Migration Is Not For The Birds

Pisco de Peito Ruivo - European Robin
Image by jvverde via Flickr

Clear thinking is the hallmark of good research. I think we’re all in agreement here.

Researchers have known, in the special way that researchers do,that built-in biological compasses tell migrating birds which way to fly, but the details of how birds detect magnetic fields has been unclear.

Some argued that it was a magnetic sensor in the beak, others preferred the hypothesis that light-sensing cells in birds’ eyes sense the magnetic field.

There’s only one way to sort this out, as Harry Hill might say; Surgery!

A study published in the Oct 29 edition of Nature by Henrik Mouritsen of the University of Oldenburg in Germany has clarified the position.

Up to a point.

To find the location that houses the magnetic compass, Mouritsen and his colleagues caught 36 migratory European robins and made sure that the birds could all orient correctly under both natural and induced magnetic fields.robin2

They then performed surgeries on the birds either to sever the nerve in the beak or to damage the brain cells that  decode the signals from the light-sensing cells.

Result? Birds with the severed beak-to-brain nerve — called the trigeminal nerve — still oriented perfectly, but those with the damaged light-sensing brain cells could not.

So, according to John Phillips, a neuro-ecologist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, the study “confirms that the trigeminal nerve is not involved in this direction sensing”.

Fine. Except that Mouritsen thinks the cells in the beak may play a different role in magnetic sensing, such as picking up changes in magnetic strength.

Didn’t do the surgery for that, though, did he?

However, now that we almost know how birds migrate, Mouritsen and his colleagues are confident that conservationists can trick birds into staying where it is safe, instead of flying back to their original migratory grounds, which may not be good for them.

After all, if we, as custodians of the planet, can’t tell the birds where and when they should fly, who can?

Original article posted  by Laura Sanders :http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/10/bird-migration-light/

Don’t Ya Got To Love Scientists?

Macro photograph of coca-cola bubbles.
Image via Wikipedia

What is it about giving an interview that encourages some people – not you, obviously – to pretend to know it all?

An article appeared recently in Wired: Wired Science by Alexis Madrigal, reporting on results published by longtime taste researcher Charles Zuker, now at Columbia University Medical Center.


Sour; It's what Carbonation tastes like
Sour; It's what Carbonation tastes like


It’s a jolly little story about why mice like Coca Cola, but when you strip away the hype and the pretty chromatographs, the argument runs something like this:

“Hey, we’ve discovered that mammals have developed an excellent ability to detect carbon dioxide!”
“Oh, really. And how would that be an evolutionary benefit?”
“Well, it could be for this reason…”
“Yes, and it could be for that reason… Or another one, couldn’t it?”
“Yes, but we think it’s this one”
“Glad that’s settled, then”

Now, why do you suppose scientists are reluctant to say, “We don’t know” in these circumstances? Such frankness would give a great deal of credibility in the eyes of the general public, although it might conceivably detract from the air of mystery and infallibility that surrounds the learned ones.

Ah. Have I just answered my own question?

Well, you should be the judge of that. Check out the original article here http://www.wired.com

Please come back here to leave a comment. I’ld appreciate your thoughts.



Quote Of The Week

Shanghai Skyline
Image by Keith Marshall via Flickr

Whatever your feelings may be about the Chinese, you have to admit they have style.

Shanghai indie band Boojii were interviewed recently about their new album, Reserved. They were asked about the meaning of the band’s name, and singer/songwriter San San admitted it didn’t actually have any meaning.


He added, “There’s no link to the band or the music or sexy films stars or anything like that – I just like it because it sounds cute. If I could choose another name it’d be Girl Vomit.”

Of course!

The Mongolian Death Worm by OldChinaHand


The Gobi Desert lies in the territory of Peopl...
Image via Wikipedia


The huddled encampment had come into view hours ago, but had never seemed to get any closer as our tiny convoy negotiated the springtime Mongolian desert. At last we pulled up, and Ted stretched with relief before beginning to unload our paraphernalia. As we looked anxiously round for signs of the scientific expedition we had travelled thousands of miles to film, our interpreter,


Mongolian yurt


Genghis, went to greet the headman outside his yurt. The atmosphere was intense.
“Juju man no here, boss,” said Genghis, “Disfella still make ready”. A keen student of Eng. Lit. – B.A. Mumbai (failed) – Genghis had his own idea of how an interpreter should speak.
“Any other camera crews arrived?”
“No, boss.”
We were still the first.

The race had begun nearly 3 weeks earlier, in the suburban headquarters of Warrington-online.com. The Editor came rushing up to our table excitedly, narrowly missing the Starbucks waitress, who was clearing away the coffee cups.
“This has got to be the story of the century,” he wheezed, collapsing into a chair. “A major zoological expedition to find a long-lost species of wildlife!”
David Attenborough going after the Abominable Snowman is he?” asked Ted, slurping noisily at the dregs of his Frappucino.
“Better than that.” The Editor produced a sheaf of printouts from various Web pages, “This story is all over the Internet and Twitter’s on fire. The Fortean Times is going to look for the Mongolian Death Worm!”


Mongolian Death Worm


“Again?” yawned Ted, idly scratching his beer-gut. “Didn’t they go a few years ago?”
“No, mate, that was a Czech.” And so the story unfolded.

The first known reference in English seems to have come from Professor Roy Chapman Andrews’ 1926 book On the Trail of Ancient Man. He had talked with the Mongolian Prime Minister who wanted to catch the Mongolian Death Worm, or Olgoi Khorkhoi, because the worm had killed one of his relatives.

Quite well-respected in his own time, Professor Chapman Andrews achieved posthumous fame as the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones.

Inspiration of a different sort was provided by a short story about Olgoi-Khorkhoi from the Russian palaeontologist, Ivan Yefremov. In 1942/1943 he wrote about a worm, which resembled a bloody intestine, that could grow to the length of a small man and mysteriously kill people at great distance, possibly with poison or electricity.

Filled with such scientific material was the boyhood reading of the foremost investigator of the Mongolian Death Worm, Czech author Ivan Mackerle. When he grew up, he searched for the Worm on two occasions in 1990 and 1992, using night-vision goggles and camera-equipped ultralight planes.

The Mongolian Dea


Ivan Mackerle


th Worm was brought to the general attention of the English -speaking public by British zoologist Karl Shuker in his 1996 book The Unexplained. This was followed a year later by his Fortean Studies paper on this subject, presented to his colleagues, among whom was Ivan Mackerle.

The presentation must have had a stimulating effect, as in 2003, Adam Davies and Andy Sanderson from Extreme Expeditions travelled to Mongolia to have a look for the fabled beast , funded by The Fortean Times.

In 2005, led by British cryptozoologist Richard Freeman, Chris Clark, (physicist), Jon Hare, (science writer) and Dave Churchill, (artist and designer), a joint expedition by E-Mongol and the Centre for Fortean Zoology examined reports and sightings of the Mongolian Death Worm, but found no proof that it exists.

This did not deter a second expedition in July, 2006, conducted by the reality-television series, Destination Truth, who, sadly, did not find any truth in the reality of Olgoi Khorkhoi when they reached their destination.

And now, July 2009, just in time for the start of the silly season, New Zealand TV entertainment journalist David Farrier and cameraman Christie Douglas were about to spend two weeks in the Gobi desert. They believe that explosives are the best way to find the “intestine worm” as it is said to be attracted to tremors.

Any suggestion that they may have been influenced by films about Graboids is, of course, unfair.

The widely-differing methods of investigation, and the fact that no expedition has yet succeeded has come as no surprise to Mongolian scientist D. Tsevegmed, who was quoted in the Ulan Bator News as saying that “Mongolians consider that there are 33 different Gobi Deserts, and there are two kinds of death worm in the Gobi.”

“But these articles all say the same thing,” objected Ted. “And I don’t see anything published by scientific journals or other reputable sources.”

“What are you talking about? There are reports here from Cryptozoology News, the Australian Courier Mail, and the Ulan Bator Post and Mongol News. Plus there’s a piece in Wikipedia. You don’t think anyone would put a joke article there, do you?” nodded The Editor, basking in self-delusion. “I can see it now. It’ll be ‘Build A Better Mousetrap’ all over again. Just get confirmation of the Mongolian Death Worm, and everyone and his dog will want to RSS our feeds. All you need are your mobile phones. Take some pictures, record a sound bite or two, blog it on your laptop, and Robert’s your father’s brother. It’ll be a great adventure for the two of you. Is that clear, Bill?”
“Yes, Ben”.
“Right,” said Ted

Events had moved swiftly after that. The Editor pawned his new Swiss army knife and mortgaged his greenhouse to finance the trip. I had topped up my mobile, and Ted bought a new battery for the laptop. And now here we were, following Genghis into an acrid, smoke-filled yurt that bore the legend – Teahouse of the Death Worm Moon.

We gazed round in astonishment. The wicker walls were papered over with photos and drawings of Olgoi Khorkhoi – the very same photos we had seen on the Internet. Pride of place had been given to a full-size poster of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, with Harrison Ford’s name crossed out and Roy Chapman Andrews written in shaky bright red crayon.

At the far end, a rickety camp table was covered with plasticine rejects from Jurassic Park VI , and a wizened Japanese in steel-rim spectacles and a topi sat behind it, looking for all the world like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s and painting eyes on what appeared to be a cross between a Chinese dragon and a Martian stick insect. Every now and then he reached out and tilted the head of a bored-looking iguana whose tongue cast after flies with the world-weary insouciance characteristic of all artists’ models.

“Disfella Hirohito, boss,” said Genghis proudly. “Him very famous man. Work on olla big ones – Godzilla, King Kong, Krakatoa East Of Java.”
“Special effects?” said Ted, doubtfully.
“So, what..?”
“Him make Death Worm so juju men not go way disappointed. Last time he get here too late.”

It turned out that Hirohito had made a career out of following myth hunters and paranormal investigators. Staying just out of sight, he would provide them with tantalising glimpses of whatever it was they were seeking. Perhaps it was just as well that he was never up close and personal since he tended to have what might be called a gestalt approach to his craft – more Rolf Harris than Gauguin.

This lack of fine detail had got him into trouble more than once. He it was who had dressed his pet and uber-model, Iggy, in a skirt and tried to get him discovered as the Kimono Dragon. On another occasion, he had been stymied by Dian Fossey, who had been quick to publish her book before he could photoshop Godzillas in the Mist.

His career was now at a cusp, and when a villager came in with news that the New Zealanders had gone to the 32nd Gobi by mistake, he seemed to lose heart. All this effort for nothing.

It was close to noon by now, and the metal table top had heated to an uncomfortable degree. Iggy gazed piteously at Ted, lifting first one foot, then another, rocking from side to side in an effort to get some relief.
“Poor little monster,” remarked Ted to Hirohito. “Can’t you put a cloth on the table for him? Then he wouldn’t have to rock so much.”

No one else paid any attention. The feeling of disappointment was palpable. No scientists, no discoveries, and more importantly, no tourist trade spin-offs. We picked up our mobiles and Twittered to the world at large that the Mongolian Death Worm had once again declined to put in an appearance.

After a final round of farewell handshakes with our hosts we commiserated with the little make-up artist on the failure of yet another of his enterprises and wished him good luck for the future. But where would he go from here?

As we turned to depart, Hirohito crouched in front of his pet, swaying from side to side in time with the iguana’s dance. His spectacles gleamed with the fanaticism of one who has discovered the Holy Grail as he picked Iggy up and whispered a mantra, “Rock Less Monstah.”

Reviewing the Situation

Everybody’s a critic these days. The Age of Information has dawned and there is simply no limit to our ability to tell the world what we think. Or is there?


Information travelling through the Web


We can view what sites we like on the web, and Twitter can tell the world instantly whether we like it or not. Sure, there’s a limit to the number of characters that can be used, but LOL, OMG, WTF, and all the other alphabetti spaghetti get the message across that you liked what you saw. Or not as the case may be.

Is it being too pedantic to declare that these statements are just that; statements? They are a thumbs up or down, a vote for the one with the biggest…assets, a hand in the air saying “Please, sir, me, sir, I know, sir!” They respond to the question, “Do you have an opinion – Y/N. Tick one and go to the next section.”

It is the ‘next section’ that concerns us, the one that asks, “Explain your opinion (be brief)”.

An example is called for. Here is a selection of reviews taken from StumbleUpon pages:
love it
nice representation
i was impressed
This is an interesting idea
That is sooo cool!
WOW…..Just damn!

These are all from different sites., and they are supposed to be reviews.

Really, they are just comments, like this spam comment from The Works of George Berkley (honestly, that’s how it is signed) in response to the post Rock and Roll; “rock and roll”.

Now, since George was a philosopher,albeit now deceased, this is probably a highly profound comment. In fairness, the post does actually refer to George in passing.

These so-called reviews, however, are just obscure;

“It reminds me of that Star Trek TNG episode where they find out that criminals from another civilization actually are suffering from a brain defect… It’s another reason I don’t believe in the death penalty.”

“How amazing and awesome is this! I wonder how they did it. Mix your own YouTube song, of sorts…”

“Stumble must be tied to the ECCO or something because I was listening to a Chomsky lecture talking about the same thing today.”

And the list goes on.

Now, don’t get me wrong, if you happen to be looking at the article/picture/song under review at the time, then at least you know what the comment (!) is about. But, (picky, picky) it isn’t a review if it doesn’t tell you what it’s about.

Oh, then, you say, if that’s all….Now wait a minute. Here are ALL the reviews for Twittley;

First up, so you know what we’re talking about, here’s the official ‘About Us’ column from twittley.com;

About us
What is twittley?
Twittley is first Twitter social news website made for people to discover and share content through Twitter network, by submitting links and stories, and voting and commenting on submitted links and stories.

With me so far? OK, now here are the 7 reviews for the site:

1) Twittley is first Twitter social news website made for people to discover and share content through Twitter network

2) Twittley is first Twitter social news website made for people to discover and share content through Twitter network

3) From the page: “Twittley is first Twitter social news website made for people to discover and share content through Twitter network

4) Twittley is first Twitter social news website made for people to discover and share content through Twitter network

Are you beginning to sense a trend here?

5) Twittley is first Twitter social news website made for people to discover and share content through Twitter network, by submitting links and stories, and voting and commenting on submitted links and stories

6) From the page: “Twittley is first Twitter social news website made for people to discover and share content through Twitter network, by submitting links and stories, and voting and commenting on submitted links and stories


Cute Princess


And finally, my personal favourite, from CutestPrincess (cool name!);

7) Twittley – About us

Aaall righty, then. But let’s not be too harsh; 2 of the reviewers did at least say they were quoting from the page in question, and by this time, I think we all know what Twittley is.

So, here it is. Your task, Jim, should you choose to accept it, is to Twitter a review of this article, using words of no less then one syllable, describing what the article is about and giving reasons for whether you like it or not.

Closing date for the competition will be when we get a reply.

All replies, regardless of content (asking for trouble, I know) will be published on this blog under the title ‘Right of Reply’.

Prizes have yet to be found, but I reckon Twittley should sponsor this, what do you say?

Discovering Warrington


Map of England and Wales, showing Anglo-Saxon ...
Image via Wikipedia


“D’you hear that, lads? We must be nearly there now.”

Weary grunts and the splash of oars were the only response as the helmsman, Cnot, steered the longboat toward the sound of the river going over the weir. As he took stock of the surrounding countryside, he dared to hope that this time it would be different, that this time he would finally make his mark.

Coming as he did from a long line of Norse sailors, he was used to the rough and ready humour of his comrades as they went a-viking round the Celtic seas. But the worst thing any of his cousins had to put up with was being told to ‘paddle yer own Canut”. As a growing lad, he had had to learn not to cringe at the never-changing repartee that followed when he was asked who he was, and had to reply, “I’m Cnot, the Explorer”.

But in his mind’s eye, the weir and its approaches segued into the burgeoning town he fondly imagined would be called after its founder; the homestead of Cnots’ people – Cnottingham.

History, however, had other ideas.

In the centuries that followed,settlers and invaders of various denominations would arrive at this, the shallowest point on the border river. Adhering to the yet-to-be-written rules of internet communication,  they would uniquely reference the location of their site at a nodal point to which all traffic would have to be bussed, M6 permitting.

Strangely, in spite of this protocol, none of these early arrivals were in fact American, although they evinced many of the same qualities, including a mania for naming things. So what did they call this place? Stay with me, this may take some time.

The pre-Roman inhabitants, Danes, Anglo Saxons, and anyone else who happened to be passing by knew that river valleys produce good farmland.And so they established their farmstead, or ‘tun’ in Old English, next to the river dam, or ‘wearing’. With a sense of the bleeding obvious which subsequent generations were wont to overdo, the settlement was known as ‘farmstead by the weir’ – Wearingtun.

When the Romans came along, they established their craft centre and curio shop at Howley, a mile or so downriver. Sadly, in his holiday reports for Baedecker’s Ancient Britain, Julius Ceasar gave no indication as to why they shunned the original location. There are those – xenophobes I calls ’em – who hold that Italian logic could not cope with the fact that a solid Roman road, or Via, was pronounced that same as a river crossing. Be that as it may, Wearingtun seemed set fair as the winner of  Name That Town.

And then the Normans came and cocked it up.

Gallicly ignoring the name by which the parishioners of St. Elphin’s knew their town, and having more trouble with their ‘l’s and ‘r’s than a Japanese in a laurel shrubbery, King William’s clerks left the name to posterity in the Domesday Book as Wallintune. This inclined Angevin and Plantagenet kings to think that the place had something to do with Hadrian, and that Strathclyde, north of the border, started in Lancashire.

No change there, then.

To be fair to the French, if we really must, they could have been misled by the court of King Edward the Elder which,  a few years earlier in 923 had established a fortified city, no less, at Thelwall, less than a mile or so upriver. Being blessed with linguistic savoir faire, or so they would have us believe, they perhaps deduced that a wall of thels, or planks was connected with the downriver settlement.

But, just like their rugby, they only got one half right. Had they consulted their Funk and Wagnall (Continental Edition), they would have realised that the name Thelweale referred to a plank bridge, not a wall, across a deep pool, or weale. The pool in question being the Mersey, as any Scouser knows.

This river, the Meares Ea, or Border River, had marked the boundary between Mercia and Northumbria even in Cnot’s day, and so was of considerable strategic importance. It had always been the practice of early rulers to award the governance of the wild frontiers to the more powerful of their warlords, mainly on the assumption that if they were fighting the barbarian hordes, they were less likely to be plotting to overthrow the sovereign, seated in stately, soft Southern comfort.

In their turn, these Marcher Lords would appoint senior members of their household as castellans and revenue officials, or reeves to look after their various forts and county holdings.

How appropriate, then, that by the time of the Tudors , the High Shire Reeve of the district, with his castle in Bewsey, was the latest scion of the Jeeveses-in-residence to the Earls of Chester, one Sir Thomas le Boteler. He it was who, by the diligent taxing of his county, in 1526 left enough money in his will to endow one of the earliest grammar schools in England.

The Viking founders were old bones by then, of course, and never even had a look-in at the Naming Game. Poor  Cnot. If only he’d spelled his name with a K and found a ford instead of a weir…

But these are the vicissitudes of language – a vowel added here, a consonant dropped there – much like a mediaeval version of Countdown. By the time Noll Cromwell dropped by and enfranchised an ethnic restaurant in the cottage opposite his old mate Granby’s pub, the township had settled on the spelling and decided to be called Warrington.

All things considered, though, it could have been worse for Warringtonians. An ironic chronicler with a crystal ball and an eye to TV ratings might have been tempted to call the town Cnot’s Landing.

http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=4379&picture=scary-castle”>Scary Castle</a> by Shari Weinsheimer