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images by Sally Kneidel

The EPA reported Friday afternoon that a small amount of radiation from Japan’s damaged nuclear reactors has been detected in Sacramento.  Experts have been expecting small amounts of radioactive isotopes to blow over the ocean to California beginning as early as Friday. The isotope picked up by monitors Friday is xenon-133. According to the EPA, the isotope is present in Sacramento at such low levels that it presents no danger to human health.

To read more about the Sacramento story in the LA Times, click here.

Photos of Japan’s crisis from LA Times

Keywords: Japan earthquake tsunami Sacramento xenon-133 radiation spread

Photo by Sally Kneidel

Why are massive snowfalls and cold air walloping the U.S. for the second year in a row?

I listened to the climate reporter for the NY Times, Justin Gillis, on NPR yesterday. He said our current weather is due to a breakdown in the “polar vortex.” Gillis mentioned that the U.S. had warmer winters up through 1995 – thought to be due to global climate change. Now record-setting blizzards are dumping massive amounts of snow over large areas of the U.S. And that too is thought to be due to global climate change. Does that make sense? It does.

This morning I read the newsletter of Thomas Homer-Dixon, a climate scientist in the U.K. He explained what the polar vortex is, how the melting of Arctic ice has changed it, and how that change is responsible for our brutal winter.

Even areas of the South have had multiple snowfalls this year. Photo: Sally Kneidel

What is the “polar vortex”?

Dr. Homer-Dixon explains it this way. Usually in early winter, a basin of low-pressure air forms over the Arctic Ocean’s cold sea ice. Jet streams travel west to east along this basin’s southern edge, creating a huge circular flow – the polar vortex – that travels counterclockwise around the Arctic. This flow acts as a fence, separating the Arctic’s cold air from warmer air farther south.

A warmer Arctic apparently causes colder continents

According to Homer-Dixon and other climate scientists, heat was released last winter (in Dec and Feb) by newly exposed water in the Arctic – water that used to be ice. That heat created bulges of high-pressure air over the Arctic which pressed against the polar vortex, destabilizing it. The jet streams that comprise the polar vortex broke into disconnected segments, some of which traveled north to south, pulling bitterly cold air into North America, Europe and eastern China.

Photo by Sally Kneidel

That change in wind directions is called the “Warm Arctic – Cold Continents” climate pattern.

Scientists can’t say for sure yet whether the same thing is responsible for this year’s brutal winter. But they do know that jet-stream maps for the Northern Hemisphere in late November 2010 showed the jet streams broken into “bits, pieces, loops, and circles with many north-to-south flows over North America and Eurasia.”

Writes Dr. Homer-Dixon, “People who think this winter’s brutish weather proves climate change isn’t real might want to think again.”

Keywords: climate change polar vortex Arctic ice Thomas Homer-Dixon record snow harsh winter

This letter to the editor was written in response to “Scientists connect global warming to extreme rain” (Feb.17) and “Duke earnings up 23% in 2010″ (Feb. 18) 

“Thursday the Observer reported that ‘telltale fingerprints’ in scientific data confirm that manmade climate change is fueling extreme weather events such as massive snowstorms and rainstorms. Friday we learned that Duke Energy’s 2010 earnings were up 23 percent, in large part because of extreme weather.

“Now, Duke Energy wants to raise rates to pay for new coal-fired power plants. Burning coal is a huge cause of the climate crisis. Climate change is not a “victimless crime.” Extreme weather hurts people. But it’s great for Duke Energy.

“Let’s call on Duke Energy to stop fueling the extreme weather that’s driving up our electric bills and Duke’s profits. Duke should shut down some coal plants and promote drastic conservation and energy efficiency.”

Sally Kneidel, PhD

Keywords: Duke Energy coal emissions climate change energy efficiency Duke Energy drives up energy bills Duke Energy drives up coal emissions Duke Energy fuels climate change Duke Energy fuels extreme weather coal fuels extreme weather coal fuels climate change

South African lion taking a break from his kill, a Cape buffalo. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Lions extinct in 10-15 years? That’s the prediction of National Geographic explorers-in-residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert. The couple have studied and filmed Africa’s big cats for more than 25 years. They say that wild lions have declined from 400,000 in 1960 to around 20,000 today.

“The Last Lions”

Based in Botswana, the Jouberts have a new documentary and a companion book, both called “The Last Lions” (see link below). This latest film follows a solitary female lion in the Okavango Delta of Botswana as she tries to feed and protect her three cubs after her mate dies. Female lions usually live and hunt in a group, with a single male as protector against intruding males. A solitary female alone is at a serious disadvantage. Females do virtually all the hunting for a group, and they usually hunt cooperatively.

Males are freeloaders

Males that are part of a pride seldom hunt, but share in the females’ kills. The conspicuous black mane helps protect a male’s neck during fights with rivals, but makes it difficult for him to creep toward pray unnoticed.  Mortality is much higher in males than in females.

Threats to lions

Africa’s lions are threatened primarily by habitat loss, as human populations expand. They’re also frequently poisoned or trapped by rural dwellers who blame lions for livestock losses.

I was surprised at how few lions I saw

I’ve been to South Africa a couple of times in the last 5 years looking for wildlife.  Although I spent virtually all my time in Kruger National Park and other wildlife reserves, I saw very few lions.  In eight weeks of searching, I had only three lion sightings: one solitary male, two males on a kill together, and one pride of females with their young. One wildlife guide I talked with told me that, in his youth 40 years earlier, he had shot lions every single day – to protect his family’s livestock, he said. This was in the same place where I saw only one lion over a period of 3 weeks.

Link to Jouberts on NPR

The Jouberts were interviewed on March 2 by Terry Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air”. Click here to read NPR’s summary of the interview, or to listen to the entire interview.

A couple of my previous posts about Africa’s big cats:

We were lucky to see lions on a kill

Leopard adventure: male and female clash over prey

Keywords: lion extinction lion conservation Dereck Joubert Beverly Joubert The Last Lions NPR

Photo: wikimedia commons

People are good at detecting human personalities accurately, even from expressionless mug shots. A study last year showed that we can reliably tell who is extroverted, emotionally stable, agreeable or imaginative – just from their blank and expressionless faces.

We can read chimps too

A new study shows that we can also predict personality traits accurately from expressionless photos of chimps!  In the new study from Bangor University of Wales, 139 college students looked at pairs of chimpanzee mug shots.  In the photos, the chimps looked straight ahead or at a slight angle with no teeth showing and no shadowing over the eyes which could make them look threatening. Sixty to 70% of the students accurately identified which chimps were dominant and which were not.  Accuracy was better with male chimps than females.

The researchers, led by Robert Ward, say they don’t know exactly what characterizes the face of a dominant chimp or an extroverted person. Ward suspects that chimps can detect the difference too.  He plans to test that next.

Study underscores our genetic similarity to chimps

What’s the significance of these studies? The researchers conclude that the ability to detect important personality traits from facial structure (not expressions) evolved 7 million years ago in a common ancestor of both chimps and humans.  The fact that humans can read chimp facial expressions suggests that this ability is “part of an evolved system.”

Chimps are our closest relatives, sharing 98% of the our DNA. It’s not too surprising that we should able to read their faces in the same way we read human faces.

Wouldn’t it be nice…

I’m always glad when I see a study like this.  I have this fantasy that once we realize how smart and how like us chimpanzees and other great apes are, the tide will turn on protecting our ape relatives from impending extinction.

For more information about what you can do to protect wild apes, see these links to primate conservation NGOs:

Jane Goodall Institute
Orangutan Outreach
Sumatran Orangutan Society
Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
Orangutan Land Trust
International Primate Protection League
TRAFFIC:the wildlife trade monitoring network

Some of my previous posts about primates and primate conservation:

Is males’ attraction to trucks and balls genetically based? Jan 14, 2011
Hunting may threaten orangutans even more than habitat loss Dec 6, 2010

Keywords: chimpanzees chimps Robert Ward University of Bangor

African elephants in Kruger National Park. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Just saw a distressing news item.  In an interview published 1/27/11, scientist Ian Craigie says populations of big mammals in Africa have decreased 59% in 40 years. And those figures are only from protected areas such as national parks. If unprotected areas were included in the study, the percent would probably be much higher.  Craigie is a zoologist (University of Cambridge) and former employee of South Africa National Parks.

Craigie says the primary causes of the decline are agriculture, hunting and the bushmeat trade. But all are due to human actions and Africa’s population explosion. Africa’s human population has increased 5-fold since WWII. The additional human population has moved into cultivated areas that were previously wildlife habitat, leading to widespread habitat destruction.

I might add (my words, not Craigie’s) that deforestation for agriculture and timber has increased access to previously secluded or inaccessible wildlife.  Modern weaponry has also increased the ease of killing large numbers of animals for commercial trade as bushmeat or traditional medicine.

White rhino in an African national park. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Craigie says that Southern Africa is better off than West Africa or East Africa because the parks in Southern Africa have better funding and the human population is less dense.

West Africa has the most serious wildlife problem of the three regions because of the strong tradition of hunting for bushmeat, the countries are poorer, and the human population density is high.

What’s the solution? Increase funding for programs to help communities develop livelihoods that depend on protecting wildlife (such as ecotourism) rather than over-harvesting and destroying their greatest resource (wildlife) and their greatest potential for income.  These are my words, not Craigie’s.  Americans alone spend 12 billion dollars per year on ecotourism in Africa.

Keywords: Africa wildlife big mammals elephants rhinos poaching hunting bushmeat population growth deforestation habitat loss 59% loss in 40 years Ian Craigie

Text and photo by Sally Kneidel, PhD

Attaching bands to birds is a longstanding method of studying bird populations. The bands allow researchers to collect data on birds’ movements and longevity.

But scientists have been debating for 30 years whether bands on penguins may hurt the birds.  On aquatic or marine birds, such as penguins, bands are generally attached to the front base of a flipper rather than to a leg.

Note metal band on this African (Jackass) Penguin, on front of left flipper. Photo: Sally Kneidel, southern tip of Africa [click on photo to enlarge it]

Zookeepers noticed as early as the 1970s that flipper-bands can injure molting penguins.  It’s now suspected that bands also create drag when penguins are swimming, which could interfere with prey capture.

A new study published Jan 12, 2011 in the journal Nature provides strong evidence that bands do hurt penguins’ survival and reproduction. Yvon Le Maho of the University of Strasbourg in France and his colleagues banded 50 King Penguins from Possession Island in the southern Indian Ocean. These 50 birds had already been implanted with “minute” and subcutaneous electronic tags. Over the course of a 10-year study, Moho and colleagues found that the banded penguins produced 40% fewer chicks and had a 16% lower survival rate compared to 50 nonbanded penguins

Subcutaneous tags, while safer, are a relatively new technology and not yet widely used in ecological studies.  “Still today you will find that most US studies on Adélie penguins use flipper banding,” says Le Maho.  But his new publication may encourage the increased use of subcutaneous tags instead.

Climate change studies at stake

There’s a wider issue at stake than the birds’ welfare: studies on penguins are often used to gauge the effects of climate change on ecosystems. If a study suggests that a slight warming of ocean waters reduces penguin survival, how much of the difference could actually be due to banding effects?

For the birds and for the sake of our climate data, subcutaneous tags that create no drag should replace flipper-banding in future studies with penguins.

Keywords: penguins, bird banding, flipper banding, climate change, subcutaneous tags

Young chimps. Photo: Delphine Bruyere

My husband and I raised one girl and one boy, close together in age. We tried hard to avoid gender-stereotyping our young kids in any way. They had the same toys, many of them gender neutral, for some time.

Our son clung to the baseball fence, drooling
As it happened, our yard backed up to a school athletic field. From late winter on, we daily heard the THWOCK of  bats hitting balls during baseball practice. Our son was barely able to walk when he began toddling out to the playing field alone, to watch the students play baseball.  He’d hang on the baseball fence with his tiny fingers for hours, mesmerized and drooling. Soon he was into trucks – at the age of 2, he memorized the name of 33 different kinds of trucks from the truck library books he clamored for.  Our daughter’s interests were varied, but she showed no inkling of his fascination with balls and trucks. We couldn’t understand it. He wasn’t in preschool, and my husband and I cared nothing for vehicles of any kind (although Ken is a baseball fan).

We share 98% of our DNA with chimps
So last week I was intrigued to see a paper in the online journal Current Biology about gender-stereotyped roles in young chimps. Since chimps are our closest relatives, sharing 98% of our DNA, any observations about chimp behavior could have implications for the origins of our own behavior.

Young female chimps “play mothering” more than young males
Author Sonya Kahlenberg, a biological anthropologist at Bates College in Maine, observed chimps in Kibale National Park in Uganda over 14 years. She and co-author Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard, noted that 67% of young females carried sticks while only 31% of young males did. Sticks are used sometimes as weapons or as tools, to probe holes for food or water. But the young chimps also cradled long thick sticks as if a stick were a baby, carrying it around for no particular reason. They sometimes carried the stick as long as 4 hours, and took it with them to their nests for sleep. The authors felt that the stick-carrying was “play-mothering.” The males who did it stopped as they got older. The females stopped when they gave birth to real babies, whereas use of sticks for other purposes continued after motherhood.

In her recent article, Kahlenberg cited previous research in which captive young male monkeys preferred wheeled toys, while female monkeys, like human girls, showed greater variability in preferences. The male monkeys also showed more rough-and-tumble play than females. The authors of this study (published in PubMed) hypothesized that these differences are hormonally influenced.

Some have speculated that boys, including some male primates, prefer toys like balls and trucks because these toys are associated with more freedom of movement than, for example, playing with dolls.

Evolutionary advantage for human males to prefer movement?
Could it be true that very young male humans are drawn to balls and trucks because playing with them involves more movement?  It’s not clear at all to me that male attraction to movement would be more advantageous evolutionarily than female attraction to movement. Even while carrying infants, our female prehistoric ancestors still were compelled to move around gathering plants for food, I would think. And keeping up with mobile children certainly involves movement. But if males were the defenders of early human tribes, and if they went on long hunts for food, then perhaps males could have evolved a hormone-based propensity to be more active.

I don’t know, it’s an interesting question. Culture has so much to do with it. A few decades ago, girls rarely if ever participated in team sports at school (at least in the U.S.). Today they do, when given the opportunity.

One more reason to protect wild apes
I’d love to see more field observations of gender-based behavioral differences in young primates. That’s one more reason we need to protect chimpanzees and other primates from the illegal poaching that threatens all populations of wild apes.

For more information about what you can do to protect wild apes, see these links to primate conservation NGOs:
Jane Goodall Institute
Orangutan Outreach
Sumatran Orangutan Society
Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
Orangutan Land Trust
International Primate Protection League
TRAFFIC:the wildlife trade monitoring network

Some of my previous posts about primates and primate conservation:
Hunting may threaten orangutans even more than habitat loss Dec 6, 2010

Keywords: chimpanzees chimp behavior animal behavior gender stereotypes chimps and dolls chimps and sticks Sonya Kahlenberg Kibale National Park Richard Wrangham

A serene Buddha in Ubud, Bali. Photo: Sally Kneidel

My long-time friend Therese Fitzgerald is an ordained Zen priest who works as a spiritual mentor and meditation teacher. She’s also director of Dharma Friends; her husband Arnold Kotler is publisher of Koa Books. Through my friendship with Therese and other Zen friends, I’ve learned the value of staying in the present moment. Sitting zazen, or counting breaths in meditation, is an exercise in keeping one’s attention in the moment. Zen author Natalie Goldberg writes about our “monkey mind” that wanders and must be pulled continuously back to the present to find serenity.

Buddha in Bali. Photo: Sally Kneidel

12-step programs too

Staying in the present is a major tenet in 12-step programs too, with slogans like “Keep your head where your feet are.” Good advice, but it doesn’t come naturally to the human mind, at least not my mind.

New study confirms it, except for sex

Anyway I was intrigued to see this topic explored in a recently published scientific study. The study was conducted by 2 researchers at Harvard who sampled the mood of 2250 volunteers over several days by contacting them at random times via their iPhones. They found that people’s minds wander at least 30% of the time during all activities except sex.
The researchers also found that the volunteers’ moods were considerably worse when their minds were wandering to unpleasant or neutral topics, rather than focusing on the activity at hand.

This part surprised me

I was surprised that the researchers found that subjects’ minds wandered more often to pleasant than to unpleasant topics. (More about that below.)
But even ruminating on pleasant topics did not improve the volunteers’ moods over paying attention to their current actions. In other words, a wandering mind does not improve our mood and often makes it worse.

Other studies show that we remember negative events more readily

Everything in this study makes intuitive sense to me except one thing: when volunteers’ minds were wandering, they usually reported pleasant thoughts. I find it hard to believe that’s an accurate portrayal of the human mind in general. Humans are programmed evolutionarily to problem-solve. Research by neurologists has shown that negative experiences (anger, fear, pain, etc.) create more prominent memories than pleasant or neutral experiences, because recalling negative experiences has more survival value. It seems to follow that if we’re lost in reveries, the reveries are likely to be related to problems and problem-solving.
A zafu to sit on during Zen meditation.

Strategies for staying in the present

But still, even if that part of the experiment is flawed, the upshot is the same. A wandering mind does not contribute to serenity and is likely to undermine our moods.  So.  I feel renewed interest in trying to keep my own “monkey-mind” from wandering. Meditation helps; so does repeating a simple phrase (12-steppers often use the Serenity Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer).  Also, just paying attention to my sensations of touch and hearing, etc., while I perform tasks such as washing the dishes can help me stay in the present.

Keywords:  Zen Buddhism wandering mind staying in the present serenity Therese Fitzgerald Dharma Friends Koa Books meditation 12-step programs Matthew Killingsworth Daniel Gilbert Harvard

Cocaine.  Photo: DEA

Are recreational drugs more enjoyable for women than for men? A recent study on that topic caught caught my eye this morning.

Women are more sensitive to cocaine

“Human studies of cocaine dependence indicate that women enter drug treatment faster than men and report shorter cocaine-free periods,” said scientist Kerry Kerstetter of the University of California, Santa Barbara. These and other observations indicate that human females are more sensitive to cocaine, have a greater cocaine craving and are more likely to relapse than men.

White lab rat. Photo: DEA

Female rats choose cocaine over food

To explore this question in more depth, Kerstetter turned to lab rats. She trained rats to press a lever to get food and a different lever to get cocaine, then gave hungry rats a choice between the two levers.  The hungry female rats chose the cocaine lever about half the time.  But hungry male rats showed a definite preference for the food lever. The gender difference was statistically significant.  “It appears that females are more likely than males to sacrifice food for low doses of cocaine,” Kerstetter said.

Kerstettler then more than doubled the volume of cocaine delivered by pressing the cocaine lever. In this situation, both sexes chose cocaine more often. But female rats still preferred the drug more than the males did.  Females chose cocaine over food 75 to 80% of the time, compared with less than 50% of the time for the males.

Female hormones may be responsible

No one knows the reason for these gender differences yet.  But Kerstettler believes that female hormones play a role. Female rats that had their ovaries removed after puberty behaved more like males, choosing food more frequently. Kerstettler and her colleagues believe female hormones may set up or regulate the response to cocaine in the brain.

Gender differences can guide treatment plans

On a practical note, Kerstettler and other neuroscientists believe that understanding gender differences can help individualize the treatment of cocaine addiction.


Laura Sanders. “Cocaine trumps food for female rats.” Science News.  Dec 3, 2010.

Sweets or cocaine? Male rats prefer sweets; female rats favor cocaine.”  Science Daily.

Keywords: cocaine females choose cocaine drug addiction Kerry Kerstettler gender differences sex differences drug treatment

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