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Nom-nom or dinner call? Silverbacks sing as they eat.

Dominant wild silverbacks wax musical with their mouths full.

Image source: Grant Tiffen/Shutterstock
  • Recent recordings of gorillas singing as they eat add the species to a lengthening list of musical eaters in the animal kingdom.
  • Two types of songs have been recorded: a hum, and, well, gorilla improv.
  • It's suspected that spoken language may begin with songs.

Sing for your supper, and you'll get breakfast
Songbirds always eat — Moss Hart, The Boys from Syracuse, 1938

Gorillas, too, apparently. Primatologist Eva Luef of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany recently observed — and recorded — two wild western lowland gorillas in the Republic of Congo singing as they ate. The late primatologist Dian Fossey previously described the phenomenon as "belch vocalizations," which sounds about right, especially after our recent Thanksgiving. The new research, however, for the first time ties it to specific behaviors. Luef's finding are published in PLOS ONE.

Gorillas are hardly alone in song: They join other musical species such as chimps, bonobos, frogs, and giraffes. Still Luef's work may offer up some intriguing clues into the origin of language.

Leuf actually caught two type of vocalizations in the dominant silverback blackback adolescent males she observed. It seems that in the wild, they're the only community members with singing rights. In wild primate cultures with less rigid hierarchies, notably chimps and bonobos, everybody gets to chime in at mealtime.

Though in captivity things are a bit different, Ali Vella-Irving of the Toronto Zoo is hardly surprised by Leuf's discovery, she tells New Scientist. She hears this kind of singing all the time. "Each gorilla has its own voice: you can really tell who's singing. And if it's their favorite food, they sing louder."

This jibes with what Luef found: The gorillas seem to be inspired only by their preferred food. She found that "aquatic vegetation or seeds elicited a lot of food calls. And… they never called when they were eating insects like termites or ants." Because of course.

Hummmm...

One of Leuf's silverbacks emitted a low-frequency hum as he ate. The scientist hypothesizes two possible meanings for the hum. First, it sounds like a noise of satisfaction. Secondly, says Leuf, since "He's the one making the collective decisions for the group. We think he uses this vocalization to inform the others 'OK, now we're eating.'" Others have suggested it may mean, "Go away, I'm eating here."

Singing the praises of a meal

Another silverback was more improvisatory, singing higher in pitch, and continually giving voice to a series of melodies that didn't repeat. The suspicion is that this ever-evolving ditty was simply a happy tune accompanying happy eating.

Speak Up

The variety of songs and the individuals allowed to sing them among different species provides further insight into the way language incorporating visual signals and sounds may evolve. Earlier research suggests that songs may represent a precursor of our spoken language.These variations also provide clues into each species' social structures, as psychologist Zanna Clay explains: "We think food calls are a very social signal; it's about coordinating feeding events with others. So in gorillas you get the dominant male producing the calls, because he has to keep hold of all the females in his group."

If music is a universal language as is often claimed, does this finding suggest "nom-nom" is a universal song?

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Lee Jae-Sung of Korea Republic lies on the pitch holding his knee during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group F match between Korea Republic and Germany at Kazan Arena on June 27, 2018 in Kazan, Russia.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

Surprising Science

How often do vaccine trials hit paydirt?

Vaccines find more success in development than any other kind of drug, but have been relatively neglected in recent decades.

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