Orangutans can imagine a future and announce their plans

Anthropologists at the University of Zurich have found that not only captive, but also wild-living male orangutans plan their travel route up to one day in advance and communicate it to other members of their species. In order to attract females and repel male rivals, they call in the direction in which they are going to travel.

Until recently it was thought that only humans had the ability to anticipate future actions, whereas animals are caught in the here and now. Experiments with great apes in zoos have shown though that they actually do remember past events and can plan for their future needs.

orangutan“We observed that the male orangutans traveled for several hours in approximately the same direction as they had called.” In extreme cases, long calls made around nesting time in the evening predicted the travel direction better than random until the evening of the next day. Carel van Schaik and his team conclude that orangutans plan their route up to a day ahead. In addition, the males often announced changes in travel direction with a new, better-fitting long call.

“Our study makes it clear that wild orangutans do not simply live in the here and now, but can imagine a future and even announce their plans. In this sense, then, they have become a bit more like us”, concludes Carel van Schaik.

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Magnetic orientation in migrating birds

Researchers of the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany found that there is a compass in the birds’ eyes.

migrating birdsMigrating birds orientate through the Earth’s magnetic field with the help of a compass located in their eyes which is activated by light. Like an inclination compass it calculates the relation of earth’s magnetic field to earth’s surface and makes a distinction between north and south.

This avian magnetic compass is based on radical pair processes in the eye, with cryptochrome, a flavoprotein, as receptor molecule.

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Naming 15 new species of Amazonian birds

An international team of researchers coordinated by ornithologist Bret Whitney of the LSU Museum of Natural Science published 15 species of birds previously unknown to science. The formal description of these birds has been printed in a special volume of the “Handbook of the Birds of the World” series. Not since 1871 have so many new species of birds been introduced under a single cover.

Herpsilochmus-stotzi-photo-by-Fabio-Schunck“Birds are, far and away, the best-known group of vertebrates, so describing a large number of uncatalogued species of birds in this day and age is unexpected, to say the least,” said Whitney.  “But what’s so exciting about this presentation of 15 new species from the Amazon all at once is, first, highlighting how little we really know about species diversity in Amazonia, and second, showing how technological advances have given us new tool sets for discovering and comparing naturally occurring, cohesive (‘monophyletic’) populations with other, closely related populations.”

Amazonia is home to far more species of birds (about 1,300) and more species per unit area, than any other biome. Technological advances such as satellite imagery, digital recordings of vocalizations, DNA analysis and high-powered computation power have taken the age of discovery to the next level, and were key ingredients in the discovery of these new species. However, such discoveries still depend on exploration of remote areas of the Amazon rainforest, just as they did a century ago.

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Characterizing the world’s islands

A team of researchers from the University of Göttingen in Germany and Yale University (USA) has presented the most comprehensive description and characterization so far of bio-climatic and physical characteristics of the world’s islands.

islandIslands make up only 5% of the land surface of the Earth, but they are home to a disproportionately high number of plant and animal species and provide ecosystem functions and services to more than 500 million people. However, a quantitative description of the ecological conditions on islands had been lacking so far. The study now closes this gap.

The researchers employed modern statistical approaches to describe, classify and map the islands based on differences in their environments. This allows the identification of islands with similar environmental settings and will facilitate further island bio-geographical studies and biodiversity conservation.

“These new results provide a new perspective on thousands of our planet’s islands,” said Prof. Dr. Holger Kreft from the University of Göttingen, leader of the study. “For instance, 65% of all islands are located in the tropics, but compared to mainlands, island climates are on average cooler and more humid. An interesting finding of our study is that there are many more islands with a temperate rainforest climate, one of the rarest ecosystems on Earth, than expected by chance.”

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Clean desks vs messy desks

How does your desk look like? Messy or clean?

According to a new research working at a clean and prim desk may promote healthy eating, generosity, and conventionality. But, the research also shows that a messy desk may confer its own benefits, promoting creative thinking and stimulating new ideas.

desk of Albert Einstein  The Desk of Albert Einstein (Photo: Oscar Ramos Orozco)

These are the results of this new study: Being in a clean room seemed to encourage people to do what was expected of them. Compared with participants in a messy room, they donated more of their own money to charity and were more likely to choose the apple over the candy bar.

But the researchers hypothesized that messiness might have its virtues as well. In another experiment, participants were asked to come up with new uses for ping pong balls. Overall, participants in the messy room generated the same number of ideas for new uses as their clean-room counterparts. But their ideas were rated as more interesting and creative when evaluated by impartial judges. “Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries, and societies want more of: Creativity,” says psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota.

The researchers also found that when participants were given a choice between a new product and an established one, those in the messy room were more likely to prefer the novel one — a signal that being in a disorderly environment stimulates a release from conventionality. Whereas participants in a tidy room preferred the established product over the new one.

“We are all exposed to various kinds of settings, such as in our office space, our homes, our cars, even on the Internet,” Vohs observes. “Whether you have control over the tidiness of the environment or not, you are exposed to it and our research shows it can affect you.”

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Old or young: who performs more consistently?

Most people experience it: the cognitive performance can vary from one day to the next. The question examined by scientists from Germany and Sweden in the COGITO Study was:  Do older adults vary more in their performance than younger people?

Well, the answer in short: the study shows that older adults are more consistent in their cognitive performance than younger ones.

Old and young

The scientists’ findings show that there is variability in cognitive performance. Our personal impression that a whole day is either good or bad, however, is often wrong. Most performance fluctuations occur within shorter periods of time. What seems like a good or bad day is often due to good or bad moments that do not make the whole day’s cognitive performance any better or worse than that of an average day. “True variability from day to day is relatively low”, says Florian Schmiedek, who planned and carried out the COGITO Study together with Lövdén and Lindenberger.

The interesting results of a comparison between age groups were surprising: In all  cognitive tasks assessed, the older group actually showed less performance variability from day to day than the younger group. The older adults’ cognitive performance was thus more consistent across days. Further analyses indicated that the older adults’ higher consistency is due to learnt strategies to solve the task, a constantly high motivation level as well as a balanced daily routine and stable mood.

These findings are of importance for the debate about older people’s potential in working life. “On balance, older employees’ productivity and reliability is higher than that of their younger colleagues,” says  Axel Börsch-Supan, Director at the Munich Center for the Economics of Aging at the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy.

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Weight loss through increased drinking of water

drink waterThere is no doubt about the fact that drinking enough water daily is important for the general health. The recommended amount are 2 liters of water per day that certainly needs to be increase to 3-4 liters for hot summer months or for sportive activities.

There are though also discussions out there about the question if drinking more water might help losing weight. Well, there is good news about this. A recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by a group of researchers of the Berlin School of Public Health proves the positive association between water consumption and body weight outcomes in adults of any body weight status.

Even when it was often discussed that drinking water can be a dietary means for weight loss and obesity prevention, there was no study done in order to recommend this indication.

This new study showed that increased water consumption, together with other actions for weight loss, reduced body weight remarkably after 3-12 months. The reasons are still to be found through more studies. It might be just the fact that replacing sweet Sodas with water alone helps reducing weight.

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Gesturing children perform well on cognitive tasks

In a first study of its kind, San Francisco State University researchers have shown that younger children who use gestures outperform their peers in problem-solving tasks.

gesturing children

Older research showed that mind and body work closely together in early cognitive development. Still the researchers were surprised by the strength of the effect of gestures. There is a growing body of research that suggests gesturing may play a significant role in the processes that people use to solve a problem or achieve a goal. These processes include holding information in memory, keeping the brain from choosing a course too quickly and being flexible in adding new or different information to handle a task.

There is still more research to do. The researchers found that children who did a lot of gesturing did generally better at the task than those who didn’t gesture as much, even when they did not use gesturing during the task itself. This makes it difficult to determine whether it’s the gesturing itself that helps the children perform the task, or whether children who use a lot of gestures are simply at a more advanced cognitive level than their peers. This is a question that the researchers hope to answer in further studies.


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A new star in the sky: Nova Delphinus 2013

Great news for all astronomers: a new star is discovered. The so-called Nova Delphinus 2013 was discovered August 14, 2013 by amateur astronomer Koichi Itagaki of Yamagata, Japan, at 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) in the constellation Delphinus, the Dolphin.

The name “Nova” means that this is a powerful eruption from star, but is not as strong as a supernova, which is a catastrophic explosion signaling the death of a star. So what is visible as a nova originates from the surface of a white dwarf star in a binary system. If these two stars are close enough, material from one star can be pulled off the companion star’s surface and onto the white dwarf, producing an extremely bright outburst of light. When the outburst has subsided, the white dwarf usually reverts back to its original state. This might be the case for this nova discovered in Delphinus.

Novas like this one don’t appear very often, perhaps once or twice per decade. During the last 50 years, the brightest nova that has appeared occurred in August 1975, when a nova suddenly blazed in the constellation of Cygnus, the Swan.

nova delphinus 2013The good news is that this nova is bright enough to be visible with the naked eye from a dark place. It is a very easy object with a small pair of binoculars or a small telescope. This is its position: Nova Delphinus 2013 is located within the boundaries of the small constellation of Delphinus, the Dolphin, which is immediately adjacent to the famous Summer Triangle composed of the bright stars Vega, Altair and Deneb.

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Cockatoos know what is going on behind barriers

Alice Auersperg and her team from the University of Vienna and Oxford show that “object permanence” abilities in a cockatoo levels apes and 4-year-old human toddlers. The ability to represent and to track the trajectory of objects, which are temporally out of sight, is highly important in many aspects but is also cognitively demanding.

One experiment is about Translocation. In order to find out about spatial memory and tracking in animals and human infants a number of setups have been habitually used. They depend on what is being moved: a desired object (such as food reward), the hiding places for this object or the test animal itself.

The second experiment is about Transposition. The reward is hidden underneath one of several equal cups, which are interchanged one or more times.

And the third experiment is about Rotation. Here the reward is hidden underneath one of several equal cups that are aligned in parallel on a rotatable platform, which is rotated at different angles.

TranspositionBirgit Szabo, one of the experimenters from the University of Vienna, says: “The majority of our eight birds (Goffin cockatoos – Cacatua goffini) readily and spontaneously solved Transposition, Rotation and Translocation tasks which are likely to pose a large cognitive load on working memory. This was surprising. Transpositions are highly demanding in terms of attention since two occluding objects are moved simultaneously. Nevertheless, in contrast to apes, which find single swaps easier than double, the cockatoos perform equally in both conditions.”

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