SciTech Now Episode 338

In this episode of SciTech Now, scientists and soldiers save songbirds in Tacoma, Washington; a NY Times Columnist gives readers a closer look into the lives of scientists; invertebrates as climate change indicators; and examining bones.


Coming up, scientists and soldiers saving songbirds...

I want to make sure that our service members can get their job done but that, in the process of getting their job done, what we have isn't destroyed.

...inside the mind of a scientist...

What I try to do is use biography as a vehicle for talking about science and to show the real people behind these incredible discoveries that have changed our lives.

...invertebrates as climate-change indicators...

And then, all of a sudden, we had a total collapse of all the larvae of oysters that the shellfish growers have on the West Coast.

...what our bones say about us.

Earlier hunter-gatherers, people who were more active, have much more bone even at the same body size.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, and contributions to this station.


I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

Human activity has encroached on natural wildlife habitats in many places around the world, but just outside of Tacoma, Washington, two species are finding ways to live and work together.

Soldiers at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord are working with conservation biologists to share their training site with a small population of endangered songbirds.

Our environmental reporting partner, EarthFix, has the story.


So the nest is just right here.

A baby streaked horned lark.

They look like grumpy little old men.

They never peep at you when you hold them, but it's just the look that does it.

Only about 2,000 are left on the planet.

Holding these little creatures in my hand is nerve-racking.

My fingers still shake.

And then I'm putting the silver band on with this pair of banding pliers.

The colored bands will help identify this lark once it leaves the nest.

That guy is going to be known as yellow-orange, white-over-silver-blue.

Adrian Wolf is trying to save these native Northwest songbirds from going extinct.

And there he goes.

Good luck, buddy.

You can do it.

But there's danger nearby.


The prairies these larks rely on happen to be within the Northwest's largest military base.

[ Men shouting indistinctly ] [ Gunshots ]

At Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Western Washington, thousands are learning what it takes to be soldiers.

Training is important.

Training, it increases our readiness, and readiness is our number-one priority all across the Army.

Lieutenant Colonel J.D. Williams commands a battalion of 600.

Fire when ready!

It's his job to get them ready for deployment.

You can't just show up to remote locations and expect to know what you're doing, so you absolutely have to come out in environments like here at JBLM and utilize the land and train and perfect your craft as a soldier.

One of the most difficult skills, Williams says, is learning to fire heavy artillery.

It takes a battery of nine people working in careful coordination with a remote crew spotting the target and relaying coordinates.

All right.

Dock. Fire.


What does an artillery battalion need?

Absolutely, we need land.

We need -- When we shoot our projectile, it'll go six miles away.

I need space so I can shoot something, and I can observe it, and I can test that system and make it better and make those soldiers better artillery.


[ Explosions ]

Like the soldiers, the larks also need hundreds of open acres.

Once they leave the nest, it's harder for biologists to watch over them.

They're pretty small, smaller than a robin, bigger than a warbler.

They're really cute.

Males, especially, have these little horns, or feathers that look like horns.

They don't actually have horns.

Oh, there he is.

It's in the scope, right now.

Oh, there's another one.

The way that they can hide in just plain sight is amazing.

I mean, even those of us that have been doing it a long time and are very experienced and looking for these animals and know that they're out there, still, they are very difficult to find.

Streaked horned larks used to be found from British Columbia to Southern Oregon, but their range has contracted to a few thousand acres.

Well, they're not doing very well.

They are in decline.

Historical counts, where they used to be common and abundant, then they're not now.

They're really rare.

It's part of Paul Steucke's job to figure out how to train soldiers without killing an endangered species.

We're not looking to trade one off versus the other.

I want to make sure that our service members can get their job done but that, in the process of getting their job done, what we have isn't destroyed.

To accomplish this, the base has hired biologists to do conservation work here.

Biologists gather GPS data on nest locations and track young birds when they're most vulnerable.

This will help me remember how many nestlings, how many eggs, and what stage they're all at.

So we are working to identify the locations of the nests, and we provide that location information in real time back to the site managers.

Base officials use this data to adjust training missions to accommodate the lark.

They think of the nest locations like hospitals or friendly military units, things that soldiers wouldn't want to destroy on a real-life battlefield.

One, two, three.


Stand clear.

They give us a graphic, you know, and so it's a military overlay, and we go plot it on our map and say, 'Stay out,' or, 'Void' or, 'Make sure you stay here, and don't you think about coming over here.'


That's great.

We're not going there.

Estimate zero casualties.


They hold us accountable for the land that we use, and they ensure that we are environmental assistive and that we didn't destroy the land or pollute the environment or harm any species or any endangered or critical species, and so I think it's exceptional land management and safe and considerate.

The sprawling military base has actually helped the lark by defending its prairie from development.

So these open training lands provide the habitat because the military is here.

Without the military, these would probably already be lost.

Prairies were once the dominant landscape in this area, but in the decades since the base was established in 1917, the land surrounding the base was taken over by agriculture and then suburban sprawl.

Nearly all that remains of the region's prairie is on the base.

It's become one of the rarest types of landscapes in the United States.

This is the irony.

These military bases are the last refuges of fantastic habitat that's left, really, anywhere around the country.

It may seem impossible that larks would be able to coexist with artillery-firing soldiers, helicopters, guns, and bombs, but living in such a dangerous place may, in fact, be what has protected the streaked horned lark.


My next guest is making science more accessible by giving readers a closer look into the lives of scientists.

Claudia Dreifus has interviewed great minds in the field of astronomy, biology, computer science, and more.

Her interviews with scientists make up column 'A Conversation With.'

Claudia Dreifus joins me now.

So, you're getting into people who are incredibly bright in one thing, but you're able to figure out, in your columns, some way to humanize them, that they're not just this little person in a lab coat that sits somewhere in this corner building.

Well, thank you. Yes.

What I try to do is use biography as a vehicle for talking about science and to show the real people behind these incredible discoveries that have changed our lives, and often, they're fantastic and dramatic stories.

And you've talked to Nobel Prize winners.

You've talked to giants like Stephen Hawking.

What is it that you look for to start bringing that story out of them?

Well, I think the thing that moves any of us.

What moves you?

Why do you do what you do?

And sometimes, people aren't really all that in touch with it, but sometimes, there's a really clear line.

One of my favorite interviews is with James Allison, a biochemist, a researcher who really changed all of the way we're treating cancer now.

He's got a lot of cancer in his family.

And so, it struck him that a very, very old, forgotten way of treating cancer, mobilizing the immune system, might work, and he really worked at it, and he did it.

I mean, how many people can go around and say, 'I cured cancer'? He did.

He also played with Willie Nelson, and I asked him, 'Which was more meaningful to you?'

What was his answer?

He said very graciously, 'Solving many of the cancers is very rewarding, and so was playing with Willie Nelson.'

There is a trend now, in science, to become better communicators of the work that they're doing.

That, really, sometimes, the scientists are -- I don't know if they're going to a course about it, perhaps most of them are not, but that it's become important to say, 'Here's the work that I'm doing.'

I think the younger scientists really want to do that, and the Internet has facilitated it because they no longer have to have mediators between them and the public.

And they have no problem blogging or writing op-eds, and my course at Columbia is just for scientists, not for journalists.

I teach them the techniques of science so that they can learn how to communicate clearly because they have to unlearn a lot of the stuff they were trained to do.

Has the audience increased its appetite for science?

I mean, have you found that more readers are not just reading but responding and engaging with your work?

Well, I don't know.

I think there's always been an audience there, and, you know, there was a time when popular culture in America included science.

The 1930s, if you look at all these popular Warner Bros. movies, mostly starring Paul Muni, 'The Story of Louis Pasteur,' the story of Marie Curie, those popular entertainments were about science, and Albert Einstein was as famous as Elvis.

That kind of receded, and I think, in some ways, we're going to back to that.

In a way, I'm trying to model those Warner Bros. movies.

Tell the story and you'll get the science.

These are people.

These are people with the same motives everybody else has, but they're doing incredible things.

I'll tell you another thing.

They're a lot like artists, the really great ones.

I mean, they have to step out onto a limb where nothing is known, and they have to find, from nature, a secret.

That's interesting.


What are the scientific discoveries, you think, that people are most excited by today?

Well, it depends on who.

Economists are most excited by -- or people in business -- by algorithms and the Internet and automation, but I think we all ought to be excited by Jim Allison's discovery of immunotherapy, which is the first change in the way we treated cancer in 100 years.

I think we all should be excited by everyday things that we've taken for granted.

When I was a kid, polio was the absolute worst scourge of the world, and then one day, a scientist ended it.

And the same thing in the '80s.

I had so many friends dying of AIDS, and now, we can make that a chronic disease.

So science is every day in our life, but we don't recognize it, and we don't even understand that it's there, but we use it every time we pick up a cellphone.

I know it's like picking among your children, but are there interviews that stand out for you to say...

Oh, sure.

...'Wow. This conversation changed how I thought'?

Well, like a good mother, I love all my children, and people sometimes say, 'What's your favorite interview?'

And I don't have one, but I'll never forget interviewing Stephen Hawking, simply because the courage with which he insists on living his life is moving.

I never give my sources my questions beforehand, and I'm sure you don't either, Hari.

But in this case, I did because it takes him such a long time to process a question, and he has to figure out each letter in the alphabet in his brain and then program the computer to spell it, and it's not easy.

And so I did that, and then he requested, even though he could've e-mailed me the answer, he requested that he read and play the interview in person because he wanted to make it still a communication, even though it had that artificial aspect.

It was very frustrating to me because there was so much I wanted to ask him, and I couldn't, and it gave me, actually, a lot of sympathy for people who are disabled because there are all these pediments in the way that you don't recognize and that are there.

The one question that I asked spontaneously took a long time to get an answer to.

And it was something to the effect of, 'Why do you do this?

Why do you keep doing interviews like this?'

And he said because he hoped it would give others courage, and I think it does.

Claudia Dreifus, 'A Conversation With.'

Thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you!

When it comes to understanding the effects of climate change, we often think of polar bears and melting ice caps, but there are other places we can look to understand the effects and progress of our changing climate.

Invertebrates in our oceans offer a different perspective on what climate change is and how it's progressing.

Here to tell us more, via Google Hangout, is Dianna Padilla, Professor of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University on Long Island as part of our ongoing series of reports, 'Peril and Promise: the Challenge of Climate Change.'

Now, Dianna, thanks for joining us.

So, first of all, what can invertebrates tell us that we can't get elsewhere?

Well, invertebrates are the vast majority of animals on Earth, so there are more species of snails than there are species of all vertebrates, right?

We're more familiar with things like polar bears and penguins because they're more similar to us, but just about all of the animals on Earth -- We get rid of all the vertebrates, there's more invertebrates than anything else.

What we've been noticing, in particular, with regards to climate change, is that the ones in the ocean are the ones that are particularly in peril now.

Now, the oceans are really, really, really huge, and we used to think -- When I was a student, I was taught that we couldn't do anything to change the chemistry of the world's oceans, but it turns out that as we've been putting all the carbon dioxide into the air, the oceans soak up over a quarter of that, so over 25% of the CO2 that we put into the atmosphere is being taken up by the oceans, so very surprisingly, all of a sudden, we started seeing -- especially shelled animals, shelled invertebrates -- starting to reduce in numbers in certain parts of the ocean, and then, all of a sudden, we had a total collapse of all of the larvae of oysters that the shellfish growers have on the West Coast.

All of the carbon dioxide in the ocean has changed the ocean's pH.

It's made it more acidic.

It's what we call ocean acidification, or OA.

We have also seen recent stories about portions of the Great Barrier Reef that are essentially dead.

How did that happen?

So that is a combination of things, and a lot of this exacerbated when we have an El Niño event, and an El Niño event is when we have -- The water gets very, very much hotter in the Southern Pacific, which is where the Great Barrier Reef is, and it turns out that corals have little algae that live inside them.

That's what makes them pretty colors.

And those algae provide essential food for the corals because they photosynthesize, just like plants on land, but when it gets too warm, they can't produce as much food for the coral as the coral would normally want, so the coral kicks them out.

When the coral kicks out their algae, they turn white, and we call it bleaching.

But then the coral can't live without their symbiont, so then that's what's causing all of this death, those same corals that are also then very, very susceptible to ocean acidification.

Are the invertebrates kind of giving us those signals of where the ocean is acidifying more with the sort of die-offs that you mentioned?

What we do is see is that shellfish growers have harder time growing their stock and that when we follow natural populations of especially bivalves, clams and mussels, that they're starting to decline.

Now, I've heard that part of your study includes the research into the heart rates of mussels.

What does that teach you?

So what we're interested in is the blue mussel, which is an important aquaculture species, and it's also just an important coastal species around the Atlantic, and so we want to ask this question, 'Do animals from different populations, are some resistant to stress, particularly OA stress, as compared to others?'

So as part of a bigger project, what we did is we put little heart-rate monitors on our mussels because just like us, when we get stressed out, our heart rate increases, a mussel's heart rate increases.

Their metabolic rate increases.

It's all signs of stress.

And what we found was that animals from some populations, they behaved as we expected.

When we increased their stress, their heart rate went up, but for animals from one population that we tested, their heart rate didn't change with increasing stress.

The bulk of the populations that are in these oceans, will they be able to adapt, or are many of them, at the very least, going to feel significant stresses whether they adapt or die?

Right now, we don't know enough about how these populations of animals, how much genetic variation there is, whether past exposure to stressful environments makes organisms pre-adapted or better able to withstand this kind of stress.

How do we figure out how to deal with such an enormous ecosystem, and are these indicators that we have learned about from these coastlines that we know, are they the kind of signal that the rest of the ocean is sending us?

Or are there, as you say, are there pockets where, perhaps, there's more resilience in some of these tiny ecosystems where we can say, 'Hey!

Guess what? This is how we can prepare an ecology to adapt to what's happening around us'?

This is why we really do need focused careful experiments and studies to really start looking at the species.

All right.

Professor Dianna Padilla from the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University.

Thanks so much for joining us.



Throughout human history, our bodies have adapted over time to the conditions in which we live.

Now, scientists at the Pennsylvania State University Center for Quantitative Imaging are examining bones to see what they reveal, not only about our ancestors but our about our lifestyles and eating habits.

Here's the story.

About 12,000 years ago, agriculture and animal domestication emerged in Southwest Asia and Mesoamerica, but before that, foraging culture was the only sustainable lifestyle.

Hunter-gatherers has a variety of strategies they used to hunt and trap their prey, such as mammoths and bison.

Nowadays, to include bison in your diet, you can just head to your favorite burger spot and take a seat.

This change in lifestyle, over time, has also changed the very structure of our bodies, and at Penn State's Center for Quantitative Imaging, those changes are being studied.

My main research interests are in the variation in skeletal morphology in different primates and humans and the relationship of that variation in bone shape and form to behavior and other aspects of primate and human biology.

A lot of what our research is showing is that earlier hunter-gatherers, people who were more active, have much more bone, even at the same body size, so they are probably growing stronger skeletons because of the types of behaviors that they're engaging in.

As we moved into more sedentary lifestyles and moving into the present, more recent historical times, we have less bone, and the less bone you have as a young adult predisposes you, essentially, to potentially getting osteoporosis or having deleterious bone loss when you are older.

Learning more about these changes can lead to a better understanding of causes and solutions for modern-day diseases.

We'll be able to potentially provide a baseline of variation that will allow us to then compare what modern people are doing and potentially come up with some preventive mechanisms for increased activity, better diets, and other intervention-type approaches that would help alleviate some of the stress on the medical system that osteoporosis is posing.

To get a closer look at the bones they study, Tim and Lily use a specially designed micro-CT scanner.

So this is a computer tomography scanning system that allows us to nondestructively image the internal geometry and structure of objects, a variety of types of objects.

Primarily, we're interested in both biological questions, things like skull morphology and skeletal morphology in different animals.

In our lab, we're interested in bone morphology and how it changes over time and as well as between species and different populations of humans, specifically.

So with the CT scanner, we're able to look not only at the outer morphology but also on the inside, to get a little bit more detailed look at the variation between populations.

So, what's the difference between the X-rays this machine produces compared to the X-rays you get at the dentist?

Well, it's all about the resolution.

If you go to a hospital or to a doctor's office and get a medical CAT scan, what you're typically doing is seeing internal structure in your body at a certain resolution, approximately half a millimeter or a little bit less.

This scanner is capable of going down to submillimeter resolutions at the level of about 5 microns, all the way up to, maybe, about 200 or 300 microns.

The research shows how our bones have changed over the course of many centuries, but it also looks at differences between someone like me, a self-proclaimed carnivore, and my friend, the proud vegan.

It's been pretty clear that environmental loading has been a big impact on bone variation, but I'm really interested in seeing if there are other aspects that also influence it, like if there's sociocultural factors that make people choose to behave differently, and if their diet changes.

Dietary effects on bone are still not completely clear, and so one of the aspects of what we're looking at is if you have very different diets, what are the effects?

We used to say something about lifestyle and activity, and these images allow us to go even deeper, so we can see at a much finer scale some of the internal structure of bone that has not been accessible without destroying the bone until very recently.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, and contributions to this station.