Crimson rosellas can detect members of their own sub-species by the smell of their feathers.
Image Credit: Courtesy Deakin University
A BIRD’S SENSE of smell may be just as important as its sight in identifying family or potential mates.
Crimson rosellas (Platycercus elegans), colourful parrots that inhabit eastern and south-eastern Australia, can identify their own subspecies based on the odour of another bird’s plumage, according to a new Australian study.
The findings, published recently in the journal Animal Behaviour, represent the first known case of such ability in any bird species.
Birds are well known for using colour as a signal to tell between potential mates or to distinguish their own species, but little is known about their olfactory abilities.
“These results are important and interesting because there is a traditional notion that birds have little to no sense of smell,” says Milla Mihailova, lead author of the paper and PhD student at Deakin University, in Victoria, south east Australia.
In the study, researchers tracked the behaviour of female crimson rosellas incubating eggs on nest-boxes and found they preferentially nest on boxes that smell like an individual of the same subspecies or species.
For the first time since the accident in 1976, workers at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington are planning to clean out the room where chemicals exploded in Harold McCluskey’s face, showering him with radiation 500 times the occupational limit and embedding radioactive americium in his skull, turning him into the Atomic Man.
McCluskey, improbably, survived the incident. (He later said, “Of nine doctors, four thought I had a 50-50 chance and the rest just shook their heads.”) The massive dose of radiation left him with health problems, and decades later, his body still set off Geiger counters.
But the most painful legacy of the explosion was probably the isolation, both physical and social, as other humans shied away from his radioactive body.
When the accident happened on August 30, 1976, McCluskey had just returned to his job as a technician after a five-month strike had shut down the Plutonium Finishing Plant at Hanford.
The material he was working with had become unstable after the long hiatus and so right after he added nitric acid as instructed, it exploded, blowing out the glove box that was supposed to contain it.
His body—now covered in blood and shards of metal and glass—was taken to the decontamination center where he stayed in an isolation of concrete and steel.
Nobody was allowed near him out of fear for the radiation he still emitted.
“Blinded, his hearing damaged by the explosion, McCluskey spent the next three weeks at the unit cut off from personal contact,” described a later profile in People. “Monitored, like an alien, by nurses wearing respirators and protective clothing, he could neither see nor clearly understand the attendants who approached.”
The nurses scrubbed and shaved him every day—the bath towels and bathwater now part of Hanford’s radioactive waste.
He endured 600 shots of zinc DTPA, a drug that binds to radioactive metals.
Harold McCluskey died in 1987.
by Stuart Gary
Australian Aboriginal accounts of lunar and solar eclipses indicate many traditional communities understood the movement of the Sun, Earth and Moon.
The research by Duane Hamacher from Sydney’s Macquarie University and accepted for publication in the journal Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage and appearing on the website arXiv.org, indicates Aboriginal communities in different parts of Australia often have similar traditional stories to explain these events.
According to Hamacher, Aboriginal Australians were careful observers of the night sky, possessing a complex understanding of the motions of astronomical bodies and their correlation with terrestrial events.
This included the passage of time, the movement of tides, changing seasons, and the emergence of particular food sources.
“Aboriginal people used the sky for navigation, marriage and totem classes, as well as cultural mnemonics”, says Hamacher.
Moon Man and Sun Woman
According to Hamacher lunar eclipses are generally seen to have a fairly negative connotation around the world, and Aboriginal traditional culture is no different.
“Many viewed eclipses negatively, frequently associating them with bad omens, evil magic, disease and death,” says Hamacher. “In many communities, elders or medicine men were believed to have the ability to control or avert eclipses by magical means, solidifying their role as provider and protector within the community.”
“That’s often because of the reddish colour the Moon takes on during an eclipse is seen in some traditional culture as blood, meaning someone’s been killed or the ‘Moon Man’ is going into the graves of the diseased and emerging covered in the blood of the dead.”
Hamacher’s research reveals far more stories associated with solar eclipses than lunar ones, despite there being far more lunar eclipses taking place.
“Most solar eclipse stories describe the Moon covering the Sun,” according Hamacher. “Unless you were paying close attention you wouldn’t normally see that, because it happens in the new Moon phase when we can hardly see the Moon”.
“In northern and central Australia, it’s seen as the Moon Man and Sun Woman making love. Other parts of Australia see it as a black bird or possum fur covering the Sun, or the use of some magical means to make the Sun disappear.
Hamacher says some groups, especially in south eastern Australia see the sky as a canopy being held up by spirits.
Slowly, as I discover where to look, animal forms emerge: A lizard rests in the thin shade of a saxaul shrub. A saker falcon lifts off from a distant cliffside. Gerbils poke their heads from burrows.
But many days pass before I finally lay eyes on the animal I crossed half a world to see: a Gobi bear, among the rarest and least known large mammals on Earth. There are perhaps no more than two or three dozen left in the wild, and none live in captivity anywhere.
This male stops at an oasis to sip water, then rests nearby. Elated by our good luck and mesmerized by the sight, my companions and I watch the bear for two hours, from late afternoon to nightfall.
Most bears become active toward day’s end, but this one remains oddly still. When he finally attempts to walk, his gait seems pained and slow. He must have traveled a great distance to reach water, I tell myself, and the journey might have left him exhausted and temporarily lame.
In reality, the bear is dying. A week later a ranger finds his body near the same oasis. The old male had likely emerged from hibernation in poor condition at a time when food plants were just starting to grow.
The starchy, underground tuber of wild rhubarb (at left) is a staple of the Gobi bears’ diet. They also eat golden buttons, which appear after a rare rain.
For over two centuries, Australians have referred to the dingo as their continent’s native dog. But as a new study shows, it’s not really a dog at all, but rather a species in its own right.
The confusion started in the 18th century with a simple drawing and description made by Australia’s first governor, Arthur Phillip.
Since that time, scientists have lacked a proper scientific description of the animal.
Typically, animals have an official description based on an actual specimen (and not just a “rudimentary” illustration) that’s used to distinguish one species from another.
The new study, conducted by Mathew Crowther from the University of Sydney, corrects this oversight.
Scientists now say that dingos are distinct from domestic dogs and a distinct form of canid.
Consequently, scientists have resurrected the species name Canis dingo which was adopted in 1793 by a German naturalist.
Now, this is not to say that dingos and domesticated dogs don’t have a common ancestor. They most certainly do.
Dingoes were introduced to Australia around 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, with genetic evidence suggesting dingos are descended from East Asian domestic dogs.