boat strikes in protected areas could be harming the animals’ development

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The biggest fish in the ocean, whale sharks, are incredible animals. They can reach lengths of over 18 metres and weigh more than 19,000kg. Each shark has a unique pattern of spots on its body, like a fingerprint.

The number of whale sharks in our oceans has been in decline for years and as a result the species is endangered. Recently, efforts to conserve the animals through ecotourism have been severely impacted by the pandemic.

Marine protected areas (MPAs), where human activities like fishing are restricted, are an important tool when it comes to the global conservation of many animals in the sea, including whale sharks. But our new study shows these areas might not be the safe haven we once thought they were.

We looked into how long whale sharks spend within an MPA and how this is impacted by injuries. We found injuries from boat strikes delayed the animals’ development, making them spend longer in the area before going out into the wider ocean. This is the first study to link human activity with a change in whale sharks’ life stages. Our work poses difficult questions for the regulation of boat traffic and wildlife tourism within protected areas.

A swimmer next to a whale shark.
Swimming with whale sharks is popular for tourists.
Gregor Kervina, Author provided


In the past, whale sharks were easy targets for fisheries, who harvested their meat and oil from their fatty livers. International demand for shark fins means the fish are still hunted in many areas of the world. To conserve whale sharks, charities and activists have aimed to shift the focus away from hunting and towards ecotourism.

Despite their size, whale sharks are filter feeders, with throats incapable of swallowing anything larger than a thumb-sized sprat. The slow moving grace of the creatures, and their seeming indifference to the presence of humans, ensures their position on the bucket lists of many snorkelers, divers and swimmers.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the South Ari Atoll MPA (Sampa) in the Maldives. There, whale shark-related tourism was a cornerstone of the economy prior to the pandemic, bringing in $9.4 million (£6.9m) a year. Unfortunately, anecdotal reports suggest loss of income from tourism in 2020 has seen an upsurge in illegal hunting and finning, threatening conservation efforts.


The waters in Sampa are one of very few places in the world where the usually transient whale sharks take up semi-permanent residence. Most of the sharks in the area are immature males, so the area is referred to as a developmental habitat.

Places like Sampa give young sharks somewhere to build up strength before moving off into the wider ocean. For marine biologists and conservationists, this provides a rare opportunity to study the behaviour of individual animals for long periods of time.

Much of whale shark ecology remains a mystery. We are yet to identify where they give birth to their young, or even confirm where they mate, which is a roadblock for conservation. Previously, it was assumed tourist attention had very little impact on sharks. But in recent years, mounting evidence has emerged, suggesting human presence is altering their behaviour.

Our study is based on 15 years of dedicated surveying by the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP), along with citizen science data. We estimated whale shark abundance in Sampa and found it has been decreasing steadily each year, falling from 48 sharks in 2014 to 32 in 2019. The overall decline in whale shark abundance in Sampa falls in line with global trends for the endangered species.

A whale shark with injuries.
More than half of the whale sharks studied had been injured by boats.
MWSRP, Author provided

Boat strikes

Worryingly, we found that 61% of sharks in the study had severe injuries. While some sharks arrive in the MPA with injuries, others acquire them during their residency. We did not directly observe boat strikes happening within the MPA. However, based on the modelling, we can say sharks likely acquired injuries during their residency in the area.

We modelled how long whale sharks were staying in the area, and how this related to injuries. For the first time, we found sharks with severe injuries spend longer in the developmental habitat than those without. Our study suggests injured sharks remain in the area as they have access to food and warm water which supports their recovery.

Unfortunately, human activities within the developmental habitat mean sharks continue to acquire injuries while they are there. Whale sharks spend a lot of time cruising just below the surface of the ocean, feeding on plankton and small animals. This puts them right in the path of boats. Most injuries we observed were clearly caused by humans, ranging from abrasions from hulls to fins cut off by propellers. The majority of boat traffic within Sampa is related to tourism, with vessels carrying snorkelers and divers.

Sharks are amazing healers, given time they can recover from severe injuries. However, even if injuries don’t kill them, they alter their life history.

Read more:
Whale sharks gather at a few specific locations around the world – now we know why

Whale sharks journey across vast distances during their long lifetimes, which can see them reach ages of more than 130 years. This means they often cross political jurisdictions and are subject to various levels of exploitation.

To ensure sharks have a safe space to recover, we suggest changes to the management to the MPA. Speed limit zones would help prevent further injuries. A transition of the current voluntary guidelines for tourist encounters to enforceable regulations would also help safeguard the animals.

The survival and health of juvenile animals is paramount to the future of the species. Protecting them at the formative part of their life cycle can have a global impact.

Tags: #boat #strikes #protected #areas #harming #animals #development

Written by Daire Carroll, PhD Researcher in Microbial Ecology, University of Warwick

This article by Daire Carroll, PhD Researcher in Microbial Ecology, University of Warwick, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Dinosaurs may have ‘flashed’ each other with their bottoms, newly discovered fossil shows

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Dinosaur fossils have always amazed with their horns and spikes, enchanting us with elongated necks and foot-long teeth. But less attention has been paid to the dinosaur derriere – for reasons of taste, maybe, but also because it’s difficult to find a well-preserved bottom in the fossil record of our Mesozoic friends.

But a chance encounter at a German museum has helped us understand the story behind one dinosaur’s behind, revealing that the creature’s back opening might have been “flashed” for communicative purposes – much like baboons use their bottoms for communication today.

The dinosaur rear is different than the mammalian one we’re familiar with. Where mammals evolved separate openings for reproduction and the expulsion of faeces, dinosaurs and their relatives possess one single rear orifice called the “cloaca”. This all-purpose opening was used for defecation, urination, mating, and the laying of eggs.

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The back passage of dinosaurs is similar to that of other reptiles today.
Author provided (No reuse)

While we’ve long known that extinct dinosaurs would have had a cloaca, no fossil had actually preserved those parts well enough to be closely studied. But recently, a number of amazing discoveries of dinosaur fossils across northeastern China have revealed birds and non-avian dinosaurs with immaculately preserved feathers and clear markings on scaly skin.

A new dimension

These Chinese fossils are so well preserved that even melanin pigment – which determines the colour of skin, hair, and scales – is visible. This has enabled palaeontologists to reconstruct dinosaurs with their original colour patterns, transforming monochrome 2D fossils into colourful 3D representations.

Read more:
Six amazing dinosaur discoveries that changed the world

With the help of palaeoartist Bob Nicholls, we previously reconstructed the original colour patterns from a small herbivorous dinosaur called psittacosaurus, which lived over 100 million years ago. It is a labrador-sized herbivorous dinosaur, closely related to the much larger ceratopsians group of dinosaurs – of which the triceratops is the best-known example.

We reconstructed the original colour patterns of the psittacosaurus from a beautiful fossil specimen held at the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History in Frankfurt. By projecting this reconstruction onto a lifesize 3D model, we revealed that it had counter-shaded camouflage, helping it conceal itself in wooded areas.

A dinosaur fossil
The psittacosaurus fossil is remarkably well preserved.
Author provided (No reuse)

Rock bottom

But this particular dinosaur still had some secrets to reveal. After completing the study on the psittacosaurus’ colour patterns, we made a casual return to the Senckenberg Museum – to film a video abstract that showed how we reconstructed the dinosaur’s colours.

As we filmed, we noticed that the cloacal opening (or vent) was extremely well preserved, captured in this video. We believed we could reconstruct this lesser-studied part of a dinosaur’s anatomy, too.

And so we set out to reconstruct this psittacosaurs’ cloacal region – rebuilding a backside from over 130 million years ago.

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A fossilised dinosaur bottom from 130 million years ago.
Author provided (No reuse)

Our final reconstruction revealed a pair of lips on either side of the opening, which flared outward in the direction of the tail tip. Between the lips, a section of the tail formed a swollen lobe. Together, these three parts formed the entry point for mating and the exit point for eggs, faeces, and urine. If it was a male, the opening would probably have hidden a penis, too.

We noted in particular that the scales on the cloacal lips were very dark, due to melanin pigment inside them. Because the underside of the dinosaur was light in colour, the dark cloaca will have stood out dramatically when the psittacosaurs was alive. In an effort to explain this, we turned to nature’s different backsides for answers.

Comparing behinds

Dinosaurs and avian species coexisted. We know birds have evolved visual signalling for species recognition and sexual selection – the obvious example being the male peacock’s dazzling feathers.

Some living birds actually use cloacal visual signalling, although it is rare given that birds’ vents are usually covered by their feathers. One present-day example, the Alpine Accentor, sees the female flashing her colourful cloaca during courtship.

An Alpine accentor bird on a rock
The female Alpine accentor uses its colourful cloaca in mating displays.
Simon Vasut/Shutterstock

We now know dinosaurs had advanced forms of visual signalling too, like iridescent feathers. And so-called ‘naked’ dinosaurs – covered in scales rather than feathers – could well have used cloacal signalling in the absence of these feathers.

Our well-preserved dinosaur fossil may therefore have provided a rare glimpse into a widespread social behaviour among dinosaurs – though it’s difficult to say whether this behaviour was used for mating displays or other forms of communication.

We can’t really say for sure until we have more well-preserved cloacal vent fossils to compare our findings against – but our evidence certainly suggests that hundreds of millions of years ago, dinosaurs flashed their behinds as a form of communication.

Tags: #Dinosaurs #flashed #bottoms #newly #discovered #fossil #shows

Written by Jakob Vinther, Lecturer in Macroevolution, University of Bristol

This article by Jakob Vinther, Lecturer in Macroevolution, University of Bristol, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Far-right groups move to messaging apps as tech companies crack down on extremist social media

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Right-wing extremists called for open revolt against the U.S. government for months on social media following the election in November. Behind the scenes on private messaging services, many of them recruited new followers, organized and planned actions, including the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Encrypted messaging platforms like Telegram, which was launched in 2013, have become places for violent extremists to meet up and organize. Telegram serves a dual purpose. It created a space where conversations can occur openly in the service’s public channels. Those who wanted more privacy can message one another through private chats.

In these private chats, violent extremists can share tactics, organize themselves and radicalize, something I’ve observed in my research of hate and extremism. New Telegram users are exposed to violent extremist beliefs on the public side of Telegram and then group members carry out the logistics of recruiting and organizing in the private chats.

Online extremism’s long history

Violent extremists’ use of the internet is not new. In the 1990s, electronic bulletin boards and simple websites allowed white supremacists, neo-Nazis, anti-government groups and a variety of other violent extremists to sell their ideologies and recruit.

In the 2000s, mainstream social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter became the new way for extremists to recruit and spread their beliefs. For many years, these groups cultivated their online presences and gained followers on these mainstream platforms.

Alternative social media outlets, including Gab, 4chan and 8kun (formerly 8chan), developed shortly thereafter. These provided forums where violent extremists could post hate speech and calls for violence without fear of being blocked.

Studies have shown that after 2010 social media generally contributed to an increase in radicalization of individuals by violent extremist movements in the U.S.

During this time, extremist groups have shifted their organizing to messaging platforms, particularly Telegram. In the case of far-right violent extremists, Telegram served as a major meeting spot and venue for coordinating their efforts. For example, users were able to share links in the private chats where individuals could buy guns and other weapons.

Unintended consequences

As these extremist movements proliferated online, some social media outlets attempted to stop it. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter began to block these types of users in recent years in an arguably limited manner. Mainstream conservative audiences on Facebook and Twitter left for new platforms like Parler that were seen as more friendly to conservative views.

Conservative political leaders and pundits like U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes and Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity helped this migration by promoting the new conservative platforms. This created a bridge between those coming from the nonviolent side of the far right and far-right violent extremists, which in turn created an environment that set the stage for the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The migration to private channels on messaging platforms also made it more difficult for law enforcement agencies to track far-right groups’ activities.

The attack on the Capitol

Throughout the early spring and summer of 2020, disinformation about the upcoming U.S. elections was plentiful. As Twitter, Facebook and YouTube placed greater restrictions on user content, far-right violent extremist and conspiracy movements, in particular the QAnon movement, began to migrate to Parler, Gab and increasingly to Telegram.

In the aftermath of the 2020 U.S. elections and the defeat of Donald Trump, these spaces gained greater importance as places for radicalization. People who have never seen content by the Proud Boys, QAnon, militias and anti-government groups were exposed to it in the public channels of Telegram. People with conservative or pro-Trump views embraced some of this new content because it offered an alternative reality they preferred.

Calls for protests and violent opposition against the counting of the Electoral College votes by the U.S. Congress on Jan. 6 could be found throughout the platforms, particularly on Telegram. In my tracking of content on Telegram, MeWe and other encrypted platforms on Jan. 5 and the day of the attack, I saw calls for violent opposition and civil war. Some Republicans became targets of ridicule and claims they were traitors as they called for the counting to proceed unhindered. Vice President Mike Pence was labeled a traitor, and calls for his arrest and execution could be seen on Twitter accounts and throughout Telegram.

For months, Telegram private chats allowed people to organize and coordinate their actions in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. As the violence unfolded at the U.S. Capitol and rioters got into offices and various rooms in the building, participants used a wide range of social media platforms in the far-right online ecosystem to both report the events and to call more people to arms.

screenshot of a social media post
A post about the attack on the U.S. Capitol on the alternative social media platform MeWe, posted Jan. 6, 2021.
Screen capture by Kevin Grisham, CC BY-NC-ND

The aftermath of Jan. 6

In the aftermath of the attack on the Capitol, Facebook began barring individuals – including Trump – from their platforms. In the case of Parler, Amazon canceled the hosting services for its site, and it went dark. As a result, a significant number of Parler users migrated to Telegram. Parler is attempting to return to service with help from a Russian internet company.

As announcements went out that Parler was going dark, various individuals and groups on Telegram created parallel channels on Telegram. It became a lifeboat for those users who needed a new home. Megan Squire, a professor of computer science at Elon University, estimated one channel associated with the Proud Boys grew 54% from Jan. 6 to Jan. 12.

As the migration continues, I’ve observed a nexus between members of the MAGA movement and violent far-right extremists is growing. This led to more calls for violence and protests at state capitols and at the Inauguration Day activities in Washington, D.C., though no violence occurred. People who expressed a willingness to perform these actions found support in this rapidly transforming far-right ecosystem that has Telegram at its center.

For years, social media allowed far-right violent extremists to recruit and organize on a multitude of platforms. This online bridge between violent and nonviolent individuals helped lay the groundwork for the events Jan. 6.

Now, with scores of arrests for the Capitol attack, Trump out of power and Joe Biden in office, far-right groups are using platforms like Telegram and Gab to take stock of their setbacks. If they do regroup and plan further violent actions, they are likely to do so on the same platforms.

Tags: #Farright #groups #move #messaging #apps #tech #companies #crack #extremist #social #media

Written by Kevin Grisham, Professor of Global Studies, California State University San Bernardino

This article by Kevin Grisham, Professor of Global Studies, California State University San Bernardino, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

A healthy microbiome builds a strong immune system that could help defeat COVID-19

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  • Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.

  • Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.

  • New research, which has not yet been peer reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.

You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.

In the past two decades scientists have learned our bodies are home to more bacterial cells than human ones. This community of bacteria that lives in and on us – called the microbiome – resembles a company, with each microbe species performing specialized jobs but all working to keep us healthy. In the gut, the bacteria balance the immune response against pathogens. These bacteria ensure the immune response is effective but not so violent that it causes collateral damage to the host.

Bacteria in our guts can elicit an effective immune response against viruses that not only infect the gut, such as norovirus and rotavirus, but also those infecting the lungs, such as the flu virus. The beneficial gut microbes do this by ordering specialized immune cells to produce potent antiviral proteins that ultimately eliminate viral infections. And the body of a person lacking these beneficial gut bacteria won’t have as strong an immune response to invading viruses. As a result, infections might go unchecked, taking a toll on health.

I am a microbiologist fascinated by the ways bacteria shape human health. An important focus of my research is figuring out how the beneficial bacteria populating our guts combat disease and infection. My most recent work focuses on the link between a particular microbe and the severity of COVID-19 in patients. My ultimate goal is to figure out out how to enhance the gut microbiome with diet to evoke a strong immune response – for not just SARS-CoV-2 but all pathogens.

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Good bacteria help the immune system ward off harmful microbes.
chombosan/iStock/Getty Images Plus

How do resident bacteria keep you healthy?

Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.

Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for combating viral infection and modulating the immune response.

In another study, mice were fed Lactobacillus bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The Lactobacillus-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with Lactobacillus protects against different subtypes of influenza virus and human respiratory syncytial virus – the major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children.

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Fermented foods like kimchi, red beets, apple cider vinegar, coconut milk yogurt, cucumber pickles and sauerkraut can help provide beneficial bacteria.
marekuliasz/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Chronic disease and microbes

Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.

In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate immune cells that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in babies delivered by cesarean section, individuals consuming a poor diet and the elderly.

In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.

Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.

Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, my lab studies show how diet can be used as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.

A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? Old age and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19 compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also in Britain.

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Minority communities continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic.
Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Discovering microbes that predict COVID-19 severity

The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.

My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates acute respiratory distress syndrome.

Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a fatal overreaction of the immune response called a cytokine storm that causes an uncontrolled flood of immune cells into the lungs. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the severe lung injury and multiorgan failures that lead to death.

Several studies described in one recent review have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.

To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.

We demonstrated, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient’s clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called Enterococcus faecalis– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, Enterococcus faecalis has been associated with chronic inflammation.

Enterococcus faecalis collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an E. faecalis test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.

But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells called T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance.

Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the proper activation of those T-regulatory cells. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.

As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.

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Tags: #healthy #microbiome #builds #strong #immune #system #defeat #COVID19

Written by Ana Maldonado-Contreras, Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems, University of Massachusetts Medical School

This article by Ana Maldonado-Contreras, Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems, University of Massachusetts Medical School, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Why the COVID-19 variants are so dangerous and how to stop them spreading

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With new, more infectious variants of COVID-19 detected around the world, and at New Zealand’s border, the risk of further level 3 or 4 lockdowns is increased if those viruses get into the community.

These include a variant called B.1.1.7 that has spread very quickly within the UK, with other new variants now observed in South Africa and Brazil.

Changes in the genetic code of viruses like COVID-19 occur all the time but most of these mutations don’t have any effect on how the disease spreads or its severity.

These changes can be useful because they leave a signature in the virus’s genetic code that allows us to trace how the virus has spread from one person to another.

Read more:
The big barriers to global vaccination: patent rights, national self-interest and the wealth gap

But the new variant detected in the UK is more transmissible than the original virus that was dominant in 2020. That means it spreads more easily from one person to another.

The good news is it does not cause more severe illness or have a higher fatality rate than the original variant. Evidence so far suggests vaccines will still be effective against it.

But the bad news is because it spreads more easily, it has the potential to infect many more people, causing more hospitalisations and deaths as a result.

Why variants that spread more easily are so dangerous

The average number of people an infected person with COVID-19 passes the virus on to — the so-called R number — is 40%-70% higher with B.1.1.7 than the original variant.

As the graph below shows, the mathematics of exponential growth means that even a small increase in the transmission rate gets compounded over time, quickly generating enormous growth in the number of cases.

A variant like B.1.1.7 with a higher transmission rate is actually more dangerous than one with a higher fatality rate.

Sure, a 50% increase in the fatality rate would cause 50% more deaths. But because of exponential growth, shown in the graph, a 50% increase in transmissibility causes 25 times more cases in just a couple of months if left unchecked.

That would lead to 25 times more deaths at the original mortality rate.

How do we know the new variant is more transmissible?

The number of cases of the B.1.1.7 variant has risen rapidly relative to the original variant.

This can happen for a number of reasons. The new variant might simply happen to be present in a part of the country or group of people who are spreading the virus more rapidly for some other reason.

It could have become resistant to immunity, meaning it could more easily re-infect people who have already had COVID-19. Or it might cause people to become infectious more quickly.

Researchers in the UK used mathematical models to test these hypotheses.

They found the explanation that fitted best with the data was that the new variant really is more transmissible. And they estimated a person with the new variant infects 56% more people on average than a person with the original variant.

Contact tracing data from the UK also showed more of the close contacts of someone with the new variant go on to be infected.

A sign at an airport saying flights from UK cancelled after new COVID-19 variant discovered,
Some countries cancelled flights from the UK over fears of the new COVID strain.

Patients with the new variant have also been found to carry more of the virus. Together, this provides strong evidence the B.1.1.7 variant is between 40% and 70% more transmissible than the original variant.

The variants found in South Africa and Brazil share some of the same mutations as the B.1.1.7 variant. There is some evidence they may also be more transmissible or better able to evade immunity.

But there is more uncertainty about these variants, partly because the data quality isn’t as high as in the UK, which is very good at doing genome sequencing.

What does this mean for New Zealand’s border controls?

The new variants have been detected in many countries, including in people in New Zealand’s managed isolation facilities.

There have previously been several cases of people working in these facilities picking up infections from recent arrivals.

The more transmissible variants arriving at the New Zealand border increase the risks to these workers, who in turn have a higher chance of passing the virus onto others in the community, amplifying the risk of a community outbreak.

In response, the government says international arrivals will require a negative test in the 72 hours prior to departure. They will also be required to take an arrival day test when they get to New Zealand.

These measures provide an extra layer in our defences against COVID-19.

How can we manage the risk?

The new variants spread in the same way as the original one: through close contacts between people, especially in crowded or poorly ventilated environments.

This means all the tools we have developed to fight the virus will still work. These include testing, contact tracing, masks and physical distancing.

How face masks make a difference.

But any variant that is more transmissible has a higher R number. To control an outbreak, we need to bring the R number under 1 and so we may need to use more of these tools to achieve this.

Read more:
With COVID-19 mutating and surging, NZ urgently needs to tighten border controls

For example, in the Auckland outbreak in August 2020, alert level 3 was enough to contain and eventually eliminate the outbreak. Our analysis showed alert level 3 reduced R to about 0.7.

If we had a similar outbreak with the new variant, R could be 50% higher which would mean it is above 1. In other words, we would likely need to use alert level 4 to contain an outbreak, and it might take longer to eliminate the virus than it has previously.

To give our contact tracers the best possible chance of containing a new outbreak without needing alert level 3 or 4, we all need do our bit. This means looking for QR codes when out about and using the app to scan them, as well as turning on Bluetooth. And it means staying at home and getting tested if you feel sick.

Tags: #COVID19 #variants #dangerous #stop #spreading

Written by Michael Plank, Professor in Applied Mathematics, University of Canterbury

This article by Michael Plank, Professor in Applied Mathematics, University of Canterbury, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Why new COVID-19 variants are on the rise and spreading around the world

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A new variant of coronavirus has swept across the United Kingdom and been detected in the United States, Canada and elsewhere. Scientists are concerned that these new strains may spread more easily.

As an evolutionary biologist, I study how mutation and selection combine to shape changes in populations over time. Never before have we had so much real-time data about evolution as we do with SARS-CoV-2: over 380,000 genomes were sequenced last year.

SARS-CoV-2 has been mutating as it spreads, generating slight differences in its genome. These mutations allow scientists to trace who is related to whom across the family tree of the virus.

Evolutionary biologists, including myself, have cautioned against over-interpreting the threat posed by mutations. Most mutations will not help the virus, just like randomly kicking a working machine is unlikely to make it better.

But every once in a while a mutation or suite of mutations gives the virus an advantage. The data are convincing that the mutations carried by the variant that first appeared in the U.K., known as B.1.1.7, make the virus more “fit.”

Higher fitness or chance?

When a new variant becomes common, scientists determine the reason behind its spread. A virus carrying a particular mutation can rise in frequency by chance if it is:

  • carried by a superspreader;
  • moved to a new uninfected location;
  • introduced into a new segment of the population.

The latter two examples are called “founder events”: a rapid rise in frequency can occur if a particular variant is introduced into a new group and starts a local epidemic. Chance events may explain the rise in frequency of several different SARS-CoV-2 variants.

But B.1.1.7 is an exception. It shows a very strong signal of selection. For the past two months, B.1.1.7 has risen in frequency faster than non-B.1.1.7 in virtually every week and health region in England. This data, reported on Dec. 21, 2020, helped convince U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to place much of the country under lockdown and led to widespread travel bans from the U.K.

The rise of B.1.1.7 cannot be explained by a founder event in new regions, because COVID-19 was already circulating across the U.K. Founder events in a new segment of the population (e.g., following a conference) also aren’t plausible given the widespread restrictions against large gatherings at the time.

Our ability to track the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 is due to the massive effort by scientists to share and analyze data in real time. But the incredibly detailed knowledge we have about B.1.1.7 is also due to just plain dumb luck. One of its mutations altered a section of the genome used to test for COVID-19 in the U.K., allowing the picture of evolutionary spread to be drawn from more than 275,000 cases.

Evolution in action

Epidemiologists have concluded that B.1.1.7 is more transmissible, but there are no signs that it is more deadly. Some researchers estimate that B.1.1.7 increases the number of new cases caused by an infected individual (called the reproductive number or Rt) by between 40 and 80 per cent; another preliminary study found that Rt increased by 50-74 per cent.

A women pushing a cart through a nearly empty airport.
A woman pushes a luggage cart through Heathrow Airport in London, on Jan. 18, 2021.
(AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

A 40-80 per cent advantage means that B.1.1.7 isn’t just a little more fit, it’s a lot more fit. Even when selection is this strong, evolution isn’t instantaneous. Our mathematical modelling, as well as that by others in Canada and the U.S., shows that it takes B.1.1.7 a couple of months to reach its meteoric rise, because only a small fraction of cases initially carries the new variant.

For many countries, like the U.S. and Canada, where the number of COVID-19 cases has been precariously rising, a variant that increases transmission by 40-80 per cent threatens to push us over the top. It could lead to exponential growth in cases and overwhelm already threadbare medical care. Evolutionary change takes a while, buying us maybe a few weeks to prepare.

More variants

One surprise for researchers was that B.1.1.7 bears a remarkable number of new mutations. B.1.1.7 has accumulated 30-35 changes over the past year. B.1.1.7 doesn’t mutate at a higher rate, but it appears to have undergone a bout of rapid change in the recent past.

file 20210119 23 1p1uyv7.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Each dot represents a SARS-CoV-2 genome, with branches connecting related viruses to their ancestors. The centre representss the virus introduced into humans. The viruses furthest from the centre carry more mutations. Highlighted in gold are the three new variants.
(NextStrain), CC BY

The virus may have been carried by an immunocompromised individual. People with weaker immune systems fight the virus constantly, with prolonged infections, recurrent rounds of viral replication and only a partial immune response to which the virus is constantly evolving.

Preliminary research reports that have yet to be verified have described two other variants of concern: one originally from South Africa (B.1.351) and one from Brazil (P1). Both variants show a recent history of excess mutations and rapid increases in frequency within local populations. Scientists are currently gathering the data needed to confirm that selection for higher transmission, not chance, is responsible.

What changed to allow spread?

Selection plays two roles in the evolution of these variants. First consider the role within those individuals in which the large number of mutants arose. B.1.1.7’s 23 mutations and P1’s 21 mutations aren’t randomly arrayed across the genome but clustered in the gene encoding the spike protein.

Read more:
New coronavirus variant: what is the spike protein and why are mutations on it important?

One change in the spike, called N501Y, arose independently in all three variants, as well as in immunocompromised patients studied in the U.S. and U.K. Other changes in the spike (e.g. E484K, del69-70) are seen in two of the three variants.

Beyond the spike, the three variants of concern share one additional mutation that deletes a small part of the drably named “non-structural protein 6” (NSP6). We don’t yet know what the deletion does, but in a related coronavirus NSP6 tricks a cellular defence system and may promote coronavirus infection. NSP6 also hijacks this system to help copy the viral genome. Either way, the deletion might alter the ability of the virus to take hold and replicate within our cells.

Easier transmission

The parallel evolution of the same mutations in different countries and in different immunocompromised patients suggests that they convey a selective advantage to evade the immune systems of the individuals in which the mutations occurred. For N501Y, this has been backed up by experiments in mice.

But what accounts for the higher transmission rate from individual to individual? This is challenging to answer because the many mutations that arose at once are now bundled together in these variants, and it could be any one or a combination of them that leads to the transmission advantage.

That said, several of these variants have arisen before on their own and haven’t led to rapid spread. One study showed that N501Y had only a weak transmission advantage on its own, rising rapidly only when coupled with the suite of mutations observed in B.1.1.7.

While the evolutionary story of COVID is still being written, one important message is emerging now. The 40-80 per cent transmission advantage of B.1.1.7, and potentially the other variants B.1.351 and P1, will overwhelm many countries in the next few months.

We’re in a race against viral evolution. We must roll out vaccines as quickly as possible, stem the flow of variants by restricting interactions and travel, and get in front of spread by ramping up surveillance and contact tracing.

Tags: #COVID19 #variants #rise #spreading #world

Written by Sarah Otto, Killam University Professor in Evolutionary Biology, University of British Columbia

This article by Sarah Otto, Killam University Professor in Evolutionary Biology, University of British Columbia, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Biden’s Keystone XL death sentence requires Canada’s oil sector to innovate

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In one of his first acts of office, U.S. President Joe Biden has issued an executive order that effectively kills the Keystone XL pipeline project.

The order states that the pipeline “disserves the U.S. national interest” and that approving it would be inconsistent with his campaign climate pledges.

Jason Kenney in front of a Canadian flag.
Kenney calls the Keystone XL decision a ‘gut punch’ — but it’s one that’s been telegraphed for months.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney called the move a “gut punch” and an “insult” and has threatened legal action to recoup Alberta’s $1.5 billion investment in the project.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement that expressed disappointment, but struck a far more conciliatory tone. He signalled a desire to work with the Biden administration and implicitly conceded that the pipeline won’t be resurrected again.

While the reaction from Alberta implies Biden’s move came as a shock, the truth is that cancelling Keystone XL was a key part of Biden’s election platform and was telegraphed clearly throughout the campaign.

Obama’s rejection

It’s worth remembering that Keystone XL was rejected previously by Barack Obama’s administration in 2015, after several years of controversy, and that the environmental concerns used to justify that decision have not gone away. This decision should have been expected and planned for.

Stephen Harper talks to Barack Obama.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper speaks with Obama at a G20 Summit in Cannes, France, in November 2011.

But it would seem that both Alberta and TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) felt that there was a good chance the project would proceed despite Biden’s election win. Early in January 2021, TC Energy opened bidding on existing pipeline space expected to be freed up by the construction of the new line.

The Keystone XL cancellation will significantly impact Canada and Alberta. TC Energy has estimated that Canada would have added 2,800 jobs directly associated with this project, mostly in Alberta, and contends the United States would have seen 10,400 new positions.

Let’s put that in perspective: in 2020, it was estimated that total oil and gas employment in Alberta was 128,180, and thus the number of lost jobs represents 2.2 per cent of the total sector employment in the province — a very significant proportion for a single project.

A row of rust-coloured pipes
Pipes intended for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline are shown in Gascoyne, N.D. in April 2015.

The loss of Keystone XL also will impact future projects in the province’s oilsands. We know that one of the reasons that companies are reducing investments in the oilsands is that there is a transport bottleneck that affects the ability to get new product to market.

Keystone XL would have been able to move 830,000 barrels per day. Total Canadian oilsands production is only 2.9 million barrels per day, so adding Keystone XL may have attracted new investment to the oilsands to take advantage of this transportation capacity, which in turn would have meant billions in royalties to the province. GDP growth resulting from this investment would have benefited all of Canada.

The cancellation of Keystone XL could leave Alberta out-of-pocket for the $1.5 billion invested by the government earlier this year. This investment — almost $400 for each individual in the province — may be recouped through legal means or reinvested by the company, or simply written off.

The province also made $6 billion in loan guarantees that may be recovered. Overall, however, the province will likely lose money on this deal — and the voters ultimately will decide the price.

Energy East born again?

So what’s next?

There have been reports that some of the pipe and materials may be sold for scrap if Keystone XL can’t move forward. In reality, the majority of the actual pipe has not yet been laid, meaning pipes could easily be repurposed for other projects. So some investment may be recovered over an extended time.

Indeed, TC Energy may look to the past when figuring out its next move.

One option that might be explored is revisiting Energy East, a pipeline that would have seen 1.1 million barrels per day of Alberta oil travel over 3,000 kilometres to reach tidewater at Saint John, N.B.

Energy East was arguably the most complicated infrastructure project ever imagined in Canada, involving the federal government, six provincial legislatures, hundreds of municipalities and 180 traditional Indigenous territories. The project would have crossed thousands of waterways ranging from streams to major waterways including the South Saskatchewan, Red, Ottawa, and St. Lawrence rivers.

The project was hugely controversial, and was cancelled in 2017 — partly because former president Donald Trump had re-approved Keystone XL earlier that year.

Security guards manhandle a shouting protester.
Security guards try to restrain a demonstrator from interrupting the National Energy Board public hearing into the ultimately doomed Energy East pipeline project in August 2016 in Montréal.

Rethinking pipelines

But before backing yet another pipeline project, Alberta and all of Canada ultimately need to decide if more pipeline capacity is really needed.

Keystone XL struggled to find investors prior to Alberta’s decision to provide funds. The frequently cited “Canadian discount” in oil prices, which entails Canadian oil being sold at lower prices than the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) index, has in recent months been reduced as oil prices have begun to recover.

In Ottawa and in Washington, policies to address the climate emergency have taken precedence over new investment in conventional, fossil fuel-based industries.

The future of Canada’s oil sector may not be in volume, but in value.

Consider that four to five per cent of the volume of oil becomes high-value products like plastics, rubber and chemicals; these products can account for 40 per cent or more of the value derived from a barrel of oil.

New refineries are being designed that focus on these value-added products and minimize bulk fuel products; these new facilities may be smaller and require far less in terms of input, reducing the need for new pipelines.

The death of Keystone XL is a wake-up call for the oil sector. The old way of doing business is fading away, and it must innovate to survive.

Tags: #Bidens #Keystone #death #sentence #requires #Canadas #oil #sector #innovate

Written by Warren Mabee, Director, Queen’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy, Queen’s University, Ontario

This article by Warren Mabee, Director, Queen’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy, Queen’s University, Ontario, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

what is it and why has the price gone parabolic?

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The price of the world’s second largest cryptocurrency, ether, hit a new all-time high of US$1,440 (£1,050)
on January 19. This breached a previous high set three years ago and gave ether a total value (market capitalisation) of US$160 billion, although it has since fallen back to around US$140 billion.

Ether, which runs on a technology system known as the ethereum blockchain, is worth over ten times the price it was when it bottomed during the COVID market panic of March 2020. And the cryptocurrency is still only five years old. In part, this remarkable rise in the value is due to excess money flowing into all the leading cryptocurrencies, which are now seen as relatively safe store-of-value assets and a good speculative investment.

Ether/US$ price

Ether price chart


But ether’s price rise has even outstripped that of the number one cryptocurrency, bitcoin, which “only” had a seven-fold increase since March. Ether has outperformed partly due to several improvements and new features being rolled out over the next few months. So what are ether and ethereum and why is this cryptocurrency now worth more than corporate giants such as Starbucks and AstraZeneca?

Ether and bitcoin

Blockchains are online ledgers that keep permanent tamper-proof records of information. These records are continually verified by a network of computer nodes similar to servers, which are not centrally controlled by anyone. Ether is just one of over 8,000 cryptocurrencies that use some form of this technology, which was invented by the anonymous “Satoshi Nakamoto” when he released bitcoin over a decade ago.

The ethereum blockchain was first outlined in 2013 by Vitalik Buterin, a 19-year old prodigy who was born in Russia but mostly grew up in Canada. After crowdfunding and development in 2014, the platform was launched in July 2015.

As with the bitcoin blockchain, each ethereum transaction is confirmed when the nodes on the network reach a consensus that it took place – these verifiers are rewarded in ether for their work, in a process known as mining.

But the bitcoin blockchain is confined to enabling digital, decentralised money – meaning money that is not issued from any central institution unlike, say, dollars. Ethereum’s blockchain is categorically different in that it can host both other digital tokens or coins, and decentralised applications.

Decentralised applications or “dapps” are open-source programs developed by communities of coders not attached to any company. Any changes to the software are voted on by the community using a consensus mechanism.

Perhaps the best known applications running on the ethereum blockchain are “smart contracts”, which are programs that automatically execute all or parts of an agreement when certain conditions are met. For instance, a smart contract could automatically reimburse a customer if, say, a flight was delayed more than a prescribed amount of time.

Many of the dapp communities are also operating what is known as decentralised autonomous organisations or DAOs. These are essentially alternatives to companies and seen by many as the building blocks of the next phase of the internet or “web 3.0”. A good example is the burgeoning trading exchange Sushiswap.

Ethereum has evolved and developed since its launch six years ago. In 2016, a set of smart contracts known as “The DAO” raised a record US$150 million in a crowdsale but was quickly exploited by a hacker who siphoned off one- third of the funds. However, since then, the ethereum ecosystem has matured considerably. While hacks and scams remain common, the overall level of professionalism appears to have improved dramatically.

Why the price explosion

Financial interest in ether tends to follow in the wake of bitcoin rallies because it is the second-largest cryptocurrency and, as such, quickly draws the attention of the novice investor. All the same, there are other factors behind its recent rally.

The first is the pace of innovation on the platform. Most activity in the cryptocurrency space happens on ethereum. In 2020, we saw the emergence of decentralised finance (DeFi). DeFi is analogous to the mainstream financial world, but with the middleman banks cut out.

Users can borrow, trade, lend and invest through autonomous smart contracts via protocols like Compound, Aave and Yearn Finance. It sounds like science fiction, but this is no hypothetical market – approximately US$24 billion is locked into various DeFi projects right now. Importantly, DeFi allows users to generate income on their cryptocurrency holdings, especially their ether tokens.

The second factor behind the ether surge is the launch of ethereum 2.0. This upgrade addresses major concerns impacting the current version of ethereum. In particular, it will reduce transaction fees – especially useful in DeFi trading, where each transaction can end up costing the equivalent of tens of US dollars.

Ethereum 2.0 will also eliminate the environmentally wasteful mining currently required to make the ethereum blockchain function (the same is true of many other cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin). Within the year, ethereum should be able to drop the need for vast industrial mining warehouses that consume huge amounts of energy.

Instead, transactions will be validated using a different system known as “proof-of-stake”. The sense that ethereum addresses problems like these quickly rather than letting them sit could prove a major differential from the sometimes sluggish and conservative pace of the bitcoin development culture.

A final factor is the launch of ethereum futures trading on February 8. This means that traders will be able to speculate on what ether will be worth at a given date in the future for the first time – a hallmark of any mature financial asset. Some analysts have said the recent bitcoin rally has been fuelled by traditional investment firms, and the launch of ethereum futures is often touted as opening the doors for the same price action.

However, as every seasoned cryptocurrency user knows, both currencies are extremely volatile and are as liable to crash by extremes as rise by them. Bitcoin’s price fell 85% in the year after the last bull market in 2017, while ether was down by 95% at one stage from its previous high of US$1,428.

Whatever the valuation, the future of ethereum as a platform looks bright. Its challenge is ultimately external: projects such as Cardano and Polkadot, created by individuals who helped launch ethereum itself, are attempting to steal ethereum’s crown.

But as bitcoin has shown, first-mover advantage matters in cryptocurrency, and despite bitcoin’s relative lack of features it is unlikely to be moved from its dominant position for some time. The same is most likely true for the foreseeable future with ethereum.

Tags: #price #parabolic

Written by Paul J Ennis, Lecturer/Assistant Professor in Management Information Systems, University College Dublin

This article by Paul J Ennis, Lecturer/Assistant Professor in Management Information Systems, University College Dublin, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Spitting cobras may have evolved unique venom to defend from ancient humans

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Cobras are fascinating and frightening creatures. These snakes are most well known for their characteristic defence mechanism called hooding, when the sides of their neck flare out in a dramatic display.

However, hooding isn’t the only defensive behaviour in a cobra’s arsenal. Some species of cobra have modified fangs with small, front facing orifices. These allow them to forcibly eject venom as a spray or “spit”, which can hit the eyes of a target up to 2.5 metres away. For this behaviour, they are known as spitting cobras.

Bizarrely, this unique adaptation has evolved three times independently in a small group of Afro-Asian snakes: once in African cobras, once in Asian cobras, and once in the related rinkhals, also known as the ring-necked spitting cobra.

While most snakes use venom for preying on other animals, spitting cobras use it purely for defence. In a new study, we tested the venom of spitting cobras to see what toxins could be found, to work out what might have caused this defensive behaviour to evolve. The results show it might have been to ward off attacks from our human ancestors.

A spitting cobra.
Spitting cobras can hit the eyes of a target up to 2.5 metres away with venom.
Wolfgang Wüster, Author provided

Unique toxin cocktails

Snake venoms are complex mixtures of proteins, used primarily in foraging to efficiently incapacitate prey. While snakes do use their venom in self defence, for example in the case of human snakebites, most of the evidence suggests venom composition has been evolved for foraging, not defence.

Venom in fixed front-fanged snakes, including cobras, tends to cause paralysis. This is due to an abundance of toxins called neurotoxic three-finger toxins, which stop neurotransmission, signals being sent from the nervous system to the prey’s muscles. However, cobras have a unique type of three-finger toxins that destroy cells, rather than block neurotransmission. These are called cytotoxins.

Our results found spitting cobras have increased the abundance of a different toxin family, called phospholipase A2 (PLA2s), in their venom compared to their non spitting counterparts. Because these cobras spit for defensive reasons, this is the first evidence of a defensive driver of venom evolution in snakes.

Toxic teamwork

Many animals that use venom defensively do so by inflicting rapid, severe pain on their aggressors. We set out to find out whether defensive spitting cobra venom would be especially painful on contact.

To assess pain causing activity, we tested cobra venom on isolated mouse neurons, responsible for sensations in the eyes and face. We suspected spitting cobra PLA2s might activate these neurons and potentially cause pain.

To our surprise, PLA2s were ineffective on their own. It was the cytotoxins, the toxins widespread in spitting and non-spitting cobras alike, that caused activation of the neurons. However, the mixture of PLA2s and cytotoxins caused this activity to increase dramatically.

This suggests spitting cobras increased the abundance of PLA2s in their venom over time, to make the already present cytotoxins much more effective as a pain inducer. The threefold independent evolution of spitting was accompanied on each occasion by the same complex, synergistic changes in venom composition.

Could human ancestors have prompted this evolution?

Venom spitting is a unique behaviour found only in a small handful of closely related snake species. Yet this projectile defence system, and the specific mixture of toxins that cause more pain, evolved three times independently, only within this small group.

This kind of defence must have been stimulated by a very strong selective pressure. We believe several factors make human ancestors the most likely selective agent.

Secrets of the spitting cobra.

Many primates will pre-emptively kill a snake if they feel threatened, often using projectile weapons or tools, like rocks and sticks. While these may not always be lethal, they can cause severe damage. Bipedal hominins, human ancestors who walked on two legs with forelimbs freed, almost certainly posed an even greater long-distance threat compared to their four-legged relatives. This requires a long distance defence from their serpentine enemies, like spitting.

The timing of the evolution of venom spitting coincides with key dates in the evolution of early human ancestors. The emergence of spitting in African cobras occurred at around the same time as the separation of hominins from the chimpanzees and bonobos lineage, approximately 7 million years ago. The evolution of spitting in Asian cobras occurred alongside the arrival of Homo erectus in Asia around 2.5 million years ago.

Read more:
Why do snakes produce venom? Not for self-defence, study shows

In addition, fossils of spitting cobra fangs have been found in ancient hominin sites such as the cradle of humanity in Africa. Current evidence is circumstantial, which means we require more proof. However, venom spitting as a response to trampling by herd animals or being preyed on by birds or mammals is far less supported.

Additional fossils might support or refute our hypothesis. In particular, finding the fossilised remains of spitting cobras that predate the divergence between hominins and chimpanzees would refute our hypothesis.

If our distant ancestors’ tendency to attack snakes with rocks or sticks did trigger the evolution of a specific defensive adaptation in snakes, one that persists to this day, we should ponder our own place in Earth history. Rather than being a lineage apart, our human ancestors might have had a direct impact on how these animals evolved.

Tags: #Spitting #cobras #evolved #unique #venom #defend #ancient #humans

Written by Taline Kazandjian, Postdoctoral Research Assistant, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine

This article by Taline Kazandjian, Postdoctoral Research Assistant, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Hydrogen gas-fuelled airships could spur development in remote communities

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What do tomatoes, hemp and hydrogen gas have in common? Only one thing: they were all victims of misinformation that banned their use. Harmless products that could have had a positive role in the economy and society were shunned for generations.

It seems incredible today to think that Europeans believed tomatoes were poisonous for about 200 years. People did get sick, and some died after eating tomatoes. The culprit was pewter dishes favoured by the upper classes. Tomato acid leached out enough lead out to be poisonous.

The world deprived itself of tomatoes for generations due to unfounded fears they were poisonous.

The advent of porcelain dishware and Italian pizza finally sorted out the real problem. But once a myth is born, it can be hard for the truth to emerge. Europe lagged a long time behind North America in tomato consumption.

The prohibition of hemp, the fibre of the cannabis plant, has a more nuanced story and competing explanations. Some accounts sound like conspiracy theories.

The alleged conspirators were industrialists in paper, plastics and pharmaceuticals who sought drug regulations to eliminate hemp as their competitor. This is difficult to prove, but economist George Stigler’s seminal article in 1971 on the economics of regulation lends support to the theory.

Industrial hemp fields.
In this August 2019 photo, rows plants are shown at an industrial hemp farm in Michigan.
(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The best-documented cause of hemp’s vilification is racism. Notable racist slurs by U.S. government official Harry Anslinger, who drafted the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, leave no doubt of his bias. As commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, he targeted racialized minorities who used hemp plants.

The fear-mongering has ended in most places and important uses for hemp and cannabis are making a valuable contribution to health care, nutrition and fibre. But the stigma of the false claims continue, as does prohibition in many places.

Hydrogen ban

Unlike the prohibition on hemp, hydrogen gas bans in the United States and Canada are extremely narrow. It’s legal to use hydrogen for almost every conceivable purpose, except one: as a gas to provide buoyancy for airships, more commonly known as blimps (although there are differences between airships, blimps and dirigibles).

In fact, Canada still has a ban enshrined in its air regulations that states: “Hydrogen is not an acceptable lifting gas for use in airships.”

Canada’s ban on this use of hydrogen is strange given that Canada has never had an airship industry. The origins of the false information that led to this ban on the use of hydrogen are even more surprising.

Helium was discovered in natural gas in Kansas in 1903, and an experimental refinery was built in Texas in 1915. At great expense, a few barrage balloons were filled with helium during the First World War.

After the war, the need for helium was unclear. But officials from the U.S. Bureau of Mines wanted to protect their newly established helium refinery. They took advantage of the Roma airship accident in 1922 to sell helium to the military.

The Roma was a hydrogen-filled, Italian-built airship sold to the U.S. army. During trials, its rudder broke and the airship crashed in Norfolk, Va., hitting power lines during its descent. All 34 crew members were lost.

The Italian airship Roma flies over Norfolk, Virginia.
The Italian airship Roma flying over Norfolk, Va., in 1921.
(National Archives), CC BY

Spreading a falsehood via the media that the crew would have survived had the airship had been filled with helium, the Bureau of Mines was given an audience in Washington, D.C. Before Congress, they staged a demonstration with two balloons and a burning splint.

The one filled with helium doused the burning splint. The one marked hydrogen would have put the flame out too, if it were more than 75 per cent pure, but contaminated hydrogen gas is explosive. When the burning splint touched the balloon, it went off like a cannon, rattling the windows in Congress.

Based on this poorly designed high school chemistry level experiment, U.S. politicians banned the use of hydrogen in airships.

Rubber-stamped laws

After the Second World War, when the U.S. became the dominant world air power, its regulations were rubber-stamped into the laws of other nations, including Canada. This is how Canada came to have a regulation banning hydrogen in airships that is grounded in neither science nor engineering research. The ban stems from a political decision made in a foreign country 98 years ago based on misinformation.

Hydrogen gas is increasingly heralded as the mobile energy source of the green economy. Hydrogen fuel cells are used for electric cars, buses, boats, forklifts, trains and recently a converted Piper airplane.

Read more:
Hydrogen trains are coming – can they get rid of diesel for good?

It is perfectly legal to carry hydrogen in a high-pressure container to power any vehicle, including an airship, but not if carried in a zero-pressure container (gas cell) to lift the airship.

The prohibition on hydrogen has held back research and created doubts about the economic viability of airships that must depend on scarce, finite supplies of helium.

Lies and misinformation have consequences. Canada needs a transportation solution to the chronic problems of food insecurity, crowded housing and poverty in remote Indigenous communities.

Hydrogen-filled cargo airships could do for the Northern economy what the railways did for Western Canada 125 years ago. In the 21st century, myths and misrepresentations should not go unchallenged. Regulatory decisions made when we were still hand-cranking cars should either be justified or removed from the books.

Tags: #Hydrogen #gasfuelled #airships #spur #development #remote #communities

Written by Barry E. Prentice, Professor of Supply Chain Management, University of Manitoba

This article by Barry E. Prentice, Professor of Supply Chain Management, University of Manitoba, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

rare fossil helps answer the mystery of how they evolved arms

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A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and palaeontology: how starfish evolved their arms.

Starfish are one of the most recognisable animals on our planet. Most people probably associate them with trips to the beach, walking in rock pools or swimming in the sea. They might appear simple creatures, but the way these animals’ distinctive biology evolved was, until recently, unknown.

Our new study, published in the journal Biology Letters, sheds light on how the starfish developed its distinctive shape.

The mystery of starfish

Starfish, and their close relatives the brittle stars, belong to a group called the echinoderms. These are animals with spiny skins, including sea urchins, sea lilies and sea cucumbers, with bizarre biological traits. They have no head or a brain, and have a unique circulatory system called a water vascular system, which uses seawater instead of blood. They even possess the power to regenerate over 75% of their body mass if it is lost.

Starfish have almost always had the same five-armed body shape. This has not changed for almost 480 million years, throughout the five great mass extinctions they survived.

Other echinoderms use their arms to filter feed or catch food from the water and, unlike starfish, face upwards with their arms spreading outward to feed. But starfish do not, and their distinctive body shape appeared in the fossil record fully formed. So for years scientists have been perplexed by how it evolved and how starfish are related to their close relatives, the brittle stars.

The Pompeii of palaeontology

The Fezouata formations are sedimentary rock deposits in Morocco dating back to the early Ordovician period, a critical stage in the evolution of life, which ended around 460 million years ago. Palaeontologists think life rapidly diversified during this time, in an episode call the great Ordovician biodiversification event, when animals we might recognise today first appeared.

The Fezouata formations are a bit like the Pompeii of palaeontology. The conditions on the seabed meant even soft tissue, which would normally be destroyed over time, could be preserved. Because of this, the formations provide a window into what happened at a key moment in the history of life on Earth.

The Fezouata Formations.
The Pompeii of palaeontology.
Aaron Hunter, Author provided

Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.

The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.

The oldest starfish

Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.

What makes Cantabrigiaster unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.

Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile – before Cantabrigiaster we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan palaeontologist Mohamed Ben Moula and his local team was instrumental in discovering these amazing fossils near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.

The breakthrough

Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of Cantabrigiaster with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.

The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.

A photo of two Cantabrigiaster fossils.
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record.
Aaron Hunter, Author provided

Our results demonstrate Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of Cantabrigiaster, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.

Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Palaeontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.

Tags: #rare #fossil #helps #answer #mystery #evolved #arms

Written by Aaron W Hunter, Science Guide & Tutor, Dept. of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge

This article by Aaron W Hunter, Science Guide & Tutor, Dept. of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

why people can hold political views that disadvantage their own sex

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The views of women and men can differ on important gendered issues such as abortion, gender equity and government spending priorities. Surprisingly, however, average differences in sex on this front are usually small. Many women adopt social and political positions that favour men and many men favour women-friendly positions.

In our latest research we tried to make sense of this “paradox”. We did so by understanding how people’s politics and practices don’t just track what’s good for them, but also what’s good for their relatives.

Election campaign games

A mere three days after his 2016 inauguration, US President Donald Trump reinstated the Mexico City policy, also called the “global gag rule” — which Joe Biden is expected to rescind soon after being inaugurated this week.

The rule denies US health funding to foreign non-governmental organisations that provide abortions, refer patients for abortions, offer abortion-related counselling or advocate for more liberal abortion laws.

It wasn’t just Trump’s haste to reinstate the rule that galled pro-choice Americans. It was also the supporting cast of men Trump lined up for the photo-op.

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One of the first executive orders that Donald Trump signed was to reinstate the Mexico City Policy (also called the ‘global gag order’), concerning non-governmental organisations and abortion access.
Donald J. Trump/Facebook

Access to abortion is seen as a women’s issue as it impinges on women’s bodily autonomy and reproductive rights. Had Trump not been appealing to male voters, he could have gathered several prominent anti-choice women to stand behind him instead.

But despite expectations and rhetoric, support for abortion is far more complicated than a simple tussle between the interests of women and men.

Think of the children

Polling conducted in the US by Gallup between 2018 and 2020 found 49% of men and 46% of women identified as “pro-life”. A similar gap was observed between “pro-choice” men and women, at 46% and 48% respectively.

“Pro-choice” policies give women options to control their own reproduction and, therefore, an important part of their lives. It would seem rational then for women to support these policies more than men.

Other policies relating to gender equity, sexual harassment, health-care spending and education also impact women and men differently. And while both genders’ views on these topics differ, the difference is quite small on average – in the order of 5%.

Variation of social and political views within a sex group is actually far greater. While this is commonly thought to be due to differences in experience, we wanted to know whether the composition of a person’s family might change their views.

Our line of inquiry was inspired by a range of studies that have shown a child’s gender can change their parents’ views.

For instance, firms led by male CEOs with daughters tend to adopt more socially and environmentally-progressive corporate policies. They’re also more likely to appoint female directors and hire female partners, with positive effects on firm performance.

On the other hand, male CEOs of Danish firms who fathered a son, rather than a daughter, paid their employees less generously and paid themselves more generously.

A similar pattern emerges in politics. In the US, legislators with daughters are more likely to vote for “pro-woman” laws than those with sons. And in both the US and Canada, parents with daughters favour gender equity more than those with sons.

Sometimes the effects become visible even before offspring have had much chance to experience the world.

In one study, the birth of a son caused parents’ voting intentions to swerve immediately to the right, while a daughter prompted a swerve to the left. In another, the effects kicked in as soon as the parents learned their child’s sex at a prenatal ultrasound.

How your family’s composition can impact you

Research published in 1992 found people’s attitudes towards abortion varied depending on how many of their female relatives were in the age group considered “at risk” of unwanted pregnancy.

The more female relatives someone had aged between 15–50, the more likely they were to favour pro-choice policies. In turn, the more male relatives they had of a reproductive age, the more likely they were to support pro-life policies.

This study inspired us to consider whether gendered issues might depend not only on an individual’s own sex, but also the sex composition of their family. Humans, like other animals, are more invested in their close genetic relatives.

Read more:
Origins of altruism: why Hamilton still rules 50 years on

We propose a new metric called “gendered fitness interests”. This not only looks at how many genetic relatives of each sex a person has, but also how closely related they are and how many potential reproductive years remain for them.

People with many close, younger female relatives (such as daughters and sisters) have a pro-female bias, while those with plenty of young brothers, sons or grandsons have a bias that favours males.

Outdoors, a woman kneels by her young daughter wearing a backpack.
For parents, few things are as important as the wellbeing of their children. So it’s reasonable a child’s gender may impact how their parents feel about certain gendered issues.

For her PhD studies at the University of New South Wales, Maleke Fourati gathered data on attitudes towards Islamic veiling practices in Tunisia — specifically on mandatory veiling — which provided an early test of our idea of gendered fitness interests.

As predicted, men were more likely than women to support mandatory veiling. But women with more sons were more likely to wear veils themselves and to think other women should too. These mothers, we argue, take this position as it serves their sons over their daughters-in-law.

In our model, sex differences in social and political attitudes are likely to be greatest in young adulthood, when a person’s own gender impacts them greatly. However, as an individual’s potential to have children diminishes, their current children and other relatives start to have a greater influence. Since most people have a balance of male and female relatives, this means a shift towards the centre.

Separating sex from identity

The web of conflicting interests that give shape to our social and political attitudes is never easy to trace and there are always multiple factors at play.

Perhaps the most interesting implication of our proposal is it undermines the idea that the interests of women and men sit at odds with one another. Some individuals’ values will align more with the opposite sex than with their own, weakening the importance of gender as a distinct part of social and political identity.

Read more:
Expanding the definition of family to reflect our realities

Tags: #people #hold #political #views #disadvantage #sex

Written by Rob Brooks, Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Academic Lead of UNSW’s Grand Challenges Program, UNSW

This article by Rob Brooks, Scientia Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Academic Lead of UNSW’s Grand Challenges Program, UNSW, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

As U.S. Capitol investigators use facial recognition, it begs the question: Who owns our faces?

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Who owns your face? Of course, a silly question … right?

But what about the data generated from your face? And what does it mean to have your face become data?

Already, plenty of data about millions and millions of faces exist. We have volunteered our faces in social media posts and photos stored in the cloud. But we’ve yet to determine who owns the data associated with the contours of our faces.

In the age of Big Tech, we need to grapple with what expectations we can and should have about who has access to our faces. The recent riot at the U.S. Capitol has put the question into the spotlight as facial recognition becomes a vital tool in identifying rioters: What is the power of facial recognition technology, and are we ready for it?

Even before the riots, facial recognition technology was being used in many ways that we probably haven’t seriously considered, and many of us have voluntarily contributed to creating data about our faces, either explicitly or implicitly. Facial recognition technology, for example, is ubiquitous in public spaces.

As we make decisions on whether to use facial recognition technology for law enforcement, surveillance and other initiatives with ostensible social purposes, we need to stop and ask ourselves: What are the costs of losing our faces to data? There are serious consequences, including the right to privacy and our ability to live our lives free of surveillance.

In Belgrade, according to reports and a video by local non-governmental organization the SHARE Foundation made in support of their initiative #hiljadekamera (Thousands of Cameras), high-definition cameras will be deployed in the Serbian city for a variety of surveillance functions.

There are myriad privacy and surveillance concerns about facial recognition technology. The Share Foundation.

The director of SHARE, Danilo Krivokapić, says facial recognition technology in those cameras will track individuals’ movements as they wander around the city. Photos that already exist in the system are matched up with the data captured by the cameras, and are then analyzed through a supplied artificial intelligence system. This creates the possibility for tracking a person’s movements, via facial recognition technology, in real time as they move through Belgrade.

But this isn’t just happening in Belgrade. Governments and surveillance go hand in hand, and facial recognition technology gives governments more options and ways to track and constrain the movement of people within their borders.

The city of London decided last year to deploy cameras capable of facial recognition alongside its 627,727 CCTV cameras. The move lead to protests.

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People demonstrate in front of a mobile police facial recognition facility outside a shopping centre in London in February 2020. Dozens of groups and individuals working to protect privacy, human rights and civil liberties want a ban on facial-recognition surveillance by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
AP Photo/Kelvin Chan

Corporations also employ FRT

It’s not just governments that want your face.

Last year, Cadillac Fairview, one of the biggest commercial real estate companies in North America, was called out by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada for installing inconspicuous cameras in directories at 12 of their malls throughout Canada, including Toronto’s iconic Eaton Centre.

These cameras captured five million images of customers and used facial recognition software that generated more data about those images, including gender and age. Although the images were deleted, the data generated from the images was kept on a server by a third party.

Shoppers at the Eaton Centre.
A little facial recognition with your stocking stuffers? Holiday shoppers are seen Toronto’s Eaton Centre in December 2019.

In response to the privacy commissioner’s report, New Democrat MP Charlie Angus stated:

“We have a right to be able to go in public places without being photographed, tracked, put into data surveillance machines, whether it’s for corporations or for police and government.”

Unfortunately, Angus is wrong — there is no such right. And since Cadillac Fairview didn’t keep the photos, just the data about the faces in the photos, the problem was about consent, not violating privacy rights.

What rights do we have when we volunteer our faces to datafication? Journalist Rebecca Heilweil documents the many ways we bring facial recognition technology into our lives. Many of us are familiar with Facebook’s photo-tagging technology that tags not just your face, but other people in your photos. This technology is also present in Google and Apple’s photo apps.

Read more:
Big Brother facial recognition needs ethical regulations

But this kind of facial recognition technology is being extended into other realms. For example, Subaru deploys facial recognition technology to detect distracted driving. Apple offers HomeKit features that cross-reference data collected from various devices, and uses facial recognition to tell you if a friend recognized from your photos is at the door.

Nest Hub Max from Google employs facial recognition technology to literally look for you, in the way that it’s always listening for the words: “OK, Google.” Hirevue uses AI to evaluate potential employee images for suitability and likelihood for success.

Fundamental part of who we are

The human face is one of the most basic things that very young children recognize and learn as their brains sort out the world.

A baby looks at his mother while sucking on his bottle in a stroller.
Faces are among the first things babies recognize.

It is a fundamental part of who we are as a species, and its importance is almost too vital to even articulate. Is the data associated with that face — that is, the digital representation of your face that matches up to your actual face or photos of your face — part of that fundamental part of you that you get to keep to yourself? Or is that a foolish expectation in our data-intensive world?

Which brings us back to the U.S. Capitol insurrection. There is a certainly a sense of justice to see facial recognition technology deployed to bring white supremacists to justice. But at what cost?

We know about the biases in our existing data against people of colour, women and of low-income status. We know police who use these biased data in the name of algorithmic policing has resulted in harassment of targeted communities and the wrongful arrests of Black people.

The stakes are high, not just for law enforcement, but for our rights to privacy as individuals. Our expectations of data collection and privacy are not in line with the realities of data collection and storage, facial or otherwise. So it’s important to consider our rights in the context of our humanity.

Our personal data has been and is being collected at an astounding rate every day. That’s resulting in a fundamental change not just in economic and ethical terms, but in the way we live as human beings. Our understanding of human rights, and the corresponding laws to protect them, need to be rebooted to account for how data collection is fundamentally changing.

Tags: #Capitol #investigators #facial #recognition #begs #question #owns #faces

Written by Wendy H. Wong, Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto

This article by Wendy H. Wong, Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Is COVID-19 infecting wild animals? We’re testing species from bats to seals to find out

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Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have found coronavirus infections in pet cats and dogs and in multiple zoo animals, including big cats and gorillas. These infections have even happened when staff were using personal protective equipment.

More disturbing, in December the United States Department of Agriculture confirmed the first case of a wild animal infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Researchers found an infected wild mink in Utah near a mink farm with its own COVID-19 outbreak.

Are humans transmitting this virus to wildlife? If so, what would this mean for wild animals – and people too?

A dog licking a young girl's face.
Usually, viruses need extremely close contact to jump species.
Jenn Austin-Driver/Image Source via Getty Images

How viruses hop between species

We are two scientists who study viruses in wildlife and are currently running a study investigating the potential for SARS-CoV-2 transmission from humans into domestic and wild animals.

When viruses move from one species into another, scientists call it spillover. Thankfully, spillover doesn’t occur easily.

To infect a new species, a virus must be able to bind to a protein on a cell and enter the cell while dodging an immune system the virus hasn’t encountered before. Then, as a virus works to avoid antibodies and other antiviral attackers, it must replicate at a high enough volume to be transmitted on to the next animal.

This usually means that the more closely related two species are, the more likely they are to share viruses. Chimpanzees, the species most closely related to humans, can catch and get sick from many human viruses. Earlier this month, veterinarians at the San Diego Zoo announced that the zoo’s troop of gorillas was infected with SARS–CoV–2. This indicated it is possible for this virus to jump from humans to our close relatives.

Some viruses tend to stay in a single species or in closely related species, while other viruses seem innately more capable of large species jumps. Influenza, for example, can infect a wide variety of animals, from sparrows to whales. Similarly, coronaviruses are known to regularly jump between species.

The question of how many and which species can be infected by SARS-CoV-2 – and which ones might be able to support continued circulation of the virus – is an important one.

Searching for COVID-19 in wildlife

A vet rehabilitating a bat by feeding it from a bottle.
Wildlife veterinarians are uniquely well situated to look for signs of coronavirus infection in wild animals.
F.J. Jimenez/Moment via Getty Images

For human-to-wildlife spillover of SARS-CoV-2 to occur, an animal needs to be exposed to a high-enough viral dose to become infected.

The highest-risk situations are during direct contact with humans, such as a veterinarian’s caring for an injured animal. Contact between a sick person and a pet or farm animal also poses a risk, as the domestic animal could act as an intermediate host, eventually passing the virus to a wild animal.

Another way COVID-19 could spill over from humans into animals is through indirect infection, such as through wastewater. COVID-19 and other pathogens can be detected in waste streams, many of which end up dumped, untreated, into environments where wildlife like marine mammals may be exposed. This is thought to be how elephant seals in California became infected with H1N1 influenza during the swine flu pandemic in 2009.

To study whether spillover of SARS-CoV-2 is happening, our team at Tufts is partnering with veterinarians and licensed wildlife rehabilitators across the U.S. to collect samples from and test animals in their care. Through the project, we have tested nearly 300 wild animals from over 20 species. So far, none – from bats to seals to coyotes – have shown any evidence of COVID-19 by swab or antibody tests.

Other researchers have launched targeted surveillance of wild animals in places where captive animals have been infected. The first confirmed infection in a wild mink was found during surveillance near an infected mink farm. It’s not yet clear how this wild mink got the coronavirus, but the high density of infected minks and potentially infectious particles from them made it a high-risk location.

A photo of a young gorilla with adult gorillas in the wild.
Gorillas have been affected by human viruses in the past and are susceptible to the coronavirus.
Thomas Fuhrmann via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Bad for animals, bad for humans

When a virus infects a new species, it sometimes mutates, adapting to infect, replicate and transmit more efficiently in a new animal. This is called host adaptation. When a virus jumps to a new host and begins adapting, the results can be unpredictable.

In late 2020, when SARS-CoV-2 jumped into farmed mink in Denmark, it acquired mutations that were uncommon in humans. Some of these mutations occurred in the part of the virus that most vaccines are designed to recognize. And it didn’t just happen once – these mutations independently arose in mink farms multiple times. While it’s not yet clear what impact, if any, these mutations may have on human disease or the vaccine, these are signs of host adaptation that could allow novel variants of the virus to persist and reemerge from animal hosts in the future.

Another risk is that SARS-CoV-2 could cause disease in animals. Ecologists are especially concerned about endangered species like the black-footed ferret, which is closely related to minks and thought to be very susceptible to the virus.

Human-to-wildlife spillover has happened before. In the late 20th century, the Ebola virus jumped from humans into great apes and has resulted in devastating consequences for these endangered animals. More recently, a human respiratory virus has been detected in threatened mountain gorilla populations and has caused deaths as well.

But perhaps the biggest risk to humans is that spillover could result in the coronavirus establishing a reservoir in new animals and regions. This could provide opportunities for reintroduction of COVID-19 into humans in the future. This month researchers published a paper showing that this had already happened on a small scale with human–to–mink–to–human transmission on mink farms in Denmark.

While our team has found no evidence of COVID-19 in wild animals in the U.S. at this time, we have seen convincing evidence of regular spillover into dogs and cats and some zoo animals. The discovery of the infected wild mink confirmed our fears. Seeing the first wild animal with natural COVID-19 is alarming, but sadly, not surprising.

Tags: #COVID19 #infecting #wild #animals #testing #species #bats #seals #find

Written by Jonathan Runstadler, Professor of Infectious Disease and Global Health, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University

This article by Jonathan Runstadler, Professor of Infectious Disease and Global Health, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Are the brains of atheists different to those of religious people? Scientists are trying to find out

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The cognitive study of religion has recently reached a new, unknown land: the minds of unbelievers. Do atheists think differently from religious people? Is there something special about how their brains work? To illustrate what they’ve found, I will focus on three key snapshots.

The first one, from 2003, is probably the most photogenic moment of “neuro-atheism”. Biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins travelled to the lab of Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger in the hope of having a religious experience. In this BBC Horizon film, God on the Brain, a retro science-fiction helmet was placed on Dawkins head. This “god helmet” generated weak magnetic fields, applied to the temporal lobes.

Picture of Richard Dawkins.
Richard Dawkins.

Persinger had previously shown that this kind of stimulation triggered a wide range of religious phenomena – from sensing the presence of someone invisible to prompting out-of-body experiences. With Dawkins, though, the experiment failed. As it turned out, Persinger explained, Dawkins’ temporal lobe sensitivity was “much, much lower” than is common in most people.

The idea that the temporal lobes may be the seat of religious experience has been around since the 1960s. But this was the first time that the hypothesis was extended to explain the lack of religious experience based on the lower sensitivity of a brain region. Despite the exciting possibility of testing this hypothesis with a larger sample of atheists, it remains to be done.

Image of Rodin's The Thinker.
Rodin’s The Thinker.
wikipedia, CC BY-SA

The second snapshot takes us to 2012. Three articles published by labs in the USA and Canada presented the first evidence linking an analytical, logical thinking style to unbelief. Psychologists have been theorising about different ways that brains process information for a long time: conscious versus unconscious, reflective versus experiential, analytical versus intuitive. These are linked to activity in certain brain areas, and can be triggered by stimuli including art.
The researchers asked participants to contemplate Rodin’s famous sculpture, The Thinker, and then assessed their analytical thinking and disbelief in god. They found that those who had viewed the sculpture performed better on the analytical thinking task and reported less belief in god than people who hadn’t seen the image.

In the same year, a Finnish lab published the results of a study where their scientists tried to provoke atheists into thinking supernaturally by presenting them with a series of short stories and asking if the punchline was a “sign of the universe” (interpreting something as a “sign” is more supernatural than interpreting something as, for example, a coincidence). They did this while scanning their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The more the participants suppressed supernatural thinking, the stronger the activation of the right inferior frontal gyrus was. We know this area is involved in cognitive inhibition, an ability to refrain from certain thoughts and behaviours.

Together, these studies suggest that atheists have a propensity to engage more in analytical or reflective thinking. If believing in gods is intuitive, then this intuition can be overridden by more careful thinking. This finding certainly raised the possibility that the minds of atheists are simply different from those of believers.

Replication crisis

So how robust are the findings? In 2015, a “replication crisis” hit the field of psychology. It turned out that the results of many classic studies couldn’t be achieved when running them again. The psychology of religion and atheism was no exception.

The experiment with Rodin’s Thinker was the first to be investigated. Three new studies were conducted with larger samples than the original — and they all failed to replicate the original results. With one sample, they found the very opposite: contemplating the Thinker increased religious belief.

One possible limitation with the original studies is that they had all been undertaken in the USA. Could culture act in such a decisive way that the analytical cognitive style associated with atheism in one country might be nonexistent elsewhere? The author of the original Rodin study attempted to answer this in a new study which included individuals from 13 countries. The results confirmed that a cognitive analytical style was only linked to atheism in three countries: Australia, Singapore and the USA.

In 2017, a double-blind study was carried out to test in a more robust way the link between unbelief and cognitive inhibition. Instead of using brain imaging to see which area lit up, they used a brain stimulation technique to directly stimulate the area responsible for cognitive inhibition: the right inferior frontal gyrus. Half of the participants, however were given a fake stimulus. The results showed that the brain stimulation worked: participants who had it achieved better in a cognitive inhibition task. However, this had no effect on decreasing supernatural belief.

The complexity of atheism

The third snapshot is this one: a man is standing against a background which looks like a church. He appears to be doing the sign of the cross with his right hand while his left hand rests on his heart. He is a priest – but not of any church that believes in gods: he presides over the Positivist Temple of Humanity, a church for atheists and agnostics created by August Comte in the 19th century. This priest is not doing the sign of cross but the Positivist blessing.

Together with photographer Aubrey Wade, I stumbled upon this active temple in the south of Brazil, while collecting data for a large ongoing project involving over 20 labs across the world: Understanding Unbelief.

Image of a man doing the positivist blessing.
Positivist blessing.
Aubrey Wade, Author provided

Finding an active church of unbelievers dedicated to the love of humanity — its golden principle being “live for others” — ruptured how I thought of atheists and the boundary separating them from the religious. And this has implications for how we develop studies in this area. When doing experiments with believers we can use multiple stimuli, from religious images to music, to trigger a religious effect or cognition in the lab. But finding an equivalent for unbelievers has proved hard.

One brain imaging study conducted at Oxford University compared an image of the Virgin Mary with that of a regular woman, both painted in the same period. Researchers found that when Roman Catholics concentrated on the Virgin Mary while being subjected to electric shocks, this alleviated their perception of pain compared to looking at the other woman. This decrease in pain was associated with an engagement of the right ventro-lateral prefrontal cortex, a region known to drive pain inhibitory circuits.

No similar effect was found for the unbelievers, although they rated the secular image as more pleasant than the religious one. But what if the unbelievers being tested were members of the Positivist Temple and were instead shown an image of their goddess of humanity — would this have alleviated pain in a similar way to that experienced by the religious individuals?

The future cognitive science of atheism will have to think hard about how to move forward. It needs to develop models that account for cultural variations as well as consider the implications of atheists engaging with rituals that celebrate humanity.

Tags: #brains #atheists #religious #people #Scientists #find

Written by Miguel Farias, Associate Professor in Experimental Psychology, Coventry University

This article by Miguel Farias, Associate Professor in Experimental Psychology, Coventry University, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Discovery of two new giant radio galaxies offers fresh insights into the universe

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Two giant radio galaxies have been discovered with South Africa’s powerful MeerKAT telescope, located in the Karoo region, a semi-arid area in the south west of the country. Radio galaxies get their name from the fact that they release huge beams, or ‘jets’, of radio light. These happen through the interaction between charged particles and strong magnetic fields related to supermassive black holes at the galaxies’ hearts.

These giant galaxies are much bigger than most of the others in the Universe and are thought to be quite rare. Although millions of radio galaxies are known to exist, only around 800 giants have been found. This population of galaxies was previously hidden from us by radio telescopes’ limitations. But the MeerKAT has allowed new discoveries because it can detect faint, diffuse light which previous telescopes were unable to do.

Our discovery, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, gives astronomers further clues about how galaxies have changed and evolved throughout cosmic history. It’s also a way to understand how galaxies may continue to change and evolve – and even to work out how old radio galaxies can get.

The giant radio galaxies were spotted in new radio maps of the sky created by one of the most advanced surveys of distant galaxies. The team working on it has included astronomers from around the world including South Africa, the UK, Italy and Australia. Called the International Gigahertz Tiered Extragalactic Exploration (MIGHTEE) survey, it involves data collected by South Africa’s impressive MeerKAT radio telescope. MeerKAT consists of 64 antennae and dishes, and started collecting science data in early 2018. It will ultimately be incorporated into the Square Kilometre Array, an intergovernmental radio telescope project spearheaded by Australia and South Africa.

The galaxies in question are several billion light years away. The discovery of enormous jets and lobes in the MIGHTEE map allowed us to confidently identify the objects as giant radio galaxies.

Their discovery means that a clearer understanding of the evolutionary pathways of galaxies is beginning to emerge. This is tantalising evidence that a large population of faint, very extended giant radio galaxies may exist. This may help us understand how radio galaxies become so huge and what sort of havoc supermassive black holes can wreak on their galaxies.

What’s new

Many galaxies have supermassive black holes in their midst. When large amounts of interstellar gas start to orbit and fall in towards the black hole, the black hole becomes ‘active’: huge amounts of energy are released from this region of the galaxy.

In some active galaxies, charged particles interact with the strong magnetic fields near the black hole and release huge beams, or ‘jets’, of radio light. The radio jets of these so-called ‘radio galaxies’ can be many times larger than the galaxy itself and can extend vast distances into intergalactic space. Think of them like jets of water from a whale’s blowhole, a thin column extending into a cloudy plume at the end.

We found these giant radio galaxies in a region of sky that’s about four times the area of the full Moon. Based on what we currently know about the density of giant radio galaxies in the sky, the probability of finding two of them in a region this size is extremely small – only 0.0003%. So, it’s possible that giant radio galaxies – those that emit the beams, or jets of light described above – may actually be more common than we previously thought.

These aren’t the first radio galaxies astronomers have discovered. Many hundreds of thousands have already been identified. But only around 800 have radio jets bigger than 700 kilo-parsecs in size, or around 22 times the size of the Milky Way. These truly enormous systems are called ‘giant radio galaxies’.

Our new discoveries are more than 2 Mega-parsecs across: about 6.5 million light years or about 62 times the size of the Milky Way. Yet they are fainter than others of the same size. That’s what makes them harder to see.


We suspect that many more galaxies like these should exist, because of the way we think galaxies should grow and change over their lifetimes. And that’s one question we hope this discovery can help to answer: how old are giant radio galaxies and how did they get so enormous?

Now, telescope technology is making it possible to put these and other theories to the test. MeerKAT is the best of its kind in the world because of the telescope’s unprecedented sensitivity to faint and diffuse radio light. This capability is what made it possible for us to detect the giant radio galaxies. We could see features that haven’t been noticed before: large-scale radio jets coming from the central galaxies, as well as fuzzy cloud-like lobes at the end of the jets.

Two massive satellite dishes are pointed up towards the night sky
South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope.
South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO)

The fact that only very few radio galaxies are so gigantic has always been a bit of a mystery. It is thought that the giants are the oldest radio galaxies, which have existed for long enough (several hundred million years) for their radio jets to grow outwards to these enormous sizes. If this is true, then many more giant radio galaxies should exist than are currently known. And that’s important because radio jets can influence the star formation of their host galaxy. Essentially, they might ‘kill’ their galaxy by blowing out all the gas and preventing the formation of new stars.

Read more:
Radio galaxies: the mysterious, secretive “beasts” of the Universe

The MIGHTEE survey continues, and we hope to uncover more of these giant galaxies as it progresses. We also expect to find many more with the Square Kilometre Array: construction of this transcontinental telescope is due to start in South Africa and Australia in 2021 and continue until 2027. Science commissioning observations could begin as early as 2023.

The Square Kilometre Array is also expected to reveal larger populations of radio galaxies, revolutionising our understanding of galaxy evolution.

Tags: #Discovery #giant #radio #galaxies #offers #fresh #insights #universe

Written by Jacinta Delhaize, SARAO Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Cape Town

This article by Jacinta Delhaize, SARAO Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Cape Town, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

To get ahead as an introvert, act like an extravert. It’s not as hard as you think

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Leadership is a human universal. It can even be seen in other species, which suggests it may be an evolutionarily ancient process.

A common personality trait of “natural” leaders is a higher than average level of extraversion. Research consistently shows extraverts, compared with introverts, are more likely to be regarded as leaders by others, and more likely to obtain leadership roles.

We decided to run an experiment to see if we could turn the leadership tables around by getting introverts to act like extraverts. We also wanted to find out how acting like an extravert makes introverts feel about themselves.

Our results show that introverts who act like extraverts are indeed viewed by others as having more leadership potential. We also found no evidence of psychological costs for introverts.

What we know about extraversion and leadership

Before we get to the specifics of our research, let’s briefly recap the basic science of extraversion and leadership.

Extraversion is a continuum that measures the degree to which someone is enthusiastic, assertive and seeks out social interaction. It is typically included as part of the five-factor model of personality.

The other dimensions – or traits – in the five-factor model include openness (being intellectually curious and creative), conscientiousness (being orderly and industrious), agreeableness (being compassionate and polite), and neuroticism (being sensitive to experiencing negative emotions like anxiety, depression, and anger).

The big five personality traits.
The big five personality traits.

Extraversion has biological roots and is heritable. In others words, part of the reason we find differences in levels of extraversion between people is because there are genetic differences between people that partially determine our personality. Our genes even predict the likelihood we will occupy a leadership position.

We also know that extraverts have a more sensitive dopamine system in their brain. They are wired to find rewards more enticing. They crave social interaction and the attention that comes with it. This fact may partially explain why extraverts are more motivated to obtain leadership roles, given leadership is an inherently social process.

Read more:
It’s hard to find a humble CEO. Here’s why

How we did our experiment

Our experiment consisted of 601 participants randomly divided into 166 leaderless groups of typically four people.

We asked these groups to complete a 20-minute joint problem-solving activity (prioritising items needed to survive on the Moon). Participants were not told the purpose of the experiment.

We then split the groups into three “experimental conditions”.

file 20210114 21 si0gxi.PNG?ixlib=rb 1.1

In the first (consisting of 53 groups) we randomly selected one person per group to act energetic, talkative, enthusiastic, bold, active, assertive and sociable – in other words, extraverted. These instructions were not known to other group members.

In the second (55 groups), the randomly chosen group member was secretly instructed to act quiet, reserved, lethargic, passive, compliant and unadventurous – in other words, introverted.

The third was our control condition with 58 groups, where no individual instructions were given.

At the of end the activity, participants rated the leadership quality of other group members (and themselves). They also rated how they felt.

We controlled for age, gender and other personality traits using a standard personality test. This ensured we isolated the true effect of extraverted and introverted behaviour.

Acting like an extravert works

The first part of our results were unsurprising. Compared with participants in the control condition, those instructed to act extraverted were rated by others as having more leadership potential. Those instructed to act introverted were rated lower.

What was notable is that these ratings did not depend on “trait extraversion”. In other words, when instructed to act extraverted, both introverts and extraverts were rated higher on their leadership potential compared with an equivalently extraverted person in the control condition.

Equally, we found the participants instructed to act introverted were rated lower on their leadership potential compared with control participants.

But what was particularly interesting was these participants also rated themselves especially poorly on leadership ratings – worse than did their group members. Acting introverted had a particularly negative impact on how those individuals viewed their own leadership potential.

Read more:
Why too many fearless people on a team make collaboration less likely

How acting out of character felt

How our “actors” felt after the activity is shown in the next figure.

Compared with the control participants, there was no difference for those who acted extraverted. Even introverts felt perfectly OK after acting like extraverts.

file 20201203 15 1l5cnq0.PNG?ixlib=rb 1.1

The extraverts who acted introverted were a different matter. They had fewer positive and more negative feelings compared with those in the control condition. In short, acting introverted made them feel bad.

Should introverts act out of character to get ahead?

Our research shows introverts can effectively act out of character to obtain and succeed in leadership roles.

If you’re an introvert, you might feel you should not have to. But we suggest that being prepared to adapt your behaviour to the demands of a situation gives you an advantage over those who aren’t.

Nor is it as hard as you may think. Research shows introverts overestimate the unpleasantness and underestimate the “hedonic benefits” of acting extraverted. One study even suggests introverts feel more authentic when acting extraverted.

Read more:
Introverts think they won’t like being leaders but they are capable

Knowing extraverted behaviour is usually – though not always – enjoyable can help you feel more confident about “faking” extraverted behaviour in your own best interest.

So lead on – if you want.

Tags: #ahead #introvert #act #extravert #hard

Written by Andrew Spark, Postdoctoral research fellow, Queensland University of Technology

This article by Andrew Spark, Postdoctoral research fellow, Queensland University of Technology, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Give cannabis producers more packaging and labelling flexibility

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While efforts to legalize recreational cannabis nationally have stalled in the United States, New Zealand, Mexico and Israel, Canada’s legal market continues to evolve.

Health Canada has recently been receiving suggestions for revising its cannabis product regulations. Now it must decide what changes to make.

One priority should be giving producers more packaging and labelling flexibility. This could help businesses build their reputations and help consumers find suitable products. It would also better support federal cannabis policy, as existing rules inadvertently encourage higher potency while sidelining other aspects of quality.

Restrictive rules

Current packaging regulations restrict each cannabis container to a single non-fluorescent colour. It cannot have any photos or images beyond one small brand logo.

Labelling is likewise limited. The producer and product name must appear, along with the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) levels. Other cannabinoids and terpenes can optionally be reported, but little else. No stories about how the plants were grown, no suggestions regarding the product’s uses or effects.

The result is mostly generic-looking packages. That’s intentional: governments don’t want non-users being tempted by the stuff. But there are some unintended side-effects.

Negative effects

For one thing, the plainness makes it harder for producers to distinguish themselves from competitors and establish brand reputations. They consequently have less incentive to improve product quality and more reason to compete by lowering prices instead.

By contrast, retailers can design their stores to stand out. Displaying artwork, painting everything purple, or mimicking Scandinavian spas can attract customers who like the ambience.

Minimalist labels meanwhile cause problems for consumers by making it tougher to understand new products or compare them to familiar favourites. The labels also focus extra attention on what little information is present: the THC and CBD numbers. Those get viewed as indicators of overall quality, where more implies better.

Packaging for a recreational cannabis product is shown at Canopy Growth Corporation's Tweed headquarters.
Packaging for a recreational cannabis product is shown at Canopy Growth Corporation’s Tweed headquarters in Smiths Falls, Ont., in October 2018.

THC overemphasis

Indeed, many producers believe high THC sells products, even if they know some less potent ones are more enjoyable. One major brand recently announced it will only offer cannabis containing at least 20 per cent THC.

Retailers see similar THC preferences. The Ontario Cannabis Store sells 73 times as much cannabis online in the over-20 per cent category as it does in the 12-to-17 per cent range.

But while THC is important, it isn’t everything. Cannabis contains at least 85 cannabinoids and 27 terpenes that create its effects and aromas. Defining products just by THC and CBD content is too simplistic.

Workers tend to marijuana plants in a cannabis-producing facility.
Defining the quality of cannabis products based on just THC and CBD content is overly simplistic.

Besides, bigger is not always better. One study found users got similar effects from smoking cannabis with either 16 or 24 per cent THC. In a cannabis-growing contest last year, only one of the six gold medallists contained more than 20 per cent THC. And other research suggests many consumers don’t really understand THC numbers anyway.

Canada’s labelling rules didn’t create this THC overemphasis. But they do worsen it.

For an analogy, consider automobiles. If automakers could only advertise horsepower, I suspect they’d mostly sell muscle cars.

More flexibility

To reduce these problems, Health Canada should let producers more freely differentiate and describe their products.

Look at wine bottles. Many have distinctive colours and images on the front to catch shoppers’ attention. Meanwhile, the back label describes the wine’s tastes (“fruity”) and uses (“goes well with seafood”).

A collection of wine bottles.
Why can’t cannabis products be marketed and packaged the way wine is?

Let’s allow something similar for cannabis. Multi-coloured packages could create distinct appearances for each brand. Labels could include a paragraph explaining the product’s characteristics and uses.

For example, U.S. cannabis products often mention their appearance and aroma, plus their psychoactive and physical effects. Some highlight their distinctive cultivation and processing.

Beyond allowing more words, Health Canada could also require more numbers, like total terpene content and total cannabinoid content. Those might interest experienced “cannasseurs,” while reminding less knowledgeable users that THC and CBD aren’t the only relevant ingredients.

Further changes ahead?

Health Canada’s regulations update offers industry a chance to influence cannabis policies. A bigger one arrives in October, when the federal government begins reviewing its 2018 cannabis law. Everything federally regulated will potentially be up for change: licensing, excise taxes, law enforcement, etc.

The cannabis industry is already preparing for that legislative review. It will likely ask to have not only more packaging options to communicate with existing users, but also advertising to attract new ones. That will be controversial.

These reviews represent the next steps in Canada’s grand cannabis experiment. During legalization’s first year, it was dry cannabis shortages and insufficient stores that limited product sales. The second year saw sales grow as more stores opened, retail prices fell and product quality began improving.

Now in its third year, governments are rethinking the “least bad” way to regulate cannabis. If you have any good suggestions for them, start preparing your submission for October.

Tags: #Give #cannabis #producers #packaging #labelling #flexibility

Written by Michael J. Armstrong, Associate professor of operations research, Goodman School of Business, Brock University

This article by Michael J. Armstrong, Associate professor of operations research, Goodman School of Business, Brock University, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

The great polio vaccine mess and the lessons it holds about federal coordination for today’s COVID-19 vaccination effort

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I nervously fell into a long line of fellow first graders in the gymnasium of St. Louis’ Hamilton Elementary School in the spring of 1955. We were waiting for our first injection of the new polio vaccine.

The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis – with money raised through its annual March of Dimes campaign – had sponsored field tests for a vaccine developed by Jonas Salk. The not-for-profit had acquired sufficient doses to inoculate all the nation’s first and second graders through simultaneous rollouts administered at their elementary schools. The goal was to give 30 million shots over three months.

Now, more than six decades later, attention focuses on the rollout of two COVID-19 vaccines, following their emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. States have begun to administer them in a rocky and frustratingly slow delivery process – while hundreds of thousands of new cases continue to be diagnosed daily in the U.S.

While not necessarily comforting, it is useful to recognize that the early days and weeks of mass distribution of a new medication, particularly one that is intended to address a fearful epidemic, are bound to be frustrating. Only after examining the complex polio vaccine distribution process as documented in papers collected in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library did I come to understand how partial my childhood memories actually were.

Vaccine distribution, 65 years ago

After I received my polio shot, I remember my parents’ relief.

The polio virus causes flu-like symptoms in most people who catch it. But in a minority of those infected, the brain and spinal cord are affected; polio can cause paralysis and even death. With the distribution of Salk’s vaccine, the much-feared stalker of children and young adults had seemingly been tamed. Within days, however, the initial mass inoculation program went off the rails.

Jonas Salk poses with a flask in lab
The world initially rejoiced as Salk’s vaccine came online. He declined to patent it, to make it available to all.
PhotoQues/Archive Photos via Getty Images

Immediately following the government’s licensing of the Salk vaccine, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis contracted with private drug companies for US$9 million worth of vaccine (around $87 million today) – about 90% of the stock. They planned to provide it free to the country’s first and second graders. But just two weeks after the first doses were administered, the Public Health Service reported that six inoculated children had come down with polio.

As the number of such incidents grew, it became clear that some of the shots were causing the disease they were meant to prevent. A single lab had inadvertently released adulterated doses.

After considerable fumbling and outright denial, Surgeon General Leonard Steele first pulled all tainted vaccine off the market. Then, less than a month after the initial inoculations, the U.S. shut down distribution entirely. It wasn’t until the introduction of a new polio vaccine in 1960, created by Albert Sabin, that public trust returned.

History’s lessons for 2021

This story offers several lessons relevant to the COVID-19 vaccine distribution just now getting rolling.

First, federal coordination of an emergent lifesaving medical product is critical.

The federal government had declined to play an active oversight and coordination role for the polio vaccine, but still wanted the credit. The federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services) offered no plan for distribution beyond the privately funded school-based program.

The department waited a full month after the vaccine was first administered before bringing together a permanent scientific clearance panel. That delay had less to do with formal procedures than with the ideological opposition of Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Oveta Culp Hobby.

Hobby was a political appointee who had taken office just months before the vaccine was approved. Her reluctance to involve the federal government in matters that she believed were best left in private hands – and her oft-stated fear of “socialized medicine” – meant that safety checks would be left to the private labs producing the vaccine. The results immediately caused dire problems and even avoidable deaths.

People protesting pandemic restrictions and rules, one holds a 'No vaccines' sign
In May 2020, Trump supporters in California protested against a COVID-19 vaccine months before one was even available.
David McNew/Getty Images News via Getty Images

Second, the polio vaccine distribution process demonstrated how vital it is for the federal government to act in ways deserving of public trust.

In those hopeful first few weeks of the polio vaccine distribution, those of us lining up for shots had little to fear beyond the sting of an injection. That changed quickly.

Once some children had in fact been harmed by the shot, obfuscation by government officials, clumsy explanations and delayed responses engulfed the entire production and distribution process in confusion and suspicion. Trust in the government and the vaccine eroded accordingly. Gallup polls found that by June 1955, almost half of the parents who responded said they would not take any further vaccine shots – and the full regimen of polio inoculation required three doses. In 1958, some drug companies halted production, citing “public apathy.” It wasn’t surprising to see a startling upsurge in polio in 1959, doubling cases from the previous year.

Today, with COVID-19 already highly politicized – polls suggest that a minority of Americans will decline to take any vaccine – it is critical to administer an effective vaccine delivery program in a manner that builds trust rather than undermines it.

Scattered reports of allergic reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine have generated not the denials of the Eisenhower administration but rather honest and realistic responses from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Particularly for vaccines that require multiple inoculations – both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots administered with a 21- or 28-day gap – mass inoculations will require not just an initial willingness to get the first dose but the maintenance of trust sufficient to get people back for the followup.

There are significant differences in the social-political contexts of the era in which the polio vaccine was distributed and today, including the nature and threat of the two diseases and the technologies of the vaccines. But time and again, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed disconcerting parallels with mistakes made in the past. The good news is vaccination works – no case of polio has originated in the U.S. since 1979.

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Tags: #great #polio #vaccine #mess #lessons #holds #federal #coordination #todays #COVID19 #vaccination #effort

Written by Bert Spector, Associate Professor of International Business and Strategy at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, Northeastern University

This article by Bert Spector, Associate Professor of International Business and Strategy at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, Northeastern University, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

We found the oldest known cave painting of animals in a secret Indonesian valley

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The dating of an exceptionally old cave painting of animals that was found recently on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is reported in our paper out today.

The painting portrays images of the Sulawesi warty pig (Sus celebensis), which is a small (40-85kg) short-legged wild boar endemic to the island.

Dating to at least 45,500 years ago, this cave painting may be the oldest depiction of the animal world, and possibly the earliest figurative art (an image that resembles the thing it is intended to represent), yet uncovered.

Oldest cave art found in Sulawesi.

Ice age art in Indonesia

Sulawesi is host to abundant cave art, the existence of which was first reported in the 1950s.

Read more:
Indonesian cave paintings show the dawn of imaginative art and human spiritual belief

Until recently, the prevailing view was this art was the handiwork of Neolithic farmers who arrived around 4,000 years ago from southern China rather than the hunter-gatherers who had lived on Sulawesi for tens of thousands of years.

We now know that this is not correct.

In 2014, we reported the first dates for the South Sulawesi rock art.

Based on uranium-series analysis of mineral deposits (calcite) that formed naturally on the art we showed that a stencilled image of a human hand found in one cave was created at least 40,000 years ago. This is compatible in age with the famous ice age cave art in Europe.

Ice age art in the tropics.

Then, in 2019, we dated a spectacular painting at another cave that portrays hybrid human-animal figures hunting Sulawesi warty pigs and dwarf buffalos (anoas). This hunting scene is at least 43,900 years old and it features what may be the oldest depictions of supernatural beings.

Earliest hunting scene in prehistoric art.

In our latest study we push the age of Sulawesi’s rock art a little deeper into the past.

The secret valley

In December 2017 we conducted the first survey of an isolated valley set in mountainous terrain a stone’s throw from one of Indonesia’s largest cities, Makassar.

A lush green valley landscape.
The limestone karst valley in which Leang Tedongnge is located.
David P McGahan, Author provided

Despite its proximity to a major urban centre, there is no road to this valley. The small community of local Bugis farmers live a secluded existence, although they are widely reputed for the sublime quality (and potency) of their palm wine (ballo).

According to them no Westerner had ever set foot in their valley before.

This secret valley is a pristine environment and a place of resplendent natural beauty. There is hardly any rubbish in the tiny village in the centre of the valley. Being there feels like stepping back in time.

The valley harbours a limestone cave known as Leang Tedongnge and inside it we found a rock painting the locals claimed they had never noticed before.

Inside the cave is a painting of warty pigs.
Adhi Agus Oktaviana in front of the Leang Tedongnge rock art panel.
Adhi Agus Oktaviana, Author provided

The painting was produced using a red mineral pigment (ironstone haematite, or ochre). It depicts at least three Sulawesi warty pigs engaged in social interaction of some kind.

We interpret the surviving elements of this artwork as a single narrative composition or scene, a mainstay of how we tell stories using images today but an uncommon feature of early cave art.

The Leang Tedongnge rock art panel enhanced to make the artwork clearer.
The top image has been enhanced (in DStretch) to make the artwork clearer. The bottom image shows a tracing of the art.
Adhi Agus Oktaviana, Author provided

Unlocking the age of the art

Dating rock art is very difficult at the best of times. But at Leang Tedongnge we were fortunate to identify a small calcite deposit (known as “cave popcorn”) that had formed on top of one of the pig figures (pig 1).

We sampled the calcite and analysed it for uranium-series dating. Amazingly, the dating work returned an age of 45,500 years ago for the calcite, meaning the painting on which it formed must be at least this old.

A closer image of one of the wild pigs and two hand stencils
A close up of the dated warty pig painting at Leang Tedongnge.
Maxime Aubert, Author provided

Early art in Wallacea

Our discovery underlines the global importance of Sulawesi, and the wider Indonesian region, for our understanding of where and when the first cave art traditions developed by our species arose.

The great antiquity of this artwork also offers hints at the potential for other significant findings in this part of the world.

Sulawesi is the largest island in Wallacea, the zone of oceanic islands located between mainland Asia and the ice age continental landmass of Australia-New Guinea.

Read more:
First pocket-sized artworks from Ice Age Indonesia show humanity’s ancient drive to decorate

Modern humans are said to have crossed through Wallacea by watercraft at least 65,000 years ago in order to reach Australia by that time.

But the Wallacean islands are poorly explored and presently the earliest excavated archaeological evidence from this region is much younger.

We believe further research will uncover much older rock art in Sulawesi or on other Wallacean islands, dating back at least 65,000 years and possibly earlier.

Tags: #oldest #cave #painting #animals #secret #Indonesian #valley

Written by Adam Brumm, Professor, Griffith University

This article by Adam Brumm, Professor, Griffith University, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).