18 Jul 2014

Exploding Whales!

By Paula Johanson

Whales are fascinating. Everything I can learn about whales makes whales more interesting to me -- from how deep they can dive to how they are descended from pig-like animals 70-million years ago. Any mention of whales in the news catches my attention. And when a grey whale was visiting the bay near my home one summer, I was thrilled to be able to see it feeding just off-shore. You can read about that day at this link which is for my paddle group's blog on kayaking.

There are plenty of whales in the news these day. The recent news from the Canadian government that humpback whales are increasing in numbers was good to learn, and you can read about it here; but because there are a few more humpbacks now, this species is no longer considered a "threatened" species in Canadian waters, only "a species of special concern." Are the whales being protected enough from people's activities in the whales' critical habitat? There's a map showing humpback whale habitat areas at this link. Meanwhile, here's an image from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to remind boat users to leave a lot of room for whales when we see them near our boats.

The sad news about whales is that nine blue whales died late this winter off Newfoundland, because of unusually thick sea ice. Two of the whale carcasses drifted to shore on beaches near the towns of Trout River and Rocky Harbour. But here is where the sad news gets interesting. A 60-tonne body of a whale stretches out along a beach in a way that just can't be ignored, especially when the whale begins to decay. Nobody wants to be downwind of a dead whale. As the mayor of Trout River said, "Rotting marine fat is probably the worst smell you've ever smelled in your life."

He's right. I've seen a dead whale on the beach near Tofino, BC years ago. It was only a small grey whale, but it was the worst stink I've ever known!

There have been some unusual efforts to deal with dead whales on other beaches. People have learned the hard way that it's better to deal with the whale before it rots enough to explode and spread bad-smelling goo all over the beach. There's a video at the Guardian newspaper's website showing a controlled release of the rot inside a dead whale -- click here only if you want to see something gross. Another dead whale in Oregon was dealt with using dynamite... which only spread the problem around in a spectacular explosion.

On the other hand, a blue whale skeleton is an amazing thing to be around, when it's displayed in a museum. The Beaty collection at the University of British Columbia has a blue whale skeleton as the highlight of its collection. Several of us Sci/Why writers were delighted to visit the collection and take photographs as we admired the blue whale skeleton. But mounted skeletons don't just happen quickly or easily. (If you're interested, you can click on this link to read a series of tweets about a smaller whale being prepared for display on Vancouver Island.) The town of Trout River would never be able to afford the work it would take to prepare their own blue whale skeleton for their own little museum. What was to be done?

Meanwhile, the dead whales began to stink, and to swell up with gas. There's a photo at this link showing how the slim body of one whale has swelled till it looks ready to pop. It was a lucky thing when the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto approached the towns of Trout River and Rocky Harbour about taking the whales for their museum.

It took big boats and teams of scientists and workers, but they managed to get the whale bodies away from the towns. The bones were packed in boxes to be cleaned. There was no explosion for the team of workers to deal with, because the whales had already released a lot of their stinky gases before being cut apart. Yes, the stinky gases were released the same way a lot of stinky gases get released by living animals... and whale scientists were able to discuss whale farts with journalists who were glad to have the good news to share around the world.

11 Jul 2014

Quarantine Tent looks to the past in the discussion about vaccines

By Pippa Wysong

When it comes to communicating science, talking to people in-person is still a valid approach. Often getting an idea or information across is about the experience, and interacting with real people.

The Quarantine Tent is an experience. Here, visitors meet people transported from the past who have vaccine-preventable diseases from an era before vaccines were available.

At the Quarantine Tent, volunteers play the roles of diseases vaccination can now prevent. Pippa Wysong photo.
With vaccination rates dropping, diseases such as whooping cough and measles that were once tamed in populations are starting to make a come-back. And for some people, these diseases have debilitating long-term effects. Many of today’s parents don’t have the context, in terms of history, as to what the risks of these diseases mean in terms of a non-vaccinated population.

The Tent was first presented at Canada’s biggest, nation-wide science festival, Science Rendezvous in 2013 at the University of Toronto location where the actors (mostly medical students) and I interacted with over 500 visitors to the tent. As of July 2014, the Tent has now been to two Science Rendezvous festivals, was invited to set-up at a 100th anniversary fair put on by Sanofi-Pasteur on the historic Connaught Laboratories property, and hosted by the Hamilton Public Health Services for the city’s Open Streets festival.

At the Tent you can meet smallpox. He’s 20, from 1921, and the blisters on his face and hands look terrible. He contracted the disease in Ottawa when he was visiting family during an outbreak. He lost several family members there to smallpox, including his father and younger brother. That year, Ottawa saw 1,352 cases, and 30%-50% of non-vaccinated people who got smallpox died.

The last case in Canada occurred in 1967 from someone returning from Brazil. A success story of vaccination, globally smallpox was eliminated in 1979.

Or meet diphtheria. She is 19 and from 1913 when there was an outbreak in Toronto. She‘ll tell you how she lost her kid sister from the disease just a few days ago, how a younger brother is struggling, and will describe the symptoms of “The Strangling Disease”.

In the 1920s, diphtheria killed 15% of children between 2 and 14 every year. Until 1920, about 12,000 cases and 1,000 deaths occurred each year in Canada (those numbers would be bigger with today’s population). After the vaccine was introduced, diphtheria deaths and incidence fell sharply and major cities, for the first time, reported zero cases by the mid 1930s.

The Quarantine Tent also features polio, HPV, measles, 1918 flu and whooping cough. My grandfather, Dr. Gordon Bates was a physician and national public health activist from WW-I through to the 1970s who treated these diseases and saw the havoc they wreaked. The inspiration for the Tent came from the stories of old that I grew up with, and the education bug is probably inherited.

Vaccines have been an incredible success story in terms of reducing the incidence of these diseases. Unfortunately, growing numbers of people not vaccinating their children – largely because they don’t know how devastating these diseases, unchecked, really can be. People from the past will tell you about seeing loved one or friends getting sick, dying or developing disabilities from these diseases. Ever hear of the permanent hearing loss caused by ‘measles ear’? Serious complications occur in upwards of 10% of measles cases.

Or, they have been misinformed about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, both challenging things to communicate to people who don’t understand statistics. A simple message from the Tent is ‘what does society look like without vaccines’?

Or, they’re worried about ingredients in vaccines (which were all tested for safety before being added, by the way). Formaldehyde sounds scary. But the amount in a vaccine is far less than what your own body produces, and 600 times less than what occurs in a pear (it’s a natural metabolite), and is easily cleared by the body. With many things, it’s the quantity that makes the poison and the amounts naturally made by your body and in vaccines are miniscule.

By the way, there are over 12,000 peer-reviewed studies in the medical literature on vaccines, population effects, long-term effects, safety and more. Knowledge is constantly increasing.

No medical treatment is 100% effective or 100% safe, and that’s another difficult concept to communicate. People would like zero risk, but that’s not possible. Surgery and headache remedies have risks too, but most of us benefit from them. A risk that is ‘rare’ is difficult to communicate because people think ‘what if I’m that one?’. So, turn that around to how ‘common’ the risks are if diseases are unchecked -- and suddenly a ‘rare’ risk looks better.

There is always someone out there for whom a treatment doesn’t quite do the job, or who experiences a bad side effect. But looking at it from a population point of view, the treatments are far safer and beneficial than having masses of people suffering the condition.

All these diseases (except smallpox) are still around, and if vaccination rates keep dropping, could make a serious come back. All of them.

So, vaccines, why bother? Take a trip to the past to find out.

4 Jul 2014

3D Printers Bring New Vision to Picture Books

Post by Helaine Becker

Once in a Blue Moon (or in this case, a Goodnight, Moon),  all your fields of interest wind up coinciding. Or coalescing,as the case may be, into one giant, brilliant hyperbang of kidlit, science-y marvelousness.

This happened to me today when I opened my browser and read about a new development in the world of technology. Or should I say in the world of children's literature? Or...Eureka! Both!

Last year, I had the great good fortune and honour to be a judge at the CNIB's Braille Writing Contest for Children.

At the CNIB Braille Writing Contest award ceremony,
 with winner Julia Jantzen, here shown typing
on a  laptop with a refreshable braille keyboard

I learned so much. From the kids, and from the incredible staff at the CNIB, who have developed dozens of ways to help the blind people they represent live the fullest and most productive lives possible. 

And I also learned about the challenges faced by the CNIB and its library:

The inevitable and unremitting need for funding. 

The fact that their constituency is literally coast to coast to coast - a tough reach for a library. 

And the fact that most of us out here in the sighted world have no clue about how to accommodate blind kids, or even that we need to. 

One perfect example was presented to me by CNIB Librarian Karen Brophey. She described exactly how much work goes into making sure her library can participate fully in the TD Summer Reading Club  (kicking off RIGHT NOW across Canada). 

According to the CNIB, ten per cent of Canadians have disabilities that prevent them from reading traditional print (this includes visual, physical and learning disabilities), and over 550,000 of these readers are children. Without specially designed activity sheets, and braille and audio versions of the books, blind kids can't read and play and enjoy the Reading Club the way their sighted peers can.  Yet these kids fall off the radar of most libraries - public librarians simply don't see them (ironic, eh?)

Thanks to the CNIB, kids across the country can participate in the TD Summer Reading Club using the tactile and audio materials they develop.They make selected works for the program available in alternate formats like braille and audio books. They create program materials like tool kits and inclusive activity ideas. And CNIB staff reach out to over 900 public libraries across Canada to provide training on how to implement the accessible reading club in local libraries.

Now let's circle back around to my Eureka moment: my discovery of the hot-off-the-press technical innovation of 3D-printed tactile picture books. Thanks to new technology, visually-impaired kids who until now were deprived of the full joy of reading a picture book suddenly can. They can feel the cow jumping over the moon in Goodnight, Moon,  and touch the bowl of mush, and the old lady whispering hush. They can participate fully in the magic of illustrated books on their own.

3D-printed tactile pages from Goodnight, Moon. Image from UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO CASEY A. CASS/UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO
Tom Yeh, an assistant professor in the University of Colorado's Department of Computer Science who directed the 3D picture book project, says, "The idea of tactile picture books is not new. What is new is making 3D printing more accessible and interactive so parents and teachers of visually impaired children can customize and print these kinds of picture books in 3D."  To reach that goal, Yeh and his team integrate computer technology and mathematical diagrams to produce books kids can feel. "This project is much more difficult than I envisioned, but it also is much more rewarding." 
The Tactile Picture Book project has so far produced touchy-feely versions of Goodnight, Moon, Harold and the Purple Crayon, The Cat in the Hat and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. More are undoubtedly on the way. But even more important, as the price of 3D printing comes down, people will be able to print their own tactile books, customized to each child's unique needs. 
Now THAT's why I shouted Eureka at my laptop this morning. Thanks to science, more kids can be given the chance to fall in love with reading. And through reading, maybe to fall in love with science...
Coincidentally, this year's theme for the TD Summer Reading Club is Eureka!  
I couldn't have said it better.
For more on the Tactile Book project, and to see pictures of Harold and the Purple Crayon  in 3D, go here 

Sci/Why Writers at Calgary convention When Words Collide

If you're in or near Calgary, AB in early August 2014, consider visiting the convention called When Words Collide. Several of the Sci/Why writers will be attending with our friends who also write science books for young people. And on Saturday August 9, three of us will be launching our new books there! Look for Lindsey Carmichael with Fuzzy Forensics, Paula Johanson with What is Energy? and Marie Powell with her books on Nature.

27 Jun 2014

Bioblitzing: A New Outdoor Entertainment

by Jan Thornhill

A bit more than a month ago my friend Tony invited me to help with the fungi portion of the 2014 Ontario Bioblitz.

"Bioblitz?" I said. "What the heck is a Bioblitz?"

Rhytisma americium tar spot on silver maple leaf
When documenting fungi for a Bioblitz, you document all fungi, like this
Rhytism americanum, a tar spot that attacks native maples. 
A Bioblitz, it turns out, is a pretty cool event. It's an intense 24-hour study of a specific area's flora and fauna during which professional biologists lead teams that document all the living things they can find. It's essentially an exercise that highlights biodiversity. Though ornithologists and entomologists worked through the night looking for owls and moths and other nocturnal critters, since I was working with the fungi team, led by Jean-Marc Moncalvo, Senior Curator of Mycology at the Royal Ontario Museum, and fungi don't move around a lot, we didn't have to forgo sleep and focussed on collecting samples when they were visible—during daylight hours.

Gloeoporus dichrous
A fresh specimen of Gloeoporus dichrous. During the Bioblitz,
we only found a dried up one from the previous fall.
Bioblitzes are a perfect introduction to citizen science, since the public is usually encouraged to help. This year's May 25 event was focussed on the Humber River Watershed. There were lots of activities, including guided walks with professional biologists, batbox-making workshops, and field-sketching workshops. But the main event was documenting species, and the main event was wonderfully successful. From the 24-hour period, a total of 1,563 species have been identified so far, including 109 arachnids, 121 birds, 27 fish, 500 insects, 100 non-insect invertebrates, 18 reptiles, 94 lichens, 21 mammals, 78 mosses, 450 plants, and 45 fungi.

Lasiosphaeria ovine found on Ontario Bioblitz
That's a millimetre rule behind these fuzz-covered Lasiosphaeria ovina.
The fungi numbers were low—we only found about half the number of species documented on each of the first two Ontario Bioblitzes in 2012 and 2013, but we have an excuse: May 25 is never a prime fungi-finding time, on top of which there'd been almost no rain for two weeks.

Honey locust throne are treacherous
The honey locusts growing in our Bioblitz fungi-hunting area were treacherous! 
Undeterred, Tony and I explored a scrubby woods not far from the McMichael Gallery parking lot. It was so dry that, at first glance, it looked as if we weren't going to find anything at all other than a few gnarly, desiccated, insect-ravaged tree-growing fungi from the previous fall (they still counted, though!). But once we got down on our hands and knees, (and wiped off the blood from being stabbed by the wicked thorns of honey locust trees), and started turning over fallen branches, we found a few interesting specimens. Admittedly most of these were tiny interesting specimens, but they included some exquisite, snow white, mini stemmed cups bejewelled with dew, and a quite beautiful parasitic rust fungus (featured in my fungi blog post, here), as well as a single, charismatic, and delectable, morel. 

Lachnum subvirgineum found on bioblitz
We had to use a microscope to nail down the identity 
of these half-millimeter beauties, Lachnum subvirgineum.
It was fun. It's always fun looking for fungi. It's like a treasure hunt. So I was delighted to get an invitation to attend another Bioblitz. This one is at the Alderville First Nation Black Oak Savanna, located southeast of Rice Lake. The savanna is very special place, Canada's easternmost prairie habitat and one of the most endangered plant communities in Ontario, where the primary goal is to restore land that has previously been used for agriculture by planting and nurturing native tall-grass prairie species.  

Because there are a number of species at risk at the Alderville Black Oak Savanna site, this Bioblitz is not geared towards the public's participation in the same way that the much larger Ontario Bioblitz is, but if you'd like to visit the site you can book a tour by calling 905-352-1008. They also have programs and resources for schools, as well as an annual eco-friendly "Prairie Day," which, this year, is on Saturday, September 10. 

*You can read about a few interesting things we found during the Alderville Bioblitz on my Weird & Wonderful Wild Mushrooms blog.

20 Jun 2014

The Singing Lice (that are not lice)

Lepinotus patruelis, a common bark louse. Photo by David Jones
            “I think I have insects in my house,” the Bavarian woman living in England told the secretary at the Department of Zoology where I worked. “I hear these knocking sounds all the time. I think it is an insect. Do you have anyone who could come and check it out for me and tell me what it is?”
The deathwatch beetle, which hits its head against wood to call for a mate.
Photo by Josef Dvořák.
            One candidate for the cause of the sounds she was hearing was the deathwatch beetle, a small insect with a hard head that burrows into wood beams. The beetle knocks on wood to attract mates, making a noise that sounds a little bit like a miniature woodpecker. People don’t want deathwatch beetles in their houses, because when the larvae burrow/eat their way into wood beams they leave tunnels behind. The tunnels weaken the beam and can cause structural damage.
            I went to this woman’s house looking for another kind of insect, however. I was looking for Psocoptera, a group of tiny insects otherwise known as bark and book lice, or barkflies. Measuring from 1 to 2 millimetres in length, these obscure creatures are not lice at all, but rather distant cousins. They have long antennae, and many species lack wings. They feed on tiny bits of this and that: algae, crumbs of other insect carcasses, and fungal spores. They do not bite anything, and frankly, they can seem rather boring. You might find them on logs and tree trunks, the undersides of mushrooms, or other damp places – if you look closely enough. But, they are easy to ignore, and largely go unnoticed.
Trogium pulsatorium, whose mating call sounds like the ticking of a clock.
            Some book and bark lice have a remarkable habit: they ‘sing’. One species, Trogium pulsatorium, creamy white from head to toe and small enough to fit on the end of a pin, produces a noise that sounds exactly like the ticking of a clock. I'm inclined to think this creature is the original deathwatch, rather than the woodpecker-like beetle. The death watch was a sound in people's houses that terrorized Medieval Britain. The ghostly ticking of a clock was thought to mark the final hours of someone in the household. The female bark louse makes this ticking noise by vibrating its abdomen. Like the noise of the deathwatch beetle, it is a mating call.

Lepinotus patruelis female, who 'sings' to attract mates by vibrating her abdomen.
Photo by David Jones
Another singing barklouse, Lepinotus patruelis, is slightly more colourful. Females are dark brown, and nearly 2 mm in length, so their rear ends might dangle off the head of a pin. The males are smaller and golden brown. In this species, when males vibrate their abdomens, they make a sound like a quacking duck. Quack, quack, quack – four to six times. They do this several times a minute when calling for a mate. When females vibrate their abdomens, they make a series of clicks like dragging a fingernail across the teeth of a comb. The ‘songs’ are used by both males and females to attract mates. Both sexes, especially females, keep singing when a mate draws near. And females seem to compete with each other, just like male crickets do, by singing at each other in the presence of a male. To hear these noises in the laboratory, I used a listening device, a sound magnifier, sold at a local electronics shop. The insects are pretty tiny, so it is not surprising that their sounds are not audible to the naked ear. If, or how, the Bavarian woman could hear these insects added to the mystery. 
I searched out places in her main rooms where these bark lice might hide. In the kitchen, around the counter there were lots of bread crumbs and some mold spores in the corners of the window sill. In the living room, there were plenty of tropical house plants, and the air was warm and moist. Perfect conditions for these insects: damp with lots of food. As I sat on the sofa with a cup of tea in hand, I heard the sound of a fingernail running across a comb. I listened and heard it again. It was a female Lepinotus patruelis, calling to attract a mate.
And I could hear it loud and clear! I followed the persistent noises to a large tropical plant in the corner, and began searching among the leaves. I found her nestled in the crux of a large, curved leaf – she had found a natural amplifier and was using it to broadcast her song to the whole room.
This feat, of finding an amplifier to broadcast their sound makes these bark lice the smallest known creature to make an audible noise (to my knowledge). But this broadcasting skill is not the only unusual feature of the singing behaviour. It is also highly unusual for females of any species to be the ones calling for mates, let alone competing in 'singing competitions.' But that is another story, for another blog.

Wearing, J. (1996) Reproductive biology of Lepinotus patruelis (Psocoptera): Implications for courtship theory. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation) University of Oxford, UK.

Death Watch Beetle (Xestobium rufovillosum)


18 Jun 2014

Sci/Why Bloggers and Friends Win National Awards

By Claire Eamer. Photos by Juanita Bawagan.

The Canadian Science Writers' Association (CSWA) handed out its top awards at its recent annual meeting in Toronto, and Sci/Why folk were front and centre.

Vancouver-based Sci/Why blogger Shar Levine and her writing partner, Leslie Johnstone, won the Association's Science in Society Youth Book Award for Dirty Science: 25 Experiments with Soil, published by Scholastic. You can peek inside the book here.

Shar Levine (l) and Leslie Johnstone receive their award from CSWA president Stephen Strauss.
Victoria freelance writer Jude Isabella won the coveted Science Journalism award for her story "The Secret Lives of Bears" published in British Columbia Magazine's Fall/Winter 2013 issue. Jude, former editor of YesMag, the late lamented Canadian children's science magazine, was part of the group that launched Sci/Why. You can read her prize-winning article here and you can even see the scientists at work in this short video.

Jude Isabella thanks the CSWA, while Association president Stephen Strauss looks on.