Featured

Stanford researcher declares that the sixth mass extinction is here

There is no longer any doubt: We are entering a mass extinction that threatens humanity’s existence.

That is the bad news at the center of a new study by a group of scientists including Paul Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies in biology and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Ehrlich and his co-authors call for fast action to conserve threatened species, populations and habitat, but warn that the window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

“[The study] shows without any significant doubt that we are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event,” Ehrlich said.

Although most well known for his positions on human population, Ehrlich has done extensive work on extinctions going back to his 1981 book, Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species. He has long tied his work on coevolution, on racial, gender and economic justice, and on nuclear winter with the issue of wildlife populations and species loss. Read more »

World

Nearing the limits of life on Earth

It took Jackie Goordial over 1000 Petri dishes before she was ready to accept what she was seeing. Or not seeing. Goordial, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University has spent the past four years looking for signs of active microbial life in permafrost soil taken from one of the coldest, oldest and driest places on Earth: in University Valley, located in the high elevation McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, where extremely cold and dry conditions have persisted for over 150,000 years. The reason that scientists are looking for life in this area is that it is thought to be the place on Earth that most closely resembles the permafrost found in the northern polar region of Mars at the Phoenix landing site. Read more »

Health

Future pandemics pose massive risks to human lives, global economic security

Infectious disease outbreaks that turn into epidemics or pandemics can kill millions of people and cause trillions of dollars of damage to economic activity, says a new report from the international, independent Commission on a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future. Few other risks pose such a threat to human lives, and few other events can damage the economy so much. The Commission estimated the global expected economic loss from potential pandemics could average more than $60 billion per year. Yet, nations devote a fraction of the resources to preparing, preventing, or responding infectious disease crises as they do to strengthening national security or avoiding financial crises. Read more »

US News

Clues from the animal kingdom on what makes a leader?

As the American media continues to buzz over who is more or less likely to secure the Republican and Democratic nominations for U.S. President, researchers in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution review some interesting perspectives on the nature of leadership. The experts from a wide range of disciplines examined patterns of leadership in a set of small-scale mammalian societies, including humans and other social mammals such as elephants and meerkats.

“While previous work has typically started with the premise that leadership is somehow intrinsically different or more complex in humans than in other mammals, we started without a perceived notion about whether this should be the case,” said Jennifer Smith of Mills College in Oakland, California. “By approaching this problem with an open mind and by developing comparable measures to compare vastly different societies, we revealed more similarities than previously appreciated between leadership in humans and non-humans.”

Chimpanzees travel together, capuchins cooperate in fights, and spotted hyenas cooperate in hunting, but the common ways that leaders promote those collective actions has remained mysterious, Smith and her colleagues say. It wasn’t clear just how much human leaders living in small-scale societies have in common with those in other mammalian societies either.

To consider this issue, a group of biologists, anthropologists, mathematicians, and psychologists gathered at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis. These experts reviewed the evidence for leadership in four domains–movement, food acquisition, within-group conflict mediation, and between-group interactions–to categorize patterns of leadership in five dimensions: distribution across individuals, emergence (achieved versus inherited), power, relative payoff to leadership, and generality across domains.

Despite what those ongoing presidential primaries might lead one to think, the analysis by the scientific experts finds that leadership is generally achieved as individuals gain experience, in both humans and non-humans. There are notable exceptions to this rule: leadership is inherited rather than gained through experience among spotted hyenas and the Nootka, a Native Canadian tribe on the northwest coast of North America.

In comparison to other mammal species, human leaders aren’t so powerful after all. Leadership amongst other mammalian species tends to be more concentrated, with leaders that wield more power over the group.

Smith says the similarities probably reflect shared cognitive mechanisms governing dominance and subordination, alliance formation, and decision-making–humans are mammals after all. The differences may be explained in part by humans’ tendency to take on more specialized roles within society.

“Even in the least complex human societies, the scale of collective action is greater and presumably more critical for survival and reproduction than in most other mammalian societies,” Smith said.

The researchers now plan to further quantify the various dimensions identified in the new work. There’s still plenty more to learn. “As ambitious as our task was, we have only just scraped the surface in characterizing leadership across mammalian societies and some of the most exciting aspects of the project are still yet to come as biologists and anthropologists implement our novel scheme for additional taxa and societies,” Smith said.

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Featured

Stanford researcher declares that the sixth mass extinction is here

There is no longer any doubt: We are entering a mass extinction that threatens humanity’s existence. That is the bad news at the center of a new study by a... Read more »


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Clues from the animal kingdom on what makes a leader?

As the American media continues to buzz over who is more or less likely to secure the Republican and Democratic nominations for U.S. President, researchers in the... Read more »


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Nearing the limits of life on Earth

It took Jackie Goordial over 1000 Petri dishes before she was ready to accept what she was seeing. Or not seeing. Goordial, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department... Read more »


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