Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Is this red panda playing?

OK, so what sort of behavioral development is going on here?

Is this red panda playing?
    Practicing its pouncing ability for future hunting?
        Protesting the lack of red panda Halloween celebrations?

Video courtesy of edisproduction, but for more red panda videos, you can follow kyuuritekuteku

Red pandas are typically solitary, and their main foods are bamboo, fruits, acorns, roots, and eggs, not fast-moving smaller animals, so I'm leaning toward the Playing.

Here and here are two more great examples of animals playing -- or are they practicing future survival skills? Sounds like a great future research project...

Monday, October 28, 2013

Sleep for health, not just beauty!

People say, 'I'm going to sleep now,' as if it were nothing. But it's really a bizarre activity. 'For the next several hours, while the sun is gone, I'm going to become unconscious, temporarily losing command over everything I know and understand. When the sun returns, I will resume my life.'"
― George Carlin

If you sleep 8 hours each night, you are essentially dedicating 1/3 of your life to being unconscious.

Despite the seeming disconnect between sleeping and the rest of our busy lives, sleep is Really Important, and not just so you can stay awake in the office the next day.

this explains a lot...
and is the reason Thai marathons start at 3a.m.!
A small example: by combining late-night talks with family and friends in North America (11-14 hours behind us here in Bangkok, Thailand) and early-morning bouts of running, tennis, swimming, or aerobics to avoid (some of) the city's famously brutal heat and humidity, I sometimes don't get enough sleep.

For me, staying up late usually leads to late-night snacking, which inevitably, leads to weight gain, but burning the candle at both ends can harm us in other tangible ways as well.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Curious animal traits

Some evolutionary benefits of these curious traits?

cartoon: ChaosLife

  • Sleeping is key when one's primary food source contains very little energy or nutrients.

  • Knowing the mating potential of a female through the hormones in her urine allows smooth giraffe mating.

  • Cubical poop? You got me. Any guesses?

  • And the weirdest thing about the platypus is the way it swims?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Know your friend, know your enemy

I, for one, am always forgetting people's names. Faces I can hold onto, but names elude me. I know I'm not alone on this (right??), but as a social animal, it's really important to know who's who.

Unda village, Enga province, PNG
My recent trip to Papua New Guinea showed me how critical it was to highland people to know from exactly which village each person was. People still associate closely with their tribe, and tight-knit clans still fight to the death over land and other resources.

With 700-800 different languages and a history of both cannibalism and strict payback for earlier perceived wrongs, ones ability to recognize the faces, smells, and sounds of others can be life-saving.

Walking through Unda village, I remember being told that up and over the big hill ahead (from where I'd come earlier that morning, actually) lived a different tribe.

these 2 tribes can still
find common ground
For me, as a member of a REALLY faraway tribe, the difference between the folks in this village and the folks up the hill was not an issue, but for them, it was like talking about people from another country.

In earlier times, tribal boundaries also limited where you could travel safely. The resulting isolation led to the development of all those languages, some of which cover areas of just 20-50 km2.

It's the same for other social animals: knowing who's in your tribe can mean the difference between life and death, or at least avoiding a great deal of unnecessary stress.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Carbon intensity of foods

Like food?
OK, dumb question.

Concerned about what's in the food you eat?
Have a look at this recent post to learn how to determine what's inside that package of your favorite bread or yogurt.

Interested in minimizing your food's carbon footprint?
Here's a simple but thought-provoking video that helps explain the energy, or carbon intensity (CO2 equivalent), needed to produce a kilogram of various common food items.

In brief, foods like potatoes that don't produce methane during cultivation (no large animals involved!) and don't require much tilling or fertilizer will tend to have lower carbon footprints. The more inputs, transport, and animal feed and waste associated with producing your food, the higher its carbon footprint.

You can, of course, apply the criteria to other foods as well. Typically, eating locally (less transport), eating lower on the food chain (veggies), and, of course, growing your own food all reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

However, trying to "green" your diet is not simple. For example, green beans from Kenya are commonly sold in Britain when British beans aren't in season. "[Kenyan beans] are grown using manual labour - nothing is mechanised," says Professor Gareth Edwards-Jones an expert on African agriculture at U.K.'s Bangor University. "They don't use tractors, they use cow muck as fertiliser; and they have low-tech irrigation systems in Kenya. They also provide employment to many people in the developing world. So you have to weigh that against the air miles used to get them to the supermarket."

waste going to a landfill compost
photo: Liz Martin/SourceMedia Group News
Clearly, it's complicated.

Producing food not only emits carbon dioxide and methane, it also converts natural vegetation (and associated animal communities) to an agricultural monoculture, loses soil through erosion from downslope tilling, diverts water to irrigate fields and produce energy, and pollutes water and soil microbe communities with nutrients and chemicals.

This doesn't even get into the sustainability of producing our food and the energy used to deal with food waste...

Help! Any tips on eating with minimal negative environmental impacts?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Elephants really don't forget

enjoying a water hole in the very dry
Etosha National Park, Namibia
Elephants have huge brains to accompany their huge bodies and are famous for their long-term memories. They not only remember each other, even after years of separation, they also remember landscapes.

African savannah elephants live long lives in often harsh conditions that require smarts to survive. If they can remember sources of water and food that were reliable in a drought 20 or 30 years ago, they may save their herd in the next drought.

Matriarchs of African herds can live for 60-70 years, and older females seem to be the key to remembering these critical resources and leading their herd to them in times of food and water scarcity. But what else do they remember?

Monday, October 14, 2013

An average guy's body

just an average American guy
image: Nickolay Lamm
This is Todd. He's overweight. Which makes him an average American.

What's average? Todd is a U.S. male between 30 and 39 years old. His body mass index (BMI) is 29, one unit shy of the medical definition of obese. He's five-feet-nine-inches (175 cm) tall, his waist is 39 inches (99 cm).

As the issue of health care continues to plague the U.S., this article in The Atlantic magazine seemed curiously relevant to the country's future economic, as well as social, well-being. You've heard or read about the obesity epidemic, both in the U.S. and, increasingly, the world. U.S. obesity rates have doubled since 1970, to over 30%, and more than two-thirds of Americans are now overweight.

People that are overweight have higher chances of contracting many serious diseases – including coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, and high blood pressure – than leaner folks.

A higher percentage of overweight workers in a society increases both the direct medical costs (e.g. more expensive treatment) and indirect costs (reduced productivity, more days lost to illness or rest, restricted activity, and lost income from injury or death). In 2008 dollars, these costs totaled around $147 billion in the U.S. alone.

But what does this mean for your average person, like Todd?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Why and how to read a food label

42% of total calories from fat
— cookie, anyone?
image: Diet Motion
What's in that cookie?

Or your low-fat yogurt, or that package of high-fiber crackers?

For all you health nuts wanting to eat more fiber or less saturated fat but are skeptical about the ethics / good will of corporate food marketing policies, here's a primer on reading a food label. I'm including several resources at the end for you to investigate further – there's a lot written about this!

Nutrition labels allow consumers to know how much of specific nutrients are in the product, enable comparison between similar products, and require companies to back up their nutrition or dietary claims ("Excellent source of calcium!") with information on the package and subsequent inspections to verify it. (All this in pre-Shutdown U.S., of course, you might avoid some non-labeled fish and produce these next few weeks).

Monday, October 7, 2013

We got out of the food chain!

Happy Monday!

Be grateful: Louis CK describes Life if we were still in the food chain... "...awhhh shit! There's all these !@#$%^& cheetahs in the train station!"

[Short post = busy week. Enjoy!]