Chatty baby seals
As if they weren’t cute enough, baby seals have been found to change their voices to match their environment.
In a study published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, researchers simulated different environmental sounds – such as ocean waves – and played them to harbour seal pups at the Dutch Sealcentre Pieterburen rehabilitation centre.
The found that the baby seals lowered the tone of their voice and kept a steady pitch when they heard loud sea noises, and ‘raised their voices’ to be heard over noisy waves.
“Seal pups have a more advanced control over their vocalisations than assumed up until now,” says study author Andrea Ravignani of the Max Planck Institute, Netherlands.
“This control seems to be already present at only a few weeks of age. This is astonishing, as few other mammals seem capable of that.
“To date, humans seem to be the only mammals with direct neural connections between the cortex (the outer layer of the brain) and the larynx (what we use to produce tone of voice).
“These results show that seals may be the most promising species to find these direct connections and unravel the mystery of speech.”
Friendliness over skills makes a good team
Friendly people are more likely to be chosen as part of a team than skilled but unfriendly people, suggests a study published in The Journal of Management.
Researchers from Binghamton University, US, found that friendliness and trustworthiness outweighed pure skill competency when university students chose teams for projects and assignments.
“We assume that people are selected for important task forces and teams because of the knowledge, skills and abilities they bring to the table,” says study author Cynthia Maupin. “However, this research suggests that people may often get picked because team members feel comfortable with them.
“People may be willing to sacrifice a bit in terms of performance in order to have a really positive team experience.
“We wanted to find out what people did to signal to others that they might be someone who would be good to team up with in the future.”
They found that people who showed competency – through challenging the status quo and focusing on new ideas – and friendliness were in high demand compared to people who just showed one or the other, but people who showed just friendliness were rated more highly than those who showed just competence.
“Our findings suggest that when people feel like they can trust you, even if you’re not necessarily the best worker, they’re going to be more likely to want to work with you,” says Maupin.
“They know that there are likely to be fewer interpersonal issues in that case.
“Having a positive reputation for good work goes a long way, but so does just being a good person.”
Introducing spicy space food
Astronauts can now have their spicy sauce (and eat it too), with NASA announcing that the first spicy space peppers are ready for harvest on the International Space Station.
NASA Astronaut Megan McArthur went as far as to say they made the “best space tacos yet”.
The peppers took around four months to grow as part of the Plant Habitat-04 investigation. It’s the first time peppers have been cultivated from seed on the ISS.
The astronauts can have their fill, but will also bring some home for research, to see whether they would be viable to take on months-long Mars trips in the future.
Mongooses give bullies the cold shoulder
Mongoose bullies get shunned during pre-bedtime socialisation, with even subordinates not tolerating aggressive behaviour, suggests a study published in eLife.
Researchers observed dwarf mongooses during feeding time and then later during socialisation time to see how they reacted to aggressive behaviours.
“The crucial experiment entailed simulating the occurrence of food contests between two group members during the afternoon, through playback of the vocalisations given by aggressors and victims,” says co-author Julie Ken of the University of New England, New South Wales.
“The rest of the group therefore heard what sounded like repeated squabbles involving these individuals.”
If the mongooses thought one of their peers was being aggressive during feeding time, they later ignored the ‘bully’ when grooming each other before bed, even if they were subordinate to the bully.
“This shows that dwarf mongooses keep tabs on conflict occurring between their group mates,” says lead author Amy Morris-Drake.
“They can identify bullies just from the vocalisations given during disputes, store this information and implement a delayed conflict-management strategy, in this case giving the bully the cold shoulder before bedtime.”
This may provide insights into the evolution of conflict management in social animals, including humans.
Killing inflammation with traditional Samoan plants
The traditional Samoan matalafi medicinal plant may be as effective as ibuprofen at reducing inflammation, a Pasifika-led study suggests.
“Matalafi is used in two ways in Samoa – to treat illnesses attributed to ghosts, and to treat various forms of inflammation,” says indigenous Samoan Dr Seeseei Molimau-Samasoni from the Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa.
“I began my PhD at Te Herenga Waka in 2013, and worked with traditional healers in Samoa to harvest the matalafi and bring it to Aotearoa (New Zealand) to find out how and why it works.”
The study found that matalafi had two compounds – rutin and nicotiflorin – that bind with excess iron within cells, a process called iron chelation.
Excess iron in the body can lead to tiredness, arthritis, inflammation, diabetes and liver disease, so iron-chelation therapy is often used to mitigate iron build-up.
“This raises the possibility for applications of matalafi beyond traditional use,” says Māori co-author Dr Helen Woolner.
Molimau-Samasoni adds: “This project is unique in integrating traditional knowledge with different types of biological and chemical methodologies.”
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
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