Floods and foods, dogs protecting cats and microbial munchers

This post contributed by Molly Taylor, ESA Science Writing Intern. Tiny critters: Though all smaller than a millimeter in size, four critters highlighted by Neatorama are much larger in effectiveness. When there is no oxygen around to speak of (or to breathe in), shewanella inhales the likes of uranium and chromium. The bacterium exhales the toxic metals with a few extra electrons, which prevents the toxins from moving through ground water. By surrounding toxic waste sites with the bacteria, scientists are hoping to protect lakes and streams from pollutants. And despite the harsh reputation, E. coli is not all bad either. Not only is it one of the most important bacteria inside the human intestinal tract, its rapid reproduction time has contributed to research exploring the role of chance in evolution. And there is a wormier side to the fountain of youth. A transparent, low-maintenance roundworm that shares 35 percent of human genes may reveal the key to diminishing the effects of aging. Read more at “4 Little Creatures That Pack a Big Scientific Punch.” Floods and foods: Floods, such as those in the Mississippi River valley, raise concerns about food safety. According to a recent Scientific American article, “the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] doesn’t allow any flooded out crops—organic or otherwise—to be sold or consumed by people,” and the FDA policy governing farmers’ response to floods is designed to make sure that consumers have access to safe food. According to a group of Italian researchers working in the Swiss Alps, however, we can expect more floods as long as the global temperature continues to rise. The study showed that global warming does increase flood risk significantly, with so-called “100 year floods” increasing in frequency by as often as every 20 years. Read more at “Sop Soil: Have the Recent Record Floods Compromised the Safety of Organic Farm Produce?” Active learning: Graduate student David Haak wanted to boost the performance of educationally and economically disadvantaged students in introductory science classes. Disadvantaged students were previously more than twice as likely as their classmates to fail the huge intro lecture courses that serve as key portals to higher-level sciences. To address this challenge, Haak turned to the latest K-12 teacher books to design a more structured course, including small group discussions, short weekly exams and class-wide quizzes that enable instructors to get instant feedback on the class’s comprehension. The new design, which was based on an active learning model, saw improved learning for all students, especially the disadvantaged students. “Even as class size more than doubled, lab time was cut by 30 percent and the ratio of teaching assistants-to-students fell...

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Birth control for Bremen’s cats

As spring days are punctuated with the chirps and trills of bird song, a recent article in the Guardian seems especially timely.  The northern German city of Bremen plans to take action to curtail its burgeoning population of free–roaming cats, estimated to be at least 1,000 strong. Whether feral or domestic—cats take a significant toll on birds and many other small wild animals.  A U.S. Fish & Wildlife fact sheet on bird mortality puts the figure at several 100 million a year in the United States. The German city of Bremen is concerned about both its local songbirds, such as the Sedge warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus) as well as the spread of disease.  Under the proposed new law, all stray cats would be neutered and any pet owner found to have their cat roaming out of doors would be required to pay neutering fees.  Supporters hope that if the law passes in Bremen it will spark similar laws across Germany.  Public official Undine Kurth said in the Guardian article: “It would help a lot if the federal ministry of agriculture would initiate a debate on the wretched situation.” Recent population estimates in the United States put cat ownership in this country at 93.6 million.  Domestic cats (Felis catus) are not native to North America; European colonists brought them here several centuries ago.  Yet unlike our view of dogs, which must be leashed and cleaned up after, many Americans continue to feel that their cats should be allowed to roam free.  And while cat owners may feed their felines gourmet cat food, this does not curb cats’ natural instinct to hunt and kill small prey. Multiple states, veterinary organizations, and bird conservation groups all encourage voluntary steps by cat owners to keep their cats leashed or indoors.  State Departments of Natural Resources offer information on the impact of cats on native wildlife, the American Veterinary Medical Association encourages owners of domestic cats in urban and suburban areas to keep them indoors, and the American Bird Conservancy has a handy brochure of tips to keep an indoor cat happy.   Many of these organizations point out that in addition to helping native wildlife, cat owners who keep their pets indoors also protect them from disease, cars, and predators such as coyotes. Meanwhile, back in Germany, according to the Guardian article, a few other German towns, such as that of Paderborn, introduced castration of stray cats several years ago.  All residents are required to tattoo or implant their cats with a microchip.  And those who give their cats the boot get socked with a steep fine. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/7955467@N03/3488673676          ...

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From the Community: healthy green spaces, beak deformities and ocean acidification

National Geographic launches the new series Great Migrations, New Scientist outlines the multiple benefits of spending time in park and other green spaces, scientists explore the physics of cat lapping, Brandon Keim from Wired Science joins researchers in an abandoned mine to test bats for White Nose Syndrome and the United States Geological Survey seeks help from bird watchers to track a recent spike in beak deformities. Here is the latest research in ecological science.

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