Inside Science

Slippery Coating Makes Snake Bellies Slither

Fatty layer covering snakeskin protects animal’s underside against scrapes and wear.

Snakes can slither smoothly over almost any surface, from jungle branches to desert sands, without damaging their skin – an ability that has fascinated researchers.

“How can snakes move across very harsh and abrasive environments and still have belly skin that is shiny and smooth?” asked Stanislav Gorb, who studies biomechanics at the University of Kiel in Germany. “Is it the material the scales are made of? The tiny microstructures on them? The molecules they are coated with?”

Gorb and his collaborators have performed research exploring many of these questions. They are presenting it this week at a meeting known as the AVS International Symposium and Exhibition in San Jose, California. Read more in Inside Science.

Fitbit for Cows

Wearable tech could help cowboys spot sick animals sooner.

Wearable fitness monitors are all the rage among humans right now, but they are also spreading among farm animals. Researchers hope the devices can help keep herds of beef cows healthy.

Karin Orsel, a veterinary epidemiologist at the University of Calgary in Canada is testing how accelerometers – the same devices inside fitness monitors that measure a person’s activity level – can be used to detect disease in beef cattle before it becomes obvious to ranchers. Read more in Inside Science.

How Gamblers Try – And Fail – To Beat The System

Human tendency to seek patterns leads to misperception of randomness.

Habitual gamblers are more likely to believe they see patterns in random sequences of events, and to act on that belief, than the general population, according to new research.

Wolfgang Gaissmaier, a psychologist at the University of Konstanz in Germany, and his colleagues studied how habitual gamblers, recruited from among the regular patrons of the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino in upstate New York, used a cognitive strategy known as “probability matching” in a betting scenario. The regular gamblers, who ranged from slot machine players to those who frequent the blackjack table, were compared to members of the general public. Read more at Inside Science.

Sewage Bacteria Reveal Cities’ Obesity Rates

Urban ‘microbiome’ can offer glimpses into disease trends.

Sampling the waste in a city’s sewage system can be a good way to study the microbes that live in the population’s guts – and could even offer a way to monitor public health issues such as obesity, according to new research.

The community of microbes that live in a person’s gut, known as the microbiome, is intricately tied to that person’s health. The microbiome can influence, and be influenced by, a range of characteristics such as weight, disease, diet, exercise, mood and much more. But it can be difficult to draw large-scale conclusions about what constitutes a “healthy gut” because of the financial and privacy implications of sampling large enough numbers of people.

So a team of researchers led by Sandra McLellan at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Mitchell Sogin at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, set out to test whether they would be able to spot human microbes lurking in the soupy mix of municipal sewage systems, and thus sample entire cities at once. Read more at Inside Science.

Can Winter De-Icers Go Completely Green?

Environmentally friendly additives to road salt may still have tradeoffs.

Every year, as winter closes in, transportation authorities prepare to deploy their vast stockpiles of salt and sand to keep the roads and highways safe and ice-free for drivers.

In the United States, roughly 18 million metric tons of road salt are spread on the roads each year, with another 5 million used in Canada. In Minnesota, nine tons of salt are applied per lane mile each winter – meaning a single mile of a four-lane highway gets 36 tons of salt dumped on it each year.

But all that salt does not just disappear along with the ice in the spring; it sticks around, and can have major effects on the surrounding ecosystems and even drinking water. Read more at Inside Science.

Development Of Airplanes Is Like Biological Evolution, Engineer Says

Airplanes and birds may have followed similar pattern to increase efficiency.

The development of passenger aircraft over the past century mirrors the evolution of flying animals, and shows that evolution is not just a biological phenomenon, according to a paper published today in the Journal of Applied Physics.

Adrian Bejan, a mechanical engineer at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, argues that evolution is a physical phenomenon, with changes in animals driven by physical laws. In the case of birds, the factors include aerodynamics.

“I want to persuade people that evolution – that is the change in [body shape] over time – recognizes no distinction between the two camps of biology and physics,” he said. Read more in Inside Science.

Infants May Benefit From Advanced Cochlear Implants

Young children need more detailed sound information, new study finds.

Cochlear implants are powerful tools for people with hearing loss. Using electrodes implanted in the ear that transmit sound directly to the brain, they can give even the profoundly deaf a sense of sound.

But their success often depends on how early the implants are placed. People who are born deaf and receive implants as adults have worse outcomes than those who are fitted with the implants as children, said Andrea Warner-Czyz, an audiologist at the University of Texas at Dallas who studies development in children with hearing loss. Read more in Inside Science.

Stadium Acoustics Pump Up the Volume

At sports venues designed to maximize crowd atmosphere, beware of hearing loss.

The roar of the crowd is a major part of the excitement of attending a sporting event. A noisy, engaged crowd makes for a better experience for fans, and is often credited with helping the players on the field, too.

“The players love it,” said Carl Francis, director of communications for the NFL Players Association. “Fan support definitely has an impact on the players.”

Stadium designers know this, and the new generation of stadiums now incorporate design features that help boost fan support by trapping and amplifying crowd noise. Read more in Inside Science.

Backyard Hockey A Bellwether For Climate Change

Volunteers track shifts in temperature with their homemade rinks.

Outdoor hockey games on suburban backyard rinks are an iconic part of the culture in Canada. Wayne Gretzky famously learned his trade on a homemade rink his father created every winter, and until recently the image of children skating on a frozen pond was featured on the back of the country’s $5 bill.

So when scientists in Montreal predicted that rising global temperatures would eventually lead to the end of outdoor skating in much of Canada, Robert McLeman and Colin Robertson, geographers at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, saw a way to get people interested in how climate change will affect them. Read more in Inside Science.