Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Strange But True: Pigeons are no bird-brains

The ambushing Bobbit is covered with sand and lures its prey with the protruding antennae; the jaws are under tension like an armed spring trap. Photo: Department of Biomedicine, University of Basel
The ambushing Bobbit is covered with sand and lures its prey with the protruding antennae; the jaws are under tension like an armed spring trap. Photo: Department of Biomedicine, University of Basel

How fish fend off the horrid Bobbit worm

If you were a fish swimming around in the deep waters of the Indo-Pacific, you might live in constant fear of being suddenly snatched by a scary predator lying hidden beneath the seabed.

The Bobbit worm - scientific name Eunice aphroditois - buries its long body deep in the sand, leaving only its powerful jaws protruding above the surface.

It uses these to grab hold of unsuspecting prey and drag it down into its burrow within a fraction of a second.

Now biologists have taken a closer look at the gruesome hunter and its prey, and noticed a fascinating behavioral pattern: prey fish defend themselves against the monstrous worm by attacking it with water jets and forcing it to retreat.

If a Scolopsis affinis fish discovers a Bobbit worm, or observes a fellow species member being caught, it initiates what's called "mobbing", in which otherwise defenseless prey animals attack their predators.

The Scolopsis swims to the entrance of the worm's burrow, positions itself nearly vertically face-down above it, and blows sharp jets of water in the Bobbit's direction.

Members of the same species who catch sight of this behaviour will join in, blasting the ambusher with a battery of water jets until it's forced to retreat into its burrow.

Once the Bobbit worm has been detected and located, its chances of carrying out further ambushes are ruined.

The universe has no sense of direction

Scientists say the universe in expanding in no particular direction. Photo: Anatoly Vasilyev/123RF
Scientists say the universe in expanding in no particular direction. Photo: Anatoly Vasilyev/123RF

If you're not too good with directions, don't worry, because neither is the universe.

UK researchers have found space isn't stretching in a preferred direction or spinning, and instead appears to be expanding uniformly.

A new paper in the journal Physical Review Letters studied cosmic microwave background (CMB) - the remnant radiation from the "Big Bang" about 13.8 billion years ago that scientists say created the universe as we know it today - to show the universe is expanding the same way in all directions.

This supports assumptions made in made in cosmologists' standard model of the universe.

"The finding is the best evidence yet that the universe is the same in all directions," said study author Daniela Saadeh, of University College London.

"Our current understanding of the universe is built on the assumption that it doesn't prefer one direction over another, but there are actually a huge number of ways that Einstein's theory of relativity would allow for space to be imbalanced.

"Universes that spin and stretch are entirely possible, so it's important that we've shown ours is fair to all its directions."

Learning to speak pigeon English

Pigeons get a bad rap for coating city squares with droppings and otherwise making themselves a nuisance - but now no one can call them dumb.

New research out of Otago University, and Germany's Ruhr University, shows the birds can learn to distinguish real words from non-words by visually processing their letter combinations.

Pigeons have quite a way with words, Otago researchers have found.
Pigeons have quite a way with words, Otago researchers have found.

The researchers found their performance was on a par with that previously reported in baboons for the type of complex task they assigned them, in what was the first time a non-primate species had been shown to have so-called "orthographic" abilities.

In the experiment, pigeons were trained to peck four-letter English words as they came up on a screen, or to instead peck a symbol when a four-letter non-word, such as "URSP" was displayed.

The researchers added words one by one with the four pigeons in the study eventually building vocabularies ranging from 26 to 58 words and more than 8000 non-words.

To check whether the pigeons were learning to distinguish words from non-words rather than merely memorising them, the researchers introduced words the birds had never seen before, then observed them correctly identifiy them at a rate significantly above chance.

Said Otago University study co-author Professor Michael Colombo: "We may have to seriously re-think the use of the term bird-brain as a put-down."

"Spooky action at a distance"

Postdoctoral fellows (from left) Daniel Oblak and Erhan Saglamyurek and Professor Wolfgang Tittel have teleported a photon over a distance of six kilometres. Photo: Riley Brandt/University of Calgary
Postdoctoral fellows (from left) Daniel Oblak and Erhan Saglamyurek and Professor Wolfgang Tittel have teleported a photon over a distance of six kilometres. Photo: Riley Brandt/University of Calgary

What if, just like on Star Trek, you could teleport yourself home or anywhere else in the world?

As a human, you're probably not going to realise this any time soon; if you're a photon, you might want to keep reading.

A group of US and Canadian researchers have successfully demonstrated teleportation of a photon - an elementary particle of light - over a straight-line distance of 6km using Calgary's fibre optic cable infrastructure.

The feat has set a new record for distance of transferring a quantum state by teleportation, and could enable networks that have completely secure, eavesdropping-free communication and allow distant quantum computers to connect.

The experiment, just reported in the journal Nature Photonics, is based on the entanglement property of quantum mechanics, also known as "spooky action at a distance"- a property so mysterious that not even Einstein could come to terms with it.

"Being entangled means the two photons that form an entangled pair have properties that are linked regardless of how far the two are separated," explained the University of Calgary's Professor Wolfgang Tittel.

"When one of the photons was sent over to City Hall, it remained entangled with the photon that stayed at the University of Calgary."

Next, the photon whose state was teleported to the university was generated in a third location in Calgary and then also travelled to City Hall where it met the photon that was part of the entangled pair.

"What happened is the instantaneous and disembodied transfer of the photon's quantum state onto the remaining photon of the entangled pair, which is the one that remained 6km away at the university."

Emotional vibes you actually can pick up

Professor Dina Katabi explains how PhD student Fadel Adib's (right) face is neutral but that EQ-Radio's analysis of his heartbeat and breathing show that he is sad. Photo: Jason Dorfman/MIT CSAIL
Professor Dina Katabi explains how PhD student Fadel Adib's (right) face is neutral but that EQ-Radio's analysis of his heartbeat and breathing show that he is sad. Photo: Jason Dorfman/MIT CSAIL

Meanwhile, MIT researchers have unveiled the "EQ-Radio," a device that can detect a person's emotions using wireless signals.

By measuring subtle changes in breathing and heart rhythms, EQ-Radio is 87 per cent accurate at detecting if a person is excited, happy, angry or sad - and can do so without on-body sensors.

Using wireless signals reflected off people's bodies, the device measures heartbeats as accurately as an ECG monitor, with a margin of error of approximately 0.3 per cent, and then studies the waveforms within each heartbeat to match a person's behaviour to how they previously acted in one of the four emotion-states.

The study's leader, Professor Dina Katabi, envisioned the system being used in entertainment, consumer behaviour and health care.

Film studios and ad agencies could test viewers' reactions in real-time, while smart homes could use information about your mood to adjust the heating or suggest that you get some fresh air.

"Our work shows that wireless signals can capture information about human behavior that is not always visible to the naked eye," Katabi said.

"We believe that our results could pave the way for future technologies that could help monitor and diagnose conditions like depression and anxiety."

- NZ Herald

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