You heard me.
Later this year researchers and students at the University of California, Irvine, will start a pigeon blog. 20 pigeon bloggers will be released over San Jose equipped with a prototype kit that contains a small GPS receiver, pollution sensors, cameras, and a home made cell phone. The sensors will measure the level of pollution in the air and then will send the information to the cell phone that will then text the information to a blog in real time. All this fits in a small package that the pigeons carry on their back.
The pigeons are set to be released at the Inter-Society for Electronic Arts' annual symposium in San Jose on August 5, 2006. The data they text to the blog will be displayed in the form of an interactive map.
So contribute your comments and ideas to Science Buzz now before blogging goes to the birds!
On Friday, a group of endangered whooping cranes took to the skies, migrating from Necedah, Wisconsin, to their winter habitat in Florida—1,200 miles away.
The 20 cranes, which were hatched and raised in captivity, have to be taught to migrate. (Whooping cranes learned their migration route by following their parents, but the knowledge was lost when the population dwindled and no wild birds used the flyway.) So Operation Migration's pilots in ultralight planes lead the birds south.
The birds' route takes them from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, in Wisconsin, to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Read the Operation Migration field journal to see where the flock is today and what's been happening to them.
(The Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, which also helps to raise endangered whooping cranes, has links to lots more resources.)
Scientists at The Field Museum in Chicago have discovered
a new type of dinosaur, called Buitreraptor (BWEE-tray-RAP-ter). About the size of a turkey, it was probably covered with feathers and lived in Argentina some 90 million years ago.
Buiteraptor is a type of dinosaur known as a dromeosaur., which also includes the famous Velociraptor. Their skeletons are very similar to birds'. In fact, scientists have used them as evidence that birds evolved from dinosaurs-quite possibly from dromeosaurs.
However, there has always been an inconsistency. The earliest known bird is about 150 million years old. The earliest dromeosaurs appeared about 125 million years ago. Kind of hard to be an ancestor if you're younger than your descendents.
But the new fossil changes all that. It's from South America. All previous dromeosaurs had been from North America (or Asia). North and South America split apart some 145 million years ago. So, in order for there to be dromeosuars on both continents, the group must have appeared at least that long ago-which puts them right in the ballpark to be, if not the direct ancesors of birds, then at least very close relatives.
It's in the news. People are dying from a relative of the 1918 Influenza virus half a world away, and scientists fear it may be the next pandemic. Sounds like science fiction, or the latest box-office smash, right? Unfortunately, it's real, and is happening right now.
In Southeast Asia, a virus known as avian influenza or avian flu has the potential to spread and kill humans with terrifying speed. Avian flu is also known as H5N1 for the proteins that bind, infect, and destroy its host cell to thrive. Chickens can die within hours of exposure, swollen and hemorrhaging, but it is just as lethal to mammals from lab mice to tigers. The virus has decimated bird flocks in 11 countries mostly in Asia, and has killed 62 people (half the known cases) to date, with highest fatalities occurring in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. So far, nearly all people infected contracted the sickness directly from infected poultry and at this point there is no confirmed evidence of efficient human-to-human transmission. However, health authorities fear that the H5N1 strain will likely mutate into a pathogen easily passed between humans if it continues to persist in the environment. If that happens, and authorities believe it's only a matter of time, the world could face a catastrophic pandemic.
Many health organizations and governments are stockpiling a drug (Tamiflu) to protect against this potential pandemic, but scientists are reporting that a strain of H5N1 avian flu virus is showing resistance to the antiviral drug. Scientists are working to avoid this disaster by detecting changes in the evolving H5N1 virus. As a first step, scientists have rebuilt the 1918 flu-a disease that killed as many as 50 million people-from pieces of genetic material retrieved from the lungs of people who died 87 years ago. Gene-swapping experiments are starting to give scientists some clues in the lab. When small substitutions were made, the reconstructed virus could no longer replicate in the lungs of mice, kill animals, or attach itself to human lung cells.
So far H5N1 has not yet learned the trick of racing from person to person like the ordinary flu and maybe never will. Nevertheless, experts fear that the risk could materialize and are urging the world to prepare for the worst.
The Avian Flu, or bird flu, is an infection caused by influenza viruses in birds. Wild birds worldwide carry influenza viruses but do not usually become sick from them. However, the same influenza virus that does not make wild birds sick can make some domesticated birds, such as chickens and turkeys, very sick and can kill them.
Scientists are closely monitoring an outbreak of avian flu in Asia. Avian flu has been found in birds in Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Pakistan, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. Human cases of avian influenza have been reported in Thailand and Vietnam, some of which have lead to deaths.
Organizations such as the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control are worried that the avian flu will become the next pandemic — an outbreak of an infectious disease that affects people over a large geographic area.
An influenza pandemic occurs when a new influenza virus emerges in people, causes serious illness, and then spreads easily from person to person worldwide. This is different from seasonal outbreaks of influenza. Seasonal outbreaks are caused by influenza viruses that are already in existence among people, where pandemic outbreaks are caused by new subtypes or by subtypes that have never circulated among people. Past influenza pandemics have been extremely costly. For example, from 1918 — 1919 the "Spanish flu" pandemic caused the deaths of more than 500,000 people in the U.S.
Many scientists and researchers believe it is just a matter of time until the next influenza pandemic. It is unlikely that a vaccine would be available in the early stages of the pandemic, and once a vaccine is developed it takes several months before it becomes widely available.
In order to be as prepared as possible for an influenza pandemic, the US Department of Health and Human Services has developed a Pandemic Influenza Response and Preparedness Plan. To view the plan, and to learn more about the avian flu, visit the US Department of Health and Human Service's web site.
BirdLife International, a global alliance of conservation groups, has released its annual assessment of world-wide bird populations, and the news isn't good. 2,000 different species — more than one-fifth of the world's total — are either endangered or threatened with extinction. Humans are the biggest threat, either through destroying bird habitats, or by bringing pests and predators to new areas where they hunt defenseless birds. But humans are also the birds' best hope, if we can figure out ways to preserve these species before they disappear.
Word around the museum is that, if you're lucky and looking out the Mississippi River Gallery's big windows (Level 5) at the right time, you might see one of two bald eagles that have been hanging out along our stretch of the river.
Once an endangered species, bald eagles have made a spectacular comeback since the pesticide DDT was banned in the United States in 1972. In our area, eagles are becoming common sightings. Each year, the Mississippi River Valley becomes a "highway" for eagles traveling from the northern summer homes to their southern winter homes. But many eagles spend all year here in Minnesota. In fact, Minnesota and Wisconsin are home to the largest nesting population of bald eagles in the United States outside of Alaska.
Mornings and evenings, you might see eagles soaring on thermals or diving for fish, their primary food. During the day, you're likely to see them perched in large trees near the river's edge.
How can you identify a bald eagle? Well, they're big, with wingspans of up to 7 1/2 feet. You'll often see them soaring or gliding with flat wings. When they do flap, wingbeats are slow and powerful. You usually see them near open water. And adult eagles have brown bodies with white heads and tails. For more tips, Visit the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
Find out about where you can see eagles during the summer, complete with map.
The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota provides medical care for sick and injured birds of prey, including eagles.
The Great Gray Owl, the largest owl in North America, normally lives in a wide swath of forests sweeping from Alaska across to northeastern Canada. However, this winter Minnesotans have spotted the giant owls all over the state. The Great Gray Owl is a hunter that mostly eats voles, small rodents similar to mice. Last fall, the vole population in Canada fell to its lowest levels since 1992. (Because cold, wet weather is hard on the voles, the population has headed south.) As a result, the Great Grey Owl has had a hard time finding food up north. It has followed its food source and ended up here in Minnesota, south of its usual range.
One of the ongoing debates in science is: where the heck did birds come from? Bird bones are fragile and don't often become fossils, so there's not a lot of evidence. And when a new bird fossil is found, there's always a lot of debate over how it fits into the puzzle.