Friday, December 02, 2005

Birds in the News #38

Toco Toucan, Ramphastos toco.
Copyright Paul Bratescu, 2003.

Birds in Science

What can bird beaks teach mechanical engineers? In this beautifully written news story, translated from a research paper published today in the research journal, Acta Materialia, engineers from the University of California San Diego reveal the secret for how toucan beaks can be light yet incredibly strong. Marc A. Meyers and his graduate students, Yasuaki Seki and Matthew S. Schneider, reported that the toucan beak's lightweight strength is the result of an unusual bio-composite. The interior of the beak is rigid "foam" made of bony fibers (pictured, right) and drum-like membranes sandwiched between outer layers of keratin, the same protein that makes up fingernails, hair, and horn. "Our computer modeling shows that the beak is optimized to an amazing degree for high strength and very little weight," said Meyers. “It’s almost as if the toucan has a deep knowledge of mechanical engineering.” They also noted a hollow region extending about half the length of the upper and lower beaks (pictured, left). "When we did the calculations, we discovered that there are only very insignificant mechanical stresses in the center of the beak at the position of the hollow areas," said Meyers. "This is why I jokingly tell my students that toucans have a deep knowledge of mechanics. They don't bother adding structural support in a part of the beak that doesn't really need it." Just as the hook-shaped barbs on cockleburs inspired the development of Velcro, Meyers said the avian bio-composite could inspire the design of ultra-light aircraft and vehicle components with synthetic foams made with metals and polymers. This link includes lots of beautiful pictures and a 4-minute streaming interview with Professor Meyers.

Adding further credence to the "birds are dinosaurs" hypothesis, it was reported recently in the top-tier research journal, Science, that the oldest known bird fossil has feet that are more like a dinosaur's than previously thought. The nine previously known fossils of Archaeopteryx suggested that birds probably evolved from small meat-eating dinosaurs that are closely related to Dromeosaurs. A newly revealed fossil strengthens this hypothesis. The specimen (pictured, right -- click to see larger image in its own window) comes from the private collection of a worker at the Solnhofen limestone quarries in Germany, where the first Archaeopteryx fossil was discovered. This fossil was unknown to science until its owner's death, when the new owner made it available to scientists at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in the US. This fossil reveals that there are no unique traits shared by Archaeopteryx and the other bird-like fossils, Confuciusornis and a primitive bird called Rahonavis, that lived much later, that are not also shared by dinosaurs. Thus, Archaeopteryx either cannot be classified as belonging to the same evolutionary group as birds or this entire group of bird-like fossils must be redefined. More information; This document tells the story of this, the Thermopolis Archaeopteryx specimen and this links to a formal reconstruction of the specimen. GrrlScientist says; I wonder how many more rare fossils are hidden in private hands, preventing scientists from learning their secrets? I also wonder if rare fossils are safe from potential damages caused by religious wingnuts?

Birds and Those Who Watch Them

Wildlife biologists believe a whooping crane, Grus americana (pictured, left), that became separated from its parents while learning to migrate is spending a second winter lost and in the company of friendly sandhill cranes, Grus canadensis. A bird watcher last week spotted the whooper near Hargill, about 110 miles south of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where the world's only naturally migrating flock of whooping cranes winters each year. A U.S. Fish & Wildlife service biologist confirmed the find. With only about 200 of the endangered species in the flock -- up from about 15 in 1941 -- biologists try to keep tabs on each chick. During last year's fall migration, however, one juvenile was spotted in some offbeat places, including Colorado, Oklahoma, and finally Bay City, Texas, more than 100 miles from Aransas. ''This one particular whooping crane doesn't know where Aransas is. Its parents never showed it,'' said Tom Stehn, whooping crane coordinator for the Fish & Wildlife Service. Stehn said the bird has no problem getting to Canada and theorized that a future mate might lead it to Aransas.

People Helping Birds

Member countries of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) added eleven birds and other animals to their endangered species lists. These species needing extra protection include the Basra Reed Warbler, Acrocephalus griseldis (pictured, left), a small brown and white bird that breeds in the Mesopotamian marshlands of southern Iraq, thought to be the mythological Garden of Eden, and the Red Knot, Calidris canutus, a migratory shorebird that I focus on here. "The 11 species will join a listing of around 107 migratory animals which are considered endangered and thereby given special status by all member states," said Marco Barbieri, CMS scientific officer. The CMS, a treaty signed under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), says migratory species are considered more vulnerable than others because of their patterns of regular movement across borders and countries. Other avian species added include Henderson's Petrel, Pterodroma atrata, a migratory sea bird, the Malagasy Pond Heron, Ardeola idea, the Balearic Shearwater, Puffinus mauretanicus, the Spotted Ground-Thrush, Zoothera guttata, as well as the Basking Shark, the second largest shark species in the world, and the Short-Beaked Common Dolphin.

People Hurting Birds

In the southwestern portion of Connecticut, United Illuminating (UI) Company's parrot-eradication program begins its third week. Under the cover of darkness, UI captures feral monk parakeets, Myiopsitta monachus (pictured, right), that nest on its power poles and sends them to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who then kills them. The current death toll of monk parakeets "humanely euthanized under methods approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association" is approximately 120. Al Carbone, the utility's public relations spokesman, calls the UI/USDA death squads a "solution," into which the stupid and unimaginative officials from the utility were forced. Carbone said that the crews started in West Haven and will focus on one town at a time as UI works to pull down 103 nests along the Connecticut coast to Fairfield. GrrlScientist comment: It always amazes and saddens me to see how people react in such a primitive way when attempting to "solve" problems caused by animals.

Avian Influenza News

Vaccinating chickens against avian flu can prevent a major outbreak by preventing birds from passing on the virus, Dutch scientists said in a study published last Monday. Vaccination is one of the main weapons in the fight against bird flu. However, scientists did not know if vaccination protected only treated birds or had wider benefits. "Our conclusion is that vaccination of poultry can prevent a major outbreak of highly pathogenic avian flu viruses," scientist Jeanet Van der Goot told Reuters. However, they noted that it could take two weeks after vaccination before transmission to other birds was completely stopped. This study was published in the top-tier American journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. GrrlScientist comment: It's about freaking time that something like this was published. I fervently hope that the government officials worldwide read this report before they start/continue their massive bird extermination programs, particularly since the evidence is weak that links migratory wild birds and influenza spread. Further, people tend to solve problems by shooting first and thinking later -- often with tragic and unintended consequences.

Streaming Birds

On BirdNote, for the week of November 28, learn about the Raggiana Bird of Paradise, Paradisaea raggiana; Goldeneyes with whistling wings; Snow Geese, Anser caerulescens; Downy Woodpeckers, Picoides pubescens, far and wide; and the plight of the Western Grebe, Aechmophorus occidentalis. BirdNote programs are two-minute vignettes that incorporate the rich sounds of birds provided by Cornell University and by other sound recordists, with photographs and written stories that illustrate the interesting -- and in some cases, truly amazing -- abilities of birds. Some of the shows are Pacific Northwest-oriented, but many are of general interest. BirdNote can be heard live, Monday through Friday, 8:58-9:00AM in Western Washington state and Southern British Columbia on KPLU radio and now also in North Central Washington state on KOHO radio. All episodes are available in the BirdNote archives, both in written transcript and mp3 formats, along with photographs. [mp3/podcast].

Miscellaneous Birds

Have you noticed all the wonderful bird sounds in the Harry Potter films, and wondered if they are authentic? Wonder no more, because this interesting story reveals that Cornell's Macaulay Library at the Lab of Ornithology has established itself as more than just a vast scientific resource but also as a repository for creative but realistic background sounds for a wide variety of movie soundtracks. For example, the makers of the Harry Potter movies contacted the Macaulay Library for an appropriate call for the film's mythical hippogriff (pictured, left), a creature with an eagle's head, horse's body, large beating wings and ostrichlike feet. Greg Budney, curator of audio at the Macaulay Library, came up with the screech of a limpkin, Aramus guarauna (sound file link), a swamp-wading bird with long legs and long curving beak that lives mainly in Florida, the Caribbean islands and Central and South America. And so, in the Prisoner of Azkaban, the hippogriff swoops down and lets out the prehistoric-sounding screech of a limpkin. Once studios spent millions on the footage for a movie and just a few thousand dollars for sound effects. Now "studios are spending more [for audio] because the public is more discriminating and today's sound designers are committed to taking their craft to a higher level," Budney said.

A East Anglian blackbird, Turdus merula, that has amazed ornithologists by flying hundreds of miles between two gardens has arrived in Devon for its annual winter break. What is so unusual about this? The bird travels nearly 300 miles from Thetford, Norfolk, to the warmer climes of Newton Abbot, south Devon. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) research shows that only 3% of East Anglian blackbirds leave their tiny territories, and then they will stray by no more than 20 miles or so. "Its trips between Norfolk and Newton Abbot are becoming the stuff of local legend and it really does go to show that we still have a lot to learn about even our commonest birds," said a BTO spokesman.

This short story tells what can happen when you are not careful about what you say when your pet parrot is listening!

Thanks to my bird pals, Fred, Paul, Ian, Ellen and Ron, for some of the news story links that you are enjoying here.

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© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

8 Peer Reviews:

Anonymous Dawn said...

you wrote:
GrrlScientist comment: It always amazes and saddens me to see how people react in such a primitive way when attempting to "solve" problems caused by animals.

I am sure that this is a people problem first. These poor birds!

thanks GrrlScientist once again for an enlightening friday!


7:47 PM  
Anonymous Chardyspal said...

The fossils still make me wonder...are those itty bitty "arms" on T Rex REALLY arms or are they wings; did various families/orders of birds come from one ancestor or several?

The Quaker parakeets - while IMHO the problem was caused by people (captive birds escaping or being let loose), I agree wholeheartedly that it is ludicrous to call this a "solution". I wonder if these birds are filling the niche left by the extinction of the Carolina parakeet?

Great Toucan information! I wish I could see the video but alas I am on dial-up.

12:15 AM  
Blogger Phila said...

Here's an exra story for you...I wish it were a cheerful one....

Bird song changes sound alarm over habitat fragmentation.

1:02 PM  
Anonymous psilo said...

“It’s almost as if the toucan has a deep knowledge of mechanical engineering.”

Um...I'm sure this is just a humorous comment, but I'd place my money on selective pressure over many, many years optimizing form for function. I'm pretty sure spiders don't have a deep knowledge of polymer chemistry and engineering, they just have really strong strands coming out of their butts. But hey, I'm a reductionist, not an anthropomorphisist. I like making up words too. :-)


3:41 PM  
Blogger Tom Dilatush said...

Trackback by comment:
Most engineering that people are familiar with is accomplished by engineers with an understanding of the science underlying their discipline. They use that understanding to determine how to approach the problem they’re solving. Most of the time there are multiple possibilities — for example, there are many ways to build a 100 foot long bridge — and engineers use other factors (cost, aesthetics, experience, etc.) to choose amongst the possible approaches. This science-driven engineering is what we’re used to, but it is not empirical engineering. It is enabled by our accumulated scientific understanding, and by our human ability to apply that understanding to solve a problem...

6:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a note. I believe the school you are talking about in the Toucan artical is University of California San Diego. The other option would be University of California Davis. ~ A

8:56 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

GrrlScientist says; I wonder how many more rare fossils are hidden in private hands, preventing scientists from learning their secrets? I also wonder if rare fossils are safe from potential damages caused by religious wingnuts?

Oy. You have just posed the same nightmare scenario I've been thinking about for several years now. I find it so scary that I'm afraid to even repeat it here, for fear of giving any nutjob ideas. Then again, I'm sure they've already thought of it....

These Archaeopteryx fossils have dollar values attached to them on the market, but you and I know that their true value to science is virtually infinite. Similar things can be said for so many other finds of other creatures through all prehistory. Anti-science types could do inconceivable damage to science by....sorry, I just can't say it. It's just too disturbing.

12:37 AM  
Blogger Wise Crow said...

I'll try this one more time. If you've ever seen a toucan feed or in courtship, the reason for the structure of the bill is apparent. Elegant example of evolution.

2:58 PM  

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