Me And My Arrow*

*Harry Nilsson’s Song About A Boy And His Dog.

Children get more satisfaction from relationships with their pets than with their brothers or sisters, according to new research from the University of Cambridge. Children also appear to get on even better with their animal companions than with siblings.

The research adds to increasing evidence that household pets may have a major influence on child development, and could have a positive impact on children’s social skills and emotional well-being.

Pets are almost as common as siblings in western households, although there are relatively few studies on the importance of child-pet relationships.

”Anyone who has loved a childhood pet knows that we turn to them for companionship and disclosure, just like relationships between people,” says Matt Cassells, a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the Department of Psychiatry, who led the study. “We wanted to know how strong these relationships are with pets relative to other close family ties. Ultimately this may enable us to understand how animals contribute to healthy child development”

This study, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, was conducted in collaboration with the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, part of Mars Petcare and co-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of a larger study, led by Prof Claire Hughes at the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research. Researchers surveyed 12 year old children from 77 families with one or more pets of any type and more than one child at home. Children reported strong relationships with their pets relative to their siblings, with lower levels of conflict and greater satisfaction in owners of dogs than other kinds of pets.

”Even though pets may not fully understand or respond verbally, the level of disclosure to pets was no less than to siblings,” says Cassels. “The fact that pets cannot understand or talk back may even be a benefit as it means they are completely non-judgmental.

“While previous research has often found that boys report stronger relationships with their pets than girls do, we actually found the opposite. While boys and girls were equally satisfied with their pets, girls reported more disclosure, companionship, and conflict with their pet than did boys, perhaps indicating that girls may interact with their pets in more nuanced ways.”

“Evidence continues to grow showing that pets have positive benefits on human health and community cohesion,” says Dr Nancy Gee, Human-Animal Interaction Research Manager at WALTHAM and a co-author of the study. “The social support that adolescents receive from pets may well support psychological well-being later in life but there is still more to learn about the long term impact of pets on children’s development.”

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Andean Bears

A recent wildlife survey led by SERNANP (Servicio Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas por el Estado) and WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) in the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu in Peru has confirmed that the world-famous site is also home to a biologically important and iconic species: the Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus).

Funded by the Andean Bear Conservation Alliance, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the year-long survey revealed the presence of Andean bears in more than 95 percent of the 368-square-kilometer study area, which includes the famous Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, one of the most visited places in South America. While it was previously known that Andean bears existed in the sanctuary, the new survey’s findings reveal a much wider presence of bears throughout the protected area.

The Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu is classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) and is one of only 35 sites worldwide listed as a mixed natural and cultural site. The findings from this survey are critical for establishing a baseline for future assessments and to plan for the long-term conservation of Andean bears both within and beyond the sanctuary.

“It is amazing that this world famous location is also important habitat for Andean bears,” said Dr. Isaac Goldstein, Coordinator of WCS’s Andean Bear Program. “The results of the survey will help us to understand the needs of this species and how to manage Andean bears in this location.”

With a range stretching from Venezuela to Bolivia, the Andean bear inhabits the mist-shrouded montane forests and upland grasslands of the Andes Mountains and is South America’s only native bear species. The Andean bear is sometimes called the spectacled bear due to yellowish or white patches that surround its eyes. The species features prominently in the cultural fabric of the region, yet much is still unknown about the behaviour and ecology of the Andean bear.

The survey results also show that the Andean bears of Machu Picchu are not an isolated population, but part of a much larger population connected by montane grasslands that occur over an elevation of 3,400 meters (more than 11,000 feet above sea level). Understanding this connectivity will help wildlife managers to maintain the corridors needed for healthy bear populations. The survey itself is part of a larger effort by SERNANP and its partners to monitor Andean bears across the Machupicchu-Choquequirao Landscape, a large mountainous region containing both archeological sites and natural areas.

Fieldwork to collect data on the presence of Andean bears in the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu was conducted between August 2014 and September 2015. A team of more than 30 trained researchers and park officials looked for signs of bears in a variety of habitats in the Machu Picchu protected area, ranging from Andean rainforest to montane grasslands. The study area was divided into sections 16 square kilometres in size (more than 6 square miles, the typical size of a female Andean bear’s range) to evaluate the bear’s presence in the protected area. Researchers looked for bear activity such as scat, footprints, and signs of feeding on terrestrial bromeliads (plants native to tropical and subtropical regions) along 166 kilometers (more than 100 miles) of transects throughout the sanctuary.

In addition to finding signs of bears in most of the sanctuary, the research team also determined that the presence of cattle is a potential risk to Andean bears in the sanctuary. The survey results will help inform the effective management of the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu, the most visited protected area in Peru.

WCS has contributed to extensive research on the ecological needs of the Andean bear throughout its range. In 2014, WCS published the document “Andean Bear Priority Conservation Units in Bolivia and Peru” that consolidated information from 25 Andean bear experts on the distribution of the species and recommendations for conservation. In the U.S., WCS’s Queens Zoo is home to the only Andean bear exhibit in New York City. Queens Zoo Director and Curator Scott Silver serves as Coordinator for the Andean Bear Species Survival Plan (SSP), a cooperative breeding program administered by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that ensures genetic variability within accredited zoo populations.

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Domestic Cats

DNA found at archaeological sites reveals that the origins of our domestic cat are in the Near East and ancient Egypt. Cats were domesticated by the first farmers some 10,000 years ago. They later spread across Europe and other parts of the world via the trade hub of Egypt. The DNA analysis also revealed that most of these ancient cats had stripes: spotted cats were uncommon until the Middle Ages.

Five subspecies of the wildcat Felis silvestris are known today. All skeletons look exactly alike and are indistinguishable from that of our domestic cat. As a result, it’s impossible to see with the naked eye which of these subspecies was domesticated in a distant past. Paleogeneticist Claudio Ottoni and his colleagues from KU Leuven (University of Leuven) and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences set out to look for the answer in the genetic code. They used the DNA from bones, teeth, skin, and hair of over 200 cats found at archaeological sites in the Near East, Africa, and Europe. These remains were between 100 and 9,000 years old.

The DNA analysis revealed that all domesticated cats descend from the African wildcat or Felis silvestris lybica, a wildcat subspecies found in North Africa and the Near East. Cats were domesticated some 10,000 years ago by the first farmers in the Near East. The first agricultural settlements probably attracted wildcats because they were rife with rodents. The farmers welcomed the wildcats as they kept the stocks of cereal grain free from vermin. Over time, man and animal grew closer, and selection based on behaviour eventually led to the domestication of the wildcat.

Migrating farmers took the domesticated cat with them. At a later stage, the cats also spread across Europe and elsewhere via trade hub Egypt. Used to fight vermin on Egyptian trade ships, the cats travelled to large parts of South West Asia, Africa, and Europe. Bones of cats with an Egyptian signature have even been found at Viking sites near the Baltic Sea.

“It’s still unclear, however, whether the Egyptian domestic cat descends from cats imported from the Near East or whether a separate, second domestication took place in Egypt,” says researcher Claudio Ottoni. “Further research will have to show.” The scientists were also able to determine the coat pattern based on the DNA of the old cat bones and mummies. They found that the striped cat was much more common in ancient times. This is also illustrated by Egyptian murals: they always depict striped cats. The blotched pattern did not become common until the Middle Ages.

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See also; Domestic Mice.


 

Innovation

It Takes A Village.

What innovation is and how it can be cultivated are two of the compelling questions raised in a paper exploring the potential for fostering innovation in students published in Technology and Innovation, Journal of the National Academy of Inventors®.

“Relatively little is known about how we can cultivate innovative thinking,” said paper lead author Victor Poirier of the Institute for Advanced Discovery & Innovation at the University of South Florida (USF), “and even less is known about how we can help individuals use and improve their innovative powers.”

According to the authors, innovation can be defined as “the introduction of something new and different” that is created by inspiration and creativity. Innovation, they said, is “critical to improvements in how we live” and provides “social value.” The beginning of the innovative process is usually associated with “a fragmented inspiration” that is further developed by “joining with other fragmented thoughts to finally arrive at a creative inspiration.”

The authors pointed to six key characteristics of innovation:

* The timing of an innovative idea;

* The environment in which the idea is formulated and developed;

* The time to develop an idea or inspiration;

* The time and organisational environment that allows for idea cross-fertilization;

* Learning from errors; and

* The development of an idea in one field that can be adapted in another.

While education may not be able to create innovative traits in individuals, education may be able to improve the ability of individuals to better utilise the traits of creativity and innovation they already possess. However, how do we cultivate innovative thinking processes and unleash the creative powers of the individual? And, by what processes can educators help individuals to better utilise their innovative traits?

“It takes a village,” explained Poirier, pointing out that Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park was an environment in which a variety of minds and skills came together to achieve innovative processes. Innovative industries such as Bell Labs, Xerox, Apple, and Google, as well as many of the federal government’s laboratory systems, such as NIH and NASA, are examples of creative environments that foster innovation collaboratively.

Innovative processes do not always create something new, said the authors. Sometimes they greatly improve something already in existence or help to solve a problem. Motivation, persistence, and goal setting may also be keys to this process.

“Contrary to the view that inspiration is purely mystic or divine, it is best viewed as an interaction between one’s current knowledge and the information one receives from the world,” suggested the authors. “We do not need to try to create innovative characteristics; rather, we simply need to show individuals how to cultivate innovative thought.”

The first step in encouraging and nurturing inspiration and innovation, said Poirier, is to identify the characteristics and traits that can be fostered and developed through education. These include: abstract thinking and problem solving; a desire to ‘fill gaps’; motivation; creativity; curiosity; taking risks with no fear of failure; a positive attitude; persistence and passion; dissatisfaction with what exists; open-mindedness; and vision.

These characteristics can be foundational to an educational process aimed at unleashing the creative and innovative potential that students possess. Therefore, as Poirier explains, our goal is “to develop an educational process whereby we could show individuals how to fully utilise the innovative traits they have, and awaken traits that are dormant.”

The authors acknowledged that there may be roadblocks or resistance to this process from both students and faculty, as there are many who think that innovative thinking is something inborn in the individual and cannot be learned. However, the potential rewards, including an increase in innovative production, are substantial and warrant meeting and overcoming these challenges.

To that end, Poirier and his co-authors are part of a team at the University of South Florida involved in an experimental training program in innovation. They anticipate future publications in which they will report on the results of those efforts.

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Lo No Go

Terms such as no-fat or no-sugar, low-fat or reduced-salt on food packaging may give consumers a sense of confidence before they purchase, but these claims rarely reflect the actual nutritional quality of the food, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The work, which appears in the  Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, rekindles an ongoing debate on what United States regulators consider healthy labeling, as producers and interest groups grapple over rules on nutrition claims on packaged foods and ready-to-drink beverages and consumers contend with how to rationalise a purchase and make healthier choices.

“In many cases, foods containing low-sugar, low-fat or low-salt claims had a worse nutritional profile than those without claims,” explained lead investigator Lindsey Smith Taillie, a research assistant professor in the department of nutrition at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. “In fact, in some cases, products that tend to be high in calories, sodium, sugar or fat may be more likely to have low- or no-content claims.”

For example, a three-cookie serving of reduced-fat Oreos contains four-and-a-half grams of fat compared to seven grams in a serving of full-fat Oreos, but both still contain 14 grams of sugar per serving, which could provide the appearance that the low-fat version is “healthy.” Chocolate low-fat milk is another example. It has the lower fat content but it is higher in sugar relative to plain milk and higher in sugar and fat relative to other beverages.

The issue stems, in part, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowing packaged food and beverage manufacturers to assign labels in different ways for different foods.

As with the examples above, if you are a consumer trying to make a healthy choice, you assume reduced means a healthier product. But that product only has to be reduced in reference to the original food of the same product for that specific nutrient, a reduced-fat cookie, for example. That cookie could also contain higher sugar or sodium, so if consumers are only relying on the reduced claim, they could potentially end up with a less healthy cookie. “Essentially, reduced claims are confusing because they are relative and only about one nutrient,” said Taillie.

Foods with a low claim are equally, if not more, confusing, but for different reasons. The FDA allows a low-fat label on food if that food has less than three grams per reference amount customarily consumed, or RACC. However, that reference point varies across product categories. For example, the RACC for brownies is 40 grams, whereas the RACC for cheesecake is 125 grams.

“A low-fat brownie could have three grams of fat per 40 grams, whereas a low-fat cheesecake” would have to have three grams of fat per 125 grams. So if a consumer were trying to find a lower-fat option for a dessert, the low-fat brownie would have relatively higher fat than the low-fat cheesecake.”

After looking at data that included more than 80 million food and beverage purchases from more than 40,000 households from 2008 to 2012, Taillie and her colleagues at the UNC-Duke USDA Center for Behavioral Economics and Healthy Food Choice Research found that 13 percent of food and 35 percent of beverage purchases had a low-content claim (including no, free, low or reduced) and that low-fat was the most common claim, followed by low-calorie, low-sugar and low-sodium.

Investigators also looked at the groups who were more likely to purchase foods that made these statements. While differences in purchasing patterns by race/ethnicity were not statistically significant, non-Hispanic white households were most likely to buy products with a low-calorie claim and Asian households purchased more foods with low-fat or low-sodium claims. Non-Hispanic black households were the least likely to purchase food groups with any low-content claim.

There was also a connection between socio-economic status and food purchases. Researchers found that high-and middle-income level households were more likely to purchase food and beverages with low-content claims.

A key question for future research, said Taillie, will address how these claims affect consumer choice and how claims interact with other common strategies, such as sales or price promotions, to influence purchasing behaviour and ultimately, dietary quality.

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Domestic Mice

Long before the advent of agriculture, hunter-gatherers began putting down roots in the Middle East, building more permanent homes and altering the ecological balance in ways that allowed the common house mouse to flourish, new research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates.

“The research provides the first evidence that, as early as 15,000 years ago, humans were living in one place long enough to impact local animal communities, resulting in the dominant presence of house mice,” said Fiona Marshall, study co-author and a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s clear that the permanent occupation of these settlements had far-reaching consequences for local ecologies, animal domestication and human societies.”

Marshall, a noted expert on animal domestication, considers the research exciting because it shows that settled hunter-gatherers rather than farmers were the first people to transform environmental relations with small mammals. By providing stable access to human shelter and food, hunter-gatherers led house mice down the path to commensalism, an early phase of domestication in which a species learns how to benefit from human interaction.

The findings have broad implications for the processes that led to animal domestication.

“The findings provide clear evidence that the ways humans have shaped the natural world are tied to varying levels of human mobility,” said Marshall, the James W. and Jean L. Davis Professor in Arts & Sciences. “They suggest that the roots of animal domestication go back to human sedentism thousands of years prior to what has long been considered the dawn of agriculture.”

Led by Thomas Cucchi of National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, France, and Lior Weissbrod of the University of Haifa in Israel, the study set out to explain large swings in the ratio of house mice to wild mice populations found during excavations of different prehistoric periods at an ancient Natufian hunter-gatherer site in the Jordan Valley of Israel.

Examining tiny species-related variations in the molar shapes of fossilized mice teeth dating back as far as 200,000 years, the team built a timeline showing how the populations of different mice fluctuated at the Natufian site during periods of varying human mobility.

The analysis revealed that human mobility influenced competitive relationships between two species of mice; the house mouse (Mus musculus domesticus)and a short-tailed field mouse (M. macedonicus), that continue to live in and around modern settlements in Israel. These relationships are analogous to those of another pair of species called spiny mice which Weissbrod and Marshall discovered among semi-nomadic Maasai herders in southern Kenya.

Findings indicate that house mice began embedding themselves in the Jordan Valley homes of Natufian hunter-gatherers about 15,000 years ago, and that their populations rose and fell based on how often these communities picked up and moved to new locations.

When humans stayed in the same places for long runs of time, house mice out-competed their country cousins to the point of pushing most of them outside the settlement. In periods where drought, food shortages or other conditions forced hunter-gatherers to relocate more often, the populations of house mice and field mice reached a balance similar to that found among modern Maasai herders with similar mobility patterns.

The study confirms that house mice were already a fixture in the domiciles of eastern Mediterranean hunter-gatherer villages more than 3,000 years before the earliest known evidence for sedentary agriculture.

It suggests that the early hunter-gatherer settlements transformed ecological interactions and food webs, allowing house mice that benefited from human settlements to out-compete wild mice and establish themselves as the dominant population.

“The competition between commensal house mice and other wild mice continued to fluctuate as humans became more mobile in arid periods and more sedentary at other times, indicating the sensitivity of local environments to degrees of human mobility and the complexity of human environmental relationships going back in the Pleistocene,” said Weissbrod, currently a research fellow at the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa.

Weissbrod’s research involves analysis of microvertebrate remains from a wide range of prehistoric and historic sites in Israel and the Caucasus dealing with paleoecology and human-ecosystem interactions.

A 2010 graduate of the doctoral program in archaeological anthropology at Washington University, he began research for this study as part of a dissertation examining fluctuations in populations of mice and other small animals living around Maasai cattle herding settlements in Kenya.

Marshall helped Weissbrod to develop the ethnographic context for underlying research questions about the ecological impact of human mobility. Together they built field-based ecological frameworks for understanding changing animal human interactions through time focusing on mice and donkeys.

Working from his lab in Paris, Cucchi used a new technique called geometric morphometrics to identify the mouse fossils and reliably distinguish telltale differences in the miniscule remains of house mice and wild species. The method relies on high resolution imaging and digital analysis to categorize species-related variations in molar outlines nearly as thin as a single millimeter.

The findings, and the techniques used to document them, are important to archaeological research in a broader sense because they lend further support to the idea that fluctuations in ancient mouse populations can be used as a proxy for tracking ancient shifts in human mobility, lifestyle and food domestication.

“These findings suggest that hunter-gatherers of the Natufian culture, rather than later Neolithic farmers, were the first to adopt a sedentary way of life and unintentionally initiated a new type of ecological interaction; close coexistence with commensal species such as the house mouse,” Weissbrod said. “The human dynamic of shifts between mobile and sedentary existence was unraveled in unprecedented detail in the record of fluctuations in proportions of the two species through time.”

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See also; Domestic Cats.


 

Shake The Fake

The WVU Reed College of Media, in collaboration with computer science students and faculty at the WVU Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, is hosting an artificial intelligence (AI) course at its Media Innovation Center that includes two projects focused on using AI to detect and combat fake news articles.

Students in the senior-level computer science elective course are working in teams to develop and implement their own AI programs under the instruction of Don McLaughlin, research associate and retired faculty member of the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering.

Stephen Woerner, a computer science senior, is on one of the teams charged with creating a system that detects fake news articles. His team’s approach utilizes a machine learning system to analyze text and generate a score that represents each article’s likeliness that it is fake news. Woerner added that this score is accompanied by a breakdown that explains the rating and provides transparency.

“Artificial intelligence can have all the same information as people, but it can address the volume of news and decipher validity without getting tired,” Woerner said. “People tend to get political or emotional, but AI doesn’t. It just addresses the problem it’s trained to combat.”

This collaboration with the computer science course serves as an example of the Media Innovation Center’s mission to support initiatives, projects, research and curriculum innovations that intersect its work in technology, media and information networks.

“Fake news isn’t just a media problem,” said the Center’s Creative Director Dana Coester. “It’s also a social and political problem with roots in technology. Solving that problem requires collaborating across disciplines.”

McLaughlin says working at the Center has helped his students this semester, as it suggests a more creative atmosphere than classrooms he’s used in the past.

“I’ve taught this course before, but the students seem to be more enthused this time. We appreciate the space and the breakout areas available for team collaboration here at the Center,” said McLaughlin. “Those amenities are valuable in a university environment.”

Each team will demonstrate their completed AI project during the last week of classes at the Media Innovation Center located in the Evansdale Crossing building.

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