A Day in the Chicken Lab

Vigilant male chickens at Macquarie University (courtesy of K-lynn Smith)

While I’m in Australia, I’m staying with a friend, K-lynn Smith, who is an animal behavior scientist at Macquarie University. She studies chickens. And on Tuesday, I put myself at her disposal as a free lab assistant. When I made the offer, I had no idea what I’d be doing, but I wasn’t disappointed when she told me that I’d be chasing chickens.

Well, that’s not exactly accurate. The goal of the day was to rearrange the chicken population, moving groups into different enclosures, combining and resorting some groups, to make room for the six-week-old chicks and their moms and dads that had been in smaller pens (growing families need bigger homes). Since I couldn’t touch any of the chickens, I did a lot of carrying and standing in place to discourage the birds from going into certain directions while my friend and her students did the actual capturing and moving. But for me, it was a fun day (if a bit tiring) out in the sun. And a reminder that a lot of grunt work goes into any scientific discovery.

The general goal of K-lynn’s work is to understand the evolution of communication and cognition in social species, using chickens (Gallus gallus) as a model. (Specifically Golden Sebright bantams, which are an ornamental breed developed in the 19th century by Sir John Saunders Sebright, a chicken breeder whose 1809 pamphlet on breeding domestic animals influenced Charles Darwin.)

If you’ve ever seen pictures or video of chickens being raised to eat, with hundreds or thousands packed into small spaces, the enclosures for K-lynn’s birds seem like chicken paradise. There’s tall grass, trees, a building or two for shelter, and plenty of food and water.

And if you stop and listen to the birds, you’ll hear a conversation more complex than a simple “cluck-cluck.” There are calls to say there’s danger and other calls to say there’s food. They make sounds when they meet others in their group and to claim their territory. There are at least 24 different sounds chickens make–a female even makes a sound when she lays an egg. Some calls are combined with movements, like head bobs, with a chicken picking up and then dropping food.

And did you know that chickens can count? That they prefer human music to discordant sounds? And they can even tell a Picasso from a Monet?

Knowing all of this didn’t stop me from eating chicken at dinner today. It does make me think, however, that we should care more about how our chickens are raised. But that’s a more weighty issue than I want to tackle on what should be a vacation.

Manly’s Disappearing Penguins

Penguin Pose

I wouldn’t have thought that Sydney, Australia would be a natural home for penguins. Sure, they’re found inside Taronga Zoo, but I was surprised yesterday, while on my way to the beach, to find signs near Manly Wharf saying to watch out for penguins.

The colony of fairy penguins (a.k.a. little penguins) used to number in the hundreds. Just a few years ago there were 60 breeding pairs. This month, however, there is just one breeding pair with one chick (and I didn’t manage to see any of them). This colony seems doomed to die out, despite efforts by the government to protect it.

What did them in? Manly, famed for its beach, is heavily developed and the penguins lost a lot of their habitat. Their nesting sites were disturbed, and since breeding is the main reason they came to Manly, that disturbance surely didn’t help the population to grow. But one of the biggest problems was predation by dogs and foxes. The danger was so great that snipers were brought into the town in 2009 to try to protect the little birds.

Elsewhere in its range–which stretches across southern Australia and over to New Zealand–fairy penguins appear to be on the decline, but that decline isn’t fast enough to have scientists worry yet.

I’ll probably have more luck finding wild fairy penguins in someplace like Phillip Island near Melbourne.

What Is A Variable Star?

On August 3, 1596, German astronomer David Fabricius need a reference star while observing the planet Mercury and looked to Omicron Ceti, an unremarkable third-magnitude star nearby. Several weeks later, Fabricius noticed that the star had increased in brightness by one magnitude, and then as he continued his observations into October, the star disappeared entirely from his view. But when Fabricius looked in the sky again on February 16, 1609, the star was back in its place. Omicron Ceti soon received a new name, “Mira,” meaning “astonishing” in Latin.

Fabricius had discovered one of the first-known variable stars, and today there are more than 200,000 known variables, including tens of thousands in the Milky Way alone. Variable stars are stars that change in brightness or in some other characteristic, such as the spectrum in which they shine, over time.

There are many reasons why a star may change over time: Internal forces cause some stars to swell and shrink. Other stars will appear to dim when they are eclipsed by a fainter companion and brighten as that companion moves past. Mira variables, named after Fabricius’s star, are red giants in the late stages of their evolution, now expanding and contracting, but in a few million years, they’ll have become white dwarfs.

Cepheid variable star V1 (Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

Cepheid variables, another type of pulsating star, have proven to be more than just stellar oddities–astronomers have been able to use these stars to make monumental discoveries about our universe. Henrietta Swan Leavitt, one of the “Harvard computers” at the turn of the last century, showed that there was a relationship between a Cepheid variable star’s brightness and the time it took for that star to cycle through its brightening-dimming pattern. This discovery led astronomers to develop a method for determining the distance of a Cepheid variable based on its brightness. With that yardstick, Edwin Hubble was able to show that two stars (including the one in the photo above) were too far away to be in the Milky Way and thus proved that our galaxy was not the only one in the universe. Hubble also used Cepheid variables to show that the universe is expanding.

Backyard astronomers can observe and even discover variable stars–it just takes a bit of knowledge and a lot of patience. If someone thinks they’ve found one, the American Association of Variable Star Observers recommends first checking the International Variable Star Index (VSX) as well as other star catalogs to see if it is already known. If it’s not in one of the indices, the discoverer should double check their data and then they can submit it to the VSX. There are likely millions of variable stars in the sky, so there’s plenty of opportunity for future discovery.

Managing Your Caffeine Addiction With Your Phone

Caffeine is hard to avoid. It’s in coffee, tea, soft drinks, and chocolate. One estimate of global consumption tallies it at 120,000 tonnes per year, or about one caffeinated beverage per person per day. Caffeine is a mild stimulant, helping to restore alertness and reduce fatigue. And while overconsumption can have some pretty bad effects (starting with the jitters and moving on to mania, depression, and hallucinations), daily consumption of small amounts can be of real help. It’s no wonder that so many of us have become addicted to the stuff.

And that addiction is real. If you’re dependent on the stuff, you’ll feel the effects of not consuming caffeine pretty quickly–headaches, sleepiness, fatigue, irritability, cloudiness of your thoughts, even depression. That addiction, however, doesn’t mean that you’re immune to caffeine’s ability to keep you awake at night if the levels in your blood are too high when you try to sleep.

But a new iOS app from researchers at Penn State University promises to help the caffeine addict manage their consumption. Caffeine Zone 2 (available in a free version with ads) lets you record your consumption of caffeinated products, calculates the amount of caffeine you’ve consumed, and plots out the level of caffeine in your blood over time. Drink a cup of coffee too late in the day and you’ll quickly see that trying to go to sleep may be a problem.

And the user can adjust optimal caffeine levels in the app as they learn more about what works for them. The default settings are based on peer-reviewed research that shows that people are most alert when the caffeine levels reach 200 to 400 milligrams. The researchers took those results and set the app to alert you that trying to sleep when your blood levels are higher than 100 milligrams, but more sensitive people can change that if needed.

I can’t say whether this app will be useful for me (I’ve pretty much figured out that one cup of tea in the morning is enough to get me going but another in the afternoon will keep me up at night), but I can see that it might be good for someone who hasn’t yet determined their own patterns. Or if a person is consuming far too much caffeine in their day (I’m thinking of a former co-worker who drank cups and cup of coffee throughout his day), it might help to point out when their caffeine levels have reached toxic levels.