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7 Things That Could Ruin Your Day in Antarctica

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There’s a reason trekking to Antarctica is thought be like landing on another planet: The environment has absolutely no patience for humans. With a bone-chilling climate fond of torturing visitors, you’d better have a good reason to be there. (Like science!) Oddly enough, frostbite may be the least of your concerns. If you’re considering a research journey, consider these other, lesser-known dangers lurking in the coldest place on Earth.

1. Death from Above

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You will never see a singing, dancing skua in a Disney film. These birds are reputed to be absolute savages, dive-bombing unsuspecting prey (like scientists) with claws outstretched. Explorers have been pecked, scratched, and generally terrorized by these avian bullies. If you think a bird can’t do a lot of damage, think twice: A biologist was once knocked unconscious by one.   

2. A Melting Runway

Landing aircraft on the ice runways near key stations is delicate business. Unlike commercial landing strips, there’s no asphalt or concrete to touch down on. Instead, pilots aim for a stretch of prepared, smoothed blue ice that doesn’t accumulate large amounts of snow due to increased wind and evaporation. But in 2013, the unusually warm weather had created a surface too soft for planes to land on. That meant occupying staff had to do without key deliveries of goods like fruit, toiletries, or irony: construction of one runway in 2008 had workers taking breaks to de-ice their equipment.

3. Dental Improvisation

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Despite the food there being sugar-rich to give researchers energy,visits from full-time dentists at the bottom of the world are sporadic at best. Physicians stationed in Antarctica receive some basic dental training, but if complications arise, you might wind up with a mouthful of elephant seal tusk. That’s what happened to one chef in the 1950s who lost a portion of his dentures. Without the standard materials available for a typical repair, his attending physician used the tusk to fashion a temporary fix that became permanent—the man didn’t have money for a proper replacement.

4. Crevasses

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Glaciers in Antarctica are a given, and nature has turned some of them into a trap from an Indiana Jones movie. Huge fractures can go down dozens or hundreds of feet, covered with a veneer of snow: unsuspecting vehicles or boots can sink into one without having time to react. If you’re lucky, someone who’s already covered your path may have put out a red flag (or robot) to warn you of impending doom.

5. Seal Bites

The various species of seals in the Antarctic usually dine on penguins, but humans will do in a pinch. Sometimes weighing up to 990 pounds, the predators have even been known to turn on themselves. While deaths from attacks are rare (though one did occur in 2003), seal bites can be serious enough to require medical attention: their mouths are home to a variety of unpleasant bacteria and they’re capable of exerting more crushing power than a canine bite.  

6. Sunburn

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The Antarctic sun can loom for 24 hours at a stretch some days, reflecting harshly off the snow and creating real opportunity for sunburn even in frigid temperatures. Expeditions often mandate sunscreen be worn on exposed skin; the real concern is with snow blindness, or sunburn of the eyes.  Without appropriate eyewear [PDF], the potent UV rays bouncing off the surface from a depleted ozone layer can burn your corneas. (Early explorers had a remedy that’s since gone out of style: they dripped cocaine in their eyes.)

7. Trench Foot

Getting around in miles of snow usually means getting your feet wet. Because visitors have trouble keeping their lower extremities dry, the cold, damp conditions can result in trench foot, an unwelcome bit of ick common in World War I. Untreated, trench foot can lead to gangrene and potentially amputation, which would make it substantially more difficult to run away from a flock of advancing skuas.

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Crafty Crows Can Build Tools From Memory
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Scientists have discovered yet another reason to never get on a crow's bad side. According to new research reported by Gizmodo, members of at least one crow species can build tools from memory, rather than just copying the behavior of other crows—adding to the long list of impressive skills that set these corvids apart.

For the new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, an international team of scientists looked at New Caledonian crows, a species known for its tool usage. New Caledonian crows use sticks to pick grubs out of logs, sometimes stashing these twigs away for later. Tools are so important to their lifestyle that their beaks even evolved to hold them. But how exactly the crows know to use tools—that is, whether the behavior is just an imitation or knowledge passed down through generations—has remained unclear until now.

The researchers set up the experiment by teaching eight crows to drop pieces of paper into a box in exchange for food. The birds eventually learned that they would only be rewarded if they dispensed either large sheets of paper measuring 40-millimeters-by-60 millimeters or smaller sheets that were 15-millimeters-by-25 millimeters. After the crows had adapted and started using sheets of either size, all the paper was taken away from them and replaced with one sheet that was too big for the box.

The crows knew exactly what to do: They ripped up the sheet until it matched one of the two sizes they had used to earn their food before and inserted it into the dispenser. They were able to do this with out looking at the sheets they had used previously, which suggests they had access to a visual memory of the tools. This supports the "mental template matching" theory—a belief among some crow experts that New Caledonian crows can form a mental image of a tool just by watching another crow use it and later recreate the tool on their own, thus passing along the template to other birds including their own offspring.

This is the first time mental template matching has been observed in birds, but anyone familiar with crow intelligence shouldn't be surprised: They've also been known to read traffic lights, recognize faces, nurse grudges, and hold funerals for their dead.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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