Snippets From Science

• Living in the dark forests of the mountains of New Guinea are birds called “bowerbirds” which resemble our catbirds. The word “bower” means enclosure. Male bowerbirds may take weeks to construct an elaborate lean-to or “bower” of twigs to attract females. Some bower birds construct “maypole” bowers up to six or seven feet high; however, most are content to adorn their bowers with flowers, leaves, old tin cans, feathers, berries, stones, snail shells, and whatever else they can find. Males are the builders – and they arrange and rearrange their bower objects, often in rather artistic ways. It’s as if they were stage designers for a production of “meet your mate.” When his bower is complete, the male patrols his creation, all the while calling out to females in the hope one will visit and be sufficiently impressed with his artistry to have sex with him. (National Geographic, July 2010; U. of Kansas ornithologist Dr. Brett Benz)

• On the subject of birds, a knowledgeable birdwatcher mentioned that she received an email from a fellow birder who said that every kingbird nest he found had a shed snakeskin as a lining. Another birder told her that in the White Mountains of Vermont he discovered a kingbird nest that was completely made of Polyfill, a kind of polyester fiber used to stuff pillows. Where the bird got the material is a mystery. Perhaps there weren’t enough snakeskins available.

• Early this summer 600 plant scientists from 80 countries met in St. Petersburg, Russia, to discuss ways to prevent the recurrence of wheat rust (a fungus). Thanks to Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist, new strains of rust-resistant wheat were developed in the 1940s, and these strains have been in use worldwide for the last half-century. Today, however, two new and virulent strains of wheat fungus have emerged. The St. Petersburg group made plans to combat the spread of these aggressive strains, which are beginning to threaten the world’s wheat supply. The race to find ways to control the fungus is of increasing importance, since last year yellow rust destroyed wheat-producing areas in China, parts of Africa, parts of Asia, and the Middle East. (Science, July 23, 2010)

A parasite is defined as an organism that lives on, or within, and at the expense of, another organism. Most Americans have little appreciation of the parasitic diseases that are rampant in most undeveloped countries. Fewer still wonder whether parasitic diseases have an effect on intelligence of people in such countries. It’s well known that “IQ” is higher in some countries than in others, and now a study by researchers at the University of New Mexico suggests “infectious disease remains the most powerful predictor of average national IQ.”

Keeping in mind that the brain consumes 90 percent of the energy consumed by a newborn, if a parasitic illness diverts energy from the infant, brain development will be compromised. Even in older children as well as adults, parasitic infections can undermine brain function. The University of New Mexico study points out that countries with the lowest national IQ are also countries with the highest rates of parasitic infections such as malaria, schistosomiasis, amoebic dysentery, sleeping sickness, Chagas disease, roundworms and tapeworms, and so on. Countries with the lowest IQ scores and the heaviest parasite burdens are Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Mozambique, and Gabon. Key elements in the spread of parasitic diseases in Africa are unsanitary conditions, lack of clean water, and lack of medical intervention. (Newsweek, August 2, 2010; Noble and Noble, Parasitology (text), Lea and Febiger, 1964)