Site update

Since I have been really terrible at updating the blog (but pretty good at keeping up with the facebook blog posts) I've added the widget below so that facebook cross posts to the blog.

You shouldn't need to join facebook but can just click on the links in the widget to access the articles. If you have any problems or comments please mail me at arandjel 'AT'

Friday, March 25, 2011

Science: How to Fake It

Thanks to Rachel D for the link!
From Mad Art Lab
"So you want to publish a fake science paper. Of course you do. Who doesn’t? But how do you go about it? Well, it’s a lot easier than you think. Just follow these simple steps…

Step 1: Pick a Subject
This is important. You’ll need to choose something that’s both popular and wrong. Things like “sticking needles in your skin cures disease” or “pets can telepathically detect when their owners are coming home” are pretty good. For this tutorial, though, we’ll use “common objects can bring you good luck” as an example.

go HERE to proceed to Step 2: Prepare Your Experiment

Symphony of Science - Ode to the Brain

from youtube
mp3: "Ode to the Brain" is the ninth episode in the Symphony of Science music video series. Through the powerful words of scientists Carl Sagan, Robert Winston, Vilayanur Ramachandran, Jill Bolte Taylor, Bill Nye, and Oliver Sacks, it covers different aspects the brain including its evolution, neuron networks, folding, and more. The material sampled for this video comes from Carl Sagan's Cosmos, Jill Bolte Taylor's TED Talk, Vilayanur Ramachandran's TED Talk, Bill Nye's Brain episode, BBC's "The Human Body", Oliver Sachs' TED Talk, Discovery Channel's "Human Body: Pushing the Limits", and more.

Male birth control pill soon a reality

By John Schieszer
Implants, patches and creams also on the way

Forty-year-old Scott Hardin says he’s glad that men may soon have a new choice when it comes to birth control. But, he adds, he would not even consider taking a male hormonal contraceptive. Hardin is like many men who are pleased to hear they may have a new option but are wary of taking any type of hormones.

“I would rather rely on a solution that doesn’t involving medicating myself and the problems women have had with hormone therapy doesn’t make me anxious to want to sign on to taking a hormone-type therapy,” says Hardin, who is single and a college administrator.

For the first time, a safe, effective and reversible hormonal male contraceptive appears to be within reach. Several formulations are expected to become commercially available within the near future. Men may soon have the options of a daily pill to be taken orally, a patch or gel to be applied to the skin, an injection given every three months or an implant placed under the skin every 12 months, according to Seattle researchers.

“It largely depends on how funding continues. The technology is there. We know how it would work,” says Dr. Andrea Coviello, who is helping to test several male contraceptives at the Population Center for Research in Reproduction at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Coviello and her colleagues have found that a male contraceptive that releases testosterone over three months is potentially a safe and practical method of contraception. The Seattle researchers have been testing a sustained-released, testosterone micro-capsule, which consists of a thick liquid administered by injection under the skin.

“I never had any real noticeable side effects. I didn’t notice any mood changes. I may have put on a little weight,” says Larry Setlow, a 39-year-old computer programmer with a small software company in Seattle. He has taken part in three male hormonal contraceptive clinical trials at the University of Washington and has received both pills and injections.

“They all worked really well and I was able to look at my lab results and see my sperm count drop to zero,” says Setlow.
Finally, it is the man's turn
Women have had the option of a safe, effective and reversible form of contraception since the development of the female oral contraceptive pill in the 1960s.

Female contraceptives use hormones, estrogens and progestins, to shut off the release of eggs to prevent pregnancy. Male hormonal contraceptives work pretty much the same way: hormones, such as testosterone and progestins, are used to turn off sperm production.

“It seemed like I was getting headaches and then there were times when I woke up sweating at night and I had to change my shirt. Other than that, I didn’t have any side effects,” says 45-year-old Quentin Brown, who lives in Los Angeles and has been a volunteer in a study of MHCs at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, Calif.
Advertise | AdChoices

Brown has been taking hormonal contraceptives for more than a year. He reports no problems with weight gain or acne, two side effects that occurred in earlier versions of MHCs tested in the 1990s.

Brown, who is married and has three children, hopes his kids will one day be able to benefit from the new technology. His would like his son, who is now 17, to one day have the option of taking a male birth control pill. Brown believes many men will see “their pill” as a good idea and will want to use it.

“It is time for men to have some control. I think it would empower men and deter some women out there from their nefarious plans,” says Brown. “Some women are out there to use men to get pregnant. This could deter women from doing this. An athlete or a singer is someone who could be a target and they could put a stop to that.”

Studies conducted by the World Health Organization show that men from many countries around the world would welcome MHCs. The WHO has tested MHCs in hundreds of volunteers in various countries around the world and have not found it difficult to recruit volunteers for their studies. Researchers say many men are very willing to become involved in the studies and are anxious to see a male birth control pill on the market.

A range of choices
Over the past 5 years, researchers around the world have had a great deal of success with male contraceptive pills, patches, implants and creams that deliver various amounts of hormones. It is now believed that an MHC in the form of a daily pill could be available on the market within 5 to 7 years and implants could arrive even sooner.

“An injectible or an implant (similar to Norplant for women) will be the first to be approved. The big studies are now under way,” says Dr. Christina Wang, who is heading up the clinical trials of MHCs at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

She and her colleagues have found that a combination of progestin and androgen implants are safe, effective, inexpensive and entirely reversible.

The California researchers have tested several different products in hundreds of men and are also collaborating with investigators in China. A Chinese clinical trial is now under way at 10 different sites across China and includes 1,000 men. The Phase III trial involves a single injection given once every month. Wang hopes to start a similar trial in the United States within the next 2 years.

We are trying to find the best combination with the least amount of side effects and then the least amount of medication that may be required to get the maximum effects,” says Wang.

Wang adds that in some countries, a low-cost, reversible and long-acting form of an MHC could become commercially available within the next 3 years. However, she says it will probably be at least 5 years before one is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Interestingly, Wang says there is now greater interest in this technology than there ever was in the past and there is now more funding available worldwide than ever before.

But will men take it? Some say yes, some say only if their partners make them, and other say they would never even consider it.

Bloodhound Anti-poaching Dogs for Virunga - March 2011

The Virunga National Park facebook page has a great album and information on their new bloodhound anti-poaching dogs. Go HERE to see the gallery and read more.

From the site:
These are photos of the first few weeks with our new bloodhound dogs.

The first week, world-renowned bloodhound trainer, Dr. Marlene Zähner, and Robert Williams escorted the six dogs to Congo. They stayed a week to help get the dogs settled, and Marlene worked with the new dog handlers, teaching them everything she could in a week about caring for dogs and training them how to control a dog on a walk in the forest.

A week after they left, Stella, one of the 3-month old dogs, got sick. She was examined by a vet and put on antibiotics with care instructions. She seemed to get better but not well over the next week, and exactly one week later, she crashed. Although we still don't know what it was, it showed signs of possible pneumonia and it seemed that her lungs were filling with liquid and she struggled to breathe. She refused to lie down because she couldn't breathe, even though she was so exhausted she literally fell asleep in the sitting position and fell over several times. Dr. Jan Ramer from Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) rushed over from Rwanda and administered some drugs that helped to release the liquid in her lungs and she survived the night. She now seems mostly recovered to our great relief. Stella has become a favorite with her sweet disposition, and we are grateful she survived and to all who cared for her - the handlers and Dr. Jan in particular, with lots of email and phone advice from Marlene in Switzerland.

These dogs will be trained by Marlene for anti-poaching. It's an important program and will take time with on-going expenses for care and training. If you would like to assist in this program, you can donate on the blog toward monthly for the expenses or with one-time gifts. Go here and find the item on the right side of the blog to contribute. Thank you for your support!

Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says

from the BBC

A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction, say researchers.

The study found a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation. The team's mathematical model attempts to account for the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one. The result, reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, US, indicates that religion will all but die out altogether in those countries.

The team took census data stretching back as far as a century from countries in which the census queried religious affiliation: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. Their means of analysing the data invokes what is known as nonlinear dynamics - a mathematical approach that has been used to explain a wide range of physical phenomena in which a number of factors play a part.

One of the team, Daniel Abrams of Northwestern University, put forth a similar model in 2003 to put a numerical basis behind the decline of lesser-spoken world languages. At its heart is the competition between speakers of different languages, and the "utility" of speaking one instead of another. "The idea is pretty simple," said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the University of Arizona. "It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility.

"For example in languages, there can be greater utility or status in speaking Spanish instead of [the dying language] Quechuan in Peru, and similarly there's some kind of status or utility in being a member of a religion or not."

Dr Wiener continued: "In a large number of modern secular democracies, there's been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40%, and the highest we saw was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60%."

The team then applied their nonlinear dynamics model, adjusting parameters for the relative social and utilitarian merits of membership of the "non-religious" category. They found, in a study published online, that those parameters were similar across all the countries studied, suggesting that similar behaviour drives the mathematics in all of them. And in all the countries, the indications were that religion was headed toward extinction.

However, Dr Wiener told the conference that the team was working to update the model with a "network structure" more representative of the one at work in the world. "Obviously we don't really believe this is the network structure of a modern society, where each person is influenced equally by all the other people in society," he said. However, he told BBC News that he thought it was "a suggestive result". "It's interesting that a fairly simple model captures the data, and if those simple ideas are correct, it suggests where this might be going. "Obviously much more complicated things are going on with any one individual, but maybe a lot of that averages out."

Long-Neglected Experiment Gives New Clues to Origin of Life

From Science

Thanks to Naim for the link!

A classic experiment that has sat on the shelf for more than a half-century is yielding new clues about how life may have arisen on Earth, according to a team of scientists that has gone back and analyzed the data with modern techniques.

In 1952, Stanley Miller of the University of Chicago in Illinois and his colleagues conducted one of the most famous experiments in all of science. They repeatedly sent electric sparks through flasks filled with the gases thought to resemble Earth's early atmosphere, including water vapor, hydrogen, methane, and ammonia. After 1 week of near-continuous zapping, the simulated lightning had converted a substantial portion of the gases into organic compounds, including several of the amino acids needed to produce proteins, indicating that this might be how life began on our planet.

In the next few years, Miller and his colleagues repeated the experiment with the same lab equipment and procedures but with different sets of gases. For some reason, the results of the experiments were shelved but not analyzed, surfacing again only after Miller died and colleagues began poring through his archives. In 2008, researchers reported the results of one of those experiments, in which the half-century-old residues yielded 22 amino acids, 10 of which hadn't been detected in the original 1952 experiment.

Now, researchers have analyzed the results of another of Miller's studies, one conducted in 1958. In that research, the team sent sparks through a mixture of methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide. These gasses may have been similar to the noxious blend spewing from early volcanoes, and thus they may have been more representative of the environment in and around volcanic plumes than the gasses used in the 1952 experiment. The resulting dried sludge has been stored in glass vials inside cardboard boxes and kept at room temperature for more than 50 years.

Organic chemist Henderson "Jim" Cleaves of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., and his colleagues have now analyzed that sludge using modern techniques and instruments that are more than 1 billion times more sensitive than the methods used by Miller in the 1950s.

Their results, reported online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that the 1958 experiment produced 23 amino acids, including six that contained sulfur. The residue samples included nearly equal proportions of left-handed and right-handed versions of several amino acids, a sign that the organic chemicals had been generated during the experiment and not by microorganisms that had somehow made their way into the sealed glass vials. Living cells use and produce only left-handed versions of amino acids, Cleaves says.

Not only did the newly analyzed experiment yield more amino acids than did the one conducted in 1952, two of the sulfur-containing amino acids produced in Miller's 1958 experiment—cysteine and methionine, which weren't found in the results of the 1952 experiment—play particularly important roles in biological processes, says Nicholas Hud, a biochemist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, who was not affiliated with the team. Moreover, he notes, "it's difficult to believe that life as we know it wasn't incorporating sulfur-containing compounds early on."

In addition to the sulfur-containing amino acids, the 53-year-old residues contained threonine, leucine, and isoleucine, amino acids important for certain biological processes that weren't detected in any other electric-discharge experiments that Miller conducted.

The presence of hydrogen sulfide in the 1958 experiment seems to have played a key role in producing the wealth of prebiotic chemicals Cleaves's group found, says Hud. And although researchers still argue about the precise composition of Earth's early atmosphere, most agree that volcanic eruptions would have contributed hydrogen sulfide, he adds.

The origin of life is a hotly debated topic, and the source of the prebiotic chemicals in Earth's so-called primordial soup is one of its enduring mysteries. Some researchers have argued that life could have begun around deep-sea hydrothermal vents, where a warm, chemically active, and mineral-rich broth spews from the ocean floor. But the new analyses—like many of Miller's previously reported results—hint that many of those substances could have formed in the lightning-riddled, steam-filled plumes of volcanoes.

However, the new analyses also suggest that the chemicals could have fallen to Earth in meteorites, Cleaves says, because the relative amounts of amino acids produced by Miller's 1958 experiment and those found in certain carbon-rich meteorites are intriguingly similar.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

HipHop and Hard Rock - how to save the planet while on tour

Ludacris and Tommy Lee for Planet Green:

TreeHugger has a list of the 7 funniest green commercials. The one above is by far my fave, but the others are cute and good for a smile.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

shameless self promotion - PLoS ONE: Non-Invasive Genetic Monitoring of Wild Central Chimpanzees

Our new paper came out today in PLosONE (so its open access :)
Arandjelovic M, Head J, Rabanal LI, Schubert G, Mettke E, Boesch C, Robbins M, Vigilant L (2011) Non-Invasive Genetic Monitoring of Wild Central Chimpanzees. PLoS ONE 6(3): e14761. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0014761

An assessment of population size and structure is an important first step in devising conservation and management plans for endangered species. Many threatened animals are elusive, rare and live in habitats that prohibit directly counting individuals. For example, a well-founded estimate of the number of great apes currently living in the wild is lacking. Developing methods to obtain accurate population estimates for these species is a priority for their conservation management. Genotyping non-invasively collected faecal samples is an effective way of evaluating a species' population size without disruption, and can also reveal details concerning population structure.

Methodology/Principal Findings

We opportunistically collected wild chimpanzee faecal samples for genetic capture-recapture analyses over a four-year period in a 132 km2 area of Loango National Park, Gabon. Of the 444 samples, 46% yielded sufficient quantities of DNA for genotyping analysis and the consequent identification of 121 individuals. Using genetic capture-recapture, we estimate that 283 chimpanzees (range: 208–316) inhabited the research area between February 2005 and July 2008. Since chimpanzee males are patrilocal and territorial, we genotyped samples from males using variable Y-chromosome microsatellite markers and could infer that seven chimpanzee groups are present in the area. Genetic information, in combination with field data, also suggested the occurrence of repeated cases of intergroup violence and a probable group extinction.


The poor amplification success rate resulted in a limited number of recaptures and hence only moderate precision (38%, measured as the entire width of the 95% confidence interval), but this was still similar to the best results obtained using intensive nest count surveys of apes (40% to 63%). Genetic capture-recapture methods applied to apes can provide a considerable amount of novel information on chimpanzee population size and structure with minimal disturbance to the animals and represent a powerful complement to traditional field-based methods.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Comparative Data Reveal Similar Mortality Patterns Across Primates and Humans

From the Montreal Gazette
Apes, like humans, 'age gracefully': study

Humans and wild primates share not only many physical features, they also experience similar aging patterns, according to a new collaborative study involving researchers from across North America.

The study, Aging in the Natural World, which appears in the March 11 issue of Science, reveals that humans and their hairier cousins see their risk of dying increase with age at similar rates.

"We know that humans have a higher risk of death in their infancy, which levels off for juveniles, picks up in adulthood and continues to increase with each year after that," said Dr. Linda Fedigan, co-author of the study and Canada research chair in primatology and bio-anthropology at the University of Calgary.

"We found a similar pattern in the non-human primates we studied."

It has always been assumed and widely accepted that humans age slower than most other mammals. But these conclusions were based on early research comparing human lifespans to those of shorter-lived species such as mice and rats, Fedigan said.

This new study is the first to compare human aging patterns with those of "our closest evolutionary relatives" involving the collaborative efforts of seven researchers undertaking long-term wild primate projects in different parts of the world.

Each researcher spent between 25 and 50 years observing different types of wild primates on a daily basis, noting when these animals were born, when they mated, gave birth, changed groups, got sick, and died.

Research data included findings from Jane Goodall's chimpanzee research site in Tanzania as well as Fedigan's own 28-year study on capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica.

Overall, the aging rates of 3,000 individual wild primates were measured.

When compared to findings from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on human aging, the research team determined that wild primates also "aged gracefully" and at a similar rate to humans.

The study also showed that wild male primates, like male humans, die sooner than their female counterparts.

Testosterone has long been believed to have a negative effect on the immune system, starting from within the womb, Fedigan said.

But the study suggests that male primates also face a higher risk of death compared to females due to the stress and aggression of male competition, which may be true for male humans.

Only one of the seven species — a Brazilian monkey called the muriqui — showed similar mortality patterns among males and females.

"It's a monkey species where males are known for being non-aggressive, non-competitive and are not fighting for access to females. In fact, they live in tight co-operative brotherhoods."

There are still many unanswered questions as to how long humans can live, especially with access to modern medicine and health care helping humans to live longer than before, Fedigan said.

"But with this study, we are one step closer to understanding factors that control, predict or affect the biological basis of the maximum human lifespan."

Bronikowski AM, Altmann J, Brockman DK, Cords M, Fedigan LM, Pusey A, Stoinski T, Morris WF, Strier KB, Alberst SC (2011) Aging in the Natural World: Comparative Data Reveal Similar Mortality Patterns Across Primates. Science 331 (6022): 1325-1328
DOI: 10.1126/science.1201571

Human senescence patterns—late onset of mortality increase, slow mortality acceleration, and exceptional longevity—are often described as unique in the animal world. Using an individual-based data set from longitudinal studies of wild populations of seven primate species, we show that contrary to assumptions of human uniqueness, human senescence falls within the primate continuum of aging; the tendency for males to have shorter life spans and higher age-specific mortality than females throughout much of adulthood is a common feature in many, but not all, primates; and the aging profiles of primate species do not reflect phylogenetic position. These findings suggest that mortality patterns in primates are shaped by local selective forces rather than phylogenetic history.

Klaus Zuberbühler, Brian Hare & Vanessa Woods talk about animal communication and cognition

Super sexy & smart Klaus Zuberbühler, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods talk about animal communication and cognition. I can't embed so go to the World Science Festival Website to check out the following videos:

Happy Pi Day!


Remote Cameras catch flirty and hunty polar bears

Polar Bear Spy Cam Eaten By ... a Polar Bear! Plus Mother & Cub Cuteness

What happens when you place spy cams all over the arctic in order to track polar bears? Filmmaker John Downer wanted to track a mother and two cubs as they endure struggles of survival in the arctic, and to do so, he employed some clever camerawork. Though, when one bear discovered the cameras, it didn't work out so well for the equipment. However, most of the time, there was some amazing footage captured.

Filmmaker John Downer is behind the Polar Bears - Spy on the Ice movie premiering on Animal Planet at 10pm (EST) Thursday, 10 March 2011.. It looks like a whole lot of pure awesome.

Cool Hunting writes, "Downer employs three types of cameras to track the lives of two mother bears as they lead their clubs across Arctic Norway in search of seal hunting grounds for the den's survival. Not letting any of the frozen conditions get in the way of filming, the three cameras each offered a unique way of capturing the bears. The Snow-cam, disguised as a lump of snow, was equipped with four-wheel drive and tundra wheels to get across land and ice. The Blizzard-cam is rigged with propellers, allowing it to reach speeds of 37 mph, while the Iceberg cam was thoroughly waterproofed to maneuver between sheets of ice and under water to capture the polar bears swimming under the ice."

Check out what all four camera types look like. The only problem is when the cameras aren't so incognito. Last year, a male bear destroyed $200,000 worth of equipment. If you want to know how strong these animals are, make them mad by pointing a camera at them.

But for the cameras not discovered, they capture some great footage.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

"We’re an overconfident species"

There are some seriously great lines in this op-ed like (thanks to Zoran A. a for the link!):
"American students no longer perform particularly well in global math tests. But Americans are among the world leaders when it comes to thinking that we are really good at math."
From the NY Times - Op-ed
The Modesty Manifesto

We’re an overconfident species. Ninety-four percent of college professors believe they have above-average teaching skills. A survey of high school students found that 70 percent of them have above-average leadership skills and only 2 percent are below average.

Men tend to be especially blessed with self-esteem. Men are the victims of unintentional drowning more than twice as often as women. That’s because men have tremendous faith in their own swimming ability, especially after they’ve been drinking.

Americans are similarly endowed with self-esteem. When pollsters ask people around the world to rate themselves on a variety of traits, they find that people in Serbia, Chile, Israel and the United States generally supply the most positive views of themselves. People in South Korea, Switzerland, Japan, Taiwan and Morocco are on the humble side of the rankings.

Yet even from this high base, there is some evidence to suggest that Americans have taken self-approval up a notch over the past few decades. Start with the anecdotal evidence. It would have been unthinkable for a baseball player to celebrate himself in the batter’s box after a home-run swing. Now it’s not unusual. A few decades ago, pop singers didn’t compose anthems to their own prowess; now those songs dominate the charts.

American students no longer perform particularly well in global math tests. But Americans are among the world leaders when it comes to thinking that we are really good at math.

Students in the Middle East, Africa and the United States have the greatest faith in their math skills. Students in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan have much less self-confidence, though they actually do better on the tests.

In a variety of books and articles, Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University and W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia have collected data suggesting that American self-confidence has risen of late. College students today are much more likely to agree with statements such as “I am easy to like” than college students 30 years ago. In the 1950s, 12 percent of high school seniors said they were a “very important person.” By the ’90s, 80 percent said they believed that they were.

In short, there’s abundant evidence to suggest that we have shifted a bit from a culture that emphasized self-effacement — I’m no better than anybody else, but nobody is better than me — to a culture that emphasizes self-expansion.

Writers like Twenge point out that young people are bathed in messages telling them how special they are. Often these messages are untethered to evidence of actual merit. Over the past few decades, for example, the number of hours college students spend studying has steadily declined. Meanwhile, the average G.P.A. has steadily risen.

Some argue that today’s child-rearing and educational techniques have produced praise addicts. Roni Caryn Rabin of The Times recently reported on some research that found that college students would rather receive a compliment than eat their favorite food or have sex.

If Americans do, indeed, have a different and larger conception of the self than they did a few decades ago, I wonder if this is connected to some of the social and political problems we have observed over the past few years.

I wonder if the rise of consumption and debt is in part influenced by people’s desire to adorn their lives with the things they feel befit their station. I wonder if the rise in partisanship is influenced in part by a narcissistic sense that, “I know how the country should be run and anybody who disagrees with me is just in the way.”

Most pervasively, I wonder if there is a link between a possible magnification of self and a declining saliency of the virtues associated with citizenship.

Citizenship, after all, is built on an awareness that we are not all that special but are, instead, enmeshed in a common enterprise. Our lives are given meaning by the service we supply to the nation. I wonder if Americans are unwilling to support the sacrifices that will be required to avert fiscal catastrophe in part because they are less conscious of themselves as components of a national project.

Perhaps the enlargement of the self has also attenuated the links between the generations. Every generation has an incentive to push costs of current spending onto future generations. But no generation has done it as freely as this one. Maybe people in the past had a visceral sense of themselves as a small piece of a larger chain across the centuries. As a result, it felt viscerally wrong to privilege the current generation over the future ones, in a way it no longer does.

It’s possible, in other words, that some of the current political problems are influenced by fundamental shifts in culture, involving things as fundamental as how we appraise ourselves. Addressing them would require a more comprehensive shift in values.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

blond capuchins use tools to gather termites

Critically endangered capuchins make tools to gather termites

Less than 200 blond capuchins (Cebus falvius) survive in the highly-fragmented habitat of Brazil's Atlantic Forest. But this tiny group of monkeys, only rediscovered in 2006, is surprising scientists with its adept tool-using abilities. Displaying similar behavior to that which made the chimpanzees of Gombe famous worldwide, the blond capuchins modify sticks to gather termites from trees; however, according to the study published in Biology Letters the blond capuchins use two techniques never witnessed before: twisting the stick when inside the termite nest and tapping the nest before inserting the stick.

"Tapping the walls of the nest and rotating the stick have not been reported previously for chimpanzees or any other non-human primates. They indicate effective problem solving and effective deployment of sensitive manual actions," the study's authors write.

The technique of rotating the stick and tapping the nest add to the monkey's success according to researchers, who tested the monkeys' techniques for themselves.

"It really worked. The way they do it really enhanced their catch," lead author Antonio Souto of the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Brazil, told LiveScience. "I think they can do better than we did; they have more experience."

In addition, this is the first time capuchin monkeys have been observed using tools above the ground, since they raid termite nests on tree trunks.

First described by German naturalist George Marcgrave in 1664, the blond capuchin was formally named in 1774. But the blond capuchin disappeared for centuries, only to be re-discovered in 2006. The remaining populations is threatened by habitat loss, as well as hunting for food and as pets. Researchers estimate that 180 survive.

Souto A, Bione CBC, Bastos M, Bezerra BM, Fragaszy D, Schiel N (2011) Critically endangered blonde capuchins fish for termites and use new techniques to accomplish the task. Biology Letters. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0034.

We report the spontaneous modification and use of sticks to fish for termites, above the ground, in wild blonde capuchins (Cebus flavius). These critically endangered Neotropical primates inhabit remnants of the Atlantic Forest. They used two previously undescribed techniques to enhance their termite capture success: nest tapping and stick rotation. The current ecologically based explanation for tool use in wild capuchins (i.e. terrestrial habits and bipedalism) must be viewed cautiously. Instead, remarkable manual skills linked to a varied diet seem important in promoting tool use in different contexts. The repertoire of tool-using techniques employed by wild capuchins has been expanded, highlighting the behavioural versatility in this genus.

Study of spiders shows species may be able to adapt to global warming

From the Ecologist
Study of spiders shows species may be able to adapt to global warming
Species may be able to adapt to gradual increases in temperature preventing the collapse of biological communities in the face of global climate change

The predatory behaviour of spiders is unaffected by increased temperatures, according to research by Yale University, suggesting some species can adapt to global warming.

The Yale research examined a well-studied grassland food web, made up of a predatory spider, its grasshopper prey, and the plants grasshoppers fed on. The spider’s predatory behaviour is known to be temperature-sensitive, decreasing with increased temperatures. Researchers had expected higher temperatures to stop the spiders preying on grasshoppers, leading to more plants being eaten.

However, in the study, spider populations from warmer areas tolerated higher temperature ranges better than the populations from cooler areas and continued to control the grasshopper popualtion. This suggests they can adapt to local conditions and maintain their vital role in the community despite increased temperatures.

‘Species are almost certainly adapting to the climate change Earth has experienced during the past century,' study author Dr Brandon Barton told the Ecologist. 'My results show that species have the capacity to adapt to a range of temperatures, similar to those predicted by climate change models, and that a species’ role in the community can be conserved by this adaptation.’

Many similar experiments expose organisms to short-term, sudden increases in temperature, which does not allow for long-term gradual processes like climate change. Barton’s work overcomes these limitations by looking at populations along a natural temperature gradient to see if long-term changes in temperature would affect small-scale food webs. He sampled spiders at sites from a 500km, north-south axis, along the east coast of the United States, where temperature varied by 4.8C.

‘Ecologists must design experiments that explicitly test how gradual climate change will affect future systems, or else risk making unrealistic and misleading conclusions,’ Barton believes.

Dr Karsten Schönrogge, Principal Scientist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, believes further research is required to improve our understanding of how species may adapt to climate change.

‘Rapid adaptation of species not just to temperatures, but any of the factors indicated to change under climate change [e.g. drought regimes, etc.] or other environmental change could potentially stabilise communities. If they [species] can adapt, understanding how quickly and how far would give us a much better understanding to predict possible impacts of climate change at community level,' he said.

Despite species ability to adapt, Barton remains unconvinced this can eliminate the negative impacts of climate change.‘Whether understated or exaggerated, all evidence suggests that the wide-reaching direct and indirect effects of climate change will have innumerable consequences on biological systems globally.’

Barton BT (2011) Local adaptation to temperature conserves top-down control in a grassland food web. Proc. R. Soc. B doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0030

A fundamental limitation in many climate change experiments is that tests represent relatively short-term ‘shock’ experiments and so do not incorporate the phenotypic plasticity or evolutionary change that may occur during the gradual process of climate change. However, capturing this aspect of climate change effects in an experimental design is a difficult challenge that few studies have accomplished. I examined the effect of temperature and predator climate history in food webs composed of herbaceous plants, generalist grasshopper herbivores and spider predators across a natural 4.8°C temperature gradient spanning 500 km in northeastern USA. In these grasslands, the effects of rising temperatures on the plant community are indirect and arise via altered predator–herbivore interactions. Experimental warming had no direct effect on grasshoppers, but reduced predation risk effects by causing spiders from all study sites to seek thermal refuge lower in the plant canopy. However, spider thermal tolerance corresponded to spider origin such that spiders from warmer study sites tolerated higher temperatures than spiders from cooler study sites. As a consequence, the magnitude of the indirect effect of spiders on plants did not differ along the temperature gradient, although a reciprocal transplant experiment revealed significantly different effects of spider origin on the magnitude of top-down control. These results suggest that variation in predator response to warming may maintain species interactions and associated food web processes when faced with long term, chronic climate warming.

non-coding region DNA deletions correlate to lack of penile spines in humans (and other cool stuff too)

Thanks to Geraldine F and Nathalie M for the links :)
From the scientist
Big brains and spineless penises - How DNA deletions may have produced uniquely human traits

Hundreds of deletions in non-coding DNA have helped sculpt human evolution, including an increase in brain size and the loss of sensory whiskers and penis spines, proposes a study published this week in Nature.

"The molecular basis of becoming human is one of the great problems in biology," said senior author David Kingsley of Stanford University. "There have been suggestions from multiple organisms that changes in non-coding regions were likely to be important," he added, and with the availability of the human genome sequence, "we have an incredibly exciting opportunity to start to address that question."

For over a decade, Kingsley's lab has studied the genetic basis of evolution in stickleback fish, and found time and again that major morphological differences can be tracked to deletions in regions of DNA surrounding key developmental genes. To see if the same was true for human evolution, Kingsley and colleagues compared the human and chimpanzee genomes, identifying 583 human-specific deletions. They then narrowed the list to sequences likely to have an important function by looking for those which are highly conserved across other organisms, including rhesus macaques, mice, and chickens.

"This is a clever thing to do," Svante Paabo, director of the department of genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology who was not involved in the research, wrote in an email to The Scientist. "As with many good ideas, it seems almost obvious in hindsight."

The team's final list included 510 DNA deletions, highly conserved across animal species but absent from the human genome. All but one of the deletions mapped to non-protein coding regions, and many were near genes involved in steroid hormone signaling and neural function.

The team closely analyzed two of the deletions and their potential contribution to human evolution. One, a deletion near tumor suppressor gene GADD45G, may have removed the brakes from cell division and promoted the expansion of brain tissue, contributing to the increase in brain size of humans over other primates. A second, a deletion near the human androgen receptor gene, correlates with the loss of sensory whiskers and penile spines, which mice and other primates still have, but humans (thankfully) lack.

"There's a good chance some of these deletions contributed to the evolution of human traits," wrote James Noonan, a geneticist at Yale University School of Medicine who was not involved in the research, in an email. Still, the paper's speculations about how the deletions influence brain size or penile spines are "premature," he wrote. "All we know is that these deletions remove regulatory elements; we don't know what that means for human biology yet."

To find out, Kinglsey and his team are now recreating the deletions in mice to see if the removal of corresponding DNA sequences results in neural expansion or the loss of whiskers and penile spines. They will also continue to look at other deletions on the list for involvement in additional human traits. "Just 508 to go," said Kingsley with a laugh.

McLean, C.Y., et al., "Human-specific loss of regulatory DNA and the evolution of human-specific traits," Nature, 471:216-9.

Humans differ from other animals in many aspects of anatomy, physiology, and behaviour; however, the genotypic basis of most human-specific traits remains unknown1. Recent whole-genome comparisons have made it possible to identify genes with elevated rates of amino acid change or divergent expression in humans, and non-coding sequences with accelerated base pair changes2, 3, 4, 5. Regulatory alterations may be particularly likely to produce phenotypic effects while preserving viability, and are known to underlie interesting evolutionary differences in other species6, 7, 8. Here we identify molecular events particularly likely to produce significant regulatory changes in humans: complete deletion of sequences otherwise highly conserved between chimpanzees and other mammals. We confirm 510 such deletions in humans, which fall almost exclusively in non-coding regions and are enriched near genes involved in steroid hormone signalling and neural function. One deletion removes a sensory vibrissae and penile spine enhancer from the human androgen receptor (AR) gene, a molecular change correlated with anatomical loss of androgen-dependent sensory vibrissae and penile spines in the human lineage9, 10. Another deletion removes a forebrain subventricular zone enhancer near the tumour suppressor gene growth arrest and DNA-damage-inducible, gamma (GADD45G)11, 12, a loss correlated with expansion of specific brain regions in humans. Deletions of tissue-specific enhancers may thus accompany both loss and gain traits in the human lineage, and provide specific examples of the kinds of regulatory alterations6, 7, 8 and inactivation events13 long proposed to have an important role in human evolutionary divergence.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Wednesday LOL: Scientists find gene for love of the sea

from genotopia

What did Thor Heyerdahl, Captain Ahab, and Odysseus have in common? They all may have shared a common variant of a gene for love of the sea.

Researchers at Mystic University in Connecticut have identified a gene associated with seafaringness, according to an article to be published tomorrow in the journal Genetic Determinism Today. Patterns of inheritance of the long-sought gene offers hope for “sailing widows,” and could help explain why the sailing life has tended to run in families and why certain towns and geographical regions tend historically to have disproportionate numbers of sea-going citizens.

The gene is a form of the MAOA-L gene, previously associated with high-risk behavior and thrill-seeking; another form of the gene, found last year, made news as the “warrior gene.” The current variant, dubbed 4C, was found by a genome-wide association study (GWAS) on 290 individuals from Mystic, CT, New Bedford, MA, and Cold Spring Harbor, NY—all traditional nineteenth-century whaling villages. Residents showed the presence of the 4C variant at a frequency more than 20 times above background in neighboring landlocked towns.

C. M. Ishmael, the lead researcher on the study, said the findings could be a boon to medicine. Although the International Whaling Commission outlawed commercial whaling in 1986, the research could benefit literally hundreds of “sailing widows” left alone for Wednesday-evening sailboat races up and down the East Coast. Each year, an average of 11 salt-stained Polo shirts washes up on the New England and Mid-Atlantic coasts, the only remains of a lantern-jawed investment banker and his half-million-dollar boat. Ishmael said he is trying to have the irrational urge to sail entered into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, standard reference for psychiatric diseases, in the next, fifth, edition.

“This receptor is an exciting potential target for new drug therapies,” Ishmael said in a phone interview. “We hope lots of companies will be interested in it. And venture capital, too.” Ishmael is himself CEO of a company, MysticGene, formed to develop such therapies. When asked about potential conflict of interest, he replied cryptically, “Well, duh.” Shares of MysticGene closed higher on Monday following the announcement.

The gene for seafaringness has long been an object of study for human geneticists. The trait was first described in 1919 by Charles Davenport, director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who named it “thalassophilia.” Using pedigree analysis and anecdotal correlation, Davenport identified thalassophilia as a sex-linked recessive gene and distinguished it clinically from wanderlust, or love of adventure. Although one might think naively that people living in towns with good harbors would tend to go to sea, Davenport suggested the reverse: those with the thalassophilia trait have tended to migrate toward regions with good harbors and found settlements there. The current study does nothing to refute Davenport’s analysis.

Further, a tentative expansion of the GWAS analysis to various racial groups largely confirms Davenport’s observations that thalassophilia is more prevalent in Scandinavians and the English, and less common in people of German ancestry.

Thalassophilia joins a rapidly growing list of complex behavioral traits that have been shown to have a genetic basis, thanks to GWAS. Besides the warrior gene, recent studies have found genetic links to promiscuity, aggressive behavior, especially while drinking, religiosity, and bipolar disorder, or manic depression—all traits that Davenport and other early human geneticists were deeply interested in. The difference is that modern science better understands the mechanisms involved.

“Seamen know very well that their cravings for the sea are racial,” Davenport wrote in 1919. “’It is in the blood,’ they say.” Today we know it’s not in the blood—it’s in the genes.

The true bits:

Garland E. Allen, “Is a New Eugenics Afoot?,” Science 294, no. 5540 (October 5, 2001): 59 -61. (

Charles Benedict Davenport and Mary Theresa Scudder, Naval officers: their heredity and development (Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1919),

Richard Alleyne, “A gene that could explain why the red mist descends,”,

Jeremy Taylor, “Violent-drunk gene discovered,”

Justin R. Garcia et al., “Associations between Dopamine D4 Receptor Gene Variation with Both Infidelity and Sexual Promiscuity,” ed. Jan Lauwereyns, PLoS ONE 5, no. 11 (11, 2010): e14162.

C. Frydman et al., “MAOA-L carriers are better at making optimal financial decisions under risk,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (12, 2010),

Monday, March 7, 2011

Elephants know how to co-operate

Go to the BBC webpage to see footage of the experiment - Thanks to Geraldine F for the link!

From BBC
Footage of an oversized experiment has revealed that elephants understand when they need help from a partner.

In the test, two animals had to work together - each pulling on a rope in order to tug a platform towards them.

Elephants' apparent grasp of the need to co-operate shows, scientists say, that they belong in an "elite group" of intelligent, socially complex animals.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge built the apparatus, which was originally designed for chimps.

The team published their findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Study leader Dr Joshua Plotnik from the University of Cambridge said it was exciting to find a way to study elephant behaviour in such detail.

"It's so hard to work with elephants because of their size," he said.

"We see them doing amazing things in the wild, but we can see from this that they're definitely co-operating."

Helping trunk

The Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) involved in the study had already been taught that pulling on a rope brought a platform towards them, and a food reward on that platform within reach.

But this apparatus, set up at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang province, presented them with a new twist on that simple task.

One rope was threaded all the way around a platform - like a belt through belt loops - so if one end was tugged, the rope simply slipped out and the platform did not budge.

But if two elephants each took an end of the rope and pulled, the platform moved and that could claim their treats.

"When we released one elephant before the other, they quickly learned to wait for their partner before they pulled the rope," Dr Plotnik told BBC News.

"They learnt that rule [to wait for the other elephant to arrive] quicker than chimps doing the same task.

And one elephant - the youngest in the study - quickly learned that it did not have to do any pulling to get a treat.

"She could just put her foot on the rope, so her partner had to do all the work," said Dr Plotnik.

Many scientists, photographers and film-makers have documented remarkable behaviour by wild elephants, including "targeted helping" of other elephants that become stuck in mud.

There have even been reports of elephants appearing to mourn their dead.

"As humans, we like to show that we're unique," said Dr Plotnik, "but we're repeatedly shot down.

"One thing that remains is our language. But amazingly complex behaviours - culture, tool use, social interaction - we see all of this in the animal kingdom."

As well as adding to our knowledge of the evolution of social complexity, Dr Plotnik hopes that his findings will help with the conservation of these endangered animals.

"The more we can understand about their intelligence, the better we can develop solutions to things like human-elephant conflict," he explained.

"So when the animals are raiding crops, we need to think of solutions that are based on the reasons why, and that benefit elephants as well as people."

Plotnike JM, Lair R, Suphachoksahaknub W, de Waal FBM (2011) Elephants know when they need a helping trunk in a cooperative task. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1101765108

Elephants are widely assumed to be among the most cognitively advanced animals, even though systematic evidence is lacking. This void in knowledge is mainly due to the danger and difficulty of submitting the largest land animal to behavioral experiments. In an attempt to change this situation, a classical 1930s cooperation paradigm commonly tested on monkeys and apes was modified by using a procedure originally designed for chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) to measure the reactions of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). This paradigm explores the cognition underlying coordination toward a shared goal. What do animals know or learn about the benefits of cooperation? Can they learn critical elements of a partner's role in cooperation? Whereas observations in nature suggest such understanding in nonhuman primates, experimental results have been mixed, and little evidence exists with regards to nonprimates. Here, we show that elephants can learn to coordinate with a partner in a task requiring two individuals to simultaneously pull two ends of the same rope to obtain a reward. Not only did the elephants act together, they inhibited the pulling response for up to 45 s if the arrival of a partner was delayed. They also grasped that there was no point to pulling if the partner lacked access to the rope. Such results have been interpreted as demonstrating an understanding of cooperation. Through convergent evolution, elephants may have reached a cooperative skill level on a par with that of chimpanzees.

The Strange Powers of the Placebo Effect


Alex C also pointed me to this article via the DNApes facebook page:

Half of all German doctors prescribe placebos, new study shows
Placebo cures shown to help with depression and stomach complaints – in Bavaria, 88% of doctors have prescribed them
by Abby d'Arcy Hughes
from the Guardian
Half of German doctors prescribe placebos, according to a new study for the German Medical Association.

The report says placebos, from vitamin pills to homeopathic remedies or even sham surgery, can prove highly effective in various treatments.

In Bavaria, it found, 88% of GPs have sent patients home with prescriptions for placebo drugs.

The German Medical Association (BÄK), which commissioned the report, Placebos in Medicine, admitted that it doesn't fully understand how placebos work, but welcomed the report's findings.

"Placebos have a stronger impact and are more complex than we realised. They are hugely important in medicine today," says Christoph Fuchs, the managing director of the BÄK.

The report recommends that students and doctors should be taught about placebos and their usage.

"Placebos can maximise the effect of medication," says Robert Jütte, author of the study and a BÄK board member.

"They can reduce undesirable side-effects and are a more efficient usage of our healthcare budget."

Recent research, he said, showed that placebos had helped 59% of patients who had been suffering from an upset stomach. Used to treat depression, placebos have the same effect as antidepressants in about a third of cases.

The efficacy of a placebo depends on many factors, according to the report, including the size and colour of a pill.

The more expensive the placebo, the higher the success rate, the study found, and intravenous injections are shown to be more effective than oral medication.

It's also a question of trust. Placebos produce better results if a patient feels their doctor understands their concerns, and believes they are being taken seriously, the study says.

Ethically, however, placebos are still a grey area. Few doctors knew whether they could legally administer placebos.

The study advises doctors to only prescribe placebos if the patient has a minor illness and if it seems likely that a placebo treatment will be successful.

Patients should not be denied the use of standard medication if there is a possibility of their condition getting worse, says the report.

To create a clear framework for the use of placebos, the BÄK is now calling for internationally recognised guidelines.

This older post might also be of interest:

HPV Infects Millions of Men: Vaccinate the Boys!

From the Daily Beast

A new study claims HPV, the STD linked to cervical cancer, may be found in half of all adult men. Danielle Friedman on why the disease is no longer just a women’s issue.

The statistic is explosive: A whopping half of adult men may be infected with HPV, the sexually transmitted disease that can lead to a host of cancers in men and women.

The finding, published online in the journal The Lancet, lit up headlines this week. But it’s just the latest in a string of studies that drive home what many doctors have known for years: Human papillomavirus isn’t just a women’s problem. As Howard Markel, a pediatrician and medical historian, said of its incidence: “It takes two to tango.”

The figure also presents perhaps the fiercest case yet that parents, doctors, and public health officials should embrace the vaccines that help prevent the disease—for girls and boys. “One of the most interesting aspects of this study is how it can reframe the debate," said Alexandra M. Stern, a medical historian and Markel’s colleague at the University of Michigan. "It could lead to broader acceptability.”

HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer, but it’s also linked to anal, penile, and head and neck cancers, as well as genital warts. While most people show no symptoms of the disease, it can be passed along through mere skin-to-skin contact.

Before considering the future of the vaccine, it’s helpful to look back. In 2006, drug giant Merck released Gardasil, the first HPV vaccine, and the CDC recommended that 11- and 12-year-old girls be routinely immunized. (In 2009, GlaxoSmithKline released a second HPV vaccine, called Cervarix.) Merck also launched a major ad campaign, featuring young women declaring that they wanted to be “one less”—one less victim of cervical cancer—ingraining the notion that HPV is a women’s issue. And it is, to an extent: Most women will be exposed to a strand of the virus, at some point, and it poses a greater cancer risk for women than men.

And yet: It’s tough not to view this single-sex approach as part of a larger trend of women bearing a greater burden for society’s sexual health. Women shoulder greater responsibility for contraception, for example, and maternity care. All the while, society still judges women more harshly than men for their sexual behavior. “It’s like how we used to put scarlet letters on women, while men got off scot-free,” said Markel. “Maybe this approach is a vestige of this male/female hegemony.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers began proposing measures that would require girls to receive the vaccine, seizing the opportunity to curb a public-health crisis (or perhaps, nursing political ties to Merck). But conservative groups and legislators fought many of the efforts, arguing that the vaccine would encourage promiscuity.

"Getting a tetanus shot doesn't make you romp merrily through rusty fields," said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. "You don't get the vaccine and say, 'Now I can step on a rusty nail and not worry about it.'"

Today, the HPV vaccine still hasn’t taken off—which is especially puzzling as it’s one of the only proven means of warding off cancer. While a quarter of girls receive the first of the vaccine’s required three doses, only 11 percent get the full batch, according to the CDC.

The reasons? Perhaps it’s because the HPV vaccine is still new, says Stern; the public has rejected or feared new vaccines since the dawn of vaccination. Or maybe it’s because the HPV vaccine is expensive, at over $300—though most insurance companies cover it for women through age 26, and the federal program Vaccines for Children helps out in some cases. Research also suggests that people still don’t understand the disease and its consequences. And because the vaccine is inherently connected to sex, it makes some parents uncomfortable, said Markel: “People still get really nervous about all sorts of issues involved in sexuality.”

Yet studies like the one released this week have the potential to change the way we think about the disease and the vaccine. “It takes the pressure off adolescent girls and their sexuality,” said Stern.

History offers hope: When the hepatitis B vaccine was first introduced in the 1980s, it was stigmatized, since the virus was contracted through sharing needles and having sex. “It was seen as dirty,” said Offit. But pediatricians began vaccinating infants of both sexes, and eventually, it lost its charge. Today, hepatitis B is nearly eradicated in the U.S.

Even if HPV didn’t affect men directly, a strong case is made for vaccinating boys and men to protect women. History offers a precedent here, too: The rubella infection doesn’t pose a great threat to boys, but if a pregnant woman contracts the illness during the first trimester of a pregnancy, her baby is at high risk for developing severe birth defects. So we vaccinate everybody.

"We’re all responsible for each other," said Offit. "In 2005, we declared the U.S. rubella-free, and that’s only because boys took the vaccine."

But HPV does affect men. Although most men show no symptoms of the STD, studies show that the virus leads to thousands of cases of penile and anal cancer in men every year, along with genital warts. And research published in the New England Journal of Medicine last month (and funded by Merck) revealed that Gardasil, which the FDA approved for men in 2009, lowers rates of genital warts in men.

Last month, for the first time, the American Academy of Pediatrics also included the HPV vaccine on its list of recommended vaccines for boys. And Offit expects the CDC to officially recommend it for boys and men within the year.

On a practical level, some question if vaccinating both sexes is cost-effective. At least one study suggests that when vaccination rates among females are low, improving these rates is more beneficial than vaccinating males. But some medical practitioners have a tough time buying this approach, at least in theory. “Boys benefit directly from the HPV vaccine,” Offit stressed.

At the very least, this week’s data—with its shock value and media blitz—will likely raise awareness of the disease. "Maybe we’re just too early” in the vaccine's history, said Markel of its bumpy path. Maybe a decade from now, we’ll look back on these first few years as growing pains.

Are We Still Evolving?

I have not watched this yet but seems interesting based on the synopsis and is now freely available to watch online :) - MA

Synopsis fromTop Documentary Films:
Dr Alice Roberts asks one of the great questions about our species: are we still evolving?

There’s no doubt that we’re a product of millions of years of evolution. But thanks to modern technology and medicine, did we escape Darwin’s law of the survival of the fittest?

Alice follows a trail of clues from ancient human bones, to studies of remarkable people living in the most inhospitable parts of the planet, to the frontiers of genetic research to discover if we are still evolving – and where we might be heading.

Watch the full documentary now (playlist – 1 hour). Alternatively watch it at BBC. If the 2nd part doesnt play then go to the Top Documentary Films page.

Friday, March 4, 2011

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concludes eastern cougar extinct

There are still skeptics though that say the Eastern cougar exists in Canada =- you can read about these accounts HERE -MA

USFWS Press Release
Although the eastern cougar has been on the endangered species list since 1973, its existence has long been questioned. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) conducted a formal review of the available information and, in a report issued today, concludes the eastern cougar is extinct and recommends the subspecies be removed from the endangered species list.

“We recognize that many people have seen cougars in the wild within the historical range of the eastern cougar,” said the Service’s Northeast Region Chief of Endangered Species Martin Miller. “However, we believe those cougars are not the eastern cougar subspecies. We found no information to support the existence of the eastern cougar.”

Reports of cougars observed in the wild examined during the review process described cougars of other subspecies, often South American subspecies, that had been held in captivity and had escaped or been released to the wild, as well as wild cougars of the western United States subspecies that had migrated eastward to the Midwest.

During the review, the Service received 573 responses to a request for scientific information about the possible existence of the eastern cougar subspecies; conducted an extensive review of U.S. and Canadian scientific literature; and requested information from the 21 States within the historical range of the subspecies. No States expressed a belief in the existence of an eastern cougar population. According to Dr. Mark McCollough, the Service’s lead scientist for the eastern cougar, the subspecies of eastern cougar has likely been extinct since the 1930s.

The Service initiated the review as part of its obligations under the Endangered Species Act. The Service will prepare a proposal to remove the eastern cougar from the endangered species list, since extinct animals are not eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The proposal will be made available for public comment.

The Service's decision to declare the eastern cougar extinct does not affect the status of the Florida panther, another wild cat subspecies listed as endangered. Though the Florida panther once ranged throughout the Southeast, it now exists in less than five percent of its historic habitat and in only one breeding population of 120 to 160 animals in southwestern Florida.

Additional information about eastern cougars, including frequently asked questions and cougar sightings, is at: Find information about endangered species at

The Service works with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and a trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service. For more information about our work and the people who make it happen, visit

Friday LOL: Honey Badger don't care

Thanks to Cleve H for the link

Be part of science: Take this conservation and the media survey

Arkive posted a link to this survey today beng carried out by a student at the University of Liverpool.
The main aim of the study is to examine how different media forms can lead to an increase in animal conservation awareness. If you agree to proceed to the study, you will be asked to view 3 written documents and listen to 1 audio recording, each followed by a number of questions relating to the information presented.
It takes about 10 to 15 minutes to complete I would say, and should provide some really interesting results

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why are so many people taking so long to "grow up"?

Vanessa VanD sent this to me today and its L-O-N-G but really one of the most interesting articles I have read in a while. Definetly worth a read if you feel your life (or your kids' lives) has deviated from the "normal" path to adulthood. One of my favorite parts is:

"According to Maslow, people can pursue more elevated goals only after their basic needs of food, shelter and sex have been met. What if the brain has its own hierarchy of needs? When people are forced to adopt adult responsibilities early, maybe they just do what they have to do, whether or not their brains are ready. Maybe it’s only now, when young people are allowed to forestall adult obligations without fear of public censure, that the rate of societal maturation can finally fall into better sync with the maturation of the brain."
Also here go here for one of the funniest Hyperbole and Halfs on this very topic :)

Thanks Vanessa! - MA

What Is It About 20-Somethings?
Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?

This question pops up everywhere, underlying concerns about “failure to launch” and “boomerang kids.” Two new sitcoms feature grown children moving back in with their parents — “$#*! My Dad Says,” starring William Shatner as a divorced curmudgeon whose 20-something son can’t make it on his own as a blogger, and “Big Lake,” in which a financial whiz kid loses his Wall Street job and moves back home to rural Pennsylvania. A cover of The New Yorker last spring picked up on the zeitgeist: a young man hangs up his new Ph.D. in his boyhood bedroom, the cardboard box at his feet signaling his plans to move back home now that he’s officially overqualified for a job. In the doorway stand his parents, their expressions a mix of resignation, worry, annoyance and perplexity: how exactly did this happen?

It’s happening all over, in all sorts of families, not just young people moving back home but also young people taking longer to reach adulthood overall. It’s a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and no one knows yet what the impact will be — on the prospects of the young men and women; on the parents on whom so many of them depend; on society, built on the expectation of an orderly progression in which kids finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and eventually retire to live on pensions supported by the next crop of kids who finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and on and on. The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain un­tethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.

The 20s are a black box, and there is a lot of churning in there. One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation.

We’re in the thick of what one sociologist calls “the changing timetable for adulthood.” Sociologists traditionally define the “transition to adulthood” as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had, by the time they reached 30, passed all five milestones. Among 30-year-olds in 2000, according to data from the United States Census Bureau, fewer than half of the women and one-third of the men had done so. A Canadian study reported that a typical 30-year-old in 2001 had completed the same number of milestones as a 25-year-old in the early ’70s.

The whole idea of milestones, of course, is something of an anachronism; it implies a lockstep march toward adulthood that is rare these days. Kids don’t shuffle along in unison on the road to maturity. They slouch toward adulthood at an uneven, highly individual pace. Some never achieve all five milestones, including those who are single or childless by choice, or unable to marry even if they wanted to because they’re gay. Others reach the milestones completely out of order, advancing professionally before committing to a monogamous relationship, having children young and marrying later, leaving school to go to work and returning to school long after becoming financially secure.

Even if some traditional milestones are never reached, one thing is clear: Getting to what we would generally call adulthood is happening later than ever. But why? That’s the subject of lively debate among policy makers and academics. To some, what we’re seeing is a transient epiphenomenon, the byproduct of cultural and economic forces. To others, the longer road to adulthood signifies something deep, durable and maybe better-suited to our neurological hard-wiring. What we’re seeing, they insist, is the dawning of a new life stage — a stage that all of us need to adjust to.

JEFFREY JENSEN ARNETT, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., is leading the movement to view the 20s as a distinct life stage, which he calls “emerging adulthood.” He says what is happening now is analogous to what happened a century ago, when social and economic changes helped create adolescence — a stage we take for granted but one that had to be recognized by psychologists, accepted by society and accommodated by institutions that served the young. Similar changes at the turn of the 21st century have laid the groundwork for another new stage, Arnett says, between the age of 18 and the late 20s. Among the cultural changes he points to that have led to “emerging adulthood” are the need for more education to survive in an information-based economy; fewer entry-level jobs even after all that schooling; young people feeling less rush to marry because of the general acceptance of premarital sex, cohabitation and birth control; and young women feeling less rush to have babies given their wide range of career options and their access to assisted reproductive technology if they delay pregnancy beyond their most fertile years.

Just as adolescence has its particular psychological profile, Arnett says, so does emerging adulthood: identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and a rather poetic characteristic he calls “a sense of possibilities.” A few of these, especially identity exploration, are part of adolescence too, but they take on new depth and urgency in the 20s. The stakes are higher when people are approaching the age when options tend to close off and lifelong commitments must be made. Arnett calls it “the age 30 deadline.”

The issue of whether emerging adulthood is a new stage is being debated most forcefully among scholars, in particular psychologists and sociologists. But its resolution has broader implications. Just look at what happened for teenagers. It took some effort, a century ago, for psychologists to make the case that adolescence was a new developmental stage. Once that happened, social institutions were forced to adapt: education, health care, social services and the law all changed to address the particular needs of 12- to 18-year-olds. An understanding of the developmental profile of adolescence led, for instance, to the creation of junior high schools in the early 1900s, separating seventh and eighth graders from the younger children in what used to be called primary school. And it led to the recognition that teenagers between 14 and 18, even though they were legally minors, were mature enough to make their own choice of legal guardian in the event of their parents’ deaths. If emerging adulthood is an analogous stage, analogous changes are in the wings.

But what would it look like to extend some of the special status of adolescents to young people in their 20s? Our uncertainty about this question is reflected in our scattershot approach to markers of adulthood. People can vote at 18, but in some states they don’t age out of foster care until 21. They can join the military at 18, but they can’t drink until 21. They can drive at 16, but they can’t rent a car until 25 without some hefty surcharges. If they are full-time students, the Internal Revenue Service considers them dependents until 24; those without health insurance will soon be able to stay on their parents’ plans even if they’re not in school until age 26, or up to 30 in some states. Parents have no access to their child’s college records if the child is over 18, but parents’ income is taken into account when the child applies for financial aid up to age 24. We seem unable to agree when someone is old enough to take on adult responsibilities. But we’re pretty sure it’s not simply a matter of age.

If society decides to protect these young people or treat them differently from fully grown adults, how can we do this without becoming all the things that grown children resist — controlling, moralizing, paternalistic? Young people spend their lives lumped into age-related clusters — that’s the basis of K-12 schooling — but as they move through their 20s, they diverge. Some 25-year-olds are married homeowners with good jobs and a couple of kids; others are still living with their parents and working at transient jobs, or not working at all. Does that mean we extend some of the protections and special status of adolescence to all people in their 20s? To some of them? Which ones? Decisions like this matter, because failing to protect and support vulnerable young people can lead them down the wrong path at a critical moment, the one that can determine all subsequent paths. But overprotecting and oversupporting them can sometimes make matters worse, turning the “changing timetable of adulthood” into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The more profound question behind the scholarly intrigue is the one that really captivates parents: whether the prolongation of this unsettled time of life is a good thing or a bad thing. With life spans stretching into the ninth decade, is it better for young people to experiment in their 20s before making choices they’ll have to live with for more than half a century? Or is adulthood now so malleable, with marriage and employment options constantly being reassessed, that young people would be better off just getting started on something, or else they’ll never catch up, consigned to remain always a few steps behind the early bloomers? Is emerging adulthood a rich and varied period for self-discovery, as Arnett says it is? Or is it just another term for self-indulgence?

THE DISCOVERY OF adolescence is generally dated to 1904, with the publication of the massive study “Adolescence,” by G. Stanley Hall, a prominent psychologist and first president of the American Psychological Association. Hall attributed the new stage to social changes at the turn of the 20th century. Child-labor laws kept children under 16 out of the work force, and universal education laws kept them in secondary school, thus prolonging the period of dependence — a dependence that allowed them to address psychological tasks they might have ignored when they took on adult roles straight out of childhood. Hall, the first president of Clark University — the same place, interestingly enough, where Arnett now teaches — described adolescence as a time of “storm and stress,” filled with emotional upheaval, sorrow and rebelliousness. He cited the “curve of despondency” that “starts at 11, rises steadily and rapidly till 15 . . . then falls steadily till 23,” and described other characteristics of adolescence, including an increase in sensation seeking, greater susceptibility to media influences (which in 1904 mostly meant “flash literature” and “penny dreadfuls”) and overreliance on peer relationships. Hall’s book was flawed, but it marked the beginning of the scientific study of adolescence and helped lead to its eventual acceptance as a distinct stage with its own challenges, behaviors and biological profile.

In the 1990s, Arnett began to suspect that something similar was taking place with young people in their late teens and early 20s. He was teaching human development and family studies at the University of Missouri, studying college-age students, both at the university and in the community around Columbia, Mo. He asked them questions about their lives and their expectations like, “Do you feel you have reached adulthood?”

“I was in my early- to mid-30s myself, and I remember thinking, They’re not a thing like me,” Arnett told me when we met last spring in Worcester. “I realized that there was something special going on.” The young people he spoke to weren’t experiencing the upending physical changes that accompany adolescence, but as an age cohort they did seem to have a psychological makeup different from that of people just a little bit younger or a little bit older. This was not how most psychologists were thinking about development at the time, when the eight-stage model of the psychologist Erik Erikson was in vogue. Erikson, one of the first to focus on psychological development past childhood, divided adulthood into three stages — young (roughly ages 20 to 45), middle (about ages 45 to 65) and late (all the rest) — and defined them by the challenges that individuals in a particular stage encounter and must resolve before moving on to the next stage. In young adulthood, according to his model, the primary psychological challenge is “intimacy versus isolation,” by which Erikson meant deciding whether to commit to a lifelong intimate relationship and choosing the person to commit to.

But Arnett said “young adulthood” was too broad a term to apply to a 25-year span that included both him and his college students. The 20s are something different from the 30s and 40s, he remembered thinking. And while he agreed that the struggle for intimacy was one task of this period, he said there were other critical tasks as well.

Arnett and I were discussing the evolution of his thinking over lunch at BABA Sushi, a quiet restaurant near his office where he goes so often he knows the sushi chefs by name. He is 53, very tall and wiry, with clipped steel-gray hair and ice-blue eyes, an intense, serious man. He describes himself as a late bloomer, a onetime emerging adult before anyone had given it a name. After graduating from Michigan State University in 1980, he spent two years playing guitar in bars and restaurants and experimented with girlfriends, drugs and general recklessness before going for his doctorate in developmental psychology at the University of Virginia. By 1986 he had his first academic job at Oglethorpe University, a small college in Atlanta. There he met his wife, Lene Jensen, the school’s smartest psych major, who stunned Arnett when she came to his office one day in 1989, shortly after she graduated, and asked him out on a date. Jensen earned a doctorate in psychology, too, and she also teaches at Clark. She and Arnett have 10-year-old twins, a boy and a girl.

Arnett spent time at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago before moving to the University of Missouri in 1992, beginning his study of young men and women in the college town of Columbia, gradually broadening his sample to include New Orleans, Los Angeles and San Francisco. He deliberately included working-class young people as well as those who were well off, those who had never gone to college as well as those who were still in school, those who were supporting themselves as well as those whose bills were being paid by their parents. A little more than half of his sample was white, 18 percent African-American, 16 percent Asian-American and 14 percent Latino.

More than 300 interviews and 250 survey responses persuaded Arnett that he was onto something new. This was the era of the Gen X slacker, but Arnett felt that his findings applied beyond one generation. He wrote them up in 2000 in American Psychologist, the first time he laid out his theory of “emerging adulthood.” According to Google Scholar, which keeps track of such things, the article has been cited in professional books and journals roughly 1,700 times. This makes it, in the world of academia, practically viral. At the very least, the citations indicate that Arnett had come up with a useful term for describing a particular cohort; at best, that he offered a whole new way of thinking about them.

DURING THE PERIOD he calls emerging adulthood, Arnett says that young men and women are more self-focused than at any other time of life, less certain about the future and yet also more optimistic, no matter what their economic background. This is where the “sense of possibilities” comes in, he says; they have not yet tempered their ideal­istic visions of what awaits. “The dreary, dead-end jobs, the bitter divorces, the disappointing and disrespectful children . . . none of them imagine that this is what the future holds for them,” he wrote. Ask them if they agree with the statement “I am very sure that someday I will get to where I want to be in life,” and 96 percent of them will say yes. But despite elements that are exciting, even exhilarating, about being this age, there is a downside, too: dread, frustration, uncertainty, a sense of not quite understanding the rules of the game. More than positive or negative feelings, what Arnett heard most often was ambivalence — beginning with his finding that 60 percent of his subjects told him they felt like both grown-ups and not-quite-grown-ups.

Some scientists would argue that this ambivalence reflects what is going on in the brain, which is also both grown-up and not-quite-grown-up. Neuroscientists once thought the brain stops growing shortly after puberty, but now they know it keeps maturing well into the 20s. This new understanding comes largely from a longitudinal study of brain development sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health, which started following nearly 5,000 children at ages 3 to 16 (the average age at enrollment was about 10). The scientists found the children’s brains were not fully mature until at least 25. “In retrospect I wouldn’t call it shocking, but it was at the time,” Jay Giedd, the director of the study, told me. “The only people who got this right were the car-rental companies.”

When the N.I.M.H. study began in 1991, Giedd said he and his colleagues expected to stop when the subjects turned 16. “We figured that by 16 their bodies were pretty big physically,” he said. But every time the children returned, their brains were found still to be changing. The scientists extended the end date of the study to age 18, then 20, then 22. The subjects’ brains were still changing even then. Tellingly, the most significant changes took place in the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum, the regions involved in emotional control and higher-order cognitive function.

As the brain matures, one thing that happens is the pruning of the synapses. Synaptic pruning does not occur willy-nilly; it depends largely on how any one brain pathway is used. By cutting off unused pathways, the brain eventually settles into a structure that’s most efficient for the owner of that brain, creating well-worn grooves for the pathways that person uses most. Synaptic pruning intensifies after rapid brain-cell proliferation during childhood and again in the period that encompasses adolescence and the 20s. It is the mechanism of “use it or lose it”: the brains we have are shaped largely in response to the demands made of them.

We have come to accept the idea that environmental influences in the first three years of life have long-term consequences for cognition, emotional control, attention and the like. Is it time to place a similar emphasis, with hopes for a similar outcome, on enriching the cognitive environment of people in their 20s?

N.I.M.H. scientists also found a time lag between the growth of the limbic system, where emotions originate, and of the prefrontal cortex, which manages those emotions. The limbic system explodes during puberty, but the prefrontal cortex keeps maturing for another 10 years. Giedd said it is logical to suppose — and for now, neuroscientists have to make a lot of logical suppositions — that when the limbic system is fully active but the cortex is still being built, emotions might outweigh ration­ality. “The prefrontal part is the part that allows you to control your impulses, come up with a long-range strategy, answer the question ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ ” he told me. “That weighing of the future keeps changing into the 20s and 30s.”

Among study subjects who enrolled as children, M.R.I. scans have been done so far only to age 25, so scientists have to make another logical supposition about what happens to the brain in the late 20s, the 30s and beyond. Is it possible that the brain just keeps changing and pruning, for years and years? “Guessing from the shape of the growth curves we have,” Giedd’s colleague Philip Shaw wrote in an e-mail message, “it does seem that much of the gray matter,” where synaptic pruning takes place, “seems to have completed its most dramatic structural change” by age 25. For white matter, where insulation that helps impulses travel faster continues to form, “it does look as if the curves are still going up, suggesting continued growth” after age 25, he wrote, though at a slower rate than before.

None of this is new, of course; the brains of young people have always been works in progress, even when we didn’t have sophisticated scanning machinery to chart it precisely. Why, then, is the youthful brain only now arising as an explanation for why people in their 20s are seeming a bit unfinished? Maybe there’s an analogy to be found in the hierarchy of needs, a theory put forth in the 1940s by the psychologist Abraham Maslow. According to Maslow, people can pursue more elevated goals only after their basic needs of food, shelter and sex have been met. What if the brain has its own hierarchy of needs? When people are forced to adopt adult responsibilities early, maybe they just do what they have to do, whether or not their brains are ready. Maybe it’s only now, when young people are allowed to forestall adult obligations without fear of public censure, that the rate of societal maturation can finally fall into better sync with the maturation of the brain.

Cultural expectations might also reinforce the delay. The “changing timetable for adulthood” has, in many ways, become internalized by 20-somethings and their parents alike. Today young people don’t expect to marry until their late 20s, don’t expect to start a family until their 30s, don’t expect to be on track for a rewarding career until much later than their parents were. So they make decisions about their futures that reflect this wider time horizon. Many of them would not be ready to take on the trappings of adulthood any earlier even if the opportunity arose; they haven’t braced themselves for it.

Nor do parents expect their children to grow up right away — and they might not even want them to. Parents might regret having themselves jumped into marriage or a career and hope for more considered choices for their children. Or they might want to hold on to a reassuring connection with their children as the kids leave home. If they were “helicopter parents” — a term that describes heavily invested parents who hover over their children, swooping down to take charge and solve problems at a moment’s notice — they might keep hovering and problem-solving long past the time when their children should be solving problems on their own. This might, in a strange way, be part of what keeps their grown children in the limbo between adolescence and adulthood. It can be hard sometimes to tease out to what extent a child doesn’t quite want to grow up and to what extent a parent doesn’t quite want to let go.

IT IS A BIG DEAL IN developmental psychology to declare the existence of a new stage of life, and Arnett has devoted the past 10 years to making his case. Shortly after his American Psychologist article appeared in 2000, he and Jennifer Lynn Tanner, a developmental psychologist at Rutgers University, convened the first conference of what they later called the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood. It was held in 2003 at Harvard with an attendance of 75; there have been three more since then, and last year’s conference, in Atlanta, had more than 270 attendees. In 2004 Arnett published a book, “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties,” which is still in print and selling well. In 2006 he and Tanner published an edited volume, “Emerging Adults in America: Coming of Age in the 21st Century,” aimed at professionals and academics. Arnett’s college textbook, “Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Cultural Approach,” has been in print since 2000 and is now in its fourth edition. Next year he says he hopes to publish another book, this one for the parents of 20-somethings.

If all Arnett’s talk about emerging adulthood sounds vaguely familiar . . . well, it should. Forty years ago, an article appeared in The American Scholar that declared “a new stage of life” for the period between adolescence and young adulthood. This was 1970, when the oldest members of the baby boom generation — the parents of today’s 20-somethings — were 24. Young people of the day “can’t seem to ‘settle down,’ ” wrote the Yale psychologist Kenneth Keniston. He called the new stage of life “youth.”

Keniston’s description of “youth” presages Arnett’s description of “emerging adulthood” a generation later. In the late ’60s, Keniston wrote that there was “a growing minority of post-adolescents [who] have not settled the questions whose answers once defined adulthood: questions of relationship to the existing society, questions of vocation, questions of social role and lifestyle.” Whereas once, such aimlessness was seen only in the “unusually creative or unusually disturbed,” he wrote, it was becoming more common and more ordinary in the baby boomers of 1970. Among the salient characteristics of “youth,” Keniston wrote, were “pervasive ambivalence toward self and society,” “the feeling of absolute freedom, of living in a world of pure possibilities” and “the enormous value placed upon change, transformation and movement” — all characteristics that Arnett now ascribes to “emerging adults.”

Arnett readily acknowledges his debt to Keniston; he mentions him in almost everything he has written about emerging adulthood. But he considers the ’60s a unique moment, when young people were rebellious and alienated in a way they’ve never been before or since. And Keniston’s views never quite took off, Arnett says, because “youth” wasn’t a very good name for it. He has called the label “ambiguous and confusing,” not nearly as catchy as his own “emerging adulthood.”

For whatever reason Keniston’s terminology faded away, it’s revealing to read his old article and hear echoes of what’s going on with kids today. He was describing the parents of today’s young people when they themselves were young — and amazingly, they weren’t all that different from their own children now. Keniston’s article seems a lovely demonstration of the eternal cycle of life, the perennial conflict between the generations, the gradual resolution of those conflicts. It’s reassuring, actually, to think of it as recursive, to imagine that there must always be a cohort of 20-somethings who take their time settling down, just as there must always be a cohort of 50-somethings who worry about it.

KENISTON CALLED IT youth, Arnett calls it emerging adulthood; whatever it’s called, the delayed transition has been observed for years. But it can be in fullest flower only when the young person has some other, nontraditional means of support — which would seem to make the delay something of a luxury item. That’s the impression you get reading Arnett’s case histories in his books and articles, or the essays in “20 Something Manifesto,” an anthology edited by a Los Angeles writer named Christine Hassler. “It’s somewhat terrifying,” writes a 25-year-old named Jennifer, “to think about all the things I’m supposed to be doing in order to ‘get somewhere’ successful: ‘Follow your passions, live your dreams, take risks, network with the right people, find mentors, be financially responsible, volunteer, work, think about or go to grad school, fall in love and maintain personal well-being, mental health and nutrition.’ When is there time to just be and enjoy?” Adds a 24-year-old from Virginia: “There is pressure to make decisions that will form the foundation for the rest of your life in your 20s. It’s almost as if having a range of limited options would be easier.”

While the complaints of these young people are heartfelt, they are also the complaints of the privileged. Julie, a 23-year-old New Yorker and contributor to “20 Something Manifesto,” is apparently aware of this. She was coddled her whole life, treated to French horn lessons and summer camp, told she could do anything. “It is a double-edged sword,” she writes, “because on the one hand I am so blessed with my experiences and endless options, but on the other hand, I still feel like a child. I feel like my job isn’t real because I am not where my parents were at my age. Walking home, in the shoes my father bought me, I still feel I have yet to grow up.”

Despite these impressions, Arnett insists that emerging adulthood is not limited to young persons of privilege and that it is not simply a period of self-indulgence. He takes pains in “Emerging Adulthood” to describe some case histories of young men and women from hard-luck backgrounds who use the self-focus and identity exploration of their 20s to transform their lives.

One of these is the case history of Nicole, a 25-year-old African-American who grew up in a housing project in Oakland, Calif. At age 6, Nicole, the eldest, was forced to take control of the household after her mother’s mental collapse. By 8, she was sweeping stores and baby-sitting for money to help keep her three siblings fed and housed. “I made a couple bucks and helped my mother out, helped my family out,” she told Arnett. She managed to graduate from high school, but with low grades, and got a job as a receptionist at a dermatology clinic. She moved into her own apartment, took night classes at community college and started to excel. “I needed to experience living out of my mother’s home in order to study,” she said.

In his book, Arnett presents Nicole as a symbol of all the young people from impoverished backgrounds for whom “emerging adulthood represents an opportunity — maybe a last opportunity — to turn one’s life around.” This is the stage where someone like Nicole can escape an abusive or dysfunctional family and finally pursue her own dreams. Nicole’s dreams are powerful — one course away from an associate degree, she plans to go on for a bachelor’s and then a Ph.D. in psychology — but she has not really left her family behind; few people do. She is still supporting her mother and siblings, which is why she works full time even though her progress through school would be quicker if she found a part-time job. Is it only a grim pessimist like me who sees how many roadblocks there will be on the way to achieving those dreams and who wonders what kind of freewheeling emerging adulthood she is supposed to be having?

Of course, Nicole’s case is not representative of society as a whole. And many parents — including those who can’t really afford it — continue to help their kids financially long past the time they expected to. Two years ago Karen Fingerman, a developmental psychologist at Purdue University, asked parents of grown children whether they provided significant assistance to their sons or daughters. Assistance included giving their children money or help with everyday tasks (practical assistance) as well as advice, companionship and an attentive ear. Eighty-six percent said they had provided advice in the previous month; less than half had done so in 1988. Two out of three parents had given a son or daughter practical assistance in the previous month; in 1988, only one in three had.

Fingerman took solace in her findings; she said it showed that parents stay connected to their grown children, and she suspects that both parties get something out of it. The survey questions, after all, referred not only to dispensing money but also to offering advice, comfort and friendship. And another of Fingerman’s studies suggests that parents’ sense of well-being depends largely on how close they are to their grown children and how their children are faring — objective support for the adage that you’re only as happy as your unhappiest child. But the expectation that young men and women won’t quite be able to make ends meet on their own, and that parents should be the ones to help bridge the gap, places a terrible burden on parents who might be worrying about their own job security, trying to care for their aging parents or grieving as their retirement plans become more and more of a pipe dream.

This dependence on Mom and Dad also means that during the 20s the rift between rich and poor becomes entrenched. According to data gathered by the Network on Transitions to Adulthood, a research consortium supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, American parents give an average of 10 percent of their income to their 18- to 21-year-old children. This percentage is basically the same no matter the family’s total income, meaning that upper-class kids tend to get more than working-class ones. And wealthier kids have other, less obvious, advantages. When they go to four-year colleges or universities, they get supervised dormitory housing, health care and alumni networks not available at community colleges. And they often get a leg up on their careers by using parents’ contacts to help land an entry-level job — or by using parents as a financial backup when they want to take an interesting internship that doesn’t pay.

“You get on a pathway, and pathways have momentum,” Jennifer Lynn Tanner of Rutgers told me. “In emerging adulthood, if you spend this time exploring and you get yourself on a pathway that really fits you, then there’s going to be this snowball effect of finding the right fit, the right partner, the right job, the right place to live. The less you have at first, the less you’re going to get this positive effect compounded over time. You’re not going to have the same acceleration.”

EVEN ARNETT ADMITS that not every young person goes through a period of “emerging adulthood.” It’s rare in the developing world, he says, where people have to grow up fast, and it’s often skipped in the industrialized world by the people who marry early, by teenage mothers forced to grow up, by young men or women who go straight from high school to whatever job is available without a chance to dabble until they find the perfect fit. Indeed, the majority of humankind would seem to not go through it at all. The fact that emerging adulthood is not universal is one of the strongest arguments against Arnett’s claim that it is a new developmental stage. If emerging adulthood is so important, why is it even possible to skip it?

“The core idea of classical stage theory is that all people — underscore ‘all’ — pass through a series of qualitatively different periods in an invariant and universal sequence in stages that can’t be skipped or reordered,” Richard Lerner, Bergstrom chairman in applied developmental science at Tufts University, told me. Lerner is a close personal friend of Arnett’s; he and his wife, Jacqueline, who is also a psychologist, live 20 miles from Worcester, and they have dinner with Arnett and his wife on a regular basis.

“I think the world of Jeff Arnett,” Lerner said. “I think he is a smart, passionate person who is doing great work — not only a smart and productive scholar, but one of the nicest people I ever met in my life.”

No matter how much he likes and admires Arnett, however, Lerner says his friend has ignored some of the basic tenets of developmental psychology. According to classical stage theory, he told me, “you must develop what you’re supposed to develop when you’re supposed to develop it or you’ll never adequately develop it.”

When I asked Arnett what happens to people who don’t have an emerging adulthood, he said it wasn’t necessarily a big deal. They might face its developmental tasks — identity exploration, self-focus, experimentation in love, work and worldview — at a later time, maybe as a midlife crisis, or they might never face them at all, he said. It depends partly on why they missed emerging adulthood in the first place, whether it was by circumstance or by choice.

No, said Lerner, that’s not the way it works. To qualify as a developmental stage, emerging adulthood must be both universal and essential. “If you don’t develop a skill at the right stage, you’ll be working the rest of your life to develop it when you should be moving on,” he said. “The rest of your development will be unfavorably altered.” The fact that Arnett can be so casual about the heterogeneity of emerging adulthood and its existence in some cultures but not in others — indeed, even in some people but not in their neighbors or friends — is what undermines, for many scholars, his insistence that it’s a new life stage.

Why does it matter? Because if the delay in achieving adulthood is just a temporary aberration caused by passing social mores and economic gloom, it’s something to struggle through for now, maybe feeling a little sorry for the young people who had the misfortune to come of age in a recession. But if it’s a true life stage, we need to start rethinking our definition of normal development and to create systems of education, health care and social supports that take the new stage into account.

The Network on Transitions to Adulthood has been issuing reports about young people since it was formed in 1999 and often ends up recommending more support for 20-somethings. But more of what, exactly? There aren’t institutions set up to serve people in this specific age range; social services from a developmental perspective tend to disappear after adolescence. But it’s possible to envision some that might address the restlessness and mobility that Arnett says are typical at this stage and that might make the experimentation of “emerging adulthood” available to more young people. How about expanding programs like City Year, in which 17- to 24-year-olds from diverse backgrounds spend a year mentoring inner-city children in exchange for a stipend, health insurance, child care, cellphone service and a $5,350 education award? Or a federal program in which a government-sponsored savings account is created for every newborn, to be cashed in at age 21 to support a year’s worth of travel, education or volunteer work — a version of the “baby bonds” program that Hillary Clinton mentioned during her 2008 primary campaign? Maybe we can encourage a kind of socially sanctioned “­rumspringa,” the temporary moratorium from social responsibilities some Amish offer their young people to allow them to experiment before settling down. It requires only a bit of ingenuity — as well as some societal forbearance and financial commitment — to think of ways to expand some of the programs that now work so well for the elite, like the Fulbright fellowship or the Peace Corps, to make the chance for temporary service and self-examination available to a wider range of young people.

A century ago, it was helpful to start thinking of adolescents as engaged in the work of growing up rather than as merely lazy or rebellious. Only then could society recognize that the educational, medical, mental-health and social-service needs of this group were unique and that investing in them would have a payoff in the future. Twenty-somethings are engaged in work, too, even if it looks as if they are aimless or failing to pull their weight, Arnett says. But it’s a reflection of our collective attitude toward this period that we devote so few resources to keeping them solvent and granting them some measure of security.

THE KIND OF SERVICES that might be created if emerging adulthood is accepted as a life stage can be seen during a visit to Yellowbrick, a residential program in Evanston, Ill., that calls itself the only psychiatric treatment facility for emerging adults. “Emerging adults really do have unique developmental tasks to focus on,” said Jesse Viner, Yellowbrick’s executive medical director. Viner started Yellowbrick in 2005, when he was working in a group psychiatric practice in Chicago and saw the need for a different way to treat this cohort. He is a soft-spoken man who looks like an accountant and sounds like a New Age prophet, peppering his conversation with phrases like “helping to empower their agency.”

“Agency” is a tricky concept when parents are paying the full cost of Yellowbrick’s comprehensive residential program, which comes to $21,000 a month and is not always covered by insurance. Staff members are aware of the paradox of encouraging a child to separate from Mommy and Daddy when it’s on their dime. They address it with a concept they call connected autonomy, which they define as knowing when to stand alone and when to accept help.

Patients come to Yellowbrick with a variety of problems: substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, anxiety or one of the more severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, that tend to appear in the late teens or early 20s. The demands of imminent independence can worsen mental-health problems or can create new ones for people who have managed up to that point to perform all the expected roles — son or daughter, boyfriend or girlfriend, student, teammate, friend — but get lost when schooling ends and expected roles disappear. That’s what happened to one patient who had done well at a top Ivy League college until the last class of the last semester of his last year, when he finished his final paper and could not bring himself to turn it in.

The Yellowbrick philosophy is that young people must meet these challenges without coddling or rescue. Up to 16 patients at a time are housed in the Yellowbrick residence, a four-story apartment building Viner owns. They live in the apartments — which are large, sunny and lavishly furnished — in groups of three or four, with staff members always on hand to teach the basics of shopping, cooking, cleaning, scheduling, making commitments and showing up.

Viner let me sit in on daily clinical rounds, scheduled that day for C., a young woman who had been at Yellowbrick for three months. Rounds are like the world’s most grueling job interview: the patient sits in front alongside her clinician “advocate,” and a dozen or so staff members are arrayed on couches and armchairs around the room, firing questions. C. seemed nervous but pleased with herself, frequently flashing a huge white smile. She is 22, tall and skinny, and she wore tiny denim shorts and a big T-shirt and vest. She started to fall apart during her junior year at college, plagued by binge drinking and anorexia, and in her first weeks at Yellowbrick her alcohol abuse continued. Most psychiatric facilities would have kicked her out after the first relapse, said Dale Monroe-Cook, Yellowbrick’s vice president of clinical operations. “We’re doing the opposite: we want the behavior to unfold, and we want to be there in that critical moment, to work with that behavior and help the emerging adult transition to greater independence.”

The Yellowbrick staff let C. face her demons and decide how to deal with them. After five relapses, C. asked the staff to take away her ID so she couldn’t buy alcohol. Eventually she decided to start going to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.

At her rounds in June, C. was able to report that she had been alcohol-free for 30 days. Jesse Viner’s wife, Laura Viner, who is a psychologist on staff, started to clap for her, but no one else joined in. “We’re on eggshells here,” Gary Zurawski, a clinical social worker specializing in substance abuse, confessed to C. “We don’t know if we should congratulate you too much.” The staff was sensitive about taking away the young woman’s motivation to improve her life for her own sake, not for the sake of getting praise from someone else.

C. took the discussion about the applause in stride and told the staff she had more good news: in two days she was going to graduate. On time.

THE 20S ARE LIKE the stem cell of human development, the pluripotent moment when any of several outcomes is possible. Decisions and actions during this time have lasting ramifications. The 20s are when most people accumulate almost all of their formal education; when most people meet their future spouses and the friends they will keep; when most people start on the careers that they will stay with for many years. This is when adventures, experiments, travels, relationships are embarked on with an abandon that probably will not happen again.

Does that mean it’s a good thing to let 20-somethings meander — or even to encourage them to meander — before they settle down? That’s the question that plagues so many of their parents. It’s easy to see the advantages to the delay. There is time enough for adulthood and its attendant obligations; maybe if kids take longer to choose their mates and their careers, they’ll make fewer mistakes and live happier lives. But it’s just as easy to see the drawbacks. As the settling-down sputters along for the “emerging adults,” things can get precarious for the rest of us. Parents are helping pay bills they never counted on paying, and social institutions are missing out on young people contributing to productivity and growth. Of course, the recession complicates things, and even if every 20-something were ready to skip the “emerging” moratorium and act like a grown-up, there wouldn’t necessarily be jobs for them all. So we’re caught in a weird moment, unsure whether to allow young people to keep exploring and questioning or to cut them off and tell them just to find something, anything, to put food on the table and get on with their lives.

Arnett would like to see us choose a middle course. “To be a young American today is to experience both excitement and uncertainty, wide-open possibility and confusion, new freedoms and new fears,” he writes in “Emerging Adulthood.” During the timeout they are granted from nonstop, often tedious and dispiriting responsibilities, “emerging adults develop skills for daily living, gain a better understanding of who they are and what they want from life and begin to build a foundation for their adult lives.” If it really works that way, if this longer road to adulthood really leads to more insight and better choices, then Arnett’s vision of an insightful, sensitive, thoughtful, content, well-honed, self-actualizing crop of grown-ups would indeed be something worth waiting for.

Robin Marantz Henig is a contributing writer. Her last article for the magazine was about anxiety.