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Warning: Throw Up
Green Rockers
Devil in Danger
Copycat Songbirds
Tag, You’re It
Illustrations by J.D. King

 

Warning: Throw Up
A recent study shows that some species of caterpillar warn predators by making clicking noises before they use their last line of defense—throwing up. “Their primary means to get away from a predator is to just hide and not be noticed,” says Jayne Yack, an author of the study and an associate professor of biology at Carleton University in Ontario. “The second strategy is to have a chemical defense and then to warn the predator of it before the predator actually does some damage.” Before there was evidence for this hypothesis, researchers were uncertain about the purposes of the noises, but this study shows that the caterpillars sound the alarm when disturbed or during an attack. And as Yack’s cat has discovered for itself, there are consequences when predators don’t heed a caterpillar’s signals. One weekend, when Yack brought the bright-green creatures home, her mischievous cat tried to feast on them. Yack found her cat gagging with a trail of brown, caterpillar throw up on the floor between the hunter and the barely scathed prey.—Susan Cosier
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Green Rockers
Today, with so much free music being downloaded, the record industry faces hard times. But Chicago-based independent label Smog Veil has a long-range business plan that should keep its books in the black and everyone’s air clear. The company, which specializes in rock and roll, has recently installed two wind turbines and 30 solar panels on the roof of its two-story headquarters that should supply at least half, and maybe all, of the building’s energy needs. Smog Veil’s cofounder, Frank Mauceri, says he wants to tackle an industry-wide problem: “The products we produce are energy-intensive and not full of recyclables.” So the company has announced that it will also start making its CD cases out of a cardboardlike material instead of the usual plastic. Says Mauceri, “We seek to be an example, and I hope others will follow.”—Jason Gross
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Devil in Danger
The Looney Tunes character Taz, based on the Tasmanian devil in Australia, may appear fearsome as he whirls about in a blur of brown fur, but that won’t stop his cartoon pals from helping out his real-life counterparts. Warner Brothers, partnering with Tourism Tasmania, has agreed to donate one Australian dollar from the sale of each of a series of 20 DVDs featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of the gang to further research on Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease. Hamish McCallum, the senior scientist coordinating research efforts from the University of Tasmania, says this deadly, communicable cancer, whose growths develop primarily on the face, has reduced the number of devils on Australia’s island state to about 20,000 from as many as 150,000 in 1996. Biologists have tried to stave off extinction with a captive breeding program that also relocates some healthy devils to uninfected areas of mainland Australia. Additionally, they hope to establish free-ranging populations on islands off Tasmania’s coast. But it’s too soon to tell whether these efforts will succeed. To learn more about the plight of the Tasmanian devil or help out with a donation, click here. —Todd Neale
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Copycat Songbirds
Male song sparrows love to belt out their melodic repertoire. But their songs are not original creations. On the contrary, they borrow heavily from older birds’ tunes. Each learns several songs from influential elders, and then personalizes them by tweaking and rearranging, to create a set of distinct ditties. New research by biologists at the University of Washington suggests that precocious performers learn more than twice as many songs by eavesdropping on older sparrows interacting with other young birds than by conversing with veterans one on one. Michael Beecher, an animal behaviorist and lead author of the study, speculates that older birds may intimidate juveniles, at least in the lab. The study may have implications for understanding how babies pick up language, too, since they seem to learn, at least in part, by listening to others converse. As for the sparrows, Beecher and his colleagues plan to use a “virtual tutor”—interactive, bird-simulating computer software—and field studies of radio-tagged song sparrows near Puget Sound to delve deeper into the social aspects of song learning.—Andrea Anderson
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Tag, You’re It
As climate change and overfishing threaten ocean life, keeping tabs on marine animals is vital to conservation. But finding them isn’t as easy as hide-and-seek—it takes a sophisticated version of tag. The Ocean Tracking Network (OTN), a multi-partner conservation project headquartered at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, aims to create a global system that tracks sea creatures—from salmon smolts to elephant seals—for two decades and across all five oceans using electronic tags. In the past, research largely focused on “what does my fish in my bay do,” says Ron O’Dor, a senior scientist for the Census of Marine Life at the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education, who heads OTN. Building on the technology of two West Coast–based programs currently tracking marine animals, OTN researchers hope to create “the ultimate tag,” which will provide details on where the animal is, what its ocean environment is like, and other tagged animals it encounters. Data stored in the tags—which are fastened to a fin or surgically implanted—will be picked up by satellites in space and receivers on the ocean floor and uploaded to a central database accessible to researchers worldwide.—Julie Leibach
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