MESSING WITH TEXAS: The Texas Department of Agriculture is working with researchers at Texas A&M University in College Station and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to halt the advance of a new species of ant that is ruining pumps at sewage stations, fouling computers, and causing the malfunction of fire alarms. Image: Courtesy of iStockphoto; Copyright: Scott Harms
Tiny ants terrorize Texans
A new species of ant—temporarily dubbed paratrenicha species near pubens—has been giving Texans the heebie-jeebies for the past six years since its arrival in Houston via, it is believed, a cargo ship, the Associated Press reported this week. The origin of these "crazy rasberry ants" (named after exterminator Tom Rasberry) is unknown, but their cousins, commonly called crazy ants, are found in the Southeast and the Caribbean. These puny pests have ruined pumps at sewage stations, fouled computers and at least one homeowner's gas meter as well as caused the malfunction of fire alarms. The hairy, reddish-brown invaders have also been spotted wandering erratically (rather than in ants' typical regimented formations) at NASA's Johnson Space Center and close to Houston's Hobby Airport. The Texas Department of Agriculture is working with researchers at Texas A&M University in College Station and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to stop the ants, which, along with biting humans, feed on other insects (including the beloved ladybug) and even eat the hatchlings of a small, endangered grouse called the Atwater prairie chicken. About the only good that can be said of these new settlers is that they indiscriminately eat fire ants, a bane of Texas summers. In the meantime, local exterminators want the EPA's approval to use more powerful pesticides on these uninvited guests, because normal ant traps and insecticides don't appear to work.
Sensor dentures to unravel mysteries of the tongue
Scientists have had difficulty pinpointing the position and behavior of the human tongue as a person speaks. Such insights, however, would be invaluable for helping people to control speech impediments or to regain the ability to speak following a stroke or other major trauma. Now a team of researchers led by Christophe Jeannin at the Institute of Speech Communication in Grenoble, France, is sinking its teeth into this problem by creating dentures that contain a number of tiny pressure sensors to record the position of the tongue and the force it applies as it creates various sounds during conversation. The scientists are studying 20 people (all toothless)—half of whom have experience wearing dentures, whereas the rest will wear dentures for the first time. To determine where to place the sensors, the researchers first applied a powder cover to wearers' dentures. Their tongues remove the powder when they touch the false teeth and gums during speech—thus marking the places where sensors need to go. Once we understand how people speak, maybe we'll finally be able to create computers and robots that sound more like C3PO and less like R2D2.
Though not exactly party animals, sloths more active than thought
Scientists monitoring brain activity in wild, three-toed sloths in Panama have helped the famously sluggish animal dispel a spurious rumor: that they are lazy. Sloths in captivity have been known to sleep an average of 16 hours a day. But, thanks to miniaturized electroencephalograms (EEG) that fit into a made-for-sloths helmets and recorded their sleep patterns, scientists now know that, in the wild, sloths aren't perpetually snoozing. In fact, researchers report in Biology Letters that the three brown-throated, three-toed sloths they studied only slept for an average of about 9.5 hours over the three to five days that scientists monitored them. The work marks the first time a wild animal's sleep schedule has been electrophysiologically monitored. "If we can determine the reasons for variations in sleep patterns, we will gain insight into the function of sleep in mammals, including humans," said study co-author, Niels Rattenborg, head of the Sleep and Flight Group at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. Turns out that all the shut-eye the sloths were getting in captivity was probably due to boredom—and the fact that they weren't in danger of being eaten.