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Math models developed by Alan Turing help scientists explain bird behavior

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Aug. 11 (UPI) — In a new study, researchers in Britain used math models developed by famed mathematician Alan Turing to figure out why flocks of long-tailed tits separate themselves into different parts of their habitat.

Many birds form what are called home range patterns, but scientists have struggled to explain why non-territorial passerine segregate themselves.

For the study, scientists at the University of Sheffield tracked the movements of long-tailed tits across the woodlands they called home. After collecting enough data for patterns to emerge, researchers used Turing-inspired models to determine what causes the segregation.

The models deployed by Sheffield researchers were similar to those Turing developed to show how patterns in nature, like stripes of a zebra or a leopard’s spots, can emerge naturally from a uniform state.

The new analysis, published this week in the Journal of Animal Ecology, showed long-tailed tits, when segregating themselves across the landscape, were less likely to avoid places where they had previously interacted with relatives.

The passerine birds, however, were more likely to steer clear of places where they’d previously encountered larger flocks. The birds also showed a preference for the center of the woodlands.

“Mathematical models help us understand nature in an extraordinary amount of ways and our study is a fantastic example of this,” Sheffield doctoral student Natasha Ellison, lead author of the new study, said in a news release.

Scientists had previously used Turing models to understand the movement patterns and distribution of territorial animals, but this is the first time the same mathematical models have helped researchers understand the spacing and movements of a non-territorial species.

“Long-tailed tits are too small to be fitted with GPS trackers like larger animals, so researchers follow these tiny birds on foot, listening for bird calls and identifying birds with binoculars,” Ellison said.

“The field work is extremely time consuming and without the help of these mathematical models these behaviors wouldn’t have been discovered,” Ellison said.



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Rising atmospheric dust across the Great Plains recalls lead up to the Dust Bowl

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Oct. 13 (UPI) — Atmospheric dust levels are rising 5 percent per year across the Great Plains, according to a new survey by scientists at the University of Utah.

The research, published this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, increased cropland conversion and expanded growing seasons are exposing more and more soil and wind erosion.

Authors of the new study suggest the phenomenon, if combined with drier climate conditions as a result of climate change, could yield conditions comparable to the Dust Bowl, the series of droughts and dust storms that devastated the Midwest during the 1930s.

“We can’t make changes to the earth surface without some kind of consequence just as we can’t burn fossil fuels without consequences,” lead study author Andy Lambert said in a news release.

“So while the agriculture industry is absolutely important, we need to think more carefully about where and how we plant,” said Lambert, a recent graduate of the University of Utah.

In the 1920s, farmers across the Great Plains converted massive amounts of grassland to farm tracts. When drought hit in the 1930s, extensive crop failures left newly plowed fields exposed to the wind, yielding waves of dust storms.

“These dust storms removed nutrients from the soil, making it more difficult for crops to grow and more likely for wind erosion to occur,” Lambert said.

Soaking rains eventually brought an end to the Dust Bowl, but much of the damage caused by erosion was permanent. Soils in some parts of the Great Plains have never recovered.

Three-quarters of a century later, around 2000, as demand for biofuels increased, farmers started clearing additional grassland to biofuel feedstocks.

Between 2006 and 2011, nearly 2,050 square miles of grassland across five Midwestern states was converted to farmland. Meanwhile, droughts have become longer and more across the Great Plains.

To gauge the risk of dust storms in the region, researchers amassed data from a variety of instruments designed to measure atmospheric haziness from both the ground up and space down. The data, from NASA satellites and two federally managed ground monitoring systems, showed the amount of dust in the atmosphere above the Great Plains has steadily increased over the last 20 years.

“The amount of increase is really the story here,” said study co-author Gannet Hallar, associate professor of atmospheric sciences. “That 5 percent a year over two decades, of course, is a hundred percent increase in dust loading. This is not a small signal to find.”

Scientists were also able to link rises in dust levels with crop expansion. Across Iowa, atmospheric dust increased predominantly in June and October, the planting and harvesting months for soybeans, the dominant crop. Across the southern Great Plains, where corn is more popular, the dust increases appeared in March and October.

“I think it’s fair to say that what’s happening with dust trends in the Midwest and the Great Plains is an indicator that the threat is real if crop land expansion continues to occur at this rate and drought risk does increase because of climate change,” Lambert says. “Those would be the ingredients for another Dust Bowl.”

Authors of the new study said their findings should serve as a warning to farmers and policy makers across the Midwest that proactive measures are needed to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself.



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NASA’s Kate Rubins, 2 cosmonauts dock with International Space Station

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Tracy Caldwell Dyson pauses for a portrait in her spacesuit before going underwater in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on July 8, 2019. Photo by Bill Ingalls/UPI



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Layered hybrid fibers could be used to build anti-viral masks, researchers say

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Oct. 14 (UPI) — Hybrid polymer fibers, featuring layers with different qualities, can be used for an array of biomedical applications, according to a new study in the journal Applied Physics Reviews.

Instead of searching for a single material that meets all the requirements of biomedical processes like tissue scaffolding, drug delivery and cardiac patching, authors of the new study suggest medical researchers utilize core-sheath polymer fibers — hybrid fibers featuring a strong core surrounded by a biologically applicable sheath layer.

“You want strength, but you also want bioactivity,” study co-author Mohan Edirisinghe said in a news release.

“So, if you align them in a core-sheath polymer, you have the strength of the core material, but the functionality comes from a bioactive polymer or ingredient that is in the sheath. That is a big advantage,” said Edirisinghe, a material scientist at University College London.

Because researchers can select from an array of materials to create the core-sheath fibers, the layered fibers could be used to meet a variety of biomedical applications, including the creation of antiviral mask materials.

“If you want to make a fibrous mask from a textile, you really need to have the strength, because you’re going to wash it and use it,” Edirisinghe said. “But on the other hand, you need an active material.”

Researchers suggest virus-fighting drugs or proteins could even be embedded in the fiber’s sheath layer during the manufacturing process.

Scientists have already augmented several fiber fabrication processes to create prototype core-sheath fibers.

One of the most promising methods involves embedding a vessel with a reservoir of the core material inside another vessel with a reservoir of sheath material. The reservoirs are released simultaneously through the vessel orifices, creating a bi-layered core-sheath fiber.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg, because this is just two reservoirs with two materials, which become the sheath and core layers of the fibers, but you can extend this to three or four,” Edirisinghe said. “In each layer, you can have a different drug that satisfies a different purpose.”



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