White-throated sparrows in British Columbia are whistling a new tune and it’s going viral across Canada.
What started as a minor change to a common song has now morphed into a continent-wide phenomenon before our very ears.
“As far as we know, it’s unprecedented,” says biologist Ken Otter from the University of Northern British Columbia, Canada.
“We don’t know of any other study that has ever seen this sort of spread through cultural evolution of a song type.”
When Otter first moved to western Canada in the late 1990s, he heard the white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) singing an unusual tune. Instead of sticking to the species’ usual three-note finish, local sparrow populations were ending their tune on two notes.
Between 2000 and 2019, this small change has travelled over 3,000 kilometres (1,800 miles) from British Columbia (BC) to central Ontario, virtually wiping out a historic song ending that’s been around since the 1950s at least.
No one knows what’s so addictive about this new ending, or why it can’t exist alongside the three-note variant, but scientists are trying to figure it out.
Thanks to citizen scientists, researchers were able to analyse the songs of 1,785 male white-throated sparrows, which were recorded from the 1950s onwards.
While it’s not unusual for populations of sparrows and other birds to change their tunes, it usually remains a regional dialect. It certainly doesn’t spread like the one from BC.
And yet, from Alberta, to Saskatchewan, to Manitoba, this unique ending crossed Canada’s prairie provinces in record time.
“It could well be a “we haven’t noticed it before”,” admits Otter to ScienceAlert.
“Now that there is so many more songs from vast areas being uploaded each year, it is possible to start exploring whether this is a more general phenomenon in other species.”
In 2004, the data show Alberta’s sparrows were still trilling away with the triplet ending typical to the species. Ten years later, all the males in that region had shifted to a doublet ending.
By 2015, it had spread to central Ontario, completely supplanting the three-note ending in the northwest. By 2019, it had reached western Quebec, covering the entire western portion of the species’ geographic range.
Altogether, that’s a linear distance of nearly 3,300 kilometres.
“Within the regions where the doublet-ending song variant spread, it also completely replaced in the process,” the authors write.
“To our knowledge, this is an unprecedented rate of song-type transition in any species of birds.”
Using citizen science databases, like eBird and Xeno-Canto, the new study shows the songs heard on the wintering grounds tend to match up with where the sparrows are from.
“This concentration and intermingling of birds from large portions of the breeding range suggests that the spread of song variants among populations may be facilitated by song tutoring on the wintering grounds,” the authors write.
Incidentally, there are reports that the white-crowned sparrows (Z. leucophrys) sometimes incorporates elements of other dialects during winter singing.
To test this idea, researchers attached geolocators – or what Otter calls ‘tiny backpacks’ – to 50 male sparrows in British Columbia. They then recovered the devices after the animals had migrated, some to the west and others to the east.
Several crossed the Rocky Mountains and entered a new breeding region, which could have feasibly spread the song’s new ending to eastern populations.
“We know that birds sing on the wintering grounds, so juvenile males may be able to pick up new song types if they overwinter with birds from other dialect areas,” says Otter.
“This would allow males to learn new song types in the winter and take them to new locations when they return to breeding grounds, helping explain how the song type could spread.”
Why males end up adopting this new ending is still unclear. Otter says the ending might simply be compelling because it’s unusual and unique. Like many other bird songs, however, it could have to do with females and their preferences.
“In many previous studies, the females tend to prefer whatever the local song type is,” says Otter.
“But in white-throated sparrows, we might find a situation in which the females actually like songs that aren’t typical in their environment. If that’s the case, there’s a big advantage to any male who can sing a new song type.”
And it might be happening again. Researchers are currently watching a new song variant that has suddenly emerged in western sparrow populations and is rapidly spreading.
Perhaps this time, we can figure out why.
The study was published in Current Biology.
Science News Roundup: NASA astronauts cap historic aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon; 'Gnarly' tumor shows dinosaurs got cancer and more – Devdiscourse
Following is a summary of current science news briefs.
NASA astronauts cap historic ‘odyssey’ aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule
U.S. astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who flew to the International Space Station in SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon, splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday after a two-month voyage that was NASA’s first crewed mission from home soil in nine years. Behnken and Hurley, tallying 64 days in space, undocked from the station on Saturday and returned home to land their capsule in calm waters off Florida’s Pensacola coast on schedule at 2:48 p.m. ET following a 21-hour overnight journey aboard Crew Dragon “Endeavor.”
‘Gnarly’ tumor shows dinosaurs got cancer, too
When scientists first unearthed fossils of a horned dinosaur called Centrosaurus in the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park in Canada’s Alberta province in 1989, they spotted a badly malformed leg bone they figured was a healed fracture. A fresh examination, researchers said on Monday, shows something different. The malformation was a manifestation of osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer, making this Centrosaurus, which lived 76 million years ago, the first known example of a dinosaur afflicted by malignant cancer.
Virgin Galactic’s Branson to fly into space in early 2021
Billionaire Richard Branson will fly into space on a Virgin Galactic rocket ship early next year, the space tourism company he founded said on Monday, adding that it would raise new funds with a share offering. Branson’s trip to space hinges on the success of two upcoming test flight programs, Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc said, with the first powered spaceflight scheduled for this fall from Spaceport America.
Scientists inspired by ‘Star Wars’ create artificial skin able to feel
Singapore researchers have developed “electronic skin” capable of recreating a sense of touch, an innovation they hope will allow people with prosthetic limbs to detect objects, as well as feel texture, or even temperature and pain. The device, dubbed ACES, or Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin, is made up of 100 small sensors and is about 1 sq cm (0.16 square inch) in size.
Dinosaurs got cancer too, say scientists – Bangkok Post
OTTAWA – Dinosaurs loom in the imagination as forces of nature, but a new study that identifies the first known case of cancer in the creatures shows they suffered from the debilitating disease too.
A badly malformed Centrosaurus leg bone unearthed in the Alberta, Canada badlands in 1989 had originally been thought by paleontologists to be a healed fracture.
But a fresh examination of the growth under a microscope and using a technique also employed in human cancer care determined it was actually a malignant tumor.
“The cancer discovery makes dinosaurs more real,” study co-author Mark Crowther told AFP.
“We often think of them as mythical creatures, robust and stomping around, but (the diagnosis shows) they suffered from diseases just like people.”
The findings were published in the August issue of The Lancet Oncology.
Most cancers occur in soft tissues, which are not well-preserved in fossil records, noted Crowther, a dinosaur enthusiast and chair of McMaster University’s medical faculty in Canada.
“Oddly enough, under a microscope it looked a lot like human Osteosarcoma,” he said.
“It’s fascinating that this cancer existed tens of millions of years ago and still exists today.”
Osteosarcoma is an aggressive bone cancer that still afflicts about three out of one million people each year.
– ‘Just part of life’ –
In this horned herbivore that lived 76 million to 77 million years ago it had metastasised and likely hobbled the giant lizard, the researchers said in the study.
But neither the late-stage cancer nor a predator looking to make a meal out of slow and weak prey is believed to have killed it.
Because its bones were discovered with more than 100 others from the same herd, the researchers said, it’s more likely they all died in a sudden disaster such as a flood, and that prior to this catastrophe the herd protected the lame dinosaur, extending its life.
Lead researchers Crowther and David Evans, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and their team sifted through hundreds of samples of abnormal bones at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, to find the bone with a tumour, which is about the size of an apple.
The team also used high-resolution computed tomography (CT) scans, a multidisciplinary diagnostic technique used in human cancer care.
Crowther said dinosaurs would probably have been at higher risk of Osteosarcoma, which affects youths with fast-growing bones, because they grew very quickly and big.
“In terms of the biology of cancer,” he said, “you often hear about environmental, dietary and other causes of cancer. Finding a case from more than 75 million years ago you realize it’s just a part of life.”
“You have an animal that surely wasn’t smoking (a leading cause of cancer in humans) and so it shows that cancer is not a recent invention, and that it’s not exclusively linked to our environment.”
‘Mars is looking real’ after SpaceX test rocket sticks 1st upright landing: Elon Musk – Global News
The flight lasted barely 45 seconds and reached just 500 feet (150 metres) Tuesday night at the southeastern tip of Texas near Brownsville, but was an important first for SpaceX’s Starship. Some earlier tests ended in explosions on the pad.
“Mars is looking real,” SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk tweeted after the short hop. “Progress is accelerating.”
Musk said several more short hops are planned before a test version of Starship aims for a high altitude. The latest test model is relatively plain: It stands a full-scale 100 feet (30 metres) tall and resembles a steel silo — or stretched-out can — with a cap on top.
The private company plans to launch reusable Starships atop still-in-the-works rockets, carrying cargo or crew not only to low-Earth orbit but also the moon and Musk’s most desirable destination, Mars. The entire stack will stretch nearly 400 feet (120 metres).
On Sunday, SpaceX safely returned two NASA astronauts from the International Space Station following a two-month test flight. Their Dragon capsule splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico off the Pensacola, Florida, coast.
‘Quite an odyssey’: NASA astronauts speak after historic splashdown in SpaceX capsule
SpaceX is now the only private company to fly people to and from orbit.
“We’re going to go to the moon. We’re going to have a base on the moon. We’re going to send people to Mars and make life multi-planetary,” Musk said following splashdown. “This day heralds a new age of space exploration. That’s what it’s all about.”
—The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
© 2020 The Canadian Press
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