Science Now
Discoveries from the world of science and medicine
Sick sea lions wash ashore in California; rescuers brace for bad year

This year is shaping up to be a brutal one for the California sea lion -- the third year in a row for record numbers of sea lion strandings in the state.

Sick, abandoned pups have shown up in alarming numbers on beaches in January.

"Their growth is stunted,” said Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif. “They're basically starved to death -- no muscle, no fat, just skin and bones."

But pups aren't the only ones in trouble.  California marine mammal rehabilitation centers this month have treated record numbers of sea lions of all ages.

"We've had 67 strandings of sea lions of all different ages,” said Johnson, whose center would normally see one, maybe two, sea lions in the entire month of January. “The whole population is getting hit hard."

"It's a real shock to us," he added.

The story’s much the same in Southern California.

“It's shaping up to be a very, very bad year as far as rehabilitation,” said David Bard, operations director...

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Southwestern Willow Flycatcher shouldn't have U.S protection, biologist says

Even with powerful top-notch binoculars, it’s not easy singling out the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher from other subspecies of a family of birds known collectively as Empidonax.

Expert bird watchers say positive identification of the drab birds with wing bars and pale eye rings depends on subtle differences in bill shape, habitat, song and wing and tail length.

Then there’s Robert M. Zink, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, who says the bird scientists know as Empidonax traillii extimus is not a distinct subspecies and, therefore, should have its federal protections as a threatened subspecies removed.

A reanalysis of plumage coloration and genetic variation in mitochondrial and nuclear DNA found no support for the distinctiveness of the bird described as a subspecies in 1948, according to his peer-reviewed conclusions published this month in the ornithological journal the Condor.

“I suggest that the Willow Flycatchers of the Southwest represent peripheral...

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Baby chicks think small numbers belong on the left, just like us

A new study found that chicks associate the left side with smaller numbers and the right side with higher numbers. 

To see how this relates to you, let's begin with our own, short experiment.

Imagine the numbers 1-10 in a horizontal line. 

If you are like most of us, you are picturing the numbers arranged in increasing value with "1" at the far left and "10" on the far right.

That makes sense. If you are an English reader, you are used to organizing information from left to right.

(Studies have shown that Arabic readers, who read from right to left, organize numbers with the lowest numerical value on the right and the highest one on the left).

But it turns out the inclination to associate low numbers with the left side of what scientists call the "mental number line," and higher numbers on the right, may not be influenced by purely cultural factors like the direction you were taught to read. 

A new study in Science shows that 3-day-old chicks associate smaller numerical values with the...

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Caltech researchers help 'bridge the gap' for HIV antibodies

Anybody who's ever hung from the bars of a playground jungle gym knows it's easier to latch on with two arms instead of one. 

The same might be said of immune system antibodies: The "Y" shaped proteins do a better job of clinging to invader viruses when they use both of their arms, or binding sites, instead of just one.

In research published Thursday in the journal Cell, scientists at Caltech described how the structure of HIV often prevents antibodies from using both arms.

They also offer a genetically engineered solution to the problem. In fact, reasearchers say their altered antibodies are, on average, more than a 100 times better at neutralizing HIV than the body's naturally produced antibodies.

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, uses a variety of methods to evade the body's immune system. 

In the Cell paper, researchers focused specifically on how the number of protein spikes that stud HIV's spherical surface help it to escape capture. It's these spikes that antibodies will target...

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Cities sizzle with more heat waves, hotter nights

Temperatures on Earth are creeping upward, and nowhere are they being felt more intensely than in the cities where half of the planet's population resides, a new study suggests.

Nearly half the planet’s urban areas experienced a significant rise in the number of extreme heat days and of heat waves that lasted six days or more, according to the study published online Thursday in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Nearly two thirds of those cities also experienced significant increases in the number of extemely hot nights, and three quarters experienced a significant drop in extreme wind events from 1973 to 2012, the study shows.

The data suggest that global climate shifts are particularly acute in urban areas, in part due to changes in land use as these population centers become more dense, sprawling and paved.

“Forty years gives you a pretty good idea of what’s going on, and it does overlap reasonably with the period of the largest global emissions and largest global warming,"...

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Long-necked 'dragon' dinosaur found in China: Why it didn't tip over

None of us like to stick our necks out, but this dinosaur had no choice.

This week, an international team of paleontologists described a newly discovered species of dinosaur that was probably 50 feet long — half body, half neck.

Scientists believe that the distance from the ground to its shoulder would have been 6 to 9 feet. 

The long-necked dinosaur lived 160 million years ago, during the Late Jurassic period. Its fossilized bones were discovered in southern China at a construction site near the city of Qijiang. The scientists named it Qijianglong guokr, which translates to "dragon of Qijiang."

Although that long neck looks cumbersome and vulnerable, scientists say, it did have evolutionary value.

"It's an efficient way of feeding to have a neck like that because you don't have to move around a lot," said Tetsuto Miyashita, a doctoral candidate in paleontology at the University of Alberta, Canada, who helped describe the dinosaur. "The problem is balance."

In the Journal of Vertebrate...

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