Science Roundup – Chimp News, Rodent Empathy, Name That Whale Tune, Most Massive Black Holes, About That God (Darn) Particle

Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes)The following is a roundup of some of the more notable, or intriguing, science news items from the past month or so…

Funding for Most Biomedical Experiments using Chimps is Curtailed – New Ethics Rules

The  movement to ban the use of chimpanzees (mostly Pan troglodytes) in biomedical experiments has been steadily growing over the past 4 or 5 years. Many scientists readily recognized the ethical issues surrounding biomedical testing on great apes — with some calling for an outright ban on their use — but many of these same scientists will also assert the tremendous value in using chimps as live animal models — especially for developing crucial vaccines, but also for other biomedical research, where genetic closeness to humans is crucial.

A significant advance for ethical animal testing advocates

On December 15, the U.S. Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report declaring that “most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary”, and called for major reduction of government funding for biomedical research involving the use of chimpanzees, our closest primate relatives.

A new panel will be formed to review pending, NIH research applications to determine if the use of chimps is warranted prior to their funding, while existing research projects using chimps will continue until they can be evaluated by the panel.

Estimates are that up to 50% of pending research applications will be denied funding for non-compliance with three crucial criteria: 1] no other available animal model is suitable, 2] the research can not be conducted, ethically, with humans, and 3] important progress in biomedical research would be blocked or slowed without use of chimps.  To fund out more, check out: Most’ Biomedical Chimp Research Declared ‘Unnecessary’ by Federal Agency

Speaking of those lovable chimps, most of us are familiar with the feces-throwing habit of caged chimps, but did you know that this same ability has now been linked to the same area of the brain responsible for speech in humans?

Apparently, “talking crap” (and other speech) derives, neurologically, from throwing it…”throwing may have served as a precursor for the emergence of language and speech in early hominins.” on That’s according to Hopkins et al in a recent, Royal Society research paper. Read more on poop-throwing here:  Poop-Throwing Chimps Provide Hints of Human Origins

altruistic rat experiment
Scientists were shocked to see a free rat pass up a treat to liberate an imprisoned cage mate and then share its food. Credit: AlexK100, Wikimedia Commons

Free Rats Show Empathy for Imprisoned Counterparts

Adding more weight to a previous finding indicating empathy in rodents (Mogil et al, rats “sense the pain” of their cage mates*), a ‘free’ rat opted to forgo immediately chowing down on its favorite sweet to release a jailed cage mate (now there’s a tautology) first, and then shared the treats (chocolate chips) with its newly freed comrade. In some cases, the already ‘free’ rat would push the morsel near the jailed rat’s cage as if delivering it.

The researchers (Mason, Bartal and Decety) that conducted these recent experiments are calling it more proof that altruism and empathy are hard-wired into nearly all mammalian brains, not just human ones.

But at least one researcher claims that the behavior proves no such thing, and that the behavior may be a strategy for calming the jailed rat down (trapped rats often squeak and squeal) so as not to attract predators or other food competitors — a form of appeasement for survival. But the evidence seems to support the empathy/altruism explanation.

* Mogil and colleagues termed this “emotional contagion” and they also developed a scale to measure pain exhibited on the faces of the mice.

Read more about altruistic rats here: Jailbreak Rat: Selfless Rodents Spring Their Pals and Share Their Sweets

New Sci Am Project Enlists the Crowd to Identify Whale Calls

It’s becoming a trend in the burgeoning field of citizen science: the “crowd-sourcing” of data collection and/or analyzing; from The Sloan Sky Survey of galaxies to the Amphibian Blitz Project, the harnessing of the analytical power and distributed geography of the crowd is aiding science at a crucial time — a time when more species are going extinct than the natural, background extinction rate can account for. But beyond this, it helping scientist conduct good, but basic science.

Type C killer (Orca) whale
The Type C killer whale has two-toned gray coloring, including a dark "dorsal cape," in body areas where most killer whales have solid black coloring. Research is ongoing into whether one or more killer whale types is a distinct species in need of protection (photo; Robert L. Pitman).

Many whale species, of course, are at high risk for becoming endangered or extinct. How scientists might devise plans to protect whale species depends largely on understanding their behavior, including their communication with others; there is much that marine biologists still do not know or understand about whale calls and songs — what they mean, exactly, and whether whales have the cetacean equivalent of a dialect.

This is not for lack of data to analyze, in fact, scientists at Woodshole Oceanographic Institute have a wealth of data to analyze. — there’s just too much to get through easily without help. This data is in the form of 30,000 + recordings of Orca and Pilot whale calls and songs, collected from motion sensors called ‘D-tags’ affixed to the whales, or, from hydrophones hung from oceanic buoys.

And so, Woodshole scientists along with colleagues at the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) in Scotland have teamed up with the folks at Zooniverse to crowd-source the task of identifying and distinguishing the characteristics of these calls and songs. Citizen scientists listen to a whale call (with a spectrogram accompanying it) and try to match it against an existing type of call in the scientists’ database. If the listener hears a match (and human ears are really good at ID-ing similar sounds), s/he clicks on the spectrogram and the program stores that match.

To become a citizen scientist and participate in this unique project, visit  the Whale Song Project. You can read more about this project here: Scientific American Launches Project to Identify Whale Calls

Astronomers Discover Most Massive Black Holes Ever

Supermassive black holes are all the rage in astrophysical circles these days. Calculations of these massive black holes — believed to occupy the centers of the largest galaxies — put them in the range of hundreds  of millions to a few billion solar masses (the unit is based upon the size of our sun). That’s awfully huge. Most black holes (so far studied) seem to be much smaller than these.

blackhole galaxy
The image shows 1 out of the 9 large galaxies included in the Chandra study, containing a supermassive black hole in its center (Credit: NASA/CXC/UFRGS/R. Nemmen et al

Although long suspected, it was still a bit of a happy surprise to astrophysicists when they detected black holes ever larger — over 9 billion solar masses, and larger. Up to now, the largest black hole ever discovered was a humungus hole, residing in the center of the giant, elliptical galaxy Messier 87, with a mass 6.3 billion times that of the sun.

The discoveries come from two galaxies, NGC 3842 (in the Leo cluster) and NGC 4889 (in the Coma cluster) both of which are more than 300 million lights years distant. By tracking the velocities of stars around their galactic centers, scientists can use this as a proxy for estimating the black holes mass (as the hole is blocked from direct view by the central star cluster {and hot gas} of its respective galaxy). This is the first time evidence for these supermassive holes has been confirmed using this method.

Calculations show that NGC 3842 has a central black hole of 9.7 billion solar masses (the other is comparable or slightly larger).

These newest discoveries present yet another mystery to astrophysicists who have yet to puzzle out how such supermassive black holes form and evolve to such ginormous sizes.

Get more info on these fascinating cosmic phenomena here: Monster Black Holes Are Most Massive Ever Discovered

What About That God (Darn) Particle? (Higgs Boson? – CERN physicists tease, but are not telling yet)

The much anticipated, Dec. 13, 2011 announcement of whether or not recent CERN/LHC experiments had confirmed discovery of the fabled Higgs boson (known colloquially as the ‘god particle’ due to its theoretical bestowing of mass to all other particles in the quantum catalog) turned out to be a teasing non-announcement; CERN physicists only stated that they had found “intriguing, tantalizing hints” but no conclusive evidence at this point in time.

reconstructed particle collisiion deteced by the CMS detector at the LHC
Looking for the god particle (the Higgs Boson): A reconstructed particle collision in the CMS detector of the LHC. Image: CMS/CERN

Rumors were rampant that the Higgs signal would be confirmed in the 125 GeV (billion electron volts) energy range with a statistical certainty of 2.5 to 3.5 sigma (96% to 99.9% certainty). However, this energy range was significant smaller than the energy ranges originally predicted for the Higgs — above 141 GeV — leaving some with doubts as to its signal being confirmed.

Also, physicists like to have a higher sigma rating (3.5 – 5.0 sigmas, or deviations) before they officially announce/confirm anything new (like that mysterious “new” particle possibly found in October of this year; see Particle Collider May have Found Mysterious New Particle – Key to Missing Antimatter).

That statistical inconclusiveness, along with the fact only one of the LHC’s detectors — the ATLAS detector — has detected the Higgs at 3.5 sigma (the second detector, CMS, could only give its results at 2.5 sigma), were most likely the determining factors in the decision not make any announcement at this time, neither ‘yes’ no ‘no’.

Physicists can not detect the Higgs directly of course (as it would decay into others in a fraction of a nano-second), but must sift through (like panning for gold) the scatter matrices recorded in the aftermath of their proton-proton collisions, in order to find any tell-tale traces of the boson.

Confirming the Higgs boson has been equated with revealing the structure of DNA back in 1953. Its confirmation would complete the Standard Model of Quantum Physics, which is perhaps the most successful (predictive) physical model in all of science.

That said, many physicists were happy with the non-results; they do not want to find (solely) the Higgs boson, rather, they hope to find other, more exotic particles (like super partner particles) that might confirm extra dimensions predicted by Super Symmetry (SUSY) and Super String Theory.

They fear that, if all the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) finds is the Higgs, then particle physics — the most exciting frontier in hard science — would be essentially “over”. Fortunately, the LHC has been operating at only half its full power, so, more exciting discoveries are sure to follow, come Higgs or not.

For more reading on this intriguing topic, see Tantalizing Hints of Elusive Higgs Particle Announced [Update], or, check out the official website for more information on CERN and the LHC

Top Photo: (chimp, Leipig Zoo) Thomas Lersch ; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported


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