories.

Sure*, why not? Wouldn’t surprise if some very clever people had worked out reality.

Charaka was a scholar who developed the concept of Ayurvedic medicine and learning around 300 BC, while Aryabhata was a 5th century mathematician and astronomer.

Show us the texts and we can have a look, eh?

*Telegraph apparently has this story on the wrong URL…..

George Monbiot is against evolution now

And almost nothing has been learned. Our disease prevention rules, whose scope is restricted by the European Union and the World Trade Organization, and whose enforcement is restricted by the British government’s austerity, do little to prevent similar plagues afflicting our remaining trees. Several deadly pathogens are marching across Europe. While it is hard to prevent some of these plagues from spreading across land, there is a simple measure that would stop most of them from spreading across water: a ban on the import of all live plants except those grown from tissue cultures, in sterile conditions.

Natural selection – this must be stopped!

Standard variation

It was during a competition for junior firefighters that somebody first noticed something unusual about the small Polish village of Miejsce Odrzanskie. Every single one of the uniformed children showing off their skills was a girl.

The reason is as simple as it is surprising. No boys have been born in Miejsce Odrzanskie for almost a decade, while the village’s women in the rural backwater of 300 souls have given birth to 12 girls.

The boy shortage is so acute that the mayor has offered a cash reward for the first family to produce a son. The world’s media have descended on the village in the fields of south-west Poland not far from the Czech border to investigate the phenomenom.

We can work it out can’t we? Chance of – not accurate but what the hell – girl is 0.5, assuming a birth takes place. Chance of 12 on the trot in one series of 12 is 0.5×0.5×0.5 a total of 12 times.

Or, across an entire country of many series of 12 births the chance approaches 1 again, doesn’t it?

Unless of course they’re all Israeli fighter pilots in which case….

Is it really 50/50 or better that he’s saved the life of every reader?

This little-known inventor has probably saved your life

The headline question being asked by Mr McKay:

David knew his idea for a cockpit recorder was a good one. Without official support, there was little he could do about it – but he couldn’t get it out of his mind.

When his boss was promoted, David pitched his invention again. His new superior was intrigued, and so was Dr Laurie Coombes, ARL’s chief superintendent. They urged him to keep working on it – but discreetly. Since it wasn’t a government-approved venture or a war-winning weapon, it couldn’t be seen to take up lab time or money.

Black box recorder 50/50 break on saving the life of the modal BBC reader?

Think it unlikely, don’t you?

Interesting thought

But geneticist Veronica van Heyningen, president of the Galton Institute, sounded a note of caution. Her institute is independent of UCL but she has given evidence to its eugenics inquiry. “I fully acknowledge that Galton was a terrible racist,” Van Heyningen told the Observer. “But he also played an extremely important role in developing the science of genetics,

How much did his racism drive on the development?

Actual scientists might know the answer here

The British astrophysicist was a PhD student when she discovered repeating pulses of radio waves after studying months of radio telescope data. These became known as pulsars – spinning neutron stars which weigh more than the sun. Burnell’s supervisor, Antony Hewish, was credited with the discovery and awarded a Nobel in 1974.

It is normal, or not, that the PhD supervisor is credited with the student’s discovery?

No, not really then

An ancient barrage of exploding stars close to Earth is the main reason early humans learnt to walk on two feet rather than all fours, according to new research.

Scientists believe the intense period of supernovae, which peaked approximately 2.6 million years ago, caused a surge in lightning strikes which incinerated much of the heavily forested Earth.

Early humans then had to adapt from living in and around trees to surviving in open savannas, meaning the ability to cross exposed grassland at speed and spot predators above the vegetation became crucial.

Such general change in the environment won’t explain why just the one species became bipedal. Not really…..