Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting March 7th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, "Leave it to Beaver to come back to New York City." We will talk with the guys who found the first physical evidence that a wild beaver had returned to the city for the first time in 200 years. We will also talk with journalist and author Alan Weisman about why we like stories like this one and we will hear from Elaine McSherry, winner of the annual AccesScience Competition in Dublin, for "explaining your research so that it actually can be understood," plus we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news.
First up, Steve Sautner and John Delaney from the Wildlife Conservation Society. I went to the Bronx Zoo last week shortly after the beaver was found to have moved in and spoke to Steve and John on a bridge over the Bronx River. That low rumble you may hear in the background is the traffic on the incredibly nearby Bronx River Parkway.
Steve: Hi guys! Tell everybody who you are.
Sautner: I'm Stephen Sautner. I am with the communication staff for the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo.
Delaney: And I am John Delaney also a member of the communication staff at the Bronx Zoo.
Steve: In fact in this situation you're the guys who actually made the discovery here. Is that right?
Sautner: Well, people actually began to spot the beaver last year. We had heard some reports of a large rodent in the river with a flat tail that was not a rat and so we had heard rumblings about it. But no one had taken any photos or anything like that and so we were walking through the zoo on our lunch about three weeks ago and we spotted a gnawed tree, a felled tree with a gnawed stump next to it and I pointed [it] out to John, and of course John didn't think I was accurate about that, and so we kind of argued and then the next day we hiked down a very steep bank and came up to the stump and sure enough it was in fact gnawed down by a beaver, and so the next day, we came back to look some more and we discovered on the other side of the river, the lodge, which as you can, if you look downstream from the bridge where we're standing, its actually surprisingly close to the parking lot and its actually interesting that no one else had seen it, because once you know what are looking at it, it's pretty big. It's about five feet across and it stands about four feet off the river and it's a big pile of mud and sticks and it can only be caused by one thing, and that's a beaver.
Steve: We are looking at it right now and what are we, about 75 yards away from it do you think?
Sautner: Yeah! I would say something like that. I mean you could see it clearly.
Steve: And it's may be 30 feet from the parking lot, right.
Sautner: Yeah! It's that. You know, cars park literally not even a stone's throw from it.
Steve: Has anybody actually seen the beaver swimming around right here?
Sautner: One of our videographers had managed to get some footage of the beaver swimming and we got some photos as well and it was last week that we managed to get these images, so it was just a stroke of luck.
Steve: Now we're standing in the Bronx Zoo right now, but we want to make it clear to everybody this is not a zoo animal, this is a wild animal that has just fortuitously found its way to the Bronx Zoo and it is still living as a wild animal here.
Delaney: We do not have beaver in the zoo as part of our zoo animals. We had them at one point many years ago and in fact I think it was one of the first animals we had on exhibit back, you know, 100 years ago when the zoo first opened. We haven't had them in many many years. So, yeah, [a] lot of people at first said, "Oh! It's an escaped animal," but the fact is we don't have them. So it's a wild animal that colonized from probably upstream somewhere.
Steve: How far upstream, could it have come down from? Do you know?
Delaney: Westchester County probably, apparently there are some up there. I am not for sure how far the border is—its several miles.
Steve: From here to Westchester the border is probably about six miles.
Delaney: I don't know. It could be more than that. It could be, I mean as the crow flies, it might be six miles, but as the river flows it might be many more than that.
Steve: Right and but also it's probably coming from northern Westchester deep in the suburbs up there.
Delaney: Yeah! Exactly, I mean they are fairly common, not in urban areas like here, but suburban areas, I mean they've come back quite a bit apparently.
Steve: And the beaver has a rich history in New York State, its still officially the state mammal.
Delaney: Yes actually, the beaver is the state mammal of New York and it's also featured on the seal of New York City. New York City—when it was founded as New Amsterdam back in the 1600s it was actually a beaver pelt trading post, so the beaver has a significant position in the history of New York.
Steve: So this is a really fascinating occurrence here. What does it represent in terms of the actual environment here that a beaver has recolonized the city?
Delaney: I think it means a lot to New York City in terms of the revitalization of the Bronx River specifically. Millions of dollars has been invested in bringing the Bronx River back to
the ecological health, so to have a beaver actually recolonize former territory within in the five boroughs of New York City is an amazing occurrence.
Sautner: I just saw a red-tailed hawk call in the backyard and there is a hooded merganser diving by the beaver largely, it just moved a little bit, but I think it gives people a sense of hope for the city that urban wildlife can live in New York, be it falcons or striped bass off the Manhattan Island or the sturgeons swimming upstream. I think it makes people&,dash;I don't think people like to think of the city as a sterile place—I think they like to think of it as a place where some wildlife can live alongside with, you know, an urban area. It's something that they find moving, I would say, and I think it makes them feel good.
Steve: Guys thank you very much, I appreciate it.
Sautner: Thank you.
Delaney: Thanks Steve.
Steve: For more info on that video footage check out the Wildlife Conservation Society Web site at www.wcs.org. You can also see the photos I took of the large and tooth-marked tree stumps at our blog, blog.sciam.com. And when you go there, just scroll down to February 28th.
Journalist Alan Weisman is the author of the forthcoming book, 'The World without Us'. A fascinating thought experiment about what the world would be like should humans suddenly just not be here. We're going to have a long talk with Weisman on a future podcast about the book, but since his research led him to deeply consider the connection between us and the rest of the life on the planet, I asked him about this particular story, the beaver story, and why it seems to strike such a chord.
Weisman: You know, beavers have been reintroduced and we're not killing them for fur anymore. They used to be an incredibly plentiful species and they were
an enormous contractors, shall we say, of the ecosystem. You know, we often think of ourselves as being the species that has built all the stuff where nature has just been natural, but if you think about it, a lot of species build things. Bees and wasps built nests; they build them both in trees and on the ground; birds build nests—obviously. Beavers, they are real engineers; they build dams and I have a description in the book of all the streams in North America used to look like strings of pearls because there would be beaver dam after beaver dam after beaver dam, and between those beaver dams there would be ponds where they had dammed rivers. I was just looking personally at some property in west Massachusetts, it had two beaver dams on it and you can see these very visibly.
Steve: And the economy of early New York City—New Amsterdam—was itself built on beavers.
Weisman: Yeah! But you know it was an economy that had its own limitations, because it was not building itself on the fishing nets you could get out of those ponds that become automatic trapper[s] but on the fur of the beaver. So when you harvest the contractors, after a while the contracting does not take place.
Steve: Right so.
Weisman: Well, now beavers are not being hunted and they are finding their way into repairing a system—you know, anywhere there are trees growing around rivers. Yet as long as we are not killing beavers, beavers are going to appear, and that is what's so marvelous. I mean anywhere, if we're not going after a species and trying to eliminate it, it will find a niche. That's why we've got peregrine falcons that are nesting on top of the George Washington Bridge.
Weisman: And the ground coyotes that have now been, actually three of them have been sighted in either Manhattan or in the Bronx, and there are wild turkeys that are coming into the city.
Steve: I see them in my neighborhood in the Bronx, wild turkeys.
Weisman: Well that's the species that's looking very successful. We are seeing them all over now. Even now and they're going to be spreading. I used to only see them in the mountains of southern New Mexico or Arizona and now suddenly they are just popping forth everywhere. Beavers, you know, soon appearing in a river near where you live.
Steve: (laughs) Can you just try to talk about just whatever comes to mind about why we like it so much though? Nobody is upset that the beaver has returned to New York City. Everybody thinks it's wonderful? What is it in us that react[s] in this joyous way?
Weisman: Well I think as beautiful as some human constructs are—I mean, we have created elegant, graceful bridges, soaring architecture that really does inspire us, they're wonderful works of art. We all have a sense that we have gone too far. We have become so explosive in the quantity of jumble that we have inflicted upon the planet that we have cheapened, and in many cases just obscured, the stuff that we labored [on] so long and so lovingly and, you know, one just walks through any city and see[s] the old churches, which many of them were built stone by stone over a century ago, and then they were built by hand and now they're hiding behind this modular steel and glass architecture that is not really built to last, it's just built to be occupied and is sold and occupied rather quickly. And when we see nature breaking through and shoving aside our constructs for finding a niche in the midst of neighborhood that we have, I mean we tend to say "dehumanize," but its not really dehumanizing, we've over-humanized them, we have denatured them.
And when we see nature coming back, the part of us that is a fellow mammal to some of these creatures is thrilled. We relate to those things. You know, that's us, too. We are not just technocrats. We are living, breathing, blooded creatures that are thrilled to see other creatures survive and flourish against these huge challenges.
Steve: For more on Alan Weisman, including links to his writings, go to www.homelands.org. We'll have that extended talk with Alan about his upcoming book, The World Without Us in the weeks ahead. The book comes out on July 10th.
Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories. Only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS:
Story 1: Hot peppers may stop fat cells from growing.
Story 2: A dolphin in Japan has a prosthetic tail.
Story 3: The U.S. Department of Agriculture is probably going to approve a plan to add to baboon genes to some varieties of roses to improve the deep red color.
Story 4: Snails save energy by coasting along on the mucus trails left by other snails.
We'll be back with the answer, but first University College Dublin has a contest for graduate students in which they attempt to explain their research in plain English. This year's competition took place last week and I called the winner, Elaine McSherry, just hours after her victory.
Steve: Hello Elaine, nice to talk to you.
McSherry: Hi Steve.
Steve: So you are the big winner, congratulations, of Access Science '07.
McSherry: Thank you very much.
Steve: What was your motivation for entering this competition?
McSherry: Well, as a science graduate 10 years ago in University College Dublin, where I am currently doing my PhD studies, and each year, every third year, a PhD student enters this competition and the idea is that it's a way of portraying your research to people who don't have a scientific background at all. So PhD students are very used to doing scientific speaking or presentations. We wouldn't really be used to talking to people who have no scientific background, so it's really a challenge, but that's for all PhDs.
Steve: But your particular motivation for trying to better your ability to communicate to the lay audience, what was that?
McSherry: I think it's very important, I mean, not only in Ireland, but in every country the public knows what's going on. Not only in the universities, but in all research we need. It's for the public in the end and so they will need to know what's going on so that we can improve science in our country and your country and so we can develop much more education and infrastructure here as well. So really, I mean, I really enjoy talking about what I do because they think it's very interesting and especially we do two types of access science; we do a junior access science, which is for 16-year-old school children that come in. So it's really good for them and it's great having them understand a bit more of what I do and that I am going to help people to be aware of breast cancer.
Steve: And we'll get to your actual research in a moment. Tell everybody who the judges were in this contest.
McSherry: The judges were four Irish celebrities, so we had a singer and songwriter from Ireland. We had another singer and then there was a weathergirl, who will be on one of our national and television stations, and then we had a sports personality as well. So they were all Irish celebrity judges.
Steve: And this made great sense to me that none of those, with the possible exception of the weather person, would probably have a strong science background.
McSherry: Yeah. I don't even think she had a science degree, but yeah, exactly like nobody had a real strong science background.
Steve: So tell us briefly—I know that your presentation went on for 15 minutes—but just give us the short version of your research in easily understandable terms.
McSherry: Okay. Well, my research is concerned with breast cancer and there's
this two main forms of breast cancer: There is lobular breast cancer, which is within the lobules of the breast gland and these are the saclike structures that secrete milk when a woman is pregnant; and then there is ductal breast cancer and the ducts of the breasts are the hollow tubes that transport the milk to the nipple when she is breast-feeding—and most breast cancers are ductal breast cancers, about 80 percent. So I studied ductal breast cancer. And when ductal breast cancer arises, it arises in the hollow tubes in the duct. So in a normal duct you have a layer of cells lining the ducts in a very regular structure and the center will be hollow. If these are to acquire genetic changes, they can grow out of control basically, and these can grow and fill the hollow tube. Now this form of cancer is called ductal carcinoma in situ, so it's breast cancer, but is still contained within the duct wall. But if these cells in duct acquire further changes that allow them to break through the duct and to get allowed to the rest of the breast tissue, these cells are much more likely to be able to get into the bloodstream and to transport to other sites in the body, and this is called metastasis and it's usually the growth of the cancer in a vital, say the liver or the lung, and that leads to the death of the patient. So my research looks at genetic deprofiling, cells that are contained within the ducts have sort of managed to break through, so I profiled both of these and [what] I am really looking at are the genes turned on or off when cells become invasive.
Steve: And what would we be able to do with that information once you have it in hand?
McSherry: Breast cancer survival rate has increased a lot in the last few years, and primarily due to research like this. So Herceptin is one of the drugs that
which is basically targeted against one of the proteins on the surface of cancer cells; so really, the more information we know in cancer genetics and what genes are turned on or off, the more likely we'll be able to develop new drugs and that can target these cancer cells. So although breast cancer is a cancer that may look the same, there will be different genetic changes for different women; so the more targeted therapies we have, the better it's going to be and better the survival rates will be.
Steve: Well I have to say that was pretty clear. I think you explained that quite clearly.
McSherry: I hope so, I tried.
Steve: By the way, tell us, what do you win other than being named the winner of the competition?
McSherry: You get a small cash prize, plus
and the main thing that you win is the opportunity to enter the intervarsity competition and so there is the repeat round of AccesScience, only this time and some of the other major universities in Ireland also want to. So this is a much bigger stage on its part of science week—our national science week in Ireland—so it will be in a very nice venue as well; so [is] the opportunity to do that and to get more of your research aimed at the public, to me.
Steve: And when does that happen?
McSherry: And that is May 3rd, I think. I don't have too many details, but yes that's what I have heard so far.
Steve: May 3rd. Well best of luck to you and we appreciate your time. Thanks very much for talking to us.
McSherry: Thank you very much, Steve.
Steve: For more on the Dublin AccesScience event, just Google AccesScience—one word, but in that word the second S in Access serves double duty as the first S in Science, so it's a-c-c-e-s-S-c-i-e-n-c-e and you'll see the link on the very first page of results that come up.
Now its time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Let's review the four stories.
Story 1: Hot peppers may stop fat cells from growing.
Story 2: Dolphin receives prosthetic tail.
Story 3: Baboon genes to be added to roses.
Story 4: Snails make use of other snails' snail trails.
Story 1 is true. Capsaicin, the hot stuff
and [in] hot peppers, looks like it may destroy immature fat cells before they get a chance to grow around your middle. That is according to a research to appear in the March 21st issue of Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. Researchers found that, in the lab at least, capsaicin interfered with young fat cells from maturing into full-fledged fat. The researchers note that the effects were seen at levels just higher than those found in the stomach fluids of people eating a traditional Indian or Thai diet.
Story 2 is true. A dolphin in Japan's Churaumi Aquarium that lost its tail to an infection has been given a prosthetic tail and is jumping for joy—that's according to a March 2nd Reuters Story. The tail was made for Fuji, the dolphin, by a friend of one of the dolphin's human associates who works for the Bridgestone Tire Company. The tail was made from the same material used in Formula 1 race car tires reinforced with carbon fiber. "We can rebuild you, we have the technology." (sound of car whizzing past)
And story 4 is true. Snails do apparently go the distance by using the mucus trails left by their slippery friends, since snails may use a third of their energy producing mucus, the conservation efforts seem well worth it. For more, check out the March 2nd edition of the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science.
All of which means, that Story 3 about adding baboon genes to roses is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. But what is true is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is looking at okaying the commercial growing of rice with human genes inserted. According to the Washington Post, the gene produces a protein in rice seed that could be harvested as an antidiarrhea medication. Critics fear that the gene could make its way to other crops. Look for some heated debate on this one in the months ahead as the "Human Race Considers Human Rice."
Well that''s it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. Write to us firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out news articles at the Web site, www.sciam.com and don't forget the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science at the Web site and at iTunes.For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.