Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Some species must run, some drive

sea otter with gorgeous fur
happy to have survived the let's-wear'otter-fur craze
photo: Michael L. Baird, Encyclopedia of Life
We humans pretty well dominate this planet, to either the detriment or advantage of other species.

Animals that suffer from humankind's expansion, such as those considered threatened with extinction, tend to fall into several categories:
  • they require big areas to find enough food (i.e. prey, like wolves or jaguars),
  • they come from a really small area (lemurs, found only in Madagascar)
  • they specialize on specific resources (owls or parrots that nest in large tree cavities, orangutans need tall forest),
  • they have body parts that people like to eat or wear (elephant ivory, rhino horn, tiger bones and penises, tuna flesh, whale oil, otter and seal fur).
Often, more than one of these characteristics applies.

on the other side of the fence...some of us will eat anything
On the other side of the fence, some species have just figured out how to thrive in human-dominated landscapes.

Various livestock species, while not living freely, have trumped most species in terms of their biological fitness, since their genes are found across the globe.

Dogs, cats, rats, pigeons, mosquitoes, raccoons, among others, have also all benefited from living near people.

Dogs in Russia seem particularly good at it, and here is another example. Enjoy.

somewhere in Russia... (unexpected ending)

And have a look at 10 more Russian dash-cam videos, crazier than this one.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Why helping out is good for you

Some animals never reproduce, yet they use up their limited energy and resources caring for the young of others of their species. Why would they do that?

what some group members really do when not breeding...
photo: JamieMissy
We've talked about this altruistic behavior a little, in terms of "indirect" fitness - the genetic gain that sisters or cousins get by helping the pack's, herd's, or colony's dominant female – the one who breeds.

In some groups of animals, not all members are so closely related to the dominant female, yet they often help rear the young anyway.

Back to the initial question: Why would they do that?

Why do non-breeding lions, hyenas, wolves, meerkats, elephants, and various rodents and others, bother feeding, teaching, and defending the babies of other mothers, rather than better feeding themselves, finding a mate, or sleeping?

You might think of several reasons. Go on, take a shot at it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

You socialites!

a gaggle of naked mole rats: nude dudes stay together to stay warm
photo: BBC - The Independent
In this blog, I've discussed how our biological fitness is measured by the number of genes we pass on to children, grandchildren, and so on.
Our progeny.

It's actually slightly more nuanced than that, since we share genes with close relatives.

The last post discussed how many individuals of a social animal group (in this case, bees) contribute to the well-being of not only their herd or colony but also of young that are not their own.

Why, you may ask, don't all the adult females in the hive just lay and care for their own eggs?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Contributing to the common good: through taxes or labor

meerkets live in and defend multi-generational colonies
(here tracking the flight of a bird of prey)
They come in flocks and herds, packs, prides, and pods, as well as troops, swarms, gaggles, murders and colonies.

Many species of animals are social - they live in groups, recognize each other (by sight or smell), and work together to find food, avoid getting eaten, defend a territory, or care for young ones.

This week was Tax Week in the United States, so this post is in honor of hard-working people in the US who have just spent their hard-earned time figuring out whether, based on their hard-earned income and expenses, the government thinks they've contributed too little or too much during the past year for the broader society to function effectively.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Your own private microbiome

You can stop worrying about your gut flora. In case you were.

It is still true that what we eat helps to determine the composition of the bacteria living in our guts, that some gut bacteria break down food more efficiently, which may encourage weight gain, while others help strengthen our immune system, protecting us from being colonized by harmful bacteria.

Researchers keep discovering new and important functions of the human microbiome -- the communities of trillions of friendly bacteria that live all over us (no squirming, please!) -- and, in particular, our gut microbiome.

The findings have generated both excitement about potential explanations for both weight control and intestinal diseases and calls for research on new roles for our gut flora. They have also caused concern that perhaps we need to be consuming probiotic dietary supplements to "improve" or change our gut flora, or to lose weight.

Don't Panic: if you are already healthy, then new research suggests you needn't worry. But read on anyway!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Even low-fat junk food saps our energy

"Staff are trying to make 39.75lb Garfield more active by
encouraging him to play with toys and a ball, and by
picking him up and putting him down somewhere else,
so he has to walk back to his original spot."
photo: Laurentiu Garofeanu/BarcroftU
Does eating a junk-food diet make us tired? Lazy? Unmotivated?

It does with rats – and, clearly, cats, as seen in this photo).

Eating processed food over several months made lab rats obese, tired, and unmotivated.

Were these lazy rats that gained weight? Or did eating junk food trigger the fatigue and lack of motivation?

Or was it the fact that the rats became obese that made them more tired and less motivated?

We know our diets affect our behavior and functioning, and, therefore, our biological and physical fitness. So if you're not too tired, read on!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Put some fun in your run

Linda enjoying the trail run, central Thailand
photo: probably Ragan Crowell
Spring is (finally) appearing in the U.S.A. and elsewhere in the northern hemisphere, and you see more and more people heading outdoors to exercise.

It's definitely more interesting to advance forward down a street or trail than pretend you are going forward on a treadmill or eliptical trainer.

Even that little workout screen in the gym that displays your distance, speed, and calories burned can't compete with actually passing real trees, statues, and other landmarks.

So maybe you should hire your son as a personal trainer.

According to a recent Canadian study, kids have a fitness philosophy that many adults might try to emulate. It's called FUN.

yes!  photo:  Funny Fun
As we get older, for some that thrill of riding or running fast, jumping high, whacking a ball, or dancing crazy is replaced by guilt and the determination to keep going to burn off those extra calories.

The dedication to excellence makes others complete that last set of push-ups, squats, or sprints or those last 2 laps of the pool or track.

In each case, we may have impressive dedication but a greater tendency to burn out. Willpower is essential to improvement but it's a limited commodity.

For you runners, be reminded of all the intangible benefits of your sport and have a giggle at the same time reading why running doesn't suck.

The Canada study found that being motivated by something outside the pure physical benefits makes exercise more enjoyable and more likely something you will stick with. Study author Dr. James Gavin of Concordia University says that "...kids wouldn’t do things like play soccer, skateboard, or ride their bikes if it wasn’t fun.”

keeping fun in the game
photo: YouthSportPsychology

It works the same for adults: Gavin suggests that our the more internal reasons we have to motivate ourselves to do a particular activity, the more likely we will continue with it. And just as parents should keep sports fun for their kids, we should remember to do the same for ourselves:
  • keep realistic expectations
  • don't compare yourself to others
  • enjoy how your competition pushes you to improve
  • try new things - new techniques, new dance steps, new running distances, new position on the team
  • laugh at mistakes (if you can)
  • don't overanalyze a game, race, or workout
  • remember the bigger picture (i.e. if winning is the only fun you get from sports, you will definitely be disappointed some times!)
  • enjoy and congratulate your workout partners, teammates, competitors - you know you have a lot in common!

add a backwalkover to your jumproping
photo: Mike Christy, Arizona Daily Star
You can bring back your inner kid by trying new things, even at your normal workout.

Exercise study participants at the University of Florida were split into three groups—one that varied its workouts, one that did the same thing every time, and one with no regulations—those who experimented enjoyed exercising 20% more than everyone else.

That may be the secret behind the popularity of circuit training (HIIT, boot camps, etc), each with a variety of exercises that keep you guessing without getting bored!