To quickly unfurl and refold their wings, earwigs stretch the rules of origami.
Yes, those garden pests that scurry out from under overturned flowerpots can also fly. Because earwigs spend most of their time underground and only occasionally take to the air, they pack their wings into packages with a surface area more than 10 times smaller than when unfurled, using an origami-like series of folds. Springy wing joints let the insects bypass some of the mathematical constraints that normally limit the way a rigid two-dimensional material can be folded, researchers report March 23 in Science. Earwig wings’ folding pattern should be impossible according to mathematical equations that predict the three-dimensional designs that can be made by folding a two-dimensional material like a sheet of paper, says study coauthor Andres Arrieta, a mechanical engineer at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
Origami theory assumes that the material being folded is perfectly rigid. But the joints of earwigs’ wings — where creases form — are rich in a rubbery polymer called resilin. This little bit of stretch lets earwig wings do what a regular origami structure can’t: lock into two different conformations, open or folded up, and transition between the two. It’s an example of a bistable structure — something like the slap bracelets, popular in the 1980s and 1990s, which switch from a flat conformation to a curved one when whacked against a wrist, says study coauthor André Studart, a materials scientist at ETH Zürich. When locked open, earwig wings store energy in the springy resilin joints. When that strain is released, the wings rapidly crumple back to their folded position. Such constructions can inform robotics design. Inspired by the wings, the researchers created a prototype gripper. Its rigid pieces are held together by rubbery, strategically placed joints. Within fractions of a second, the structure can snap from its mostly flat conformation to one that can grip a small object and hold it without constant external force. While other materials scientists have pushed the limits of origami by making flat pieces bendable, this design instead stretches the hinges, says Jesse Silverberg, a physicist at Harvard University who wasn’t part of the study. Such a design has been observed and discussed, but never before been implemented in this way.
The earwig “is a beautiful example of how nature uses slight extensions to ideal mathematical origami to do something amazing,” says Itai Cohen, a physicist at Cornell University who wasn’t part of the study.
Perhaps that’s a slight redemption for the much-maligned insect.
The Chugach people of southern Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula have picked berries for generations. Tart blueberries and sweet, raspberry-like salmonberries — an Alaska favorite — are baked into pies and boiled into jams. But in the summer of 2009, the bushes stayed brown and the berries never came.
For three more years, harvests failed. “It hit the communities very hard,” says Nathan Lojewski, the forestry manager for Chugachmiut, a nonprofit tribal consortium for seven villages in the Chugach region. The berry bushes had been ravaged by caterpillars of geometrid moths — the Bruce spanworm (Operophtera bruceata) and the autumnal moth (Epirrita autumnata). The insects had laid their eggs in the fall, and as soon as the leaf buds began growing in the spring, the eggs hatched and the inchworms nibbled the stalks bare.
Chugach elders had no traditional knowledge of an outbreak on this scale in the region, even though the insects were known in Alaska. “These berries were incredibly important. There would have been a story, something in the oral history,” Lojewski says. “As far as the tribe was concerned, this had not happened before.”
At the peak of the multiyear outbreak, the caterpillars climbed from the berry bushes into trees. The pests munched through foliage from Port Graham, at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, to Wasilla, north of Anchorage, about 300 kilometers away. In summer, thick brown-gray layers of denuded willows, alders and birches lined the mountainsides above stretches of Sitka spruce. Two summers ago, almost a decade after the first infestation, the moths returned. “We got a few berries, but not as many as we used to,” says Chugach elder Ephim Moonin Sr., whose house in the village of Nanwalek is flanked by tall salmonberry bushes. “Last year, again, there were hardly any berries.” For more than 35 years, satellites circling the Arctic have detected a “greening” trend in Earth’s northernmost landscapes. Scientists have attributed this verdant flush to more vigorous plant growth and a longer growing season, propelled by higher temperatures that come with climate change. But recently, satellites have been picking up a decline in tundra greenness in some parts of the Arctic. Those areas appear to be “browning.” Like the salmonberry harvesters on the Kenai Peninsula, ecologists working on the ground have witnessed browning up close at field sites across the circumpolar Arctic, from Alaska to Greenland to northern Norway and Sweden. Yet the bushes bereft of berries and the tinder-dry heaths (low-growing shrubland) haven’t always been picked up by the satellites. The low-resolution sensors may have averaged out the mix of dead and living vegetation and failed to detect the browning.
Scientists are left to wonder what is and isn’t being detected, and they’re concerned about the potential impact of not knowing the extent of the browning. If it becomes widespread, Arctic browning could have far-reaching consequences for people and wildlife, affecting habitat and atmospheric carbon uptake and boosting wildfire risk.
Growing greenbelt The Arctic is warming two to three times as fast as the rest of the planet, with most of the temperature increase occurring in the winter. Alaska, for example, has warmed 2 degrees Celsius since 1949, and winters in some parts of the state, including southcentral Alaska and the Arctic interior, are on average 5 degrees C warmer.
An early effect of the warmer climate was a greener Arctic. More than 20 years ago, researchers used data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather satellites to assess a decade of northern plant growth after a century of warming. The team compared different wavelengths of light — red and near-infrared — reflecting off vegetation to calculate the NDVI, the normalized difference vegetation index. Higher NDVI values indicate a greener, more productive landscape. In a single decade — from 1981, when the first satellite was launched, to 1991 — the northern high latitudes had become about 8 percent greener, the researchers reported in 1997 in Nature.
The Arctic ecosystem, once constrained by cool conditions, was stretching beyond its limits. In 1999 and 2000, researchers cataloged the extent and types of vegetation change in parts of northern Alaska using archival photographs taken during oil exploration flyovers between 1948 and 1950. In new images of the same locations, such as the Kugururok River in the Noatak National Preserve, low-lying tundra plants that once grew along the riverside terraces had been replaced by stands of white spruce and green alder shrubs. At some of the study’s 66 locations, shrub-dominated vegetation had doubled its coverage from 10 to 20 percent. Not all areas showed a rise in shrub abundance, but none showed any decrease.
In 2003, Howard Epstein, a terrestrial ecologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and colleagues looked to the satellite record, which now held another decade of data. Focusing on Alaska’s North Slope, which lies just beyond the crown of the Brooks Range and extends to the Beaufort Sea, the researchers found that the highest NDVI values, or “peak greenness,” during the growing season had increased nearly 17 percent between 1981 and 2001, in line with the warming trend. Earth-observing satellites have been monitoring the Arctic tundra for almost four decades. In that time, the North Slope, the Canadian low Arctic tundra and eastern Siberia have become especially green, with thicker and taller tundra vegetation and shrubs expanding northward. “If you look at the North Slope of Alaska, if you look at the overall trend, it’s greening like nobody’s business,” says Uma Bhatt, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Yet parts of the Arctic, including the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta of western Alaska, the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (the islands north of the mainland that give Canada its pointed tip) and the northwestern Siberian tundra, show extensive browning over the length of the satellite record, from the early 1980s to 2016. “It could just be a reduction in green vegetation. It doesn’t necessarily mean the widespread death of plants,” Epstein says. Scientists don’t yet know why plant growth there has slowed or reversed — or whether the satellite signal is in some way misleading.
“All the models indicated for a long time that we would expect greening with warmer temperatures and higher productivity in the tundra, so long as it wasn’t limited in some other way, like [by lower] moisture,” says Scott Goetz, an ecologist and remote-sensing specialist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. He is also the science team lead for ABoVE, NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, which is tracking ecosystem changes in Alaska and western Canada. “Many of us were quite surprised … that the Arctic was suddenly browning. It’s something we need to resolve.”
Freeze-dried tundra While global warming has propelled widespread trends in tundra greening, extreme winter weather can spur local browning events. In recent years, in some parts of the Arctic, extraordinary warm winter weather, sometimes paired with rainfall, has put tundra vegetation under enormous stress and caused plants to lose freeze resistance, dry up or die — and turn brown.
Gareth Phoenix, a terrestrial ecologist at the University of Sheffield in England, recalls his shock at seeing a series of midwinter timelapse photos taken in 2001 at a research site outside the town of Abisko in northern Sweden. In the space of a couple of days, the temperature shot up from −16° C to 6° C, melting the tundra’s snow cover. “As an ecologist, you’re thinking, ‘Whoa! Those plants would usually be nicely insulated under the snow,’ ” he says. “Suddenly, they’re being exposed because all the snow has melted. What are the consequences of that?”
Arctic plants survive frigid winters thanks to that blanket of snow and physiological changes, known as freeze resistance, that allow plants to freeze without damage. But once the plants awaken in response to physical cues of spring — warmer weather, longer days — and experience bud burst, they lose that ability to withstand frigid conditions. That’s fine if spring has truly arrived. But if it’s just a winter heat wave and the warm air mass moves on, the plants become vulnerable as temperatures return to seasonal norms. When temporary warm air covers thousands of square kilometers at once, plant damage occurs over large areas. “These landscapes can look like someone’s gone through with a flamethrower,” Phoenix says. “It’s quite depressing. You’re there in the middle of summer, and everything’s just brown.”Jarle Bjerke, a vegetation ecologist at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research in Tromsø, saw browning across northern Norway and Sweden in 2008. The landscape — covered in mats of crowberry, an evergreen shrub with bright green sausagelike needles — was instead shades of brown, red-brown and grayish brown. “We saw it everywhere we went, from the mountaintops to the coastal heaths,” Bjerke says. Bjerke, Phoenix and other researchers continue to find brown vegetation in the wake of winter warming events. Long periods of mild winter weather have rolled over the Svalbard archipelago, the cluster of islands in the Arctic Ocean between Norway and the North Pole, in the last decade. The snow melted or blew away, exposing the ground-hugging plants. Some became encrusted in ice following a once-unheard-of midwinter rainfall. In 2015, the Arctic bell heather, whose small white flowers brighten Arctic ridges and heaths, were brown that summer, gray the next and then the leaves fell off. “It’s not new that plants can die during mild winters,” Bjerke says. “The new thing is that it is now happening several winters in a row.”
Insect invasion The weather needn’t always be extreme to harm plants in the Arctic. With warmer winters and summers, leaf-eating insects have thrived, defoliating bushes and trees beyond the insects’ usual range. “They’re very visual events,” says Rachael Treharne, an Arctic ecologist who completed her Ph.D. at the University of Sheffield and now works at ClimateCare, a company that helps organizations reduce their climate impact. She remembers being in the middle of an autumnal moth outbreak in northern Sweden one summer. “There were caterpillars crawling all over the plants — and us. We’d wake up with them in our beds.”
In northernmost Norway, Sweden and Finland in the mid-2000s, successive bursts of geometrid moths defoliated 10,000 square kilometers of mountain birch forest — an area roughly the size of Puerto Rico. The outbreak was one of Europe’s most abrupt and large-scale ecosystem disturbances linked to climate change, says Jane Jepsen, an Arctic ecologist at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research. “These moth species benefit from a milder winter, spring and summer climate,” Jepsen says. Moth eggs usually die at around −30° C, but warmer winters have allowed more eggs of the native autumnal moth to survive. With warmer springs, the eggs hatch earlier in the year and keep up with the bud burst of the mountain birch trees. Another species — the winter moth (O. brumata), found in southern Norway, Sweden and Finland — expanded northward during the outbreak. The spring and summer warmth favored the larvae, which ate more and grew larger, and the resulting hardier female moths laid more eggs in the fall.
While forests that die off can grow back over several decades, some of these mountain birches may have been hammered too hard, Jepsen says. In some places, the forest has given way to heathland. Ecological transitions like this could be long-lasting or even permanent, she says.
Smoldering lands Once rare, wildfires may be one of the north’s main causes of browning. As grasses, shrubs and trees across the region dry up, they are being set aflame with increasing frequency, with fires covering larger areas and leaving behind dark scars. For example, in early 2014 in the Norwegian coastal municipality of Flatanger, sparks from a power line ignited the dry tundra heath, destroying more than 100 wooden buildings in several coastal hamlets.
Sparsely populated places, where lightning is the primary cause of wildfires, are also seeing an uptick in wildfires. Scientists say lightning strikes are becoming more frequent as the planet warms. The number of lightning-sparked fires has risen 2 to 5 percent per year in Canada’s Northwest Territories and Alaska over the last four decades, earth system scientist Sander Veraverbeke of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and his colleagues reported in 2017 in Nature Climate Change.
In 2014, the Northwest Territories had 385 fires, which burned 34,000 square kilometers. The next year, 766 fires torched 20,600 square kilometers of the Alaskan interior — accounting for about half the total area burned in the entire United States in 2015.
In the last two years, wildfires sent plumes of smoke aloft in western Greenland (SN: 3/17/18, p. 20) and in the northern reaches of Sweden, Norway and Russia, places where wildfires are uncommon. Wildfire activity within a 30-year period could quadruple in Alaska by 2100, says a 2017 report in Ecography. Veraverbeke expects to see “more fires in the Arctic in the future.”
The loss of wide swaths of plants could have wide-ranging local effects. “These plants are the foundation of the terrestrial Arctic food webs,” says Isla Myers-Smith, a global change ecologist at the University of Edinburgh. The shriveled landscapes can leave rock ptarmigan, for example, which rely heavily on plants, without enough food to eat in the spring. The birds’ predators, such as the arctic fox, may feel the loss the following year.
The effects of browning may be felt beyond the Arctic, which holds about half of the planet’s terrestrial carbon. The boost in tundra greening allows the region to store, or “sink,” more carbon during the growing season. But carbon uptake may slow if browning events continue, as expected in some regions.
Treharne, Phoenix and colleagues reported in February in Global Change Biology that on the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway, extreme winter conditions cut in half the heathlands’ ability to trap carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during the growing season.
Yet there’s still some uncertainty about how these browned tundra ecosystems might change in the long-term. As the land darkens, the surface absorbs more heat and warms up, threatening to thaw the underlying permafrost and accelerate the release of methane and carbon dioxide. Some areas might switch from being carbon sinks to carbon sources, Phoenix warns.
On the other hand, other plant species — with more or less capacity to take up carbon — could move in. “I’m still of the view that [these areas] will go through these short-term events and continue on their trajectory of greater productivity,” Goetz says.
A better view The phenomena that cause browning events — extreme winter warming, insect outbreaks, wildfires — are on the rise. But browning events are tough to study, especially in winter, because they’re unpredictable and often occur in hard-to-reach areas. Ecologists working on the ground would like the satellite images and the NDVI maps to point to areas with unusual vegetation growth — increasing or decreasing. But many of the browning events witnessed by researchers on the ground have not been picked up by the older, lower-resolution satellite sensors, which scientists still use. Those sensors oversimplify what’s on the ground: One pixel covers an area 8 kilometers by 8 kilometers. “The complexity that’s contained within a pixel size that big is pretty huge,” Myers-Smith says. “You have mountains, or lakes, or different types of tundra vegetation, all within that one pixel.” At a couple of recent workshops on Arctic browning, remote-sensing experts and ecologists tried to tackle the problem. “We’ve been talking about how to bring the two scales together,” Bhatt says. New sensors, more frequent snapshots, better data access and more computing power could help scientists zero in on the extent and severity of browning in the Arctic.
Researchers have begun using Google Earth Engine’s massive collection of satellite data, including Landsat images at a much better resolution of 30 meters by 30 meters per pixel. Improved computational capabilities also enable scientists to explore vegetation change close up. The European Space Agency’s recently launched Sentinel Earth-observing satellites can monitor vegetation growth with a pixel size of 10 meters by 10 meters. Says Myers-Smith: “That’s starting to get to a scale that an ecologist can grapple with.”
In other star systems, some moons could escape their planets and start orbiting their stars instead, new simulations suggest. Scientists have dubbed such liberated worlds “ploonets,” and say that current telescopes may be able to find the wayward objects.
Astronomers think that exomoons — moons orbiting planets that orbit stars other than the sun — should be common, but efforts to find them have turned up empty so far (SN Online: 4/30/19). Astrophysicist Mario Sucerquia of the University of Antioquia in Medellín, Colombia and colleagues simulated what would happen to those moons if they orbited hot Jupiters, gas giants that lie scorchingly close to their stars (SN: 7/8/17, p. 4). Many astronomers think that hot Jupiters weren’t born so close, but instead migrated toward their star from a more distant orbit. As the gas giant migrates, the combined gravitational forces of the planet and the star would inject extra energy into the moon’s orbit, pushing the moon farther and farther from its planet until eventually it escapes, the researchers report June 27 at arXiv.org.
“This process should happen in every planetary system composed of a giant planet in a very close-in orbit,” Sucerquia says. “So ploonets should be very frequent.”
Some ploonets may be indistinguishable from ordinary planets. Others, whose orbits keep them close to their planet, could reveal their presence by changing the timing of when their neighbor planet crosses, or transits, in front of the star. The ploonet should stay close enough to the planet that its gravity can speed or slow the planet’s transit times. Those deviations should be detectable by combining data from planet-hunting telescopes like NASA’s TESS or the now-defunct Kepler, Sucerquia says. Ploonethood may be a relatively short-lived phenomenon, though, making the worlds more difficult to spot. About half of the ploonets in the researchers’ simulations crashed into either their planet or star within about half a million years. And half of the remaining survivors crashed within a million years.
Even with few visible survivors, ploonets could help explain some bizarre exoplanetary features. Moon debris from such crashes could lead to giant ring systems around planets, like the 37 rings that encircle exoplanet J1407b, the team says.
Or, if the ploonet had an icy surface or an atmosphere before moving close to its star, the star’s heat would evaporate it, giving the ploonet a tail like a comet’s. Evaporating ploonets zipping by with a long light-blocking tail could explain strangely flickering stars like Tabby’s star, Sucerquia says (SN: 12/22/18, p. 9).
“Those structures [rings and flickers] have been discovered, have been observed,” Sucerquia says. “We just propose a natural mechanism to explain [them].”
While the solar system doesn’t have any hot Jupiters, ploonethood may be possible here, too. Earth’s moon is moving slowly away from the Earth, at a rate of about 4 centimeters per year. When it eventually breaks free, “the moon is a potential ploonet,” Sucerquia says — although that won’t happen for about 5 billion years.
The study is a good first step for thinking about what would happen to exomoons in real planetary systems, says planetary astrophysicist Natalie Hinkel of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, who wasn’t involved in the new work. “Nobody’s looked at the problem quite like this,” she says. “It adds to the layers of how complex these systems are.”
Plus, ploonet is “a wonderful name,” Hinkel says. “Normally I sort of eye-roll at these made-up names, but this one is a keeper.”
A praying mantis depends on precision targeting when hunting insects. Now, scientists have identified nerve cells that help calculate the depth perception required for these predators’ surgical strikes.
In addition to providing clues about insect vision, the principles of these cells’ behavior, described June 28 in Nature Communications, may also lead to advances in robot vision or other automated systems.
So far, praying mantises are the only insects known to be able to see in 3-D. In the new study, neuroscientist Ronny Rosner of Newcastle University in England and colleagues used a tiny theater that played praying mantises’ favorite films — moving disks that mimic bugs. The disks appeared in three dimensions because the insects’ eyes were covered with different colored filters, creating minuscule 3-D glasses. As a praying mantis watched the films, electrodes monitored the behavior of individual nerve cells in the optic lobe, a brain structure responsible for many aspects of vision. There, researchers found four types of nerve cells that seem to help merge the two different views from each eye into a complete 3-D picture, a skill that human vision cells use to sense depth, too.
One cell type called a TAOpro neuron possesses three elaborate, fan-shaped bundles that receive incoming visual information. Along with the three other cell types, TAOpro neurons are active when each eye’s view of an object is different, a mismatch that’s needed for depth perception.
The details of the various types of nerve cells, and how they might receive, combine and send visual information, suggest that these insects’ vision may be more sophisticated than some scientists had thought, the team writes. And the principles guiding praying mantis depth perception may be useful to researchers working on improving machine vision, perhaps allowing artificial systems to better sense the depths of objects.
A new biomaterial delivered to the heart soon after a heart attack can heal damaged tissue from the inside out.
Heart attacks kill cardiac muscle tissue, scarring the heart and leaving permanent damage after just six hours. The damage prevents the heart from functioning properly. If there was a way to begin healing damaged tissue soon after a heart attack, doctors could prevent scar tissue from developing.
“In an ideal world, you treat a patient immediately when they’re having a heart attack to try to salvage some of the tissue and promote regeneration,” says Karen Christman, a bioengineer at the University of California, San Diego. The pursuit of this ideal inspired Christman, along with a team of researchers, to develop the biomaterial. In rodents and pigs, it appears to repair tissue damage and reduce inflammation directly after a heart attack, Christman and colleagues report December 29 in Nature Biomedical Engineering.
“I think it has a lot of potential,” Vimala Bharadwaj, a biomedical scientist at Stanford University who was not involved in the research. The paper “is definitely good proof of concept for what they’re trying to do.”
Previously, researchers found that stem cells derived from body fat can be used to heal bones, muscles and the heart (SN: 3/9/16). Christman wanted to work with the extracellular matrix, the lattice of proteins that provide structural support to the cells in cardiac muscle tissue. Like stems cells, it has regenerative abilities but is much less expensive, she says.
In 2009, Christman’s team produced a hydrogel using particles from this matrix. Trials in rats and later in humans showed that the material bonded to damaged areas and promoted cell repair and growth. However, due to relatively large particles of the hydrogel, it could be delivered to the heart only via a needle.
“Poking the heart with a needle could set off an arrhythmia,” says Christman. To use this treatment, doctors would need to wait a few weeks until the heart is more stable and the chance of these irregular heartbeats decreases. And that would be too late to prevent scarring.
The team took the previously created hydrogel, sifted out the larger particles with a centrifuge so only nanoparticles remained, and added water to dilute the mixture. That created a material thin enough to deliver to heart blood vessels intravenously. Based on the nanoparticles’ size, the team expected the mixture would slip through any gaps in cardiac blood vessels caused by the heart attack and adhere to the surrounding tissue. Once there, it would create a protective barrier while the heart healed.
Instead, animal experiments showed that the extracellular matrix material bound to the leaky vessels, preventing some inflammatory cells from moving into the heart tissue in the first place and causing further damage. The material reduced inflammation in the heart and stimulated the healing process by encouraging cell growth, the team reports.
Further safety studies will be needed to get the biomaterial ready for clinical trials. The first trial in humans will most likely be for repairing cardiac tissue post–heart attack. “A lot of my motivation is moving things out of the lab, actually into the real world,” Christman says.
Another real-world application of the biomaterial could be treatment for leaky blood vessels in other hard-to-access organs, including in the brain after a traumatic injury, Christman notes.
While Bharadwaj finds that application potentially promising, she says tests are needed to see whether the biomaterial improves headaches and cognitive or memory deficits in the brain after a traumatic injury. That’s needed to gauge whether it really is an effective TBI treatment.
As early as 252 million years ago, some plants may have curled up their leaves at night for a cozy “sleep.”
Fossilized leaves of two now-extinct Gigantonoclea species bear signs of nyctinasty, or circadian rhythmic folding at night, researchers report February 15 in Current Biology. That would make these specimens the first known fossilized examples of this curious plant behavior, the team says.
The two leaf fossils were discovered in a rock layer in southwestern China that dates to between 259 million and 252 million years ago. In both species, the leaves were broad, with serrated edges. But most curiously, they bear oddly symmetrical holes. Insects made those holes while feeding on the leaves while they were folded, say paleontologist Zhuo Feng of Yunnan University in Kunming, China and colleagues. Similar symmetrical patterns of insect damage in leaf fossils can be used to distinguish folding behavior from leaves that might have shriveled as the plant died, the team says.
Modern plants, including many in the legume family such as the orchid tree, that fold and unfold their leaves use specialized cells called pulvinus cells, which act somewhat like muscles (SN: 2/3/23). By shifting water from one part of the leaf to another, the cells can bloat or deflate, allowing the leaves to fold or curl.
These cells would be at the base of the leaves, which weren’t preserved in the fossils, so it’s not possible to say whether these ancient plants also had pulvinus cells, the team says. Although it’s also hard to prove this was nighttime behavior, the leaves would also have had to be folded long enough for insects to do their munching. But the find does suggest that such leaf folding emerged independently in different plant lineages: Nearly all the modern plants that do this are angiosperms, or flowering plants. But Gigantonoclea plants were gymnosperms, seed-producing plants such as conifers and ginkgos.
A focus on family might be the key to personal well-being.
Surveys in the social sciences, such as those measuring happiness or health, tend to focus on the smallest unit: the individual. But two new studies, each surveying over 10,000 people worldwide, show that primary unit of analysis may need scaling up. One study suggests that people adhere to public health guidelines less to protect themselves than their loved ones. And the other study provides an explanation for why that may be the case: People the world over prioritize family happiness over their own. Neither research team defined the term “family,” instead allowing respondents to interpret the term as they saw fit. As such, the results suggest that the exact nature of family, whether nuclear, blood-related or extended, does not matter.
The findings have important implications for society, says Karen Bogenschneider, a family policy expert at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who was not involved with either study. That’s because policy makers occasionally rely on research findings to develop programs such as those aimed at reducing substance abuse or inequality. When researchers frame societal issues in terms of the individual or community, so too do policy makers. And those programs may be less effective as a result.
For instance, several studies in the past couple decades have shown that including family members in addiction treatment programs lowers the addict’s risk of relapse and improves family relationships.
Moreover, these studies challenge the assumption that individualism has turned the self into the most important unit of survival (SN: 10/7/19).
Family bonds drove individuals to adopt pandemic-related health behaviors The idea that policy makers can target family to change behavior comes as no surprise to Martha Newson, an anthropologist at Kent University in England. For years, Newson has studied a concept known as fusion, where an individual becomes so enmeshed in a larger social unit that she or he is willing to sacrifice personal well-being, or even survival, for the group (SN: 6/23/16).
At the onset of the pandemic, Newson and her team began studying how social fusion might be influencing behavior around the world during the pandemic. From March to May 2020, over 13,000 participants from 122 countries were shown a sequence of five pictures, each with two circles, one for the self and the other for a given group such as family, country or all of humankind. In the first picture, the circles are far apart, but in subsequent pictures they grow closer and closer together until they fully overlap. Participants had to select one of the five pictures to indicate their level of fusion with the group. A participant had to select the fully overlapping circles to be considered fused to the group.
Participants also filled out scales to indicate how much they had performed a given public health action, such as social distancing or masking, in the previous week.
Participants who were fused to family were overrepresented among those reporting strong adherence to public health guidelines, Newson and colleagues reported January 13 in Science Advances. For instance, despite representing roughly a quarter of the participant pool, participants with strong family bonds constituted three-quarters of those who reported following social distancing guidelines. And almost half of participants with strong family bonds reported frequent handwashing compared with about one-third of participants with weaker family bonds.
Humans evolved in small-scale societies, Newson says. “When we have crises … these smaller units remain very important.”
On average, people value family happiness more than their own Meanwhile, another group of researchers had begun to question the widely accepted belief that many happy individuals sum up to a happy society. That idea originated in the West, and has often been treated as universal, says Kuba Krys, a cross-cultural psychologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.
But research over the years has indicated that non-Westerners may not value personal happiness as much as people in the West. For instance, outside the West, people tend to see happiness as more interdependent, or grounded in harmony and balance with others, than independent, or grounded in the self.
If happiness exists at least partially outside the individual, then Krys and his team wondered what unit researchers should study. They looked to family.
The team had roughly 13,000 participants from 49 countries indicate how much the perfect or ideal person would agree with statements in two commonly used surveys of well-being. Statements appeared both in the standard “I” framing and in a new family framing. For instance, participants reflected on how the ideal person would respond to both the statements, “In most ways, my life is close to ideal” and “In most ways, the life of my family is close to ideal.”
Nearly half of the participants valued family well-being over personal well-being, while less than a third preferred their own happiness, the team reports in an upcoming paper in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. Moreover, participants in even the most individualistic countries, including the United States, valued family, on average, more than self. The word “family” has become associated with conservativism, Krys says. But family remains central to people’s lives, regardless of geography or political affiliation. “The shape of family has changed but family as an idea, as a basic unit, has not changed,” he says. “I would advise progressives … not to be afraid of touching on family topics.”
Bogenschneider’s research backs up this point. In a study of more than 200 state legislators, she and colleagues found that while abortion and same-sex marriage remain highly polarized, policy makers tend to view other family issues, such as those involving domestic violence, juvenile crime or teen pregnancy, as largely bipartisan.
This suggests that issues that aren’t typically centered around family, such as climate change or inequality, could be framed in terms of family to garner wider support, Bogenschneider says. Researchers who are seeking to translate their findings into policy and advocates who are advancing particular causes could, she adds, “elevate policy makers’ interest in those issues by focusing on families and family contributions.”
It turns out that certain behaviors in domestic cats could be telltale signs that an interaction is friendly, aggressive or something in between, researchers report January 26 in Scientific Reports.
“It is a question we hear a lot from cat owners,” says cat behavior expert Mikel Delgado of Feline Minds, a cat behavior consulting company in Sacramento, Calif., who was not involved in the study. “So I was excited to see that researchers are taking on this topic.” Scientists have studied cats’ social relationships — both with other cats and humans — but it can be tricky to tell whether two cats are playing or fighting, says veterinarian and cat behavior researcher Noema Gajdoš-Kmecová of the University of Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy in Košice, Slovakia (SN: 9/23/19).
Sometimes cat owners miss the signs of a tense relationship because they think their pets are just playing, which can lead to stress and illness in the animals, she says. Other times, owners rehome their cats after incorrectly assuming their pets are fighting.
To assess and categorize interactions, Gajdoš-Kmecová and colleagues watched about 100 videos of different cats interacting in pairs. After viewing around one-third of the videos, Gajdoš-Kmecová identified six types of behaviors, including wrestling and staying still. She then watched all of the videos and noted how often each cat exhibited one of the specified behaviors, and for how long. By running statistical analyses on the behaviors, she pinpointed three types of interactions between the cat pairs: playful, aggressive and intermediate.
To confirm the outcome, other members of the team also watched the videos and classified each interaction between felines.
Some clear connections emerged. Quietly wrestling, for instance, suggested playtime, whereas chasing and vocalizations, like growling, hissing or gurgling, implied aggressive encounters.
Intermediate interactions had elements of both playful and aggressive encounters, but especially included prolonged activity of one cat toward the other, such as pouncing on or grooming its fellow feline. These in-between encounters could hint that one cat wants to keep playing while the other doesn’t, with the more playful cat gently nudging to see if its partner wants to continue, the authors say. This work provides initial insights into cat interactions, Gajdoš-Kmecová says, but it’s just the start. In the future, she plans to study more subtle behaviors, like ear twitches and tail swishes. Both Gajdoš-Kmecová and Delgado also stress that one contentious encounter doesn’t necessarily signal a cat-astrophic relationship.
“This is not just about one interaction,” Gajdoš-Kmecová says. Owners “really should look into the different, multiple interactions in multiple periods of life of the cats and then put it into context.”
The night sky has been brightening faster than researchers realized, thanks to the use of artificial lights at night. A study of more than 50,000 observations of stars by citizen scientists reveals that the night sky grew about 10 percent brighter, on average, every year from 2011 to 2022.
In other words, a baby born in a region where roughly 250 stars were visible every night would see only 100 stars on their 18th birthday, researchers report in the Jan. 20 Science. The perils of light pollution go far beyond not being able to see as many stars. Too much brightness at night can harm people’s health, send migrating birds flying into buildings, disrupt food webs by drawing pollinating insects toward lights instead of plants and may even interrupt fireflies trying to have sex (SN: 8/2/17; SN: 8/12/15).
“In a way, this is a call to action,” says astronomer Connie Walker of the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory in Tucson. “People should consider that this does have an impact on our lives. It’s not just astronomy. It impacts our health. It impacts other animals who cannot speak for themselves.”
Walker works with the Globe at Night campaign, which began in the mid-2000s as an outreach project to connect students in Arizona and Chile and now has thousands of participants worldwide. Contributors compare the stars they can see with maps of what stars would be visible at different levels of light pollution, and enter the results on an app.
“I’d been quite skeptical of Globe at Night” as a tool for precision research, admits physicist Christopher Kyba of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam. But the power is in the sheer numbers: Kyba and colleagues analyzed 51,351 individual data points collected from 2011 to 2022.
“The individual data are not precise, but there’s a whole lot of them,” he says. “This Globe at Night project is not just a game; it’s really useful data. And the more people participate, the more powerful it gets.”
Those data, combined with a global atlas of sky luminance published in 2016, allowed the team to conclude that the night sky’s brightness increased by an average 9.6 percent per year from 2011 to 2022 (SN: 6/10/16).
Most of that increase was missed by satellites that collect brightness data across the globe. Those measurements saw just a 2 percent increase in brightness per year over the last decade. There are several reasons for that, Kyba says. Since the early 2010s, many outdoor lights have switched from high-pressure sodium lightbulbs to LEDs. LEDs are more energy efficient, which has environmental benefits and cost savings.
But LEDs also emit more short-wavelength blue light, which scatters off particles in the atmosphere more than sodium bulbs’ orange light, creating more sky glow. Existing satellites are not sensitive to blue wavelengths, so they underestimate the light pollution coming from LEDs. And satellites may miss light that shines toward the horizon, such as light emitted by a sign or from a window, rather than straight up or down.
Astronomer and light pollution researcher John Barentine was not surprised that satellites underestimated the problem. But “I was still surprised by how much of an underestimate it was,” he says. “This paper is confirming that we’ve been undercounting light pollution in the world.”
The good news is that no major technological breakthroughs are needed to help fix the problem. Scientists and policy makers just need to convince people to change how they use light at night — easier said than done.
“People sometimes say light pollution is the easiest pollution to solve, because you just have to turn a switch and it goes away,” Kyba says. “That’s true. But it’s ignoring the social problem — that this overall problem of light pollution is made by billions of individual decisions.”
Some simple solutions include dimming or turning off lights overnight, especially floodlighting or lights in empty parking lots.
Kyba shared a story about a church in Slovenia that switched from four 400-watt floodlights to a single 58-watt LED, shining behind a cutout of the church to focus the light on its facade. The result was a 96 percent reduction in energy use and much less wasted light , Kyba reported in the International Journal of Sustainable Lighting in 2018. The church was still lit up, but the grass, trees and sky around it remained dark.
“If it was possible to replicate that story over and over again throughout our society, it would suggest you could really drastically reduce the light in the sky, still have a lit environment and have better vision and consume a lot less energy,” he says. “This is kind of the dream.”
Barentine, who leads a private dark-sky consulting firm, thinks widespread awareness of the problem — and subsequent action — could be imminent. For comparison, he points to a highly publicized oil slick fire on the Cuyahoga River, outside of Cleveland, in 1969 that fueled the environmental movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and prompted the U.S. Congress to pass the Clean Water Act.
“I think we’re on the precipice, maybe, of having the river-on-fire moment for light pollution,” he says.
The Arctic today is a hostile place for most primates. But a series of fossils found since the 1970s suggest that wasn’t always the case.
Dozens of fossilized teeth and jaw bones unearthed in northern Canada belonged to two species of early primates — or at least close relatives of primates — that lived in the Arctic around 52 million years ago, researchers report January 25 in PLOS ONE. These remains are the first primate-like fossils ever discovered in the Arctic and tell of a groundhog-sized animal that may have skittered across trees in a swamp that once existed above the Arctic Circle. The Arctic was significantly warmer during that time. But creatures still had to adapt to extreme conditions such as long winter months without sunlight. These challenges make the presence of primate-like creatures in the Arctic “incredibly surprising,” says coauthor Chris Beard, a paleontologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “No other primate or primate relative has ever been found this far north so far.”
Between frigid temperatures, limited plant growth and months of perpetual darkness, living in the modern Arctic isn’t easy. This is especially true for primates, which evolved from small, tree-dwelling creatures that largely fed on fruit (SN: 6/5/13). To this day, most primates — humans and few other outliers like Japan’s snow monkeys excepted — tend to stick to tropical and subtropical forests, largely found around the equator.
But these forests haven’t always been confined to their present location. During the early Eocene Epoch, which started around 56 million years ago, the planet underwent a period of intense warming that allowed forests and their warm-loving residents to expand northward (SN: 11/3/15).
Scientists know about this early Arctic climate in part because of decades of paleontological work on Ellesmere Island in northern Canada. These digs revealed that the area was once dominated by swamps not unlike those found in the southeastern United States today. This ancient, warm, wet Arctic environment was home to a wide array of heat-loving animals, including giant tapirs and crocodile relatives. For the new study, Beard and his colleagues examined dozens of teeth and jawbone fossils found in the area, concluding that they belong to two species, Ignacius mckennai and Ignacius dawsonae. These two species belonged to a now-extinct genus of small mammals that was widespread across North America during the Eocene. The Arctic variants probably made their way north as the planet warmed, taking advantage of the new habitat opening up near the poles.
Scientists have long debated whether this lineage can be considered true primates or whether they were simply close relatives. Regardless, it’s still “really weird and unexpected” to find primates or their relatives in the area, says Mary Silcox, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Toronto Scarborough.
For one thing, Ellesmere Island was already north of the Arctic Circle 52 million years ago. So while conditions may have been warmer and wetter, the swamp was plunged into continuous darkness during the winter months.
Newly arrived Ignacius would have had to adapt to these conditions. Unlike their southern kin, the Arctic Ignacius had unusually strong jaws and teeth suited to eating hard foods, the researchers found. This may have helped these early primates feed on nuts and seeds over the winter, when fruit wasn’t as readily available.
This research can shed light on how animals can adapt to live in extreme conditions. “Ellesmere Island is arguably the best deep time analog for a mild, ice-free Arctic,” says Jaelyn Eberle, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Studying how plants and animals adapted to this remarkable period in Arctic history, Beard says, could offer clues to the Arctic’s future residents.