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America's National Parasite Collection Is Getting Spruced Up

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Tapeworms? Ticks? Fish lice? You name 'em, we’ve got 'em—and by “we,” I mean America. One of our country’s most underrated scientific treasures, the National Parasite Collection, is currently getting spruced up by zoologists at the Smithsonian.

The collection began in 1892, when researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) started saving specimens for future reference. Almost from the beginning, the project was a collaboration between the USDA and the Smithsonian, with scientists at both institutions helping to collect, identify, and catalog the specimens that rolled in from around the country. The USDA even built a parasite library in Washington, D.C., where researchers could visit or even check out specimens to study.

Shortly after its inception, the parasite collection began to be shuttled back and forth between Smithsonian and USDA facilities, even as it continued to grow. As this timeline explains, the collection spent 45 years at USDA’s Beltsville research campus.

In 2014, the collection once again landed back at the Smithsonian. This latest hand-off was a bit more labor-intensive than previous exchanges, as the collection now includes around 20 million parasites preserved in bottles and jars and on microscope slides. Many of these, like the malaria parasite, are too small to see with the naked eye. Others are … a bit bigger, like the 30-foot tapeworms removed from the intestines of a dolphin.

Remarkably, as zoologist Anna Phillips told the Washington Post, the dolphin may not have even known the parasites were there. “The tapeworms were not a problem for it,” she said. “There were other things going on.”

Phillips and her colleague Bill Moser are spearheading the Smithsonian’s effort to take stock of what they’ve got. Although scientists from around the world have continued to call on the collection’s resources, the majority of specimens have spent the last century gathering dust in the basement of the Beltsville facility.

“We still are finding out what’s in here,” Phillips said. “It’s so much. We didn’t get a grasp on it when you’re moving massive amounts.”

Assessing the collection is going to be a huge project, but Phillips is glad to have the opportunity to spread awareness about our planet’s incredible parasitic diversity. “Most of the time, parasites aren’t causing major harm to their hosts,” she said. “They’re taking a little bit, what they need ... They can even be beautiful ... They have these really amazing morphological structures that are really pretty.”

[h/t Washington Post]

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People Listen (and Remember) Better With Their Right Ears, Study Finds
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If you’re having trouble hearing in a noisy situation, you might want to turn your head. New research finds that people of all ages depend more on their right ear than their left, and remember information better if it comes through their right ear. The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in New Orleans on December 6.

Kids’ ears work differently than adults' do. Previous studies have found that children's auditory systems can’t separate and process information coming through both of their ears at the same time, and rely more on the auditory pathway coming from the right. This reliance on the right ear tends to decrease when kids reach their teens, but the findings suggest that in certain situations, right-ear dominance persists long into adulthood.

To study how we process information through both our ears, Auburn University audiologists brought 41 adult subjects (between the ages of 19 and 28) into the lab to complete dichotic listening tests, which involve listening to different auditory inputs in each ear. They were either supposed to pay attention only to the words, sentences, or numbers they heard in one ear while ignoring the other, or they were asked to repeat all the words they heard in both ears. In this case, the researchers slowly upped the number of items the test subjects were asked to remember during each hearing test.

Instructions for the audio test read 'Repeat back only the numbers you hear in the right ear.'
Sacchinelli, Weaver, Wilson and Cannon - Auburn University

They found that the harder the memory tests got, the more performance varied between the ears. While both ears performed equally when people were asked to remember only four or so words, when the number got higher, the difference between their abilities became more apparent. When asked to only focus on information coming through their right ear, people’s performance on the memory task increased by an average of 8 percent. For some people, the result was even more dramatic—one person performed 40 percent better while listening with only their right ear.

"Conventional research shows that right-ear advantage diminishes around age 13, but our results indicate this is related to the demand of the task,” one of the researchers, assistant professor Aurora Weaver, explained in a press release. In other words, when the going gets tough, the right ear steps up.

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Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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