Ruminations

Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Sunday, December 17, 2017

"We used a box with an exchangeable, transparent front featuring a shaped hole at its centre. When an object was successfully inserted through the hole, a collapsible platform inside the box released a tasty nut at the lower end" says Cornelia Habl who conducted the study at the Goffin Lab in Vienna. "The birds selected the correctly shaped objects from a selection of up to five different shapes almost immediately without requiring any training." She continues: "Furthermore, they required fewer placement attempts to align simple shapes (circle, square, triangle) than non-human primates. Another interesting finding was that they turned complex object shapes in a way that would minimise their effort during insertion. For example, a cross shaped object would be turned at 90°, so only two protrusions would have to be inserted instead of four, or an L-shaped object with one protrusion facing forward and backward."

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-11-cockatoos-tool-use-task.html#jCp
"We used a box with an exchangeable, transparent front featuring a shaped hole at its centre. When an object was successfully inserted through the hole, a collapsible platform inside the box released a tasty nut at the lower end" says Cornelia Habl who conducted the study at the Goffin Lab in Vienna. "The birds selected the correctly shaped objects from a selection of up to five different shapes almost immediately without requiring any training." She continues: "Furthermore, they required fewer placement attempts to align simple shapes (circle, square, triangle) than non-human primates. Another interesting finding was that they turned complex object shapes in a way that would minimise their effort during insertion. For example, a cross shaped object would be turned at 90°, so only two protrusions would have to be inserted instead of four, or an L-shaped object with one protrusion facing forward and backward."

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-11-cockatoos-tool-use-task.html#jCp
"We used a box with an exchangeable, transparent front featuring a shaped hole at its centre. When an object was successfully inserted through the hole, a collapsible platform inside the box released a tasty nut at the lower end" says Cornelia Habl who conducted the study at the Goffin Lab in Vienna. "The birds selected the correctly shaped objects from a selection of up to five different shapes almost immediately without requiring any training." She continues: "Furthermore, they required fewer placement attempts to align simple shapes (circle, square, triangle) than non-human primates. Another interesting finding was that they turned complex object shapes in a way that would minimise their effort during insertion. For example, a cross shaped object would be turned at 90°, so only two protrusions would have to be inserted instead of four, or an L-shaped object with one protrusion facing forward and backward."

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-11-cockatoos-tool-use-task.html#jCp

Superior Bird Brains

"Cockatoos are very interesting for this, because they're very playful with objects. [As was one cockatoo producing 'fishing sticks', stripping long slender strips from a wood block in his enclosure]."
"So we had one innovator, [one of the birds named 'Figaro' who spontaneously used sticks to fish out nuts] and a very important aspect of innovation [is] how it can spread in a group."
"This was the interesting thing [that other cockatoos were inspired by Figaro but manipulated the wood in their own way to achieve a similar function]. They were successful and interacting with the materials, but they weren't copying Figaro - they devised their own strategy of obtaining the reward."
"It's very interesting that they come up with this more effective technique. It confirms how innovative and how adaptable this species is to novel problems."
Dr Alice Auersperg, lead researcher, University of Oxford and University of Vienna
Cockatoo stripping a tool from a block of wood (c) A Auersperg
The birds make 'food fishing sticks" by stripping blocks of wood  Photo: A. Auersperg

"It was thought to be an exclusively human ability for a long time [fitting shapes]. Compared to primates, the cockatoos performed very well. [To succeed in various environments] they have to be very, very flexible."
"They did figure out a couple of ways to trick the box. But it was not counted as successful because it was not what I wanted them to do."
"They surprise you every day. Sometimes they outsmart me."
"They are escape artists. They are very, very exhausting in a home environment."
Cornelia Habi, master's student, University of Vienna
The key to a nut
Cornelia Habl Vienna tested Goffin's cockatoos in a tool use task. Credit: University of Vienna

Together with Alice M.I. Auersperg, a researcher at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Ms. Habi conducted a number of experiments with Goffin's cockatoos -- extremely intelligent birds, as they discovered throughout the course of their study. As difficult to credit as it may seem on first hearing, these birds were tasked with identifying and placing square tiles into square holes and then moved on to more complex, asymmetrical shapes to be placed in matching holes. The birds were well motivated since success equated with a treat.

The researchers' study, reported in the journal PLOS One, demonstrated that these highly intelligent birds were capable of improving on the performance of monkeys or chimpanzees in matching shapes to holes of similar pattern. Human babies are capable of placing a sphere into a round hole by age one, but placing a cube properly before age two eludes them. Primates are capable of similar tasks once they've had basic training before they succeed in the use of the experimental apparatus, named a 'key box'.

The birds, on the other hand, required no preparation, they proved able to assess the situation without prior exposure, and yet they excelled at the tasks. The researchers' explanation for the cockatoos' capabilities reasoned that the birds are foragers, taking advantage of whatever food that is available and thus sufficiently adaptable to perform well in some urban areas in Australia. To enable them to succeed, flexibility is a great aid.

Their very flexibility enabled the birds to figure out how they might exceed the parameters of the experiment to find the treat they craved. A video showed one bird tearing a splinter off a chair, using it to pry the apparatus open without having to match a shape to a hole. They are evidently experimentally ingenious. But their clever bypassing of the parameters earned them no kudos. They had to play within the rules of the game to earn their treats. Don't we all?

The key to a nut
The animals had to choose the correct 'key' out of five. Credit: Bene Croy

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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Marine Animals At Risk of Extinction

"You do have to use the extinction word, because that's where the trend lines say they are. That's something we can't let happen."
John Bullard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

"The current status of the right whales is a critical situation, and using our available resources to cover right whales is of high importance and high urgency."
Mark Murray-Brown, Endangered Species Act consultant, NOAA
There are only about 500 North Atlantic right whales in existence.
There are only about 500 North Atlantic right whales in existence. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA)

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the League for Coastal Protection, Cetacean Society International, and Ocean Futures Society formed a coalition attempting to hold the U.S. Navy responsible for the damage its technology imposes on marine creatures. In a court brief, the coalition cited the Navy's own documents estimating that sonar testing was expected to kill 170,000 marine mammals, causing permanent injury to over 500 whales and deafness in 8,000 others. 
North Atlantic right whale breaks the ocean surface off Provincetown, Mass., in Cape Cod Bay.
North Atlantic right whale breaks the ocean surface off Provincetown, Mass., in Cape Cod Bay.
Source: Associated Press

Though two lower courts agreed with the coalition that the U.S. Navy is responsible for mayhem in the Pacific in particular, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the Navy, that it should be permitted to continue its mid-frequency sonar testing as a requirement upholding national security. "The U.S. Navy could use a number of proven methods to avoid harming whales when testing mid-frequency sonar", objected IFAW’s Fred O'Regan. "Protecting whales and preserving national security are not mutually exclusive."

This has been a dreadful year for one of the most endangered whales on Earth, the North Atlantic right whale. In 2017 alone, seventeen of the gigantic oceanic mammals have died, and scientists are puzzled by the cause, although speculation is rife. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration only about 450 right whales are left alive; when 17 of their number expire the situation verges toward the existentially catastrophic.

John Bullard of NOAA, views the threatened existence of right whales of such momentous crisis he feels that regulators in the United States and Canada are required to step in, because if nothing is soon done to help their recovery, they simply will not manage on their own to recover, and the planet will lose another important species whose presence at the moment in such scarce numbers is already rare.
A North Atlantic right whale dives, near a New England Aquarium research boat.
A North Atlantic right whale dives, near a New England Aquarium research boat. Photograph: Alamy

Marine mammal researchers are doubly concerned that the year 2017  has been  a poor reproduction year, and added to that the high rate of mortality, the prognosis presents as beyond grim. Scientists estimate that roughly 100 breeding female North Atlantic right whales are now left to contribute what they can to the swiftly diminishing pool. Females have been dying at greater rates than males in a species decline that has accelerated since 2010.

The proliferating presence of ever-larger sea-going vessels is certainly one of the  reasons these giant marine species are facing extinction. It's a hugely uneven contest when an immense steel-hulled vessel challenges the right-of-way of a living creature. The sounds emitted by ocean-going vessels confuse and disorient whales. Military vessels' use of sonar equipment generate sound waves that assail the whales with high-decibel sound for hundreds of miles causing whales to attempt to escape the sounds with often deleterious results when whales become beached.
right whale deaths infographic
At least 14 right whales have been found dead in Canadian and U.S. waters this year. At least 11 of those were found in Canadian waters and it's not clear whether some of the carcasses that washed up in Newfoundland had drifted from where they were first spotted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (CBC)

Fishing vessels setting out their fishing gear are frequently cited causes of the death of whales as a result of gear entanglement. Giving birth in temperate southern waters, the animals then travel to New England and Canada in spring and summer, their traditional feeding grounds. Every one of the 17 deaths occurred off the coasts of New England and the Canadian Maritimes.

Recent scientific studies offer other hypotheses. One, published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports points to whales moving about far more than has been previously assumed, with some scientists suggesting that whales could be venturing far from traditional protected areas searching for food, and in this manner placing themselves in harm's way.

Yet another study published in the journal Endangered Species Research recounted that scientists found whales that suffer long entanglements in fishing gear produce hormone levels indicating high stress, revealed by studying their  feces. That stress impacts negatively on reproductive capacity, should they survive the entanglement event.

The development of a long-term plan to monitor the right whale population trends and habitat, and to study the impact of commercial fishing on right whales has been recommended in protection of the species, an initiative of a five-year NOAA review.

A rare North Atlantic right whale calf lies dead on a beach in Chatham, Massachusetts in 2016.
A rare North Atlantic right whale calf lies dead on a beach in Chatham, Massachusetts in 2016. Photograph: AP

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Friday, December 15, 2017

The Quality of Life For Man and Beast

"The companionship of creatures great and small seems to confer essentially no relation with standard physical and psychological biomarkers of aging."
Research study, British Medical Journal

"[The finding was] a surprise, a real surprise."
"There's some evidence that there is a protective effect. As a pet owner, I can see the benefits of walking dogs, the emotional companionship a dog provides, as well as the interaction with other pet owners while out and about."
"Our results did not confirm our hypothesis [that pets] are a protective factor [against human aging]."
"Our results showed that in this sample of almost 9,000 people—average age 67 years—for those who owned a pet, no health benefits were found,"
"As always with research, our study raises more questions than answers. More interventional research is needed to assess the potential effects of pet ownership."
Dr. Richard Watt, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College, London
Scientists say pets can't slow the ageing process Credit: Oxford Scientific RM

Science is never settled, it seems. Society has become accustomed to the belief that pet ownership not only increases the quality of life through association with an dependent animal, trusting and loving, but that constant interaction between human and companion animal results in improved health and presumably a longer life. A new study, however, came up with results completely counteracting that assumption. The new analysis that has seen publication in the prestigious medical journal BMJ, concludes that pet ownership may not, after all, prolong life.

Over 8,700 seniors were included in the study which took place in Britain. One-third of the seniors were distinguished as pet owners. A research team saw their goal as searching out whether having a pet affected 11 different, widely used biomarkers of ageing. Those biomarkers included walking speed, grip strength, lung function and markers of inflammation in the blood, as well as effects on memory and cognitive functioning.

Pet ownership, they discovered, does not after all, appear to reduce ageing rate. Dog companionship was associated in fact, with somewhat slower times in walking several metres in comparison with non-pet owners. It took those owning pets longer to rise from a chair than non-pet owners, although the dog owners appeared to have slightly improved lung function. As for cat owners, they were likelier to fail a leg-raise test than those in other pet ownership groups (which stands to reason; one doesn't 'walk' cats on leashes normally; the pet-owner exercise function is absent).

However, irrespective of whether it is a dog, a cat, a hamster or a reptile or bird appeared "essentially unrelated" to immune functioning, with no evident association discovered between any type of pet and memory or on symptoms of depression. Even when the researchers took into account weight, smoking, alcohol, physical activity, social isolation and loneliness along with other factors, the findings were unchanged; the results were reflective of both male and female pet owners.

Confoundedly, in November Swedish researchers had scoured national registries of over 3.4 million Swedes between the ages of 40 to 80 to conclude that dog owners had a lower risk of death as a result of cardiovascular disease during the twelve-year follow-up. Single dog owners in the Swedish research were found to have a 33 percent reduction in risk of death and 11 percent lower risk of heart attack over the study period, in comparison with single non-pet-owners.

Pet ownership, concluded the American Heart Association in 2014, particularly dog companions, is "probably associated" with a lower risk of the number one cause of death globally, cardiovascular disease. Cardiologists with the Heart Association however, pointed out that since most studies were not randomized, no great degree of confidence should be placed in the results, that the observed reduction in the risk of heart disease and stroke might be simply coincidental, as unlikely as that may seem to be.

The British research team that included Dr. Watt made use of data extracted from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, a study still ongoing of men and women aged 40 or older, living in England when they were recruited in 2002-03. In 2010-11, 8,785 people were asked "do you keep any household pets inside your house/flat?" Of that number, a third owned a pet (18 percent a dog, 12 percent a cat and three percent another type of animal). No evidence was found overall to link pet ownership with the various biomarkers of ageing.
"The current study did not examine traditionally measured variables associated with pet ownership, such as heart rate, blood pressure or cortisol [a stress hormone]."
"This is an important study, and clearly more research is needed. But I wouldn't discount, quite yet, the social support and unconditional affection that we can obtain from our pets."
Robert Matchock, associate professor of psychology, Pennsylvania State University 

"But, intuitively, it makes sense. I give letters for people to have therapeutic dogs all the time—they're a source of joy and stimulation. But to go as far as to say the dog would help prevent a heart attack, I think that might be impossible to pinpoint."
Dr. Aaron Pinkhasov, chairman of behavioral health, NYU Winthrop, Mineola, N.Y

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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Physicians Balking at Prescribing Unresearched Medical Marijuana

"One thing that was quite consistent was adverse events. And the benefits, even if they're real, are much smaller than what people might anticipate."
"I think this gives [doctors] some comfort, saying, 'Look, here's the evidence. It's actually missing in a lot of places, so I can't give it for conditions X, Y and Z'."
"Some of the pain studies go for nothing more ... than five, six hours. And this is for chronic pain."
"It's hard to get a great feel for how someone is going to do long term on a medicine after five, six hours." 
"We would kind of be putting the cart before the horse if we started to prescribe this without the research."
Dr. Mike Allan, professor of family medicine, University of Alberta, Edmonton
THE CANADIAN PRESS
Medical marijuana is shown in Toronto on Nov. 5, 2017.   Graeme Roy/THE CANADIAN PRESS
 The Alberta College of Family Physicians edits and distributes 'advisories' which are distributed to over 32,000 clinicians, bringing them up to date on the scientific literature, or in the case of medical marijuana, lack of any such scientific literature attesting to its usefulness, efficacy, and dependability as a drug protocol to ease peoples' pain and discomfort brought on by certain medical conditions. Since a shortage of -- virtually none in fact -- of such research supporting the proposed benefits of medical cannabis exists, there is evidence contrary to popular belief that the use of marijuana as a medical drug may end up being more harmful than useful.

And precisely this, is what family doctors' associations across Canada are now advising their professional members to ensure that they are in receipt of real data, not theoretically-wished-for information, before they think about prescribing the drug, surrendering to their patients' uninformed emphasis on the good using it will purportedly do them. "Tools for Practice" is what the Alberta College publishes as biweekly updates focusing on topical issues, circulated through professional chapters in every province with the exception of Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Physicians had indicated they needed professional guidance in the prescribing of medical marijuana. And this need to provide them with what they're concerned with inspired the three most recent updates. The reality is that family doctors are increasingly under pressure from their patients wanting more information about the usefulness and availability of medicinal pot. Searching out reputable and reliable research seemed the best way to go. And after having reviewed all available literature on the subject, Dr. Allan is convinced that medical marijuana represents a high-risk product useful only in specific circumstances and only then where other, safe treatment options have been exhausted.

The number of clients registered with Health Canada for licensed medical marijuana products leaped forward as of June 2017 to over 200,000 individuals, representing a 2.7 increase over the 75,166 people registered last year. A consistent tripling of registrations has occurred in both 2015 and 2016 as Canada moves closer to the legalization of social marijuana use. "The decision to use cannabis for medical purposes is one that is made between patients and their health-care practitioners, and does not involve Health Canada", advised department spokeswoman Tammy Jarbeau.

A document updated in 2013 was published by Health Canada as an information bulletin for the use of medical professionals as a guide to the benefits and harms of medical marijuana. Within the bulletin is a disclaimer that cannabis is not to be considered an approved therapeutic product and Health Canada does not endorse its use. As for the first advisory prepared by Alberta's family physicians college released on November 14, it reports that evidence is "too sparse and poor" to reach any conclusion that marijuana has proven effective in relieving pain.

Two weeks on, a second advisory was circulated which describes  "adverse effects", representing one of the only consistent findings through the existing studies being perused. Those adverse effects included hallucinations, paranoia, dizziness and low-blood pressure. Most studies, it pointed out, involve patients with a history of using cannabis, thus are unlikelier to experience the negative side effects that the average person would experience. Taking that under consideration, it is assumed that research probably underestimates the frequency of adverse outcomes.

Other studies conclude that marijuana use can reduce chemotherapy patients' nausea, and can as well control spastic muscle contractions in patients with multiple sclerosis. No evidence exists, however that there is any positive effect on chronic anxiety or on glaucoma, despite these two conditions often being cited by advocates of the industry. The result is that documents released by both colleges of physicians and surgeons in British Columbia and Alberta emphasize the absence of reliable studies giving evidence of any effectiveness of cannabis as a trustworthy medication.
"I'd be the last person to suggest that cannabis was entirely safe or entirely appropriate for every individual."
"[But the college's apparent bias in highlighting the harms and bypassing the benefits is concerning]."
Philippe Lucas, head, Canadian Medical Cannabis Council
An employee inspects buds at the Tweed plant in Smiths Falls, one of Canada's largest suppliers of medical marijuana. The number of patients signed up with Tweed and other suppliers has tripled in the last year. LARS HAGBERG / AFP/Getty Images

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