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Pacific coast gray whales have gotten 13% shorter in the past 20-30 years, Oregon State study finds

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Pacific coast gray whales have gotten 13% shorter in the past 20-30 years, Oregon State study finds


Gray whales that spend their summers feeding in the shallow waters off the Pacific Northwest coast have undergone a significant decline in body length since around the year 2000, a new Oregon State University study found.

The smaller size could have major consequences for the health and reproductive success of the affected whales, and also raises alarm bells about the state of the food web in which they coexist, researchers say.

“This could be an early warning sign that the abundance of this population is starting to decline, or is not healthy,” said K.C. Bierlich, co-author on the study and an assistant professor at OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute in Newport. “And whales are considered ecosystem sentinels, so if the whale population isn’t doing well, that might say a lot about the environment itself.”

The study, published in Global Change Biology, looked at the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG), a small subset of about 200 gray whales within the larger Eastern North Pacific (ENP) population of around 14,500. This subgroup stays closer to shore along the Oregon coast, feeding in shallower, warmer waters than the Arctic seas where the bulk of the gray whale population spends most of the year.

Recent studies from OSU have shown that whales in this subgroup are smaller and in overall worse body condition than their ENP counterparts. The current study reveals that they’ve been getting smaller in recent decades.

The Marine Mammal Institute’s Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab has been studying this subgroup of gray whales since 2016, including flying drones over the whales to measure their size. Using images from 2016-2022 of 130 individual whales with known or estimated age, researchers determined that a full-grown gray whale born in 2020 is expected to reach an adult body length that is 1.65 meters (about 5 feet, 5 inches) shorter than a gray whale born prior to 2000. For PCFG gray whales that grow to be 38-41 feet long at full maturity, that accounts for a loss of more than 13% of their total length.

If the same trend were to happen in humans, that would be like the height of the average American woman shrinking from 5 feet, 4 inches to 4 feet, 8 inches tall over the course of 20 years.

“In general, size is critical for animals,” said Enrico Pirotta, lead author on the study and a researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “It affects their behavior, their physiology, their life history, and it has cascading effects for the animals and for the community they’re a part of.”

Whale calves that are smaller at weaning age may be unable to cope with the uncertainty that comes with being newly independent, which can affect survival rates, Pirotta said.

For adult gray whales, one of the biggest concerns is reproductive success.

“With them being smaller, there are questions of how effectively these PCFG gray whales can store and allocate energy toward growing and maintaining their health. Importantly, are they able to put enough energy toward reproduction and keep the population growing?” Bierlich said.

Scarring on PCFG whales from boat strikes and fishing gear entanglement also makes the team concerned that smaller body size with lower energy reserves may make the whales less resilient to injuries.

The study also examined the patterns of the ocean environment that likely regulate food availability for these gray whales off the Pacific coast by tracking cycles of “upwelling” and “relaxation” in the ocean. Upwelling sweeps nutrients from deeper to shallower regions, while relaxation periods then allow those nutrients to remain in shallower areas where light allows for growth of plankton and other tiny organisms, including the prey of gray whales.

“Without a balance between upwelling and relaxation, the ecosystem may not be able to produce enough prey to support the large size of these gray whales,” said co-author Leigh Torres, associate professor and director of the GEMM Lab at OSU.

The data show that whale size declined concurrently with changes in the balance between upwelling and relaxation, Pirotta said.

“We haven’t looked specifically at how climate change is affecting these patterns, but in general we know that climate change is affecting the oceanography of the Northeast Pacific through changes in wind patterns and water temperature,” he said. “And these factors and others affect the dynamics of upwelling and relaxation in the area.”

Now that they know the PCFG gray whales’ body size is declining, researchers say they have a lot of new questions about downstream consequences of that decline and the factors that could be contributing to it.

“We’re heading into our ninth field season studying this PCFG subgroup,” Bierlich said. “This is a powerful dataset that allows us to detect changes in body condition each year, so now we’re examining the environmental drivers of those changes.”

The other co-authors on the paper were Lisa Hildebrand, Clara Bird and Alejandro Ajó at OSU and Leslie New at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania.



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Waste Styrofoam can now be converted into polymers for electronics

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Pacific coast gray whales have gotten 13% shorter in the past 20-30 years, Oregon State study finds


University of Delaware and Argonne National Laboratory have come up with a chemical reaction that can convert Styrofoam into a high-value conducting polymer known as PEDOT:PSS. In a new paper published in JACS Au, the study demonstrates how upgraded plastic waste can be successfully incorporated into functional electronic devices, including silicon-based hybrid solar cells and organic electrochemical transistors.

The research group of corresponding author Laure Kayser, assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in UD’s College of Engineering with a joint appointment in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences, regularly works with PEDOT:PSS, a polymer that has both electronic and ionic conductivity, and was interested in finding ways to synthesize this material from plastic waste.

After connecting with Argonne chemist David Kaphan during an event hosted by UD’s research office, the research teams at UD and Argonne began evaluating the hypothesis that PEDOT:PSS could be made by sulfonating polystyrene, a synthetic plastic found in many types of disposable containers and packing materials.

Sulfonation is a common chemical reaction where a hydrogen atom is replaced by sulfonic acid; the process is used to create a variety of products such as dyes, drugs and ion exchange resins. These reactions can either be “hard” (with higher conversion efficiency but that require caustic reagents) or “soft” (a less efficient method but one that uses milder materials).

In this paper, the researchers wanted to find something in the middle: “A reagent that is efficient enough to get really high degrees of functionalization but that doesn’t mess up your polymer chain,” Kayser explained.

The researchers first turned to a method described in a previous study for sulfonating small molecules, one that showed promising results in terms of efficiency and yield, using 1,3-Disulfonic acid imidazolium chloride ([Dsim]Cl). But adding functional groups onto a polymer is more challenging than for a small molecule, the researchers explained, because not only are unwanted byproducts harder to separate, any small errors in the polymer chain can change its overall properties.

To address this challenge, the researchers embarked on many months of trial and error to find the optimal conditions that minimized side reactions, said Kelsey Koutsoukos, a materials science doctoral candidate and second author of this paper.

“We screened different organic solvents, different molar ratios of the sulfonating agent, and evaluated different temperatures and times to see which conditions were the best for achieving high degrees of sulfonation,” he said.

The researchers were able to find reaction conditions that resulted in high polymer sulfonation, minimal defects and high efficiency, all while using a mild sulfonating agent. And because the researchers were able to use polystyrene, specifically waste Styrofoam, as a starting material, their method also represents an efficient way to convert plastic waste into PEDOT:PSS.

Once the researchers had PEDOT:PSS in hand, they were able to compare how their waste-derived polymer performed compared to commercially available PEDOT:PSS.

“In this paper, we looked at two devices — an organic electronic transistor and a solar cell,” said Chun-Yuan Lo, a chemistry doctoral candidate and the paper’s first author. “The performance of both types of conductive polymers was comparable, and shows that our method is a very eco-friendly approach for converting polystyrene waste into high-value electronic materials.”

Specific analyses conducted at UD included X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) at the surface analysis facility, film thickness analysis at the UD Nanofabrication Facility, and solar cell evaluation at the Institute of Energy Conversion. Argonne’s advanced spectroscopy equipment, such as carbon NMR, was used for detailed polymer characterization. Additional support was provided by materials science and engineering professor Robert Opila for solar cell analysis and by David C. Martin, the Karl W. and Renate Böer Chaired Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, for the electronic device performance analyses.

One unexpected finding related to the chemistry, the researchers added, is the ability to use stoichiometric ratios during the reaction.

“Typically, for sulfonation of polystyrene, you have to use an excess of really harsh reagents. Here, being able to use a stoichiometric ratio means that we can minimize the amount of waste being generated,” Koutsoukos said.

This finding is something the Kayser group will be looking into further as a way to “fine-tune” the degree of sulfonation. So far, they’ve found that by varying the ratio of starting materials, they can change the degree of sulfonation on the polymer. Along with studying how this degree of sulfonation impacts the electrical properties of PEDOT:PSS, the team is interested in seeing how this fine-tuning capability can be used for other applications, such as fuel cells or water filtration devices, where the degree of sulfonation greatly impacts a material’s properties.

“For the electronic devices community, the key takeaway is that you can make electronic materials from trash, and they perform just as well as what you would purchase commercially,” Kayser said. “For the more traditional polymer scientists, the fact that you can very efficiently and precisely control the degree of sulfonation is going to be of interest to a lot of different communities and applications.”

The researchers also see great potential for how this research can contribute to ongoing global sustainability efforts by providing a new way to convert waste products into value-added materials.

“Many scientists and researchers are working hard on upcycling and recycling efforts, either by chemical or mechanical means, and our study provides another example of how we can address this challenge,” Lo said.

The complete list of co-authors includes Chun-Yuan Lo, Kelsey Koutsoukos, Dan My Nguyen, Yuhang Wu, David Angel Trujillo, Tulaja Shrestha, Ethan Mackey, Vidhika Damani, Robert Opila, David Martin, and Laure Kayser from the University of Delaware and Tabitha Miller, Uddhav Kanbur, and David Kaphan from Argonne National Laboratory.



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New snake discovery rewrites history, points to North America’s role in snake evolution

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Pacific coast gray whales have gotten 13% shorter in the past 20-30 years, Oregon State study finds


A new species of fossil snake unearthed in Wyoming is rewriting our understanding of snake evolution. The discovery, based on four remarkably well-preserved specimens found curled together in a burrow, reveals a new species named Hibernophis breithaupti. This snake lived in North America 34 million years ago and sheds light on the origin and diversification of boas and pythons.

Hibernophis breithaupti has unique anatomical features, in part because the specimens are articulated — meaning they were found all in one piece with the bones still arranged in the proper order — which is unusual for fossil snakes. Researchers believe it may be an early member of Booidea, a group that includes modern boas and pythons. Modern boas are widespread in the Americas, but their early evolution is not well understood.These new and very complete fossils add important new information, in particular, on the evolution of small, burrowing boas known as rubber boas.

Traditionally, there has been much debate on the evolution of small burrowing boas. Hibernophis breithaupti shows that northern and more central parts of North America might have been a key hub for their development. The discovery of these snakes curled together also hints at the oldest potential evidence for a behavior familiar to us today — hibernation in groups.

“Modern garter snakes are famous for gathering by the thousands to hibernate together in dens and burrows,” says Michael Caldwell, a U of A paleontologist who co-led the research along with his former graduate student Jasmine Croghan, and collaborators from Australia and Brazil. “They do this to conserve heat through the effect created by the ball of hibernating animals. It’s fascinating to see possible evidence of such social behavior or hibernation dating back 34 million years.”



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Good timing: Study unravels how our brains track time

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Pacific coast gray whales have gotten 13% shorter in the past 20-30 years, Oregon State study finds


Ever hear the old adage that time flies when you’re having fun? A new study by a team of UNLV researchers suggests that there’s a lot of truth to the trope.

Many people think of their brains as being intrinsically synced to the human-made clocks on their electronic devices, counting time in very specific, minute-by-minute increments. But the study, published this month in the latest issue of the peer-reviewed Cell Press journal Current Biology, showed that our brains don’t work that way.

By analyzing changes in brain activity patterns, the research team found that we perceive the passage of time based on the number of experiences we have — not some kind of internal clock. What’s more, increasing speed or output during an activity appears to affect how our brains perceive time.

“We tell time in our own experience by things we do, things that happen to us,” said James Hyman, a UNLV associate professor of psychology and the study’s senior author. “When we’re still and we’re bored, time goes very slowly because we’re not doing anything or nothing is happening. On the contrary, when a lot of events happen, each one of those activities is advancing our brains forward. And if this is how our brains objectively tell time, then the more that we do and the more that happens to us, the faster time goes.”

Methodology and Findings

The findings are based on analysis of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a portion of the brain important for monitoring activity and tracking experiences. To do this, rodents were tasked with using their noses to respond to a prompt 200 times.

Scientists already knew that brain patterns are similar, but slightly different, each time you do a repetitive motion, so they set out to answer: Is it possible to detect whether these slight differences in brain pattern changes correspond with doing the first versus 200th motion in series? And does the amount of time it takes to complete a series of motions impact brain wave activity?

By comparing pattern changes throughout the course of the task, researchers observed that there are indeed detectable changes in brain activity that occur as one moves from the beginning to middle to end of carrying out a task. And regardless of how slowly or quickly the animals moved, the brain patterns followed the same path. The patterns were consistent when researchers applied a machine learning-based mathematical model to predict the flow of brain activity, bolstering evidence that it’s experiences — not time, or a prescribed number of minutes, as you would measure it on a clock — that produce changes in our neurons’ activity patterns.

Hyman drove home the crux of the findings by sharing an anecdote of two factory workers tasked with making 100 widgets during their shift, with one worker completing the task in 30 minutes and the other in 90 minutes.

“The length of time it took to complete the task didn’t impact the brain patterns. The brain is not a clock; it acts like a counter,” Hyman explained. “Our brains register a vibe, a feeling about time. …And what that means for our workers making widgets is that you can tell the difference between making widget No. 85 and widget No. 60, but not necessarily between No. 85 and No. 88.”

But exactly “how” does the brain count? Researchers discovered that as the brain progresses through a task involving a series of motions, various small groups of firing cells begin to collaborate — essentially passing off the task to a different group of neurons every few repetitions, similar to runners passing the baton in a relay race.

“So, the cells are working together and over time randomly align to get the job done: one cell will take a few tasks and then another takes a few tasks,” Hyman said. “The cells are tracking motions and, thus, chunks of activities and time over the course of the task.”

And the study’s findings about our brains’ perception of time applies to activities-based actions other than physical motions too.

“This is the part of the brain we use for tracking something like a conversation through dinner,” Hyman said. “Think of the flow of conversation and you can recall things earlier and later in the dinner. But to pick apart one sentence from the next in your memory, it’s impossible. But you know you talked about one topic at the start, another topic during dessert, and another at the end.”

By observing the rodents who worked quickly, scientists also concluded that keeping up a good pace helps influence time perception: “The more we do, the faster time moves. They say that time flies when you’re having fun. As opposed to having fun, maybe it should be ‘time flies when you’re doing a lot’.”

Takeaways

While there’s already a wealth of information on brain processes over very short time scales of less than a second, Hyman said that the UNLV study is groundbreaking in its examination of brain patterns and perception of time over a span of just a few minutes to hours — “which is how we live much of our life: one hour at a time. ”

“This is among the first studies looking at behavioral time scales in this particular part of the brain called the ACC, which we know is so important for our behavior and our emotions,” Hyman said.

The ACC is implicated in most psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders, and is a concentration area for mood disorders, PTSD, addiction, and anxiety. ACC function is also central to various dementias including Alzheimer’s disease, which is characterized by distortions in time. The ACC has long been linked to helping humans with sequencing events or tasks such as following recipes, and the research team speculates that their findings about time perception might fall within this realm.

While the findings are a breakthrough, more research is needed. Still, Hyman said, the preliminary findings posit some potentially helpful tidbits about time perception and its likely connection to memory processes for everyday citizens’ daily lives. For example, researchers speculate that it could lend insights for navigating things like school assignments or even breakups.

“If we want to remember something, we may want to slow down by studying in short bouts and take time before engaging in the next activity. Give yourself quiet times to not move,” Hyman said. “Conversely, if you want to move on from something quickly, get involved in an activity right away.”

Hyman said there’s also a huge relationship between the ACC, emotion, and cognition. Thinking of the brain as a physical entity that one can take ownership over might help us control our subjective experiences.

“When things move faster, we tend to think it’s more fun — or sometimes overwhelming. But we don’t need to think of it as being a purely psychological experience, as fun or overwhelming; rather, if you view it as a physical process, it can be helpful,” he said. “If it’s overwhelming, slow down or if you’re bored, add activities. People already do this, but it’s empowering to know it’s a way to work your own mental health, since our brains are working like this already.”



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