Christopher Michel via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Christopher Michel via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Scientists Need Your Help Looking at Pictures of Penguins

Christopher Michel via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Christopher Michel via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Sometimes in life, you have to make sacrifices. You have to do the noble thing, even if it’s painful. We know that it’s a real chore to watch penguin cams; to see the adorable, squat little weirdos trundling across the ice and tending to their fluffy chicks. But Antarctic scientists need our help, and it’s time for all of us to step up.

Here’s the situation. Climate change has put Antarctica’s penguins in danger. Their habitats are shifting, and food is becoming more difficult to find. But we can’t help them unless we understand them, and penguins don’t exactly take kindly to being followed around by well-meaning scientists.

"Just be cool, Tom. Waddle casual." Image credit: Hannes Grobe via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

So researchers set up cameras near penguin territories across Antarctica and some of its islands. There are currently more than 75 cameras in place, snapping hourly pictures of the penguins’ daily lives like very dedicated private investigators. But 24 images a day, seven days a week from 75 cameras yields an awful lot of photos—more than the researchers can review themselves. 

Here’s where you come in. PenguinWatch 2.0 is looking for selfless volunteers to watch and identify adult penguins, chicks, and eggs at each camera site. The process itself is simple, requiring just a few clicks for each photo, and users can then visit the project’s “Talk” page to chat about the penguins with other volunteers. 

"We can't do this work on our own,” lead researcher Tom Hart told the BBC, “and every penguin that people click on and count on the website—that’s all information that tells us what's happening at each nest, and what's happening over time.”

The accumulated clicks will tell researchers where penguins are, what they’re doing, and what’s hurting them—all information that can inform conservation efforts in the future.

What are you waiting for? Go stare at some penguins!

[h/t BBC

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Animals
How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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