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Older bulls hold important leadership roles in elephant societies

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Sept. 3 (UPI) — Older male elephants, or bulls, are vitally important to all-male elephant groups, according to a new study, leading migrations and helping younger bulls find food and water.

The research, published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, undermines the rationale of trophy hunters who target older males, claiming the bulls are “redundant” in terms of breeding and population health.

Previous studies have shown that older bulls are actually the prime breeders in most elephant groups, siring the majority of offspring. Now, researchers have shown older bulls also occupy important leadership positions within elephant societies.

“Our findings suggest that killing them could have detrimental effects on wider elephant society through loss of leaders who help young, newly independent males navigate in unfamiliar, risky environments,” lead study author Connie Allen, doctoral student at the University of Exeter’s Center for Research in Animal Behavior, said in a news release.

Pre-adolescent male elephants belong to female-led herds, but between the ages of 10 and 20, bulls leave their closest relatives and join all-male groups.

For the study, researchers studied several all-male groups of African savannah elephants, or bush elephants, in Botswana, documenting the prevalence of leadership behavior among different age cohorts.

The analysis showed older males were more likely to walk at the front of traveling groups.

“Research on benefits of older individuals in long-lived social mammals has largely focused on females in matrilineal societies where, for example, older female elephants are most effective at making decisions crucial to herd survival, and old post-reproductive female killer whales lead collective movements in hunting grounds,” said study co-author Darren Croft.

“In contrast, less is known about the role of older males as leaders in long-lived social species,” said Croft, professor of animal behavior at the University of Exeter.

The latest findings suggest just as older females are vital to healthy, well-functioning breeding herds, older males are essential to all-male groups.

Poaching and hunting remain a serious threat to Africa’s elephant populations, with older male elephants numbers declining most rapidly. Hunters often target older bulls for their large tusks.

Recently, Botswana’s government legalized elephant trophy hunting. So far, export quotas for the tusks of 400 elephants have been issued.

“The intricacies of male elephant societies have often been ignored in management and conservation decisions with the underlying assumption that once they leave their herd they are solitary and independent,” said Kate Evans, director of Elephants for Africa and a member of the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Center.

“This study furthers our understanding of male elephants and the importance of older bulls, enabling more sustainable management decisions for both male and female elephants to be made,” Evans said.



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Ancient trash heaps in Israel show waste management changes among settlements

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Oct. 14 (UPI) — The contents of rural trash heaps outside several ancient Negev settlements suggest farmers during the Roman Imperial Period and Late Antiquity, between the 1st and 10th centuries AD, used livestock dung for fertilizer and as a main fuel source.

For the study, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, researchers analyzed trash mounds outside of Shivta, Elusa and Nessana, agrarian settlements that flourished during the Late Byzantine and Early Islamic periods, from the 4th through the 10th century AD.

By studying the varying concentrations of livestock dung, grass, wood and ash, researchers were able to gain new insights into shifting refuge management techniques and fuel usage among Negev’s early agrarian societies.

“Our findings provide much-needed new insight into community specific responses to social and economic transformations in the Negev during a pivotal time in its history — during the collapse of market-oriented agriculture and ruralization of the urban heartland near the end of the first millennium [AD],” researchers wrote in their paper.

Specifically, researchers found a consistent lack of raw livestock dung in all three trash mounds, suggesting sheep and goat dung fertilizer was vital to large-scale agriculture across the semi-arid region.

“Instead of being disposed of in trash dumps, dung would have been spread in agricultural plots,” researchers wrote.

The discovery of bits of burned livestock dung within the trash heaps outside Shivta and Elusa suggests livestock waste was also used as a fuel source. Woody plant material was scarce in the region. The practice suggests livestock herds were plentiful and household fuel needs did not interfere with field fertilization.

Not all of the livestock dung collected by Negev herders was shoveled into fields and furnaces.

“In sharp contrast to the sustainable use of dung for fuel, and reasonably for fertilizer as well, raw dung was dumped and burned atop the mound outside Early Islamic Nessana,” researchers wrote. “This is the first evidence of its kind from the Negev confirming the management of dung via controlled incineration.”

The sizable layers of scorched dung outside Nessana suggests that by the Early Islamic period, economic disruption had made the practice of dung recycling unnecessary.

“Several of the Arabic documents written after the fall of Byzantine hegemony speak of the difficulties Nessana residents had in paying rising taxes, particularly those levied against farmlands and produce,” researchers wrote.

With large-scale farming on the decline and trade networks crumbling, researchers suspect the market for commercial agricultural products collapses, as did the demands for dung as fuel and fertilizer.

“Nessana appears to have been transforming from an agricultural center into a more rural community persisting from smaller-scale domestic farming, semi-sedentary herding and wild game hunting,” researchers wrote.

The study’s authors said they hope their work will serve as reminder to archaeologists to look beyond buildings and city walls — that important insights into the ancient socioeconomic shifts can be gleaned from refuge.



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Scientists program robot swarms to create art

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Oct. 14 (UPI) — Computer scientists at Georgia Tech have programmed a swarm of robots to intuitively mix colors and decorate a canvas, expanding the technological toolkit available to artists.

Researchers didn’t set out to program artists out of the creative process. Instead, researchers envision their robotic system as a seamless extension of the artist.

“We wanted to explore the potential of multi-robot systems for the purpose of artistic painting, providing artists with an intuitive way to interact with a multi-robot system that abstracts them from the control of the robots or the management of resources,” lead study author María Santos, Georgia Tech computer engineer, told UPI in an email.

The robot swarm — described Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI — isn’t programmed to dream up new images, but it does problem solve with some level of autonomy.

“The human user, the artist, specifies color concentrations over the canvas, for example, by pressing their fingers on a tablet-like interface,” Santos said. “The color commands are then broadcasted to the multi-robot team, which therefore has information about what distribution of color is desired.”

Cognizant of the available paints and the paints available to their nearest neighbors, the robots coordinate the most efficient strategy for mixing and applying pigments to different regions of canvas.

“As they displace over the canvas, covering the different color density functions, they lay trails of paint by mixing color in the closest proportion to the densities they are tracking,” Santos said. “Furthermore, the assignment of a robot to a particular density is not fixed: robots reassign themselves over the canvas to go after the closest densities at each point in time or those densities they can contribute the most.”

As the artist alters their creative demands, the robots adjust their strategy and execution, accordingly.

So far, researchers have relied on projected light trails to demonstrate the robot swarm’s potential. Scientists are currently developing bots that can actually apply paint.

“This step involves not only developing the hardware necessary to manage paint, but also studying the painting release mechanism needed to achieve appropriate color mixing,” Santos said.

Once researchers have bots than can actually paint, they hope to get their technology in the hands of actual artists and see what they can create.

“Testing it with artists would be ideal, as it would let us see which features in the system are most interesting and potentially unlock new directions for the creative expansion of the system,” Santos said.



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NASA funds Nokia plan to provide cellular service on moon

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ORLANDO, Fla., Oct. 15 (UPI) — NASA will fund a project by Nokia to build a 4G cellular communication network on the moon with $14.1 million, the space agency announced.

That project was part of $370 million in new contracts for lunar surface research missions NASA announced Wednesday. Most of the money went to large space companies like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance to perfect techniques to make and handle rocket propellant in space.

The space agency must quickly develop new technologies for living and working on the moon if it wants to realize its goal to have astronauts working at a lunar base by 2028, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a live broadcast.

“We need power systems that can last a long time on the surface of the moon, and we need habitation capability on the surface,” Bridenstine said.

Nokia of North America received the contract for the lunar communication project. Finland-based parent company Nokia owns the U.S. subsidiary.

Nokia and British firm Vodafone had announced their goal for a moon mission in 2018. They had planned to launch a lander and rovers built by Audi, utilizing a SpaceX rocket.

At the time, the companies said they would set down near the Apollo 17 landing site and have rovers examine the Lunar Roving Vehicle, or moon buggy, astronauts left behind in 1972. That launch never happened, but the new contract breathes life into Nokia’s plans for moon projects.

“The system could support lunar surface communications at greater distances, increased speeds and provide more reliability than current standards,” NASA noted in its contract award announcement.

Having cellular service on the moon could support communication between lunar landers, rovers, habitats and astronauts, said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

“The system would also extend to spacecraft,” Reuter said. “With NASA funding, Nokia will look at how terrestrial technology could be modified for the lunar environment to support reliable, high-rate communications.”

Nokia didn’t respond to questions about the intended landing site for the company’s first mission. NASA hasn’t decided on a landing site for the agency’s Artemis missions, but Bridenstine reiterated Wednesday that the target is a site near water-ice deposits on the lunar South Pole.

The contracts are geared toward NASA’s Tipping Point program, which funds technologies that, if demonstrated successfully, are likely to be adopted by private industry.

“We want to build the [lunar] infrastructure…that is going to enable an international partnership for the biggest, broadest, most diverse inclusive coalition of researchers and explorers in the history of humankind,” Bridenstine said.

Other technologies funded Wednesday include demonstrations of lunar surface power generation and energy storage.

Houston-based Intuitive Machines, for example, will develop a “hopping robot” that could launch and carry small payloads from one lunar site to another.

And Alpha Space, also based in Houston, will create a small laboratory that could land on the moon’s surface and allow researchers to study how the extreme temperatures and radiation affect materials and electronics.

NASA’s 16 women astronauts — at least one likely to walk on moon

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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