Steve Delahoyde's week in science

Thumbnail image for Flickr/Gilles Gonthier

The following is a piece presented by Steve Delahoyde (husband of at last Saturday's Paper Machete.

This week, while everyone was occupied with either royals or Weiners, there's a chance you may have missed some of the recently-discovered science-y stuff going on; particularly, the kind that involves irritating animals. Let's get you up to speed:

We begin our animal kingdom journey at the Field Museum, where a new species of shrew has been identified. Only the second-known of its kind, the "Thor's Hero Shrew,"  was discovered, according to Scientific American, after analyzing small mammals that "were picked up... near the village of Baleko... in the Democratic Republic of the Congo." What makes this shrew not just a shrew, but a hero shrew, is its incredibly strong spine, which has double the number of vertebra of most mammals. This thing has a crazy strong back.

This shrew's discovery was made using things like x-rays and other science stuff. The original-original hero shrew, however, was discovered in the early 1900s, when scientists first witnessed their tough backs in action by observing Congolese villagers standing directly on top of the critters. Writes Herbert Lang, an explorer, for the Museum of Natural History:

"...a full-grown man weighing some 160 pounds steps barefooted upon the shrew. Steadily trying to balance himself upon one leg, he continues to vociferate several minutes. The poor creature seems certainly to be doomed. But as soon as his tormentor jumps off, the shrew, after a few shivering movements, tries to escape, none the worse for this mad experience and apparently in no need of the wild applause and exhortations from the throng."

This, friends, is science.

No calipers or computers or lab coats. It's just passing through the jungle, seeing a guy standing on top of a shrew, stopping and saying, "We need to check this shit out." And blam-o: new species!

One wonders two things: First, doesn't it seem like an unnecessarily long time to have taken to discover this second species? Couldn't the scientists have found more, more immediately, by simply asking the villagers, "So... are you standing on any other kinds of shrews?", or, alternately, why not just round up a big bag full of a variety of different shrews themselves and stand on each one of them for five or so minutes, seeing which ones didn't suffer terribly, or, you know, die.

The second thing: why did these people start standing on these poor shrews to begin with? Did this happen by accident? Or was there a custom to stand on top of any animal that had the misfortune of wandering into the village, just to see what might happen? If that's the case, is the hero shrew therefore a product of bizarrely-necessary evolution? These are questions that need answers.

Leaving the Congo, we travel to Scotland, a place where you'd think there probably aren't any dolphins, in order to talk about dolphins. In research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, two scientists from the University of St. Andrews have discovered evidence that bottlenose dolphins may have unique names. Reports Wired:

"[Scientists] Janik and King recorded [an individual dolphin's] signature whistles, then broadcast computer-synthesized versions through a hydrophone... The dolphins ignored signatures belonging to other individuals in their groups, as well as unfamiliar whistles. To their own signatures, however, they usually whistled back... Sometimes they simply repeated their signature -- a bit, perhaps, like hearing your name called and shouting back, "Yes, I'm here!"

This, friends, is science.

Imagine, if you will, you're at a crowded bar, such as you are. You're having a good time, talking to your friends, when from across the room, "JASON!"

Huh? Was that? I think that was my...


Did you guys hear that? Hello? I guess someone I know is over there. Excuse me, I'm going to go...


Okay, okay, I'm coming!

And so you wander across the room, through the crowd, and you don't find another person, you just find this box that keeps yelling your name. It yells "JASON!" and you answer, "Umm...yeah?" And then, after awhile, presumably the box then just floats away and you have no idea what that was all about. That's essentially what we're doing to these dolphins. It isn't standing on their backs (though that might be worth trying, just to see what happens), but it still must be irritating and it's still technically science.

Finally, we zip back to the Americas, not pausing to stop in Italy where a rare hybrid Zonkey, a mix of a donkey and a zebra, was born last weekend. We move on because 'Ippo the Zonkey' wasn't created by science, but rather the old fashion way: with a zebra hoping over a low fence and inseminating the neighboring donkey, just as God intended.

Instead, we travel to Mississippi State University, and to the wonderful Science Daily headline, "Simulated Hibernation Aids Toad Work." 

We learn that, in order to help promote egg laying in endangered Boreal toads, scientists were initially stymied that the creatures wouldn't breed in their lab, outside of their natural environment, where the females usually spend six or more sleepy months buried in cool mud. At this point, it occurred to the MSU researchers that maybe that part was important, that possibly the poor lady toads were just too tired and warm to mate.

The researcher's solution was not to buy a bunch of cool mud, but instead build a complicated system that involves sticking the female toads in a plastic box, then moving them into a refrigerator, then a wine chiller, and then a water cooler. A few months later, whamo, egg city.

"We had a 50 percent success rate for both the one-month and three-month hibernations," [an MSU researcher] said. "That is a great success because no female had ever laid eggs in the two years before this test."

This, friends, is science in that similar, fun, irritating-an-animal kind way, but it's maybe too complicated. To this writer, absent of just buying the aforementioned supply of cool mud, it seems as though they could have just found where these toads were living and put a pretty big fence around it, with a sign reading, "Don't bother these toads." That way you wouldn't have had to use so many brain cells wondering why they didn't want to get to mating in a sterile, fluorescently-lit lab in Mississippi.

However, if the underlying goal of all scientific research is to wind up with a bothered animal, maybe we do leave the toads in their natural habitat, but we make it work by adding a creepy webcam, or we send one of the researchers over to sit outside of the fence and ogle them, or better still, we develop a robot that holds a stick and every couple of weeks, the robot pokes one of the toads. Because, really, how else are we going to know if toads don't like being poked with a stick by a robot?

That, ladies and gentlemen, was your week in science.