Dogs understand humans better than we understand them

Pet owners often feel that their furry companions are like their children. According to a recent report, one of the number one motivations for millennials looking to buy a house is so they will have space for their dog.

Dogs are particularly sensitive to humans and with a loyal nature and seemingly perpetually wagging tail, it can be hard not to infantilize or anthropomorphize canine pets.

Now, new research has found that even though we love our pets like a member of the family, treating them like children can often lead to a misunderstanding of the dog’s natural behaviors and actions.

It turns out that dogs are much more tuned in to our emotions and moods, but as owners, humans are not nearly as proficient at reciprocating and understanding our dogs.

The research will be presented at the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures by Sophie Scott, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London.

Scott’s findings show that dogs have much more emotional intelligence than we think, and our tendency to treat animals like children is detrimental to the animal’s sensibilities.

According to Scott, we do not view dogs the same way they view us. Research has found that to them, humans have a similar role as an alpha animal would in a hypothetical pack in the wild.

In an interview with the Times, Scott explained this divide in human-pet relations further by using recent studies where it was proven that dogs do not like to be hugged.

One such study was conducted by Stanley Coren, a psychology professor and canine expert from the University of British Columbia.

According to an article in the Telegraph, Coren analyzed images found on the internet of dogs being hugged looking for signs of distress such as avoiding eye contact, folding its ears away, or keeping its eyes closed.

Coren found a large majority of the photographs showed that dogs were under stress while being cuddled or hugged.

“The dogs really like being with their owners, they want to be with their owners, but they don’t want to be held. It provokes anxiety in them: as an animal, they want to be able to move freely,” Scott told the Times. “Dogs are great at reading us but we are pretty shocking at reading them.”

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Mixing work and pleasure lowers overall sense of well-being

Researchers from the University of Zurich recently investigated how well people manage the boundaries between their work and personal lives. The study revealed that mixing work and pleasure can affect people’s sense of well-being and lead to exhaustion.

The online analysis was focused on 1,916 employees from various sectors of German-speaking countries. Over 70 percent of the participants surveyed were married and their average age was 42.3 years. Half of the individuals worked 40 hours or more per week, and 55.8 percent of them were men.

Participants were asked how well they were able to divide their work lives from their non-work lives. The subjects reported how often they took work home, how often they worked on weekends, and how often they thought about work during their time off.

In addition, the participants were asked whether they made time after work to relax, socialize, or to participate in sports or hobbies. They were also questioned about how much effort they put into keeping their work lives from interfering with their private lives.

In order to measure a person’s level of well-being, the researchers took into consideration the individual’s sense of physical and emotional exhaustion as well as their sense of balance between work and home life.

The researchers found that employees who did not have a distinct separation between their work and home lives were less likely to participate in activities that could help them relax and recuperate after the demands of work. As a result, these individuals felt more exhausted and had a lower sense of well-being.

“Employees who integrated work into their non-work life reported being more exhausted because they recovered less,” explained study lead author Ariane Wepfer. “This lack of recovery activities furthermore explains why people who integrate their work into the rest of their lives have a lower sense of well-being.”

Wepfer said it is important to examine the findings of this research to improve occupational health. She believes that companies should have policies in place that may help employees balance their workload without affecting their personal lives.

“Organizational policy and culture should be adjusted to help employees manage their work-non-work boundaries in a way that does not impair their well-being,” says Wepfer. “After all, impaired well-being goes hand in hand with reduced productivity and reduced creativity.”

The study is published in Springer’s Journal of Business and Psychology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Is medical marijuana safe for kids with cancer?

Medical marijuana has been increasingly legalized in states across America, and has been a viable prescription drug for years. But there is some concern in the medical community about providers allowing kids to have access to medicinal cannabis as well.

A new study published in the journal Pediatrics analyzes the interdisciplinary provider perspectives on legal medical marijuana use in children with cancer. The findings reflect survey responses from almost 300 providers in Illinois, Massachusetts, and Washington.

Pediatric oncology providers received frequent requests for medical marijuana for relief of nausea and vomiting, lack of appetite, pain, depression, and anxiety. The results of the survey showed that most providers considered medical marijuana more acceptable for use in children with advanced cancer or near the end of life than in the earlier stages of cancer treatment.

This finding is consistent with the current American Academy of Pediatrics position that sanctions medical marijuana use for “children with life-limiting or seriously debilitating conditions.” The survey showed that only 2 percent of providers believed that medical marijuana was never appropriate for a child with cancer.

“It is not surprising that providers who are eligible to certify for medical marijuana were more cautious about recommending it, given that their licensure could be jeopardized due to federal prohibition,” says co-author Kelly Michelson, MD, a Critical Care physician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Michelson also points out the institutional policies within hospitals may prohibit pediatric providers from facilitating medical marijuana access, due to compliance with federal laws. The survey found that almost one-third of providers received one or more requests for medical marijuana, and the greatest barriers to access are the lack of standards on formulations, dosing, and potency.

However, 92 percent of providers were willing to help children with cancer access medical marijuana – although providers who are legally eligible to certify for medical marijuana were actually less open to endorsing its use.

“In addition to unclear dosage guidelines, the lack of high quality scientific data that medical marijuana benefits outweigh possible harm is a huge concern for providers accustomed to evidence-based practice,” explains Michelson. “We need rigorously designed clinical trials on the use of medical marijuana in children with cancer.”

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

The best decisions factor in a variety of different estimates

Research from VU Amsterdam has found that the best decisions are made using the average of various estimates. Using data from Holland Casino promotional campaigns, experts set out to determine whether it is true that when people make estimates, the average of their estimates is relatively close to reality.

In 2013, 2014, and 2015, Holland Casino visitors could participate in an estimation contest during the last seven weeks of each year. The participant who came closest to guessing the number of pearls in a giant champagne glass won the amount of 100,000 euros. Over the course of three years, approximately 1.2 million people took part in the contests.

“For our research, we analysed the three enormous datasets of these promotional campaigns,” said study co-author Martijn van den Assem. “The data showed that averaging all of the estimates yields significant accuracy gains. We also looked at the estimates of people who participated multiple times.”

Over 100 years ago, British scientist Sir Francis Galton researched estimation contests that were similar to those held at Holland Casino. Through his own experimentation, Galton surprisingly found that averaging multiple estimates provides a relatively accurate outcome, a principle that is known as the Wisdom of Crowds principle.

Recent studies have indicated that it is also useful to average estimates that come from the same person. When the research team analyzed the estimates by people who participated in the contest multiple times, they discovered that averages from the same person do work. They refer to this phenomenon as the “wisdom of inner crowds.”

This concept is appealing because it is often easier to make multiple estimates alone than it is to involve other people, and decision-makers have to rely on themselves to make a lot of different decisions. The findings of the study suggest that the best way to reach a good decision is to think it over at different times of the day, with a few nights of sleep in between.

However, accuracy is drastically improved when you take the average of estimates from different people. The experts determined that the average of a large number of estimates from the same person is rarely better than the average of just two estimates from different people.

“For the quality of estimates, it is therefore better if two people are both engaged in the same two projects than when each focuses entirely on an individual project,” said study co-author Dennie van Dolder.

The study is published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Potatoes helped keep peace in Europe for hundreds of years

Potatoes have become such a food staple all over the world that it can be hard to imagine a time when they weren’t so ubiquitous.

It is believed that Spanish conquistadors brought the potato back from South America to Spain in the mid-1500s, and it was Sir Walter Raleigh that first introduced the vegetable to Ireland in 1589.

The potato became a real mainstay in the early 1700s. Potato crops were abundant throughout Europe, and new research has revealed that this starchy vegetable helped keep the peace for centuries.

According to a new report conducted by a team of U.S economists from Harvard, Northwestern University, and the University of Colorado and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the introduction of potatoes helped reduce conflict in Europe for a minimum for 200 years.

The economists spanned their research from 1400 to 1900, examining conflicts and casualties in  Europe and what impact crops and agriculture had, if any, on discord and civil feuds.

The results show that the potato greatly reduced instances of civil unrest because there was an abundance of cheap, readily available nourishment.  

Potatoes have more caloric value and were an important food source for poorer citizens, and farming opportunities meant fewer disputes over land.

“We find that the introduction of potatoes permanently reduced conflict for roughly two centuries. The results are driven by a reduction in civil conflicts,” say the authors in their report.

The researchers were spurred by the questions surrounding agriculture and its impact on society beyond the obvious economic advantages.

The report helps give a more thorough examination of agriculture in European history and could pave the way for expanding agriculture in lower income countries today as a means to reduce civil unrest and improve quality of life.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

New west coast earthquake warning system could save lives

ShakeAlert is an earthquake early warning system that has been under development for over a decade, and may result in a U.S. West Coast prototype that could see limited public use in 2018. The system uses a dense network of seismic stations that transfer data to a central processing and alert system. The alert information is then distributed to users as an early earthquake warning.

In two papers published in Seismological Research Letters, researchers detail the main components and testing platform for this prototype ShakeAlert system – which is currently being tested in California, Washington, and Oregon.

“Parts of Los Angeles and San Francisco are covered pretty well by regional network stations, but many areas of California, Washington and Oregon are not covered very well,” explains Monica Kohler, a research faculty member at Caltech. “There’s some funding in the works to get some new stations in place, but right now it’s not enough to complete the regional arrays that are necessary for earthquake early warning in its most robust form.”

This system was developed using seismic data collected by the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS), which is a national collection of seismic networks supported by the U.S. Geological Survey. In total, roughly 760 seismic stations currently contribute to ShakeAlert. However, one of the top priorities for improving ShakeAlert is the addition of almost 1000 additional stations on the West Coast.

At the moment, the ShakeAlert system is testing the use of “volunteer” accelerometers – mainly in the Los Angeles area – which detect earthquakes and can be plugged in at a home or business, eliminating the need for a full-scale seismic station. The system’s algorithms also help determine a “point source” for an earthquake, but it’s still a work in progress. “We are working on the ability to incorporate algorithms that can handle very large earthquakes that happen in a way that can’t be approximated to a single point,” says Kohler. The current system is not as successful at providing useful warnings for earthquakes that rupture a long section of a fault and evolve over time.

Along with providing earthquake warnings and pinpointing the point source, ShakeAlert is also now testing algorithms that provide data on how severe the ground is shaking for users at their exact location. While the system was developed for the West Coast, a similar system could be used for early earthquake warnings in places such as Hawaii, Alaska, or even Oklahoma. “We have been getting questions along the lines of ‘can we try your system where we live?’ or ‘can we port your system over?’” Kohler says. “The answer in theory is yes, but there have to be these certain key elements in place.”

The ShakeAlert team is currently working to get those elements in place, as well as perfect their current system on the West Coast. Improving and expanding this system may one day save the lives of many people in earthquake-heavy areas.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Using science to make better cheese

Dutch cheeses such as edam and gouda have been made for hundreds of years using complex starter cultures, and changes in the composition of bacteria strains makes the quality of these cheeses inconsistent. But now, a team of experts from Norway has developed a tool that can monitor these strains of bacteria with high resolution to maintain a better quality of cheese.

When bacterial strains in starter cultures become infected by viruses called bacteriophage, the quality of the cheese is sacrificed. This is a common problem in industrial cheese production, which uses “frozen batch inoculum.”

Unlike traditional methods which use samples from previous cheese batches as starter cultures, frozen batch inoculum ensures that the bacteria will not vary. But while this method prevents unwanted bacterial changes, frozen batch inoculum fails to prevent bacteriophage evolution. Because of this, bacteriophage frequently gain the upper hand on the invariant bacteria.

Helge Holo is a professor of Microbiology at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Dr. Holo explained that close monitoring could promptly detect quality issues, and measures could be taken to correct these problems right away.

The newly developed tool could identify strains that are most important to cheese quality and those particular strains could be engineered to resist bacteriophage. In addition, other strains having similar influence on cheese quality that have less bacteriophage susceptibility could substitute for those that are more susceptible to bacteriophage, according to Dr. Holo.

For the investigation, the researchers isolated more than 200 strains of bacteria from three commercial starter cultures and sequenced the genomes of 95 of these strains. They then searched for the most variable gene that was present in all strains.

The gene singled out by the team was epsD, a protein that is thought to be involved with resisting bacteriophage, which was present in 93 of the 95 strains. Each strain’s epsD is slightly different from the others, so the bacterial strain can be identified from the epsD sequence.

The tool is also capable of quantifying the number of epsD sequences from a given strain, which allows experts to determine the number of bacteria of that strain that are present, which is a good indicator of any issues.

“The loss of abundance, or disappearance of an epsD sequence indicates that something has gone wrong,” said Dr. Holo. “That could be a phage attack.”

Dr. Holo said that bacteriophage are likely the ultimate cause of much of the fluctuation in quality that occurs in cheese cultures. The research is published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Canola oil linked to brain decline, weight gain

Canola oil is marketed as being healthier for your heart than other oils – but it may come at the cost of your brain’s health and your waistline.

A new study by two Temple University researchers has found that canola oil may worsen memory loss in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, as well as damage their ability to learn new skills. It may also cause plaques linked to brain deterioration in people without the disease.

The oil may also be linked to weight gain, the researchers said.

“At this time point we found that chronic exposure to the canola-rich diet resulted in a significant increase in body weight and impairments in their working memory (among mice),” they wrote in their study.

This could be a problem, because canola oil is often offered up as a cheaper, heart-healthier alternative to olive oil, a key staple of the Mediterranean diet, the study said. The diet has been linked to a healthier heart, as well as a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment, the scientists said.

“Canola oil is appealing because it is less expensive than other vegetable oils, and it is advertised as being healthy,” co-author Dr. Domenico Praticò told the Daily Mail.

Praticò and his co-investigator Elisabetta Lauretti have studied the effects of extra virgin olive oil on brain health. When they found that there had not been a similar study on canola oil, they undertook it themselves.

They worked with mice that were genetically engineered to develop a disease similar to Alzheimer’s in humans. At six months, when the mice began showing symptoms, Praticò and Lauretti divided them into two groups. One was fed a large amount of canola oil each day, while the control group ate a normal diet.

After six months, the mice fed canola oil were measurably heavier, and their cognitive function was worse.

In the end, when choosing a cooking oil with health in mind, people should stick with olive oil or other oils with provable health benefits, Praticò and Lauretti said.

“While more studies are needed, our data do not justify the current trend aimed at replacing olive oil with canola oil,” the pair wrote.

The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer

Window blinds pose a strangulation threat to children

Window blinds can cause serious injuries or even death to young children. A new study from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital has found that nearly 17,000 children under the age of six were treated in U.S. hospitals for window blind-related injuries from 1990 through 2015, which is an average of almost two per day.

Although the majority of the injuries were not serious, other injuries were fatal. The study revealed that approximately one child died per month, primarily from strangulation after becoming entangled in a window blind cord.

All of the following pose serious risks to children: the inner cords such as those found in horizontal blinds, operating cords used to raise and lower blinds, continuous loop cords such as those found in vertical shades, and loops created by consumers after installation. Danger occurs when cords become knotted or tangled, and also when they are tied to a stationary object in an attempt to keep them out of a child’s reach.

“There is a misperception that if we just watch our kids carefully, they will be safe. But even the best parent in the world cannot watch their child every second of every day,” said senior author Dr. Gary Smith. “A curious child can quickly get entangled in a window blind cord. This can lead to strangulation within minutes, and the parent may not hear a thing because the child often can’t make a sound while this is happening.”

Children are the most at risk from window blind injuries between the ages of 1 and 4, when toddlers are becoming mobile and are eager to explore their surroundings. They can reach blind cords, but are unable to free themselves once entangled. The majority of the injuries examined during the study occurred while a child was under a parent’s care and had been left alone for less than 10 minutes.

“It is unacceptable that children are still dying from window blind cord strangulation,” said Dr. Smith. “We have known about this problem since the 1940s. The risk reduction approaches offered by the current voluntary safety standards are not enough. It is time to eliminate the hazard. Safe, affordable cordless blinds and shades are widely available. A mandatory federal safety standard should be adopted prohibiting the sale of products with accessible cords.”

Some ways for parents to reduce the risk of window blind strangulation are to use cordless blinds, move furniture away from windows, and talk to adults at other places where children spend a lot of time about taking precautions as well.

The study is published today in the journal Pediatrics.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Air pollution exposure increases risk of birth defects

According to new research, women who are exposed to air pollution in the weeks leading up to becoming pregnant and also in the first month after conception run a higher risk of children with certain birth defects, such as cleft lip or palate and heart abnormalities.

While the risk is small, the experts are reporting that the potential overall impact is significant due to the fact that all expectant mothers have some level of exposure to air pollution regardless of where they live.

Emily DeFranco is a physician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and senior author of the study.

“The most susceptible time of exposure appears to be the one month before and after conception,” said DeFranco. “Public health efforts should continue to highlight the importance of minimizing population-level exposure to harmful particulate matter in the air.”

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is a mixture of microscopic particles which are so small that they can enter the lower airways and air sacs within the lungs and make their way into the circulatory system.

For their investigation, the researchers used birth certificate data from the Ohio Department of Health and estimates of particulate matter from 57 monitoring stations of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) located across the state of Ohio.

The team established each mother’s place of residence and linked the corresponding geographic coordinates with the nearest EPA monitoring station to calculate average PM2.5 exposure. Next, they estimated the association between birth defects and the mother’s exposure to elevated levels of fine particulate matter during pregnancy.

Dr. DeFranco explains that observational studies such as this one have their limitations, but that this analysis provides a solid foundation for future research to expand upon.

The study is published online in The Journal of Pediatrics.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

How the brain can recognize familiar faces

A new study has shed light on how the brain processes complex social situations, like recognizing a familiar face.

The answer, according to regenerative neuroscientists from Harvard Medical School, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital, has to do with the hippocampus.

The Harvard study, published in the journal Nature Communications, delves into the little-known role that the hippocampus plays in social recognition and behavior.

The hippocampus is one the brain’s best sorting systems, primarily organizing long and short term memory and helping with spatial navigation.

This is why it makes sense that the hippocampus aids in differentiating social memories and recognition. This only occurs, as the researchers found, when certain neurons were exposed to oxytocin.

Oxytocin is important in empathy, pleasure, and pair bonding, and when the hormone interacts with the dentate gyrus-CA3 (DG-CA3) circuit in the hippocampus, the oxytocin is a catalyst that switches the circuit’s functional mode to social recognition.

“Our results indicate that oxytocin usurps this preexisting neural circuit within the hippocampus that normally regulates the differentiation of similar memories,” said Tara Raam, the study’s first author. “In the presence of oxytocin, the circuit assumes an additional role as a regulator of social cognition.”

The researchers focused on the dentate gyrus based on the idea that its neural scaffold plays a role in distinguishing similar memories to each other, like those that take place in the same areas. The neurons in the dentate gyrus are extremely receptive to oxytocin.

For the researchers, this indicated that oxytocin was important to the hippocampus and had some role to play, they were just unsure as to what that role was.

The researchers conducted a series of experiments with mice for the study.

In one of the experiments, the neuroscientists used viruses to delete oxytocin receptors in the dentate gyrus circuit in the mice. After this, the mice could still tell different objects apart, such as a cup they were familiar with or a new bowl.

However, when interacting with other mice, the mice with the removed oxytocin sensitivity became “socially inept.” The mice could not differentiate between familiar faces and new strangers.

The results of the experiments show that the dentate gyrus is crucial to object recognition, but when oxytocin comes into play, it also helps with navigating social situations and behaviors.

The work is important in understanding the complex systems within the brain and could help explain how disruptions in the hippocampus relate to neurodevelopmental and neurological conditions, for example, PTSD or autism-spectrum disorders.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

National parks, Trump and the Ghost of Teddy Roosevelt

During Teddy Roosevelt’s time as president, he was derided as being a traitor to his race and class; it’s hard to see Trump as anything but.  The one striking similarity between the presidents’ is their apparently shared love of big game hunting.  Much has been made of Trump’s moves to reduce his predecessors’ national monuments and the possibility of attempting to rescind some.  Less attention has been paid to how the standing national parks and monuments are becoming an exclusive place for the rich to vacation.

It seems obvious that lifting bans on importing game trophies such as elephants will mostly benefit the elite with money for African safari vacations.  Certainly Teddy Roosevelt was rich enough to safari in Africa and collect specimens for the Smithsonian.  Likewise Trump’s sons have taken an interest in the kingly pastime of gunning down animals.  Pictures of Eric and Donald Jr. can be found online, posing holding an elephant’s tail and together with a dead leopard among others.  The difference lies in Roosevelt’s naivety in thinking that killing of predators could help other wildlife as well as his dedication to scientific collecting.  Of course Roosevelt did enjoy the sport of killing as well but held to some code of ethics.  For Trump, what’s of utmost importance is that the rich can enjoy killing (or anything else they want) and decorate their walls tastefully with glass eyed heads.  Roosevelt also worked hard to create wildlife reserves, bird sanctuaries, National Parks and forests: the spine of American conservation.  

Trump recently reduced Bear’s Ears by 85% and Grand Staircase Escalante by 50%.  It’s unlikely Trump will completely rescind any national monument but he could try that as well.  What Trump will more likely do is make National Parks less relevant.  More precisely Trump’s secretary of the Interior, Zinke may make National Parks less relevant.  

The National Parks have a problem with the lack of visitor diversity.  As of 2016 less than 2% of visitors at Saguaro National Park were Hispanic.  To clarify, Saguaro sandwiches Tucson AZ to the east and west, a city with a population 44% Hispanic or Latino.  Only 20% of visitors to national parks in the US were minorities, despite minorities making up 40% of the overall population.

It seemed that Obama tried to make more inclusive national monuments.  Obama declared Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park, Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument, Stonewall National Monument and Cesar E. Chavez National Monument among many others.  These aren’t ‘wilderness’ National Monuments but monuments celebrating the history of underrepresented people in America.  Bear’s Ears was a more typical ‘wilderness’ monument and it did something else fantastic, Bear’s Ears is to be the first National Monument co-managed by Native American groups and the federal government.  This is a heritage Trump’s administration seems to take issue with.    

Now the National Park Service has proposed steep fee hikes.  The proposal would increase from $30 fees for a car at the Grand Canyon to $70 during peak season.  Fees would be hiked in 17 national parks.  Places like Joshua Tree and Yosemite along with most of the iconic western parks (and others) would become prohibitively expensive.  

The reason for the fee hikes Zinke explained, is for better park infrastructure.  I wonder how John Muir or Ed Abbey would feel about that.  For those who may not know; Muir once built a ‘cabin’ with no walls spanning a creek and happily noted frogs jumping through it.  Abbey of course opposed virtually any development in the parks.  Teddy Roosevelt didn’t even support cars in National Parks, would you drive into a cathedral?  These are the men who fought to preserve the land in the first place; why are we so quick to ignore them now?  

With the increase of park fees, it seems unlikely diversity in the parks will increase.  It seems more likely that the parks will become whiter and richer, the way Trump likes things.  With less people and only one type of person at that, there will be less resistance to further development.  I wonder how long until Forest Service and BLM Lands come under similar management plans?  Or perhaps the idea is with less people outside, more unobstructed mineral extraction.  Trump’s already looking at opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.  One wonders, if he were alive today, would even Teddy Roosevelt oppose the rule of this government?  

By Zach Fitzner, Earth.com Staff Writer