OSB archive
OSB archive

Did you miss? Birds, zoos and bugs

Pete Wilton

 Highlights from OU science in the news this week:

Where does the Manx Shearwater go on its 20,000km migration?

A team of scientists including Oxford's Tim Guilford have been following the seabird on its travels using electronic tags.

As BBC Online's Mark Kinver reports, unusually for seabirds migrating over the open sea, Manx make 'pit-stops'. Tim said: 'Every one of the 12 birds made at least one stop during its migration in one place for up to two weeks.'

It's thought that they've adopted this strategy so as not to carry the extra fat they would need to make the trip in one go. Their travels take them over Africa, to South America and back to Britain via the Atlantic. The team hope to do similar work on puffins.

Galaxy helpers
Can the public make light work of big science?

The lesson from the Galaxy Zoo project, as Suw Charman-Anderson writes in The Guardian, is that it certainly can.

She talks to one of the founders of Galaxy Zoo, Dr Chris Lintott about how the galaxy-classifying site became a runaway success that turned into an exemplar of how 'crowdsourcing' and web tech can transform science. 

Chris and colleagues are now thinking about how these lessons could be applied to processing data from other science projects, such as images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Chris comments: 'It's like Nasa does the map and we'll write the guide book.'

That's the sound of your cells activating each other according to research by Oxford's Anant Parekh.

Anant told BBC Online and BBC South Today Oxford about his work examining how cells interact to create the sort of extreme allergic response suffered by around 20 million people in the UK.

'They have shown that once a mast cell has been activated, it chemically activates other mast cells. These cells act together to create an allergic response,' the article explains. The hope is that further research will lead to medications that block this response.

Rare roar
News of the Caspian tiger's demise may have been somewhat exaggerated...

At least that's a conclusion you could draw from research led by Carlos Driscoll of Oxford's WildCRU into the tiger family tree. As ScienceNOW highlights, the mitochondrial DNA of the extinct Caspian and the living Siberian tiger differs by just one letter of genetic code.

This means that, in a sense, the Caspian tiger never became extinct, just that there never was any separate animal known as a 'Siberian' tiger. 

An essay on pheromones in this week's Nature made Wired Science sniff a story, as they quizzed the author, Tristram Wyatt from the Department of Zoology, about the challenging search for human pheromones.

'We produce a large number of compounds, and bacteria ferment our secretions,' said Wyatt. 'You're trying to find a few active compounds from a forest of thousands of compounds.' Don't believe in love potions just yet as Tristram estimates it could still take decades to find these elusive molecules.

Moving maths 
If you ever wondered what attracts people to mathematics then read up about Oxford's Marcus du Sautoy in The Times and Mail on Sunday.

Telling the moving story of Jonathan, his stillborn son, Marcus writes: 'I became a mathematician because I like things to make sense. I like structure and logic... I have never been able to cope with the uncertainty and lack of control in the physical world. That is why I was drawn to the clean, unforgiving logic of the mathematician's lab.'

And finally...
Do methane plumes mean there's life on Mars?

A lot of headline writers seemed convinced by the latest data from NASA on the Red Planet but Oxford's Fred Taylor told Lewis Smith in The Times (and others) that it was useful evidence but no real proof.

Fred explained: 'If it's focused it’s much more likely to be coming from the interior of the planet, and therefore it's quite hard to think of a non-biological source. It could be that some kind of chemistry nobody understands is occurring. You can make methane inorganically in a chemistry lab quite easily... This paper doesn’t settle anything finally. What it says is ’come and have a look’. We need to go there.'

A summer holiday on Mars? Now there's a thought...