Antarctic Invasion and Chimp Cops!

Invasive plant species on the Western Antarctic Peninsula, virtual models of the human body, carbon clues to help ants find their way home and policing behaviour in chimpanzees...
11 March 2012

Interview with 

Steven Chown, Stellenbosch University; Alejandro Frangi, INSIGNIO; Markus Knarden, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology; Carel Van Shaik


Antarctic Invasion

Alien plant species are
invading the fringes of Antarctica through seeds brought in by scientists and tourists visiting the region.

Steven Chown from Stellenbosch University searched for seeds attached to the bags, boots and clothing of Antarctic visitors , calculating that 70,000 seeds in total were brought in over a one year period.

The blue ice covering Lake Fryxell, in the Transantarctic MountainsInvasive species are already established along the western Antarctic peninsula and it's feared that if the climate warms as predicted, these plants as well as new seeds arriving on the scene could flourish.

Steven: -   We cleaned their clothing and we vacuumed their backpacks and we cleaned their boots, and we discovered many seeds.  So if you were to do the same as a biosecurity measure, what you would do is you would remove those seeds, so they would no longer be on this transport pathway and so, you would reduce the risks.  With reasonably straightforward mitigation mechanisms, we can prevent Antarctica from being invaded to an extent that we see in other systems such as the subantarctic islands.


Revealing all at the Hospital

A new virtual human could help personalise medical treatments in the future.

By combining height, weight and medical history data with scans and X-rays, engineers have developed a computer program that can model the cardiovascular system.

Ultimately the aim is to model the entire body, helping clinicians to test and predict, non-invasively, drugs, treatments and medical procedures before using them.  

Alejandro Frangi is the director of the UK's INSIGNEO Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Modelling, which opened this week...

Alejandro: -   It will force us to look holistically into disease as opposed to really by specialties as nowadays to optimise the treatments and make them more patient specific.  Actually, think what will be the optimal treatment in a computer and then be able to go to the patient and actually do the treatment, knowing that this is the most effective way to treat a patient.


Homebound Ants sense plumes of CO2

Plumes of carbon dioxide released from ants nests help workers find their way home after they've been out foraging for food.

By recreating these plumes, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology scientist Markus Knaden showed that Tunisian desert ants are up to
75% more successful at locating their nest sites compared with when the plumes weren't present. This suggests that they use this approach to avoid spending too long hunting for home in the oppressive desert heat...

Markus: -   They have only a short time window that they can be active during this heat, so they walk for let's say, 20 to 30 minutes for food, and then they have to turn back and find their nest as quick as possible.  And then they have to search, and at that time, they need to check additional cues, for example, like this nest plume.


Young Male ChimpChimp Cops

And finally, chimpanzees have police that step in and break up fights within their social groups.

Monitoring chimp behaviour in a range of groups and locations, Carel Van Shaik (Shike) from Zurich University found that although conflict is rare, when fights do arise within a group, a chimp impartial to the situation will step in to ease the tension. And they do this purely to restore peace and stability within the group rather than for any personal gain.

Crucially, gender and social rank were irrelevant to the policing role and the team think this points to the origin of the human moral code and conscience...

Carel: -   The roots of human morality do indeed go back to at least our last common ancestor with the chimpanzees because despite the fact that we cooperate in rather different ways, this kind of community concern is shared between the two species and therefore very likely to be old, and not some invention of Homo sapiens.  Many people think that everything is cultural but it suggests that these kinds of things may go back so deep in time that there's likely to be some kind of biological basis for it.

And that work was published this week in the journal


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