Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
On factory farms, the death rate of pig sows is soaring
It's not yet clear why this is happening, but there are plenty of suspects
- A rise in mortality for factory farm pig sows has growers worried.
- There are some obvious possible reasons, but studies are underway.
- Rise in deaths points toward a need for more humane treatment of pigs.
While relatively little is known about the psychology of domestic pigs, what is known suggests that pigs are cognitively complex and share many traits with animals whom we consider intelligent. — Thinking Pigs: A Comparative Review of Cognition, Emotion, and Personality in Sus domesticus
Of all the animals that humans eat, perhaps the most morally troubling are pigs because they're considered to be highly aware creatures. The stories of their sentience are myriad and make a compelling case that they know just what awaits them at slaughter. That they continue to be raised as food is heartbreaking on the face of it to many, and the conditions at pork factory farms have long been troubling. (In addition, 5,500 pigs drowned in North Carolina during Hurricane Florence.)
Now there's a new problem with industrially bred pigs that has even the pork industry alarmed: Sow deaths from prolapse—a condition that causes a sow's rectum, vagina, or uterus to collapse—are skyrocketing. According to The Guardian, the pig mortality rate nearly doubled between 2013 and 2016 on factory farms with more than 125 sows across 800 pork companies. Some farmers are reporting prolapse as the cause of 25% to 50% sow deaths.
Warning: This post contains troubling images.
Wally, the slaughterhouse-truck-escaping pig, with the author at Soulspace Farm Sanctuary(Photo: Syd M Johnson)
Why are sows dying like this?
The cause of the deaths is not altogether clear. The National Pork Board is partnering with Iowa State University on a multi-year study aimed at understanding what's happening. (Iowa's the top pork producer in the U.S.) They intend to collect data on about 13% of food sows on more than 100 farms in 16 states. That's about 400,000 pigs.
As of now, there are a handful of possible causes that have been suggested:
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Mycotoxins in feed
- Overfeeding to promote growth
- Abdominal issues
- Overly restrictive confinement systems
A sedentary, crowded existence
According to The Guardian, "An estimated 97% of the US's 73 million hogs are raised in closed barns or confined feeding operations." These dense-packed, restrictive environments include gestation and farrowing crates in which sows can barely move, and in which they spend most of their lives. It's a brutal way to exist as pigs have little, if any, opportunity for health-sustaining movement and exercise, and are kept from doing the things pigs like to do.
Farmer Paul Willis tells The Guardian, "I have a neighbor that has been raising pigs [in a confinement system] … and they have a dumpster, and I can go by there almost any time of the day or week and it's full of dead hogs." One company is producing the Hercules' Arm Pig Hearse, which its website calls "A unique and revolutionary way to effortlessly remove, on your own and in total safety, heavy dead pigs from stalls and haul them away to the designated area." The company adds that the device "has been specifically designed to eliminate any risk of back injury and make work so much easier."
Pigs in gestation crates
Genetic manipulation for more salable pork or more pigs
Well-known animal-welfare advocate Temple Grandin of Colorado State University also spoke to The Guardian about this problem, suggesting that shifting pork-industries priorities have wreaked havoc on pigs' bodies.
In the late 1980s, she points out, pigs were bred for rapid weight gain, more backfat, along with a more lucrative loin. Later on, though, breeding goals changed as the American diet became more fat conscious.
Eventually breeding moved to pigs who could produce more piglets. New president of Mercy for Animals Leah Garces suggests this could be the cause of the prolapse epidemic: "Over the last few decades, sows to have been bred to have less back-fat—because people don't want to eat as much fat—but we also want them to produce more and more babies. And that's not biologically possible; their bones are weak and they don't have enough fat to support the reproductive process. We've bred them to their limit and the animals are telling us that."
Sows now produce an average of 23.5 piglets a year in litters of ten. After about four litters, they're done. As Grandin puts it, "They're breeding the sows to produce a lot of babies. Well, there's a point where you've gone too far."
Exhausted Walkato sow
Considering the porcine future
Some in the pork industry are looking to establish more moderate, sustainable methods of raising pigs, including smaller farms—such as Willis' Niman Ranch, a subsidiary of Purdue—and backing off productivity goals. As Grandin puts it, "You have to figure out the optimal number of piglets these sows should have. One thing people have trouble with is asking what is optimal—not maximal, but optimal—when it comes to breeding." Hopefully, reports such as the National Pork Board's will definitively pinpoint what's causing this increase in sow deaths.
There's also another solution worthy of mention, and it's pretty obvious: We could cut back or stop eating pigs.
These alien-like creatures are virtually invisible in the deep sea.
- A team of marine biologists used nets to catch 16 species of deep-sea fish that have evolved the ability to be virtually invisible to prey and predators.
- "Ultra-black" skin seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that helps fish camouflage themselves in the deep sea, which is illuminated by bioluminescent organisms.
- There are likely more, and potentially much darker, ultra-black fish lurking deep in the ocean.
A team of marine biologists has discovered 16 species of "ultra-black" fish that absorb more than 99 percent of the light that hits their skin, making them virtually invisible to other deep-sea fish.
The researchers, who published their findings Thursday in Current Biology, caught the species after dropping nets more than 200 meters deep near California's Monterey Bay. At those depths, sunlight fizzles out. That's one reason why many deep-sea species have evolved the ability to illuminate the dark waters through bioluminescence.
But what if deep-sea fish don't want to be spotted? To counter bioluminescence, some species have evolved ultra-black skin that's exceptionally good at absorbing light. Only a few other species are known to possess this strange trait, including birds of paradise and some spiders and butterflies.
The Pacific blackdragon
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
When researchers first saw the deep-sea species, it wasn't immediately obvious that their skin was ultra-black. Then, marine biologist Karen Osborn, a co-author on the new paper, noticed something strange about the photos she took of the fish.
"I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can't see any detail," Osborn told Wired. "How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?"
After examining samples of fish skin under the microscope, the researchers discovered that the fish skin contains a layer of organelles called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same pigment that gives color to human skin and hair. This layer of melanosomes absorbs most of the light that hits them.
A crested bigscale
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
"But what isn't absorbed side-scatters into the layer, and it's absorbed by the neighboring pigments that are all packed right up close to it," Osborn told Wired. "And so what they've done is create this super-efficient, very-little-material system where they can basically build a light trap with just the pigment particles and nothing else."
The result? Strange and terrifying deep-sea species, like the crested bigscale, fangtooth, and Pacific blackdragon, all of which appear in the deep sea as barely more than faint silhouettes.
David Csepp, NMFS/AKFSC/ABL
But interestingly, this unique disappearing trick wasn't passed on to these species by a common ancestor. Rather, they each developed it independently. As such, the different species use their ultra-blackness for different purposes. For example, the threadfin dragonfish only has ultra-black skin during its adolescent years, when it's rather defenseless, as Wired notes.
Other fish—like the oneirodes species, which use bioluminescent lures to bait prey—probably evolved ultra-black skin to avoid reflecting the light their own bodies produce. Meanwhile, species like C. acclinidens only have ultra-black skin around their gut, possibly to hide light of bioluminescent fish they've eaten.
Given that these newly described species are just ones that this team found off the coast of California, there are likely many more, and possibly much darker, ultra-black fish swimming in the deep ocean.
Information may not seem like something physical, yet it has become a central concern for physicists. A wonderful new book explores the importance of the "dataome" for the physical, biological, and human worlds.
- The most important current topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all — information, which is central to thermodynamics and perhaps the universe itself.
- The "dataome" is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls.
- The dataome is vast and growing everyday, sucking up an ever increasing share of the energy humans produce.
Physics is a field that is supposed to study real stuff. By real, I mean things like matter and energy. Matter is, of course, the kind of stuff you can hold in your hand. Energy may seem a little more abstract, but its reality is pretty apparent, appearing in the form of motion or gravity or electromagnetic fields.
What has become apparent recently, however, is the importance to physics of something that seems somewhat less real: information. From black holes to quantum mechanics to understanding the physics of life, information has risen to become a principal concern of many physicists in many domains. This new centrality of information is why you really need to read astrophysicist Caleb Scharf's new book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithms.
Scharf is currently the director of the Astrobiology Program at Columbia University. He is also the author of four other books as well as a regular contributor to Scientific American.
(Full disclosure: Scharf and I have been collaborators on a scientific project involving the Fermi Paradox, so I was a big fan before I read this new book. Of course, the reason why I collaborated with him is because I really like the way he thinks, and his creativity in tackling tough problems is on full display in The Ascent of Information.)
What is the dataome?
In his new book, Scharf is seeking a deeper understanding of what he calls the "dataome." This is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls. The book opens with a compelling exploration of how Shakespeare's works, which began as scribbles on a page, have gone on to have lives of their own in the dataome. Through reprintings in different languages, recordings of performances, movie adaptations, comic books, and so on, Shakespeare's works are now a permanent part of the vast swirling ensemble of information that constitutes the human dataome.
I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
But the dataome does not just live in our heads. Scharf takes us on a proper physicist's journey through the dataome, showing us how information can never be divorced from energy. Your brain needs the chemical energy from food you ate this morning to read, process, and interpret these words. One of the most engaging parts of the book is when Scharf details just how much energy and real physical space our data-hungry world consumes as it adds to the dataome. For example, the Hohhot Data Center in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China is made of vast "farms" of data processing servers covering 245 acres of real estate. A single application like Bitcoin, Scharf tells us, consumes 7.7 gigawatts per year, equivalent to the output of half a dozen nuclear reactors!
Information is everywhere
But the dataome is not just about energy. Entropy is central to the story as well. Scharf takes the reader through a beautifully crafted discussion of information and the science of thermodynamics. This is where the links between energy, entropy, the limits of useful work, and probability all become profoundly connected to the definition of information.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot use all of a given amount of energy to do useful work. Some of that energy must be wasted by getting turned into heat. Entropy is the physicist's way of measuring that waste (which can also be thought of as disorder). Scharf takes the reader through the basic relations of thermodynamics and then shows how entropy became intimately linked with information. It was Claude Shannon's brilliant work in the 1940s that showed how information — bits — could be defined for communication and computation as an entropy associated with the redundancy of strings of symbols. That was the link tying the physical world of physics explicitly to the informational and computational world of the dataome.
The best parts of the book are where Scharf unpacks how information makes its appearance in biology. From the data storage and processing that occurs with every strand of DNA, to the tangled pathways that define evolutionary dynamics, Scharf demonstrates how life is what happens to physics and chemistry when information matters. I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
The physics of information
There are a lot of popular physics books out there about black holes and exoplanets and other cool stuff. But right now, I feel like the most important topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all. Information is a relatively new addition to the physics bestiary, making it even more compelling. If you are looking for a good introduction to how that is so, The Ascent of Information is a good place to start.
A new study tested to what extent dogs can sense human deception.
Is humanity's best friend catching on to our shenanigans? Researchers at the University of Vienna discovered that dogs can in certain cases know when people are lying.
The scientists carried out a study with hundreds of dogs to determine to what extent dogs could spot deception. The team's new paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, outlined experiments that tested whether dogs, like humans, have some inner sense of how to assess truthfulness.
As the researchers wrote in their paper, "Among non-primates, dogs (Canis familiaris) constitute a particularly interesting case, as their social environment has been shared with humans for at least 14,000 years. For this reason, dogs have been considered as a model species for the comparative investigation of socio-cognitive abilities." The investigation focused specifically on understanding if dogs were "sensitive to some mental or psychological states of humans."
The experiments involved 260 dogs, which were made to listen to advice from a human "communicator" whom they did not know. The human told them which one of two bowls had a treat hidden inside by touching it and saying, "Look, this is very good!" If the dogs took the person's advice, they would get the treat.
Once they established the trust of the dogs, the researchers then complicated the experience by letting dogs watch another human that they did not know transfer the treat from one bowl to another. In some cases, the original communicator would also be present to watch but not always.
The findings revealed that half of the dogs did not follow the advice of the communicator if that person was not present when the food was switched to a different bowl. The dogs had a sense that this human could not have known the true location of the treat. Furthermore, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the human's suggestion if she did see the food switch but pointed to the wrong bowl. The dogs figured out the human was lying to them.
Photos of experiments showing the dog, human communicator, and person hiding the treat. Credit: Lucrezia Lonardo et al / Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We thought dogs would behave like children under age five and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful," co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. "Maybe they think, 'This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].' It's possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying."
This is not the first time such experiments have been carried out. Previously, children under age five, macaques, and chimps were tested in a similar way. It turned out that children and other animals were more likely than dogs to listen to the advice of the liars. Notably, among the dogs, terriers were found to be more like children and apes, more eagerly following false suggestions.