When people are feeling playful, they giggle and laugh, making others around them want to laugh and play too. Now, researchers have found that the particularly playful kea parrot from New Zealand has a ‘play call’ with a similarly powerful influence. When other kea hear that call, it puts them into a playful mood.

The findings make kea the first known non-mammal to have such an “emotionally contagious” vocalization, the researchers say. Earlier studies had made similar findings for chimpanzees and rats.

“We were able to use a playback of these calls to show that it animates kea that were not playing to do so,” says Raoul Schwing of the Messerli Research Institute in Austria. “The fact that at least some of these birds started playing spontaneously when no other birds had been playing suggests that, similar to human laughter, it had an emotional effect on the birds that heard it, putting them in a playful state.”

Schwing and his colleagues got interested in this particular call after carefully analyzing the kea’s full vocal repertoire. It was clear to them that the play call was used in connection with the birds’ play behavior. That made them curious to know how kea in the wild would respond to the recorded calls.

To find out, the researchers played recordings of play calls to groups of wild kea for a period of five minutes. The researchers also played other kea calls and the calls of a South Island robin as controls. When the birds heard the play calls, it led them to play more and play longer in comparison to the other sounds.

“Upon hearing the play call, many birds did not join in play that was already underway, but instead started playing with other non-playing birds, or in the case of solitary play, with an object or by performing aerial acrobatics,” the researchers write. “These instances suggest that kea weren’t ‘invited’ to play, but this specific call induced playfulness, supporting the hypothesis that play vocalizations can act as a positive emotional contagion.”

While it might be a bit anthropomorphic, they continue, the kea play calls can be compared to a form of infectious laughter. The researchers say that they now plan to explore the effects of play and play calls on kea social groups more generally.

For the rest of us, the findings come as an intriguing reminder: “If animals can laugh,” Schwing says, “we are not so different from them.”

Journal Reference:
1.Raoul Schwing, Ximena J. Nelson, Amelia Wein, Stuart Parsons. Positive emotional contagion in a New Zealand parrot. Current Biology, 2017; 27 (6): R213 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.02.020


Neil Freeman redrew the state borders to get a visual sense of what it would take for the electoral college votes to match the popular vote. That is to say, for each state to be weighted evenly.

“The largest state is 66 times as populous as the smallest,” Freeman explains on his site, “and has 18 times as many electoral votes.”

His map is based on 2010 Census data, which records a population of 308,745,538 for the United States. Divided up among 50 states, that’s a population of a little over six million people per state. The names of new states are mostly taken from geographical features.

The electoral college is a time-honored, logical system for picking the chief executive of the United States. However, the American body politic has also grown accustomed to paying close attention to the popular vote. This is only rarely a problem, since the electoral college and the popular vote have only disagreed three times in 200 years. However, it’s obvious that reforms are needed.

The fundamental problem of the electoral college is that the states of the United States are too disparate in size and influence. The largest state is 66 times as populous as the smallest and has 18 times as many electoral votes. This increases the chance for Electoral College results that don’t match the popular vote. To remedy this issue, the Electoral Reform Map redivides the fifty United States into 50 states of equal population. The 2010 Census records a population of 308,745,538 for the United States, which this map divides into 50 states, each with a population of about 6,175,000.

Advantages of this proposal
◦Preserves the historic structure and function of the Electoral College.
◦Ends the over-representation of small states and under-representation of large states in presidential voting and in the US Senate by eliminating small and large states.
◦Political boundaries more closely follow economic patterns, since many states are more centered on one or two metro areas.
◦Ends varying representation in the House. Currently, the population of House districts ranges from 528,000 to 924,000. After this reform, every House seat would represent districts of the same size. (Since the current size of the House isn’t divisible by 50, the numbers of seats should be increased to 450 or 500.)
◦States could be redistricted after each census – just like House seats are distributed now.

◦Some county names are duplicated in new states.
◦Some local governments would experience a shift in state laws and procedures.


The map began with an algorithm that grouped counties based on proximity, urban area, and commuting patterns. The algorithm was seeded with the fifty largest cities. After that, manual changes took into account compact shapes, equal populations, metro areas divided by state lines, and drainage basins. In certain areas, divisions are based on census tract lines.

The District of Columbia is included into the state of Washington, with the Mall, major monuments and Federal buildings set off as the seat of the federal government.

The capitals of the states are existing states capitals where possible, otherwise large or central cities have been chosen. The suggested names of the new states are taken mainly from geographical features:
◦mountain ranges or peaks, or caves – Adirondack, Allegheny, Blue Ridge, Chinati, Mammoth, Mesabi, Ozark, Pocono, Rainier, Shasta, Shenandoah and Shiprock
◦rivers – Atchafalaya, Menominee, Maumee, Nodaway, Sangamon, Scioto, Susquehanna, Trinity and Willimantic
◦historical or ecological regions – Big Thicket, Firelands and Tidewater
◦bays, capes, lakes and aquifers – Casco, Tampa Bay, Canaveral, Mendocino, Ogallala, Salt Lake and Throgs Neck
◦songs – Gary, Muskogee and Temecula
◦cities – Atlanta, Chicago, Columbia, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Washington
◦plants – Tule and Yerba Buena
◦people – King and Orange

The words used for names for the name are drawn from many languages, including many American Indian languages. While some etymologies are unclear, the root languages for the state names include Abenaki (Casco), Algonquian (Nodaway, Pocono, Willimantic), Apache (Chinati), Calusa (Tampa), Choctaw (Atchafalaya), English, French (Detroit, Ozark, Rainier), Greek (Philadelphia), Iroquoian (Shenandoah), Lakota (Ogallala), Latin (Columbia), Luiseño (Temecula), Mayaimi (Miami), Mamaceqtaw (Menominee), Miami-Illinois (Chicago), Mohawk (Adirondack), Muscogee (Muskogee), Nahuatl (Tule), Odawa (Maumee), Ojibwe (Mesabi), Potawatomi (Sangamon), Susquehannock (Susquehanna) and Wyandot (Scioto).

By Vanessa Bates Ramirez

3D printing is being used to produce more and more novel items: tools, art, even rudimentary human organs. What all those items have in common, though, is that they’re small. The next phase of 3D printing is to move on to things that are big. Really big. Like, as big as a house.

In a small town in western Russia called Stupino, a 3D printed house just went up in the middle of winter and in a day’s time.

Pieces of houses and bridges have been 3D printed in warehouses or labs then transported to their permanent locations to be assembled, but the Stupino house was printed entirely on-site by a company called Apis Cor. They used a crane-sized, mobile 3D printer and a specially-developed mortar mix and covered the whole operation with a heated tent.

The 38-square-meter (409-square-foot) house is circular, with three right-angled protrusions allowing for additional space and division of the area inside. Counter-intuitively, the house’s roof is completely flat. Russia’s not known for mild, snow-free winters. Made of welded polymer membranes and insulated with solid plates, the roof was designed to withstand heavy snow loads.

Apis Cor teamed up with partners for the house’s finishing details, like insulation, windows, and paint. Samsung even provided high-tech appliances and a TV with a concave-curved screen to match the curve of the interior wall.

According to the company, the house’s total building cost came to $10,134, or approximately $275 per square meter, which equates to about $25 per square foot. A recent estimate put the average cost of building a 2,000 square foot home in the US at about $150 per square foot.

The homes of the future?

Since these houses are affordable and fast to build, is it only a matter of time before we’re all living in 3D printed concrete circles?

Probably not—or, at least, not until whole apartment buildings can be 3D printed. The Stupino house would be harder (though not impossible) to plop down in the middle of a city than in the Russian countryside.

While cities like Dubai are aiming to build more 3D printed houses, what many have envisioned for the homes of the future are environmentally-friendly, data-integrated ‘smart buildings,’ often clad with solar panels and including floors designated for growing food.

Large-scale 3D printing does have some very practical applications, though. Take disaster relief: when a hurricane or earthquake destroys infrastructure and leaves thousands of people without shelter, 3D printers like Apis Cor’s could be used to quickly rebuild bridges, roads, and homes.

Also, given their low cost and high speed, 3D printed houses could become a practical option for subsidized housing projects.

In the US, tiny houses have been all the rage among millennials lately—what if that tiny house could be custom-printed to your specifications in less than a week, and it cost even less than you’d budgeted?

Since software and machines are doing most of the work, there’s less margin for human error—gone are the days of “the subcontractor misread the blueprint, and now we have three closets and no bathrooms!”

While houses made by robots are good news for people looking to buy a basic, low-cost house, they could be bad news for people employed in the construction industry. Machines have been pouring concrete for decades, but technologies like Apis Cor’s giant printer will take a few more human workers out of the equation.

Nonetheless, the company states that part of their mission is “to change the construction industry so that millions of people will have an opportunity to improve their living conditions.”



by Edd Gent

Wiring our brains up to computers could have a host of exciting applications – from controlling robotic prosthetics with our minds to restoring sight by feeding camera feeds directly into the vision center of our brains.

Most brain-computer interface research to date has been conducted using electroencephalography (EEG) where electrodes are placed on the scalp to monitor the brain’s electrical activity. Achieving very high quality signals, however, requires a more invasive approach.

Integrating electronics with living tissue is complicated, though. Probes that are directly inserted into the gray matter have been around for decades, but while they are capable of highly accurate recording, the signals tend to degrade rapidly due to the buildup of scar tissue. Electrocorticography (ECoG), which uses electrodes placed beneath the skull but on top of the gray matter, has emerged as a popular compromise, as it achieves higher-accuracy recordings with a lower risk of scar formation.

But now researchers from the University of Texas have created new probes that are so thin and flexible, they don’t elicit scar tissue buildup. Unlike conventional probes, which are much larger and stiffer, they don’t cause significant damage to the brain tissue when implanted, and they are also able to comply with the natural movements of the brain.

In recent research published in the journal Science Advances, the team demonstrated that the probes were able to reliably record the electrical activity of individual neurons in mice for up to four months. This stability suggests these probes could be used for long-term monitoring of the brain for research or medical diagnostics as well as controlling prostheses, said Chong Xie, an assistant professor in the university’s department of biomedical engineering who led the research.

“Besides neuroprosthetics, they can possibly be used for neuromodulation as well, in which electrodes generate neural stimulation,” he told Singularity Hub in an email. “We are also using them to study the progression of neurovascular and neurodegenerative diseases such as stroke, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.”

The group actually created two probe designs, one 50 microns long and the other 10 microns long. The smaller probe has a cross-section only a fraction of that of a neuron, which the researchers say is the smallest among all reported neural probes to the best of their knowledge.

Because the probes are so flexible, they can’t be pushed into the brain tissue by themselves, and so they needed to be guided in using a stiff rod called a “shuttle device.” Previous designs of these shuttle devices were much larger than the new probes and often led to serious damage to the brain tissue, so the group created a new carbon fiber design just seven microns in diameter.

At present, though, only 25 percent of the recordings can be tracked down to individual neurons – thanks to the fact that neurons each have characteristic waveforms – with the rest too unclear to distinguish from each other.

“The only solution, in my opinion, is to have many electrodes placed in the brain in an array or lattice so that any neuron can be within a reasonable distance from an electrode,” said Chong. “As a result, all enclosed neurons can be recorded and well-sorted.”

This a challenging problem, according to Chong, but one benefit of the new probes is that their small dimensions make it possible to implant probes just tens of microns apart rather than the few hundred micron distances necessary with conventional probes. This opens up the possibility of overlapping detection ranges between probes, though the group can still only consistently implant probes with an accuracy of 50 microns.

Takashi Kozai, an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s bioengineering department who has worked on ultra-small neural probes, said that further experiments would need to be done to show that the recordings, gleaned from anaesthetized rats, actually contained useful neural code. This could include visually stimulating the animals and trying to record activity in the visual cortex.

He also added that a lot of computational neuroscience relies on knowing the exact spacing between recording sites. The fact that flexible probes are able to migrate due to natural tissue movements could pose challenges.

But he said the study “does show some important advances forward in technology development, and most importantly, proof-of-concept feasibility,” adding that “there is clearly much more work necessary before this technology becomes widely used or practical.”

Chong actually worked on another promising approach to neural recording in his previous role under Charles M. Lieber at Harvard University. Last June, the group demonstrated a mesh of soft, conductive polymer threads studded with electrodes that could be injected into the skulls of mice with a syringe where it would then unfurl to both record and stimulate neurons.

As 95 percent of the mesh is free, space cells are able to arrange themselves around it, and the study reported no signs of an elevated immune response after five weeks. But the implantation required a syringe 100 microns in diameter, which causes considerably more damage than the new ultra-small probes developed in Chong’s lab.

It could be some time before the probes are tested on humans. “The major barrier is that this is still an invasive surgical procedure, including cranial surgery and implantation of devices into brain tissue,” said Chong. But, he said, the group is considering testing the probes on epilepsy patients, as it is common practice to implant electrodes inside the skulls of those who don’t respond to medication to locate the area of their brains responsible for their seizures.


Look at a photo of yourself as a teenager and, mistaken fashion choices aside, it’s likely you see traces of the same person with the same personality quirks as you are today. But whether or not you truly are the same person over a lifetime—and what that notion of personhood even means—is the subject of ongoing philosophical and psychology debate.

The longest personality study of all time, published in Psychology and Aging and recently highlighted by the British Psychological Society, suggests that over the course of a lifetime, just as your physical appearance changes and your cells are constantly replaced, your personality is also transformed beyond recognition.

The study begins with data from a 1950 survey of 1,208 14-year-olds in Scotland. Teachers were asked to use six questionnaires to rate the teenagers on six personality traits: self-confidence, perseverance, stability of moods, conscientiousness, originality, and desire to learn. Together, the results from these questionnaires were amalgamated into a rating for one trait, which was defined as “dependability.” More than six decades later, researchers tracked down 635 of the participants, and 174 agreed to repeat testing.

This time, aged 77 years old, the participants rated themselves on the six personality traits, and also nominated a close friend or relative to do the same. Overall, there was not much overlap from the questionnaires taken 63 years earlier. “Correlations suggested no significant stability of any of the 6 characteristics or their underlying factor, dependability, over the 63-year interval,” wrote the researchers. “We hypothesized that we would find evidence of personality stability over an even longer period of 63 years, but our correlations did not support this hypothesis,” they later added.

The findings were a surprise to researchers because previous personality studies, over shorter periods of time, seemed to show consistency. Studies over several decades, focusing on participants from childhood to middle age, or from middle age to older age, showed stable personality traits. But the most recent study, covering the longest period, suggests that personality stability is disrupted over time. “The longer the interval between two assessments of personality, the weaker the relationship between the two tends to be,” the researchers write. “Our results suggest that, when the interval is increased to as much as 63 years, there is hardly any relationship at all.”

Perhaps those who had impulsive character flaws as a teenager would be grateful that certain personality traits might even out later in life. But it’s disconcerting to think that your entire personality is transformed.

“Personality refers to an individual’s characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior, together with the psychological mechanisms—hidden or not—behind those patterns,” note the authors, quoting psychology professor David Funder’s definition.

If your patterns of thought, emotions, and behavior so drastically alter over the decades, can you truly be considered the same person in old age as you were as a teenager? This question ties in with broader theories about the nature of the self. For example, there is growing neuroscience research that supports the ancient Buddhist belief that our notion of a stable “self” is nothing more than an illusion.

Perhaps this won’t surprise you if you’ve had the experience of running into a very old friend from school, and found a completely different person from the child you remembered. This research suggests that, as the decades go by, your own younger self could be similarly unrecognizable.

You’re a completely different person at 14 and 77, the longest-running personality study ever has found

by Bec Crew

Strange microbes have been found inside the massive, subterranean crystals of Mexico’s Naica Mine, and researchers suspect they’ve been living there for up to 50,000 years.

The ancient creatures appear to have been dormant for thousands of years, surviving in tiny pockets of liquid within the crystal structures. Now, scientists have managed to extract them – and wake them up.

“These organisms are so extraordinary,” astrobiologist Penelope Boston, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, said on Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston.

The Cave of Crystals in Mexico’s Naica Mine might look incredibly beautiful, but it’s one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, with temperatures ranging from 45 to 65°C (113 to 149°F), and humidity levels hitting more than 99 percent.

Not only are temperatures hellishly high, but the environment is also oppressively acidic, and confined to pitch-black darkness some 300 metres (1,000 feet) below the surface.

In lieu of any sunlight, microbes inside the cave can’t photosynthesise – instead, they perform chemosynthesis using minerals like iron and sulphur in the giant gypsum crystals, some of which stretch 11 metres (36 feet) long, and have been dated to half a million years old.

Researchers have previously found life living inside the walls of the cavern and nearby the crystals – a 2013 expedition to Naica reported the discovery of creatures thriving in the hot, saline springs of the complex cave system.

But when Boston and her team extracted liquid from the tiny gaps inside the crystals and sent them off to be analysed, they realised that not only was there life inside, but it was unlike anything they’d seen in the scientific record.

They suspect the creatures had been living inside their crystal castles for somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 years, and while their bodies had mostly shut down, they were still very much alive.

“Other people have made longer-term claims for the antiquity of organisms that were still alive, but in this case these organisms are all very extraordinary – they are not very closely related to anything in the known genetic databases,” Boston told Jonathan Amos at BBC News.

What’s perhaps most extraordinary about the find is that the researchers were able to ‘revive’ some of the microbes, and grow cultures from them in the lab.

“Much to my surprise we got things to grow,” Boston told Sarah Knapton at The Telegraph. “It was laborious. We lost some of them – that’s just the game. They’ve got needs we can’t fulfil.”

At this point, we should be clear that the discovery has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, so until other scientists have had a chance to examine the methodology and findings, we can’t consider the discovery be definitive just yet.

The team will also need to convince the scientific community that the findings aren’t the result of contamination – these microbes are invisible to the naked eye, which means it’s possible that they attached themselves to the drilling equipment and made it look like they came from inside the crystals.

“I think that the presence of microbes trapped within fluid inclusions in Naica crystals is in principle possible,” Purificación López-García from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, who was part of the 2013 study that found life in the cave springs, told National Geographic.

“[But] contamination during drilling with microorganisms attached to the surface of these crystals or living in tiny fractures constitutes a very serious risk,” she says. I am very skeptical about the veracity of this finding until I see the evidence.”

That said, microbiologist Brent Christner from the University of Florida in Gainesville, who was also not involved in the research, thinks the claim isn’t as far-fetched as López-García is making it out to be, based on what previous studies have managed with similarly ancient microbes.

“[R]eviving microbes from samples of 10,000 to 50,000 years is not that outlandish based on previous reports of microbial resuscitations in geological materials hundreds of thousands to millions of years old,” he told National Geographic.

For their part, Boston and her team say they took every precaution to make sure their gear was sterilised, and cite the fact that the creatures they found inside the crystals were similar, but not identical to those living elsewhere in the cave as evidence to support their claims.

“We have also done genetic work and cultured the cave organisms that are alive now and exposed, and we see that some of those microbes are similar but not identical to those in the fluid inclusions,” she said.

Only time will tell if the results will bear out once they’re published for all to see, but if they are confirmed, it’s just further proof of the incredible hardiness of life on Earth, and points to what’s possible out there in the extreme conditions of space.


By Sarah Fecht

You’ve probably heard the news that our nation’s bees are in trouble. Pollinators have been disappearing for decades, and the population crash could threaten the global food supply. Now, a small city in Iowa has decided to do something about it.

This spring, Cedar Rapids (population: 130,000) will seed 188 acres with native prairie grasses and wildflowers. The city’s plan is to eventually create 1,000 acres of bee paradise by planting these pollinator-friendly foodstuffs.

Scientists think the pollinator crisis is caused by a variety of factors, including pesticides, pathogens, and climate change. Meanwhile, with farms, parking lots, mowed lawns, and other human developments replacing wildflower fields, bees have been losing habitat and their food supply. While many of the drivers behind bee population decline remain mysterious, the people of Cedar Rapids hope to at least give pollinators places to perch and plants to feed on.

The 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative (http://www.cedar-rapids.org/residents/parks_and_recreation/pollinator_and_natural_resources_initiatives.php#Acre) grew out of a partnership with the Monarch Research Project(MRP), whose goal is to restore monarch butterfly populations. It was Cedar Rapids Park Superintendent Daniel Gibbins who proposed converting 1,000 acres into pollinator habitat over five years. So far, the project has secured $180,000 in funding from the state and the MRP.

“With the agricultural boom around 100 years ago, about 99.9 percent of all the native habitat of Iowa has been lost,” says Gibbins, who is spearheading the project. “When you convert it back to what was originally native Iowa, you’re going to help a lot more than just native pollinators. You’re helping birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals—everything that’s native here relies on native vegetation.”

Prairie revival

Cedar Rapids has developed a special mix of grasses and wildflowers to help restore that native habitat. The seed mix includes 39 species of wildflowers, and 7 species of native prairie grasses. While bees and butterflies are mostly attracted to the flowers, the hardy prairie grasses will prevent weeds and invasive species from moving in and choking out the flowers.

Gibbins and his team have catalogued all the unused public land where they could potentially plant the flowers and grasses. The list includes not only the rarely frequented corners of parks, golf courses, and the local airport, but also sewage ditches, water retention basins, and roadway right-of-ways, totaling nearly 500 acres. Cedar Rapids is working with other cities within the county to reach its 1,000-acre target.

Before they can seed the land with the special pollinator plant mix, Gibbins’ crew has to “knock back the undesirable vegetation.” That means mowing down, burning off, or in some cases applying herbicide to get rid of grass, weeds, and invasive species. They’ll lay down the special seed mixture in the spring and fall.

“You can’t just seed them and walk away,” says Gibbins. Although the pollinator habitat will be lower maintenance than a green turf that needs to be mown every week, the prairie grasses will require some care, including mowing once a year or burning every few years.

Everyone can help

You don’t need to have 1,000 spare acres to help bees and butterflies. Even devoting a few square feet of your garden—or even a few small planters—to wildflowers native to your area could make a difference, says Gibbins.

“When creating pollinator gardens, the most important thing is to have a big diversity of wildflowers and heirloom crops that bloom in the spring, summer, and fall,” says Stephen Buchmann, a pollination ecologist at the University of Arizona and author of The Reason for Flowers. (Buchmann isn’t involved in the 1,000 Acre Initiative.)

Buchmann recommends against using herbicides or insecticides, or, if necessary, applying them at night when bees aren’t active. Providing nesting sites for certain bee species can help, too.

“People think they’ll just plant the wildflowers and the bees will come,” he says. “And that’s true in some cases, but the smaller the bee is, the less far it can fly. Some can only fly a few hundred meters.”

Some species nest in hard substrates, like the bare ground (bees hate mulch, says Buchmann), or in holes that you can drill in adobe or earthen bricks. Others nestle in sand pits or dead wood that’s been tunneled through by beetles. And it helps to have mud and water on the premises. The Xerces Society has a handy how-to guide on creating homes for bees.

The 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative is still looking into funding for the next four years, and they don’t expect to see huge jumps in the number of pollinators immediately. But Cedar Rapids is confident it will help, and they hope the project will serve as a model for the rest of the country.

And if enough local businesses and private landowners get involved, there’s no reason to stop at 1,000 acres, says Gibbins. “There’s a big push to extend this initiative up to maybe 10,000 acres in Linn County.”