Science Update - Theft amongst birds and Caffine in Camels

The Naked Scientists spoke to Chelsea Wald and Bob Hirshon
04 June 2006

Interview with 

Chelsea Wald and Bob Hirshon


Phil - Now it's time to hop over the ocean for this week's science update, where Bob Hirshon and Chelsea Wald will be looking at an anti-theft mechanism in scrub jays and how camel can help calculate the amount of caffeine in your coffee.

Bob - This week for the Naked Scientists since the topic is energy, we'll discuss a newly developed test for that chemical that many of us use as our personal fuel: caffeine. But first, Chelsea has some news of some research from your neck of the woods. It involves some very energetic birds that will go to great lengths to protect what's theirs.

Chelsea - Burglary is rampant among western scrub jays. That's why these small woodland birds hide their food. Now researchers at Cambridge University have found that they also keep close tabs on each other. Psychologist Nicola Clayton says that if a scrub jay hides his food when another bird is watching, he'll go back to check on it later. If the coast is clear, he'll move the move the food once. And if the same observer is still there, he'll move it several times to confuse the would-be thief. If a new bird is there, he won't move it at all.

Nicola - To do so they must not only recognise different individuals but they must remember who was watching at a particular time. So the idea is that they're keeping an eye on the competition.

Chelsea - Which for a bird is a surprisingly sophisticated sort of paranoia.

Bob - Thanks Chelsea. And now to caffeine. If you sometimes worry that that cup of decaff you got is really decaff, you'll be happy to learn that a handy caffeine detector for beverages may soon be on the way courtesy of a llama. Why a llama? Well along with camels, llamas are among the few species that make antibodies to caffeine that can withstand high temperatures. Protein chemist Daniel Crimmins and his colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis Missouri were able to use those antibodies to detect the caffeine in a hot cup of coffee.

Daniel - And then you no longer have to schlup around your camel or your llama to your favourite coffee house to do the measurement. We cloned the antibody sequence by standard molecular biology techniques so we can make as much as we needed to.

Bob - A llama named Very Senorita had the toughest antibodies, so they're using hers to develop a commercial product for home use.

Chelsea - Next week we'll be talking about one of our favourite topics: bacteria. We never tire of the amazing things they can do like make the world's strongest super glue or survive Mars-like conditions. Until then, I'm Chelsea Wald.

Bob - And I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS the Science Society.


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