Week in Review

by by Alex Ronan & Kate Van Brocklin

illustration by by Drew Foster

Stop Spreading Yr Seeds
Birth control is taking center stage in today’s political arena, and the sensitive topic is about to get hairier—or rather, furrier.

The influx of squirrels is due to a warm winter and a resulting boom in nuts, where populations are at an all-time high on the East Coast, in the Northeast, and in the Midwest. Beyond nibbling our lunch crumbs, squirrels can cause damage by devouring farmers’ crops, chewing into building wires, and stripping bark, which can severely harm or kill trees outright.

In response to the spike in the US gray squirrel population this year, scientists at Clemson University are performing a study which entails luring squirrels to contraceptive-laced sunflower seeds. Researchers coat the seeds with DiazaCon, a drug that lowers cholesterol—the molecule from which sex hormones are made. Mixed in with the DiazaCon coating is a nontoxic dye that stains the squirrels’ bellies pink, making it easy to identify treated squirrels at a glance. The experiment marks the first time the drug has been tested on squirrels in the wild, as opposed to in a laboratory. Sunflower seeds—a squirrel favorite—are placed in 16 campus feeders accessible only to gray squirrels.

As preliminary research, scientists spent a year “capturing squirrels, drawing blood, [and] running blood work to see when hormone levels were at their peak,” said Greg Yarrow, chair of the University’s Division of Natural Resources.

In previous attempts to stop our furry friends from spreading their seeds, scientists have developed two techniques: vaccines to stop the rodents from making sex hormones, or measures to lower the squirrels’ cholesterol, both of which have been used for decades of contraceptive research for species such as white-tailed deer. The Clemson study aims to determine whether altering squirrels’ food source could impact their growing numbers. Squirrels have been captured and spayed for years, similar to efforts to minimize the number of feral cats, but catching enough squirrels to make a dent in their population has become difficult and expensive—$50-plus per squirrel.

An advantage to administering single injections is that vaccines last for years. “But you have to spend time catching the squirrels, and it’s hard on them to be handled,” Christi Yoder, a former researcher at the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colorado, told National Geographic. While the method remains up for debate, the ends remain clear—researchers are finding it easy enough to sterilize squirrels without much moral discord.  — KVB

The Dunes Are Alive
Deserts have feelings too, or at least moan like they do. When swept by scourging desert winds, sand dunes produce haunting howls that echo across their dry home. Some dunes expel single-notes while others moan a garbled chorus. Marco Polo encountered their low drones during his travels and Charles Darwin, in his book The Voyage of the Beagle, wrote of testimonials from Chileans about the sound of a sandy hill they called the “bellower.”

After centuries of curiosity and folklore surrounding this phenomenon, scientists have cracked the code to the deserts’ tunes. A new study, published this week in Geophysical Research Letters, finds that the size of sand grains determines a dune’s song. Three scientists from Paris Diderot University in France collected sand from singing dunes in the deserts near Tarfaya, a port town in southwestern Morocco and Al-Askharah, Oman, concluding that grain size and shape correlates with the corresponding notes for each song.

The sand collected from the singing dune in Morocco moans at around 105 Hz—equivalent to the G-sharp two octaves below middle C. The scientists compared those grains to sand collected from a dune in Oman, with notes ranging from 90 Hz to 150 Hz (F-sharp to D). The researchers were also able to create model mini-dune “avalanches” in the lab to reproduce the moans, leading to the conclusion that different layers of sand aren’t necessary to generate the desert songs.

Researchers also found that when they sieved the Omani sand, the avalanche sang a single-note tune. They concluded that synchronized movements of sand produce the moaning sound, while grain size determines the notes in each song.

“The study attempts, and I think succeeds in many ways, to solve the problem of what’s the mechanism” that translates tumbling sand into a song, said Tom Patitsas, a theoretical physicist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. The low, droning sound of the desert may not be a mystery anymore, but the songs will continue to resonate. — KVB

Skate City
It was kind of cute, really, the way they stood there, smiling for a picture. But also a little strange, the photos of cops posing for pictures with skaters who’d just completed an illegal race through eight miles of New York City. Just two days before the October 20th race, a State Supreme Court judge declared the annual Broadway Bomb longboard race unlawful. Started in 2002, Broadway Bomb longboarders ride from the Upper West Side to the Financial District, dodging and weaving through traffic. But the state of the race was jeopardized because the group didn’t get proper permitting.

Though race organizers officially suspended the race via a Facebook post, they also encouraged riders to “flashmob” the scene, ending the post with “see you there.” According to one skater, who requested anonymity because the ride was technically illegal, “you can’t just tell skaters, ‘don’t do it.’” Getting hustled by cars and cops is “what we deal with everyday.” Asked whether it plays a big role in his life, he explained, “skateboarding is my life.”

Police waited at the starting point with scooters and a sound cannon. Some skaters were deterred, but many simply gathered a few blocks away in order to avoid the police. Skater-slash-interior decorator Danielé Perna arrived with his skateboard concealed in a garbage bag and declared to The New York Times, “This is no longer a race. This is a demonstration for our freedom.” But skating is not all “damn the man, screw the authority,” as The New York Observer suggested.  When asked why he participated, one skater responded to “Because it’s there.” When it comes to police interaction, another skater advised the Independent “be polite.”

Despite the police presence and the race’s illegal status, there were no arrests made. Skater Cami Best participated in this year’s bomb despite the “huge stink” authorities made. It’s outside of world of skating that Best encounters trouble. “I’ll hear a guy say ‘don’t hurtcha self sweetie’ or ‘wow, that’s a girl.’” She seemed unfazed, calling them “idiots” because they doubt her ability just because she’s female, adding, “sometimes I’ll bust out a crazy trick or one foot manual down the entire block and they will stand there dumbfounded.” — AR