Strange but true

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And now for a little lighter science news: peruse enough scientific journals and you’ll discover there’s a place in science for even the most penetratingly obvious ideas.

The journal Functional Ecology recently published work on pine beetle infestations by University of Colorado Boulder doctoral student Scott Ferrenberg and ecology professor Jeffry Milton. Their discovery? That pine beetles fall off slippery, smooth bark on some trees, but can cling to rougher bark and cause damage.

Here’s a short version of how the work was described on Which is better, rough or smooth? “To determine which was the case, the researchers tested how well the beetles could hold onto different bark textures. They placed each of 22 beetles on a rough patch of bark and on a smooth patch. They timed how long the beetle could stay on each surface before falling. Twenty-one of the 22 beetles were able to cling to the rough bark until the test ended after five minutes. But all of the beetles fell from the smooth bark in less than a minute.”

OK then — that sounds a little like the theory that your dog is more likely to eat your groceries if you leave them on the floor than if you put them on the counter, or that your postal carrier is more likely to break a leg if you don’t scrape the ice off the steps.

Still, perhaps a good polishing would help stop the current western infestation of pine beetles …

But if that’s not obvious enough for you, how about the discovery of compost?

University of York scientists have found a way to make biofuels out of tougher-than-usual components like plant stems, wood chips and crustacean shells: turns out, Nature knew about it all along.

The scientist tracked down a set of naturally occurring enzymes that were already at work breaking substances down.

Here’s again: “By studying the biological origins and the detailed chemistry of the enzyme family, the researchers have shown that Nature has a wide range of methods of degrading biomass which humankind can now harness in its own endeavour to produce sustainable biofuels.”

The solution was right there in the yard all along. Who knew? (Except maybe those among our forefathers who composted most everything to enrich soil.)

But if the obvious isn’t in your line of interest, you could try the, well, more well hidden.

“One method for controlling zoo animal populations is male castration. For hippopotami, however, this is notoriously difficult, as the pertinent male reproductive anatomy proves singularly elusive. Veterinarians from the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, and colleagues, have demonstrated a successful method for castrating male hippos. Their results are published in the journal Theriogenology.”

The answer? Ultrasound: but that’s just the beginning. “All surgery and ligations had to be performed under conditions of extremely low visibility and with difficulty of mobilizing and grasping the elusive testicles.”

Science: both right in front of you and, blessedly, also well out of sight.

Organizations: University of Colorado Boulder, University of York, Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology of the University of Veterinary Medicine

Geographic location: Vienna

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