Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ultrasonic Frog Tunes Its Ears Like a Radio Dial

Ker Than
for National Geographic News

A Chinese frog that uses ultrasonic communication can tune its ears like a radio dial to block out lower pitched background noise, a new study finds. This makes the concave-eared torrent frog the only known animal that can physically control which frequencies it hears by opening and closing parts of its ears.

"This was contrary to everything that we knew about [the frog's] auditory system," said study co-author Albert Feng of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Feng's team speculates that the tiny frog—which lives near rushing streams and noisy waterfalls in central China—uses the adaptation to block out background noise when it wants to hear the calls of mates or rivals.

Open and Shut

The concave-eared torrent frog is the only amphibian known to make ultrasonic calls, or communications in frequencies far above the range of human hearing.

Just a few other animals, including bats and dolphins, are thought to have this ability.

Earlier this year, Feng and colleagues reported that male torrent frogs can localize sound with unusual accuracy to find females during ultrasonic mating duets.

Further studies of the amphibian's hearing showed that its eardrums vibrate in response to ultrasonic noises, but only some of the time.

This surprised the team, because in all other frogs eardrums always respond the same way to a sound stimulus.

Further examination revealed that the Chinese frogs were actively opening and closing their eustachian tubes, two narrow channels that connect the mouth cavity to the left and right ear.

Closing the tubes improved the frogs' ability to hear high frequencies and ultrasounds, while opening them increased sensitivity to low-frequency noises.

The finding is detailed in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "This mechanism is truly unique in the animal kingdom," commented James Saunders, an auditory expert at the University of Pennsylvania.

Saunders pointed out that humans can also "selectively hear" different sounds. For instance, people can single out the sound of a bassoon over other instruments during an orchestra recital.

But selective auditory attendance in humans is mostly a trick of the mind. It involves neurons in the brain homing in on sounds coming from certain directions.

By contrast, the Chinese frogs have evolved the biological equivalent of earmuffs to block out all sounds of a certain frequency range.

Switching Channels

Study co-author Feng speculates that the frogs' tunable ears are an adaptation to their noisy home environments.

For example, shifting to high-frequency hearing could help the frogs pick out mating calls during a storm, when the low-pitched noises of plunking raindrops, booming thunder, and rushing water dominate.

"If you or I were in this situation, we would be trapped," Feng said.

"The background noise is coming from everywhere, so our kind of selective hearing wouldn't do us any good.

"The frogs just say, I'm not hearing this. I'm going to switch to another channel."

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Is the World's Largest Shark Shrinking?

The Incredible Shrinking Shark?
The Incredible Shrinking Shark?

-- Humans have over-exploited the whale shark -- the world's largest living fish -- to such a degree that the ocean giants are actually shrinking in size, according to new research.

The whale shark population has also fallen by approximately 40 percent over the past decade in Western Australian waters, the new study has found, suggesting that this once prevalent shark, which can reach lengths up to 42 feet, is undergoing a severe decline in certain regions.

"We are all very alarmed at our findings, which really did defy our expectations," co-author Ben Fitzpatrick, a University of Western Australia biologist, told Discovery News.

The researchers analyzed the largest-ever database of sightings and size information on whale sharks. The database represents a long-term, continuous record of sightings -- 4,436 in total -- as well as photo ID information concerning age and size, all pertaining to whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia.

Because the sharks gather seasonally at the picturesque reef from March to June, a profitable industry has been built around "dive with sharks" activities. Usually by air sightings, tour operators regularly gather information on the sharks, compiled in the extensive database.

Fitzpatrick and his colleagues not only detected the population drop at the reef, but they also discovered the sharks have shrunk in body length by an average of over 6.5 feet. The overall reduction appears to be due to the disappearance of older, larger females, along with some males, within whale shark groups.

"I think it is mostly because the larger animals are being hunted for food and other products, such as for soup fins," explained Barry Brook, another co-author of the study and director of the Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability at The University of Adelaide.

"The larger the fin, the more valuable it is," Brook added.

The findings are published in the latest issue of Biological Conservation.

The scientists believe a selection effect may also be at work, whereby pressures are forcing smaller, younger whale sharks to breed earlier, but they believe this is just "a minor piece of the puzzle."

Brook said that while the whale sharks enjoy protection in Ningaloo Reef waters, the sharks migrate over large distances, often traveling thousands of miles.

"Artisanal fisheries via harpoons for meat, for example, off the coasts of India and Indonesia, but mostly by Taiwanese and Chinese commercial fisheries" are likely responsible for the declines, he said, adding that whale shark meat is referred to as "tofu fish" due to its texture, which is also prized in shark fin soup and Chinese medicine.

Ship strikes also tend to kill larger adults, he said, though evidence for the strikes is hard to compile since resulting deaths would usually remain unknown.

These latest findings counter a study late last year by Brad Norman and Jason Holmberg of ECOCEAN, a research education and conservation organization. That report, based on multiple underwater images of the sharks, concluded that Ningaloo Reef whale sharks are thriving. Norman did, however, admit to Discovery News that the species is "rare" and "vulnerable to extinction."

Brook and his colleagues have authored a written response to Norman's paper, which is still under consideration by the journal, Ecological Applications. They say that while whale sharks receive some trade protection from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, "it is difficult to police non-international trade or local hunting by indigenous people."

The migratory habits of whale sharks, Brook said, "mean it is impossible to protect the Ningaloo population once the sharks leave Australian waters for Indonesia and the Philippines."

The researchers urge officials to establish well-enforced international protection for the sharks. They also hope that collaborative tagging studies in the future will help to better identify and monitor whale shark migration routes.

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Probable Cause: Washington Supreme Court Rules Marijuana Smell in Vehicle Not Enough to Arrest All Occupants

The Washington Supreme Court ruled July 17 that police cannot arrest passengers simply for being in a car that smells of marijuana. The unanimous decision overturned a 29-year-old precedent allowing police to search or arrest passengers if they smelled pot near a car.
The case, State v. Grande, began with a 2006 traffic stop in Skagit County. Driver Lacee Hurley and passenger Jeremy Grande were arrested by a state trooper during a traffic stop after he smelled pot coming from their car. The trooper searched the pair, finding a pipe and a small amount of pot on Grande. Both were charged with drug offenses. At a pretrial hearing, Grande's judge ruled there was no specific probable cause for his arrest and suppressed the evidence. But the Skagit County Superior Court overturned that ruling, citing a 1979 appellate court ruling saying the smell of pot smoke coming from a car was probable cause to arrest all the occupants.

But the state Supreme Court said federal case law since 1979 has eroded the legal footing of that decision. Officers need additional evidence that each passenger broke the law, the court held.

"Our cases have strongly and rightfully protected our constitution's protection of individual privacy. The protections... do not fade away or disappear within the confines of an automobile," Justice Charles Johnson wrote for the court.

"We hold that the smell of marijuana in the general area where an individual is located is insufficient, without more, to support probable cause for arrest. Where no other evidence exists linking the passenger to any criminal activity, an arrest of the passenger on the suspicion of possession of illegal substances, and any subsequent searches, is invalid and an unconstitutional invasion of that individual's right to privacy," the opinion concluded.

The ruling won quick praise from drug reformers and civil libertarians. "As a general statement, it's a step back from the direction that our government has been going as we're veering into a sort of surveillance society," Alison Holcomb of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington chapter told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "It strikes me as refreshing that the court has reaffirmed the values that our constitution calls for."

Seattle Hempfest organizer Vivian McPeak told the newspaper it was not uncommon for people to be arrested, jailed, stigmatized, and have their property seized simply for being in a vehicle with someone carrying or smoking pot. "A lot of people have gone down because of these vehicle offenses," he said. "Being in a car used to be one of those wrong-place, wrong-time kind of situations."

Grande's attorney, David Zuckerman, cheered the ruling, but added it was "unfortunate" it took so long to overturn previous state case law on drug-smell arrests. "I think it's led to an awful lot of innocent people getting handcuffed by the side of the road just because they happened to be in a car that smells of marijuana," Zuckerman said.

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5-Year-Old Leaves Day Care, Goes to Hooters


DENTON, Texas -- Denton police say a child was able to sneak out of his day-care center without anyone noticing and take a perilous walk that ended at a Hooters restaurant.

The 5-year-old boy reportedly walked out of the Imagination Station day care in the 2300 block of San Jacinto Boulevard on Tuesday afternoon.

Police said he walked a long way in 100-degree heat crossing at least two busy streets.

He went to a Pep Boys, where he swiped some gum, according to a store worker. The boy then hiked to a RaceTrac gas station where he stole a soda, according to investigators.

His walk then led to a Hooters restaurant where employees gave him a coloring book and soda pop to drink and called police.

The child was not hurt and he was released to his father.

Imagination Station would not comment on the situation.

According to the Department of Family and Protective Services, the day care has had several violations including one in April in which inspectors determined that staff was not properly supervising the children.

The state agency is now investigating this case.

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Women lash out at cabin crew with vodka bottle at 30,000ft

By Andrew Chapman

The pilot of a holiday jet was forced to divert and make an unscheduled landing after two drunken British women attacked his cabin crew with a vodka bottle and tried to open an emergency exit in midair.

Stewards and passengers wrestled with the pair, who had been caught smoking in the lavatory on the flight back from Kos in Greece.

They were overpowered and pinned to the ground as a flight attendant cuffed their hands behind their backs.

Wrestle: The women were restrained on the plane, similar to this one, following their drunken outburst

The pilot apologised and announced that the flight would have to divert to Frankfurt in Germany, where armed police were waiting to arrest the women, aged 26 and 27.

It is understood the pair had been on a package holiday to Kos.

Yesterday a witness told how passengers screamed in fear as crew grappled with the drunken women, who had opened up their duty free in their seats and started drinking heavily.

One of the 214 passengers aboard said: ‘It was a hell of a scene. One of them was lashing out with a vodka bottle after being refused more booze and the other went to the emergency exit yelling, “I want some fresh air”.

‘It was a nightmare – we all thought we had had our chips.’

The pilot put out a Mayday call on Wednesday on the XL Airways flight XLA 237 to Manchester.

It left the island at 2.45pm local time and landed in Frankfurt Main at 4.43pm.

Runways were emptied and other planes forced to stack in the skies so the Boeing 737-900 had a clear landing run.

Armed police boarded the aircraft to arrest the women.

The 26-year-old is expected to face charges of interference with air traffic and attempted assault. Both are likely to receive a bill for the operation and may face legal action from the airline.

The aircraft was delayed for an hour at Frankfurt for refuelling and arrived at Manchester at 6.25pm.

A spokesman at Frankfurt Airport said: ‘This was a most serious situation. If that door had been opened at 30,000ft probably everyone on board would have died.’

Emergency landing: Police were waiting for the two women when the plane touched down at Frankfurt Airport (pictured)

Last night a spokeswoman for XL Airways praised the captain and his five cabin crew, saying: ‘They requested these two ladies behave themselves and when the situation looked like it could get out of hand the crew responded swiftly and bravely.

‘Other passengers joined in to assist and we thank them for their support. People will not tolerate this behaviour.

‘The women had been caught smoking in the toilet. Everyone knows this is totally against the rules.

'They then became abusive to the cabin crew and started to disrupt the other passengers. There were no injuries.’

XL Airways, based at Gatwick, was founded in 2001 and has built up trade offering flights booked through major tour operators.

The women were breathalysed – one had 130 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood, the other 180. The legal limit for driving is 80.

It is understood they have been remanded in custody.

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The Best Conspiracies in Sci-Fi

This week's X-Files 2 release will have everyone wanting to believe in vast government conspiracies. But Cigarette-Smoking Man isn't the only shadowy villain by far. Authors like Philip K. Dick and Margaret Atwood were feeding us conspiracies for breakfast, lunch, and dinner before The X-Files was even on the air. We've collected some of the best conspiracy stories in science fiction, just in case you find yourself hungry for more after your dose of X-Files tonight.

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

The main character of this well-known novel can't get enough of Substance D, a psychoactive drug that's also known as Slow Death. It turns out that even his dealer works for the government and has been part of a police operation all along — and even more surprisingly, he finds Substance D grow fields at his rehab clinic. Dick never reveals the true source of the dangerous drug, but his hints on the subject are the staples of conspiracy theory fiction: evil Communists, evil aliens, evil government, or evil corporations.

The Invisibles by Grant Morrison

Drug use and conspiracy theory stories go hand-in-hand, it seems. Morrison wrote The Invisibles after an incredible hallucinogenic experience in Kathmandu — one he originally attributed to alien abduction. He later learned to just blame the drugs, and so The Invisibles became the most psychadelic comic ever, filled with swearing, bright colors, and wild characters. The protagonist of the first volume, Dane McGowan, is plucked from his life as a petty thief and sent to a corrupt juvenile detention center. After his rescue, the vast conspiracies surrounding everything in his life begin to reveal themselves, and he teams up with the eclectic Invisibles to discover more and more about the vast suffering of humanity.

Dark City, written by Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer

In 1998, a revolutionary sci-fi film noir hit cinema screens. It began with a man waking up at a murder scene in a city that never sees daylight, a man who's unable to remember who he is or how he got there. As he's trying to find answers, he discovers that the world is not at all what it seems, and that a group of mysterious figures called the Strangers are controlling human reality. There's a conspiracy for ya. Luckily, this man possesses the ability to change reality, or "tune," as well, and so puts up a good fight so he can escape to a better world with his wife.

The Matrix, written by Andy and Larry Wachowski

A year after Dark City's release came The Matrix, which was far more successful — the stories are similar, but there's a lot more gunplay and leather in the Wachowski brothers' version. The Matrix certainly offered us a very good reason to be paranoid: It's possible that aliens have invaded, subjugating all of humanity by convincing us that our lives are progressing as normal. The chilling reality, that humans are harvested for energy and fed with the dead matter of their own species, is one of the scariest sequences in film. Plus, the simulated reality that most humans believe is nothing more than a computer program, and the stewards of that program are stony-faced agents who have all the power. That is, until a cute computer hacker shows up to save us all.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Often thought of as a sequel to her also fabulous dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake is a scathing criticism of current society. She portrays the 21st century as a world dominated by international corporations who subjugate their employees, a world where even children watch live executions on the internet, a world where humanities and the arts are vilified in favor of fields like biotechnology and engineering. The Crakers, human-like creatures who also inhabit this world, have a mysterious origin — and at the end of the book, Atwood reveals that they were created by a giant corporation's genetic engineering experiment. In the end, the creator of the Crakers also launches a genetically engineered virus that kills almost all of the humans; it's quite a formidable cautionary tale about the dangers of corporations with too much power.

Dreadful Sanctuary by Eric Frank Russell

1948 saw the release of perhaps the first major conspiracy novel in science fiction, Russell's Dreadful Sanctuary. In his story, a secret society keeps the rest of humankind from discovering or contacting alien life. After several failed missions to space, it seems that Earth is being quarantined by the universal community; in fact, however, the secret society is simply spreading that illusion to control the population. Dreadful Sanctuary was originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction, but Russell rewrote it to publish it as a paperback novel in 1967 — just two years before humans successfully reached the moon. Thank goodness no one's stopping us from space exploration in real life ... or are they?

Whether it's Communists, Russians, our own government, or an extraterrestrial one, fears of hidden and powerful villains will probably never end. As ridiculous as conspiracy theory stories may sound sometimes, they're necessary for a society that wants to give its average, ordinary members some level of control. After all, nobody likes totalitarianism, except perhaps totalitarian leaders.

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Courageous E-mail To Boss In Drafts Folder Since December

Brent Quigley does not back down from rewriting stern and accusatory passages several times a day.

COLUMBUS, OH—A bravely worded e-mail written by graphic designer Brent Quigley decrying his advertising firm's "complete lack of managerial competence" and its "utter failure to treat employees with respect" has remained inside the drafts folder since it was first composed on Dec. 4, 2007.

"I'm going to send it soon—if not this week, definitely the next," said Quigley, who often opens the e-mail, corrects spelling and syntax errors, and saves the changes before relegating the fearless letter back to his drafts folder. "Actually, maybe I'll wait until the end of summer, since that's always a busy time around here. Also, after Labor Day would probably be best. I'll definitely send it off by October, though."

The courageous e-mail, which questions the creative direction of Dynamic Media and outlines nearly a dozen widespread grievances against the company, is addressed to Quigley's boss, David Rosen. Though the subject line first read "Major Points Of Immediate Concern," it has changed several times over the past eight months, first to "A Few Minor Complaints From A Longtime Employee," then to "Some Thoughts," and finally to "Friendly Suggestions About Our Always-Improving Company."

Likewise, several passages indicting company officials for their ineffective leadership, as well as their decision to suspend annual raises, have now been framed in the form of hypothetical questions.

"When this goes out, there are going to be some real changes around here," said Quigley, who after hearing about a series of unannounced layoffs in May added two exclamation marks to the body of his e-mail, only to delete them a week later. "Real changes."

After staring at his computer screen for approximately one hour after the e-mail's initial completion, Quigley said he toyed with the idea of sending it that night, going so far as to point, click, and hold down his mouse arrow over the e-mail application's "Send" icon. However, the 36-year-old ultimately dragged the pointer away from the delivery option, choosing instead to think things over and make sure every issue had been duly covered.

Quigley said he repeated this process several times the morning of Dec. 4, twice on the morning of Feb. 15, and once last Tuesday before deciding that the responsible thing to do would be to "cool off and sleep on it for a couple more nights."

"The timing just hasn't been right," said Quigley, adding that his boss has only forced employees to work late for three out of the last four days. "But trust me, the look on Rosen's face when this eventually gets sent—it's totally going to be worth the wait."

Quigley has since removed Rosen's e-mail address from the "To" field of his e-mail, opting to leave it blank for now. With the number of times he opens, rereads, and adjusts the valiant message, Quigley said he doesn't want to risk accidentally sending the draft off before it is fully ready—a mistake he made several months ago with an e-mail to his now-ex-girlfriend.

Quigley also told reporters that in the last eight months he has made several additional changes to the e-mail's content. For example, last March the word "ridiculous" was un-bolded, in April it was changed from uppercase to lowercase, and in June it was omitted from the e-mail's first paragraph altogether. In addition, Quigley's boss is no longer referred to as "Mr. Big Shot," and a paragraph criticizing the company's "nepotistic habit of promoting unqualified employees" has instead been replaced with a paragraph about how difficult it must be run a successful company.

The daring e-mail has also been edited down to a "tight" 150 words.

According to Quigley, he has only publicly shown the e-mail twice. The first instance was to an old college friend from Florida, who encouraged him to send it right away, while the second, in February, was to his coworker Jeanine Toelner.

Quigley reportedly sent a draft to Toelner's private account with a note saying that he did not mind if others saw the e-mail, but would prefer that she not check it at work, not send it to anyone else, and immediately delete it when she had finished reading.

"She agreed with everything the e-mail had to say, and told me she would probably draft one of her own to send with mine," Quigley said. "So now it's all on Jeanine. Once she sends hers, I'll send mine, and from there there's no turning back."

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