Science Links of the Week

A passion for the natural world drives many of our adventures. And when we’re not actually outside, we love delving into the discoveries about the places where we live and travel. Here are some of the best natural history links we’ve found this week.

Cattle laundering

Cattle ranching is killing the Amazon: Cattle ranching is damaging the Amazon rainforest beyond repair. This industry causes most of the deforestation, and Brazil and the U.S. are the two main culprits.

In 2020, the U.S. lifted sanctions on buying raw beef from Brazil. It is now the second-biggest buyer, importing 320 million pounds of Brazilian beef last year. This may double in 2022.

JBS, the world’s largest beef supplier, claims that it does not buy meat from farms on illegally deforested land. Research shows that this is untrue. Ranchers have learned how to work the system. They continuously move cattle between ranches to hide illegal origins before selling them. As soon as they make it to a ranch with a clean record, they stamp that ranch’s name on their purchase ticket. Brazil largely ignores such cattle laundering.

Photo: Shutterstock


Honeybees are even smarter than we thought

Honeybees can tell the difference between odd and even numbers: Honeybees are only the second species that can differentiate between even and odd numbers. We’re the first.

Researchers separated the bees into two groups. They trained the first group to associate a bitter taste with odd numbers and a sweet taste with even. The second group did the opposite.

Scientists then presented the bees with cards showing up to 10 shapes. The bees successfully categorized them as odd or even with 80% accuracy. When shown numbers not seen in training, they identified them with 70% accuracy.

Surprisingly, the group that associated odd numbers with sweetness learned quicker. This is the opposite of humans: We can categorize even numbers more quickly.

Common vampire bat. Photo: Shutterstock


‘Lost’ genes make vampire bats more altruistic

Genes explain how vampire bats live on blood: Vampire bats are the only mammals that live solely on blood. But how have they evolved to do it? Scientists compared the genome of the common vampire bat with that of 26 other bat species. They found 13 genes in vampire bats that are active in other species, but inactive in vampire bats.

Some of the genes are linked to taste receptors. Without them, vampire bats can’t tell the difference between sweet and bitter tastes. Others trigger insulin production. This normally helps process sugar, but blood contains very little sugar. Another links to stomach acid, which helps break down solid food.

One lost gene gives an insight into their social behavior. Usually, the gene breaks down a compound essential for learning and memory. With these gene nonfunctional, vampire bats have superior long-term memory and social bonds. Their diet makes them susceptible to starvation. Friends will often regurgitate blood for their starving pals.

How the next pandemic may begin

Climate change could spark the next pandemic: As global temperatures continue to rise, animals are changing their migration patterns and habitats to cope with warmer conditions. These relocations bring them into contact with different species for the first time.

By doing this, they will share thousands of viruses. This makes it harder to track the movement of viruses between species, and easier for the viruses to infect humans. We have already seen this in the wildlife trade, but climate change could cause it on a much larger, uncontrolled scale.

“Markets bring unhealthy animals together in unnatural combinations and creates opportunities for this stepwise process — like how SARS jumped from bats to civets, then civets to people,” said Colin Carlson, lead author of the study. “In a changing climate, that…will be the reality in nature just about everywhere.

An emperor penguin ignores the little spy robot. Photo: CNN


A robot lives in an Antarctic penguin colony: In Atka Bay, Antarctica, a metre-tall robot sits among thousands of emperor penguins. The little robot acts as a mobile antenna and monitors 300 penguins throughout the year. The penguins mostly ignore this odd, camera-equipped device.