Underwater Compositions: Song Sharing Between Southern Ocean Humpback Whales

Whale Tail

Imagine a world where sight is limited by the extreme scattering of photons and smell is ineffective due to lethargic diffusion of molecules slowed by the density of water. In these conditions both sight and smell are limited. These conditions characterize, among other things, the ocean, where large sea mammals rely mostly on sound to communicate. The speed of sound is four times greater in water than in air at sea level. Male humpback whales have been observed communicating via ever-changing patterns of vocalization, which scientists have termed ‘song’. These whales compose their songs for the purposes of breeding, learning new songs as they come in contact with fellow crooners. Exactly how and when humpback whales learn these songs, however, remains a larger mystery.

To dive more deeply into the nebulous realms of humpback whale song sharing, researchers of a recent PLOS ONE study recorded instances of humpback whale song in the Southern Ocean.

Humpback whale song is identifiable because of its intricate pattern of structure. Songs are composed of multiple sounds types, for example, as these researchers suggest, ‘ascending cry,’ ‘moan,’ and ‘purr’. When units come together to form a pattern, these units form a phrase. Phrases repeated become a theme, and themes sung in a particular order compose a song. Researchers recorded these compositions by deploying radio-linked sonobuoys, which transmit underwater sound, and then digitized the recordings.

Here is an example of song recorded off the coast of New Caledonia in 2010: 

Recordings, like the one above, reveal a possible link between three distinct breeding populations (marked D, E, and F on the map below) off the shores of eastern Australia and the island to the east of New Caledonia with a shared feeding ground in Antarctica (Area V).

journal.pone.0079422.g001 map


In early 2010, the researchers identified four songs near Antarctica that matched themes from eastern Australia in 2009. By July, 2010, all four songs were then also identified in the group from New Caledonia. The themes recognized in New Caledonia in 2010 were entirely different than the themes of 2009, suggesting a movement of new songs eastward from eastern Australia to New Caledonia.

Consequently, the shared feeding grounds in Antarctica used by both the eastern Australia and New Caledonia groups in early 2010 may be the point at which these populations’ songs diverged.

By capturing sonobuoy recordings near feeding grounds off the Balleny Islands, researchers recorded the first instances of humpback whale song in Area V of Antarctica.

Sonobuoy recording


In addition, the inclusion of feeding grounds into the dynamic pattern of humpback whale song sharing helps shed new light on overall patterns of song learning and transmission from one breeding group to another.

Sound recording off the Balleny Islands near Antarctica, however, is challenging, and the sample of whale singers from this area remains relatively small. Regardless, the song documented here suggests Antarctica (Area V) as an emerging location for future study, and highlights the importance of feeding grounds in the transmission of humpback whale song. Through a better understanding of how and where these dynamic compositions radiate across the Southern Ocean, we can begin to understand humpback whale population connectivity and one of the best examples of non-human, large-scale learning demonstrated throughout the Southern Hemisphere.

To listen to more of the whale song recorded by these researchers, check out the Supporting Information of their article. For more on humpback whales, check out these PLOS ONE papers.

Citation: Garland EC, Gedamke J, Rekdahl ML, Noad MJ, Garrigue C, et al. (2013) Humpback Whale Song on the Southern Ocean Feeding Grounds: Implications for Cultural Transmission. PLoS ONE 8(11): e79422. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0079422

Images and Acoustic Files:

Image 1: Humpback Whale Tail by Natalie Tapson

Acoustic File: doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0079422

Image 2: doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0079422

Image 3: doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0079422

Awkward Silences: Technical Delays Can Diminish Feelings of Unity and Belonging


Smooth social interaction is fundamental to a sense of togetherness. We’ve all experienced disrupted conversations—some caused by human awkwardness and others by breakdowns in technology. The content of our interactions does influence our connection to each other, but the form and process of communication also play a role.  Technical delays that occur below our conscious detection can still make us feel like we don’t quite click with the person we are trying to communicate with. The authors of a recently published PLOS ONE article, funded by a Google Research Award, investigated how delays introduced into technologically mediated conversations affected participants’ sense of solidarity with each other, defined as unity, belongingness, and shared reality.

For this research, conducted at University of Groningen, The Netherlands, participants in three sets of experiments sat in cubicles with headsets connected to computers (conditions that many of us with desk jobs can relate to) and were asked to talk about holidays for five minutes with an assigned partner. Some conversations were uninterrupted. Others were manipulated by introducing a one-second auditory delay. Some pairs knew about the delay and others did not. Afterward, the conversationalists completed a questionnaire about their sense of unity, belonging, understanding, and agreement with their partners.


Researchers found that those participants whose conversations were interrupted expressed significantly diminished feelings of unity and belonging. Awareness of technical problems had no apparent effect on perceived solidarity.  Even acquaintances stated that they felt a disconnect, though to a lesser degree, than participants who did not know each other. Despite participants expressing that they felt less unity and belongingness with their partner even when they had the opportunity to attribute it to technical problems, technology did not get a free pass on the delayed signal. Those with an interrupted connection also expressed less satisfaction with the technology. Points may have been lost for both relationships and telecommunications.

In a world where our interactions are increasingly mediated by computers and mobile phones with less than perfect signals, the authors suggest that this research provides insight into how our daily interactions may be affected. The method of communication we choose may influence our personal and business relationships, especially among strangers. The authors also posit that technology meant to improve long distance communication by imitating face-to-face interaction may not measure up to expectations if it is not executed without interruptions or delays. Perhaps this is something to consider during your next awkward phone call or video conference— though your awareness of technology as a possible barrier ultimately may not make a difference in how you perceive the person on the other end of the line.

Citation: Koudenburg N, Postmes T, Gordijn EH (2013) Conversational Flow Promotes Solidarity. PLoS ONE 8(11): e78363. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078363

Images: First image by Villemard is in the public domain. Second image is Supplemetary Figure 1 from the article.

Spotlight on PLOS ONE’s NeuroMapping and Therapeutics Collection

Collection image.pcol.v02.i17.g001Launched in 2010, the Neuromapping and Therapeutics Collection is a unique collaboration between PLOS ONE and the Society for Brain Mapping and Therapeutics. The Neuromapping and Therapeutics Collection provides a forum for interdisciplinary research aimed at translation of knowledge across a number of fields such as neurosurgery, neurology, psychiatry, radiology, neuroscience, neuroengineering, and healthcare and policy issues that affect the treatment delivery and usage of related devices, drugs, and technologies. The Collection is open to submissions on these topics from any researcher—so far, 24 research papers have been published as part of this Collection.

We spoke to Dr. Allyson Rosen, one of the members of the Society for Brain Mapping and Therapeutics who helps coordinate the Neuromapping and Therapeutics Collection, to discuss the latest news and research in this area, and the new submissions to the collection they’re hoping to see in the next few months:

What’s exciting in Neuromapping and Therapeutics at the moment?

CollectionSBMT-BMF-Logo for blog


It is exciting to see how creative scientists and clinicians are at solving important clinical problems by combining diverse techniques in innovative ways. We see our collection as a home for cross-disciplinary work that might not “fit” in traditional journals. For example, we have published MR methods to enable effective brain infusions and work that exploits computer-aided design for cranial reconstructions. There are invasive and non-inva

What are the implications of President Obama’s commitment to Human Brain Mapping research?sive techniques for stimulating selective brain regions and creating focal lesions, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation, transcranial Doppler technology, and X-ray microplanar beam technology. There are also innovative analysis techniques that exploit powerful computational methods that were previously unavailable.

Given the high-profile nature of the Brain Mapping Initiative and the state of the US economy, we have advocated that there be some clinical implications to the announcement. We believe that this approach will ensure continued public support at a time of great need and uncertainty.

Are there any specific research areas where you’d like to see more submissions to the Collection?

We are proud of the work we’ve received and deeply impressed with the broad array of papers submitted so far. This is a testament to the creativity of our contributors, and we welcome their diversity. We particularly welcome work presented at the international meeting of the Society for Brain Mapping and Therapeutics that occurs in the spring of each year.

Why do you think it’s important to publish this kind of research in an open access journal such as PLOS ONE?

Our society is committed to being inclusive and welcoming any profession that seeks to improve the health and wellbeing of patients with brain disorders. An open access journal enables easier promotion of work we feel is important and encourages sharing among diverse disciplines. Often, truly cutting-edge work is so far ahead of its time that there is not yet an appreciation for its importance. Often, clinical problems are seen as practical but not necessarily novel. We appreciate the mission of PLOS ONE as upholding strong scientific integrity and not as triaging work based on arbitrary decisions regarding importance.

To read more about this Collection, including new research papers like, “Verifying three-dimensional skull model reconstruction using cranial index of symmetryandUnique anti-glioblastoma activities of Hypericin are at the crossroad of biochemical and epigenetic events and culminate in Tumor Cell Differentiation,” click here.

Come visit us at SFN 2013.

Both the Society for Brain Mapping and Therapeutics and PLOS ONE will be attending SFN 2013 – please drop by booth #136 to say hello and learn more about the Collection. For instructions on how to submit to the Collection, please visit the Collection page and download the submission document.

If you have any questions about this Collection, or any other PLOS Collections, please email collections@plos.org

Image credit for Collection cover: Alka Joshi

Perceiving Is Believing


Do we really sing as well as we all think we do in the shower? Exactly how complex is Mel Taylor’s drumming in Wipeout? How we hear things is important not just for the field of music research, but also for the fields of psychology, neurology, and physics. There is a lot more to how we perceive sound than sound waves just hitting our ears. PLOS ONE recently published two research articles exploring music perception. One article focuses on how perceiving a sound as higher or lower in pitch—the frequency of a musical note relative to other notes—than another sound is influenced by different instruments and the listener’s musical training. The other explores rhythm, including musicians’ perception of rhythmic complexity.

Pitch is the frequency of a sound, commonly described using the words high or low. The quality of tone, or timbre, of an instrument, on the other hand, is less easy to define. Tone quality is often described using words like warm, bright, sharp, and rich, and can cover several frequencies. In the study presented in “The Effect of Instrumental Timbre on Interval Discrimination,” psychology researchers designed an experiment to determine if it is more difficult to perceive differences in musical pitch when played by different instruments. They also tested whether musicians are better at discriminating pitch than non-musicians (you can test yourself with this similar version) to see if musical training changes how people perceive pitch and tone.

The researchers compared the tones of different instruments, using flute, piano, and voice, along with pure tones, or independent frequencies not coming from any instrument. As you can see from the figure above, each instrument has a different frequency range, the pure tone being the most localized or uniformly “colored.” Study participants were given two choices, each choice with two pitches, and decided which set of pitches they thought were the most different from each other; sometimes they compared different instruments or tone qualities and sometimes, the same.

The researchers compared the participants’ answers and found that changes in tone quality influenced which set of pitches participants thought were the most different from each other. Evaluation of the different timbres showed that musicians were the most accurate at defining the pitch interval with pure tones, despite their training in generally instrumental tones. Non-musicians seemed to be the most accurate with both pure and piano tones, though the researchers noted this might be less reliable because non-musicians had a tendency to choose instrumental tones in general. Interestingly, both groups were faster at the pitch discrimination task when pure tones were used and musicians were better at the task than non-musicians. Everyone chose pitch intervals more accurately as the differences between the pitches became larger and more obvious.

Another group of researchers tested how we perceive syncopation, defined as rhythmic complexity, in their research presented in “Syncopation and the Score” by performing an experiment playing different rhythms to musicians.  They asked musicians to rank the degree of complexity of each rhythm.

The study was limited, with only ten participants, but in general, the rhythm patterns thought to be the most complex on paper were also perceived as the most complex when the participants listened to them. However, playing the same patterns in a different order sometimes caused listeners to think they were hearing something more or less syncopated. The authors suggest that a rhythm pattern’s perceived complexity depends upon the rhythm patterns played before and after it.

Both research studies highlight the intersection of music and music perception. We don’t need to be musicians to know that music can play tricks on our ears. It may be that some of us are less susceptible than others to these tricks, but even trained musicians can be fooled. Look here for more research on music perception.



Zarate JM, Ritson CR, Poeppel D (2013) The Effect of Instrumental Timbre on Interval Discrimination. PLoS ONE 8(9): e75410. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075410

Song C, Simpson AJR, Harte CA, Pearce MT, Sandler MB (2013) Syncopation and the Score. PLoS ONE 8(9): e74692. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0074692

Image: Spectrograms of four tones – Figure 1A from Zarate JM, Ritson CR, Poeppel D (2013) The Effect of Instrumental Timbre on Interval Discrimination. PLoS ONE 8(9): e75410. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075410

Sticky Times: How to Hang On Under a Waterfall



Adhesion, or stickiness, is a powerful and valuable property that results from both physical and chemical interactions. Think of all the sticky things we use day to day: tape, post-its, glue, stickers, and so on. Life might be annoyingly inconvenient without the ability to tape a sign to a wall, or a cover a wound with a Band-Aid; but for a little frog living in the constant stream of a waterfall, stickiness is vital to survival.

The torrent frog, picture above on the right and native to Trinidad, has evolved an ability to cling to rough, wet surfaces so well that it seems to defy gravity. In an attempt to better understand how they maintain adhesion despite external forces and angles that would dislodge most any other creature, a group of scientists from a recent PLOS ONE article “challenged” both tree and torrent frogs to cling to a variety of smooth and coarse surfaces on a rotating platform under both dry and wet conditions. They found that although both species could cling to dry, smooth surfaces, the torrent frogs outperformed the tree frogs on adhering to rough, wet surfaces, both at low- and high-flow water volumes.

Tree frogs, they observed, spread their limbs out sideways and hang on by their pads alone­­—check out the video below of these frogs’ toes lighting up an inverted glass surface:

Torrent frogs, on the other hand, used their entire bellies and thighs to stick to the surface while water rushed over them, even having better adhesion when the water flow increased. The video below shows how the experiment was set up:

Using a scanning electron microscope on the pads of the frogs revealed that the structure of the cells on the toe pads of torrent frogs are elongated and have straighter channels between them (B and C in the image below) than the pads of the tree frogs (A in the image below). This design potentially allows better drainage of excess fluid beneath the pad, and may help explain the torrent frogs excellent sticking ability.


The incredible adhesive abilities these frogs have allows them to thrive in an environment that would otherwise be very difficult to inhabit. Understanding how they stick so well could contribute to better development of sticky things that are useful in our own lives.


Citation: Endlein T, Barnes WJP, Samuel DS, Crawford NA, Biaw AB, et al. (2013) Sticking under Wet Conditions: The Remarkable Attachment Abilities of the Torrent Frog, Staurois guttatus. PLoS ONE 8(9): e73810. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0073810

Image: Frogs – Figure 1 from the manuscript, Toe pads – Figure 6 from the manuscript

Extra! Extra! Research Making the News in September

As September draws to a close, let’s look back on some of the research that caught the media’s attention, published this month in PLOS ONE: orangutans communicated their travel plans, mice permanently lost their fear of cats, and hibernating lemurs taught us about sleep.


While orangutans aren’t yet hiring travel agents, researchers recently published findings on these great apes, who apparently love to chat about travel plans. Male Sumatran orangutans develop flanges, large cheek pads, thought to assist in the vocalization of ‘long calls.’  Dominant males produce these calls in a specific direction, for anywhere from eighty seconds to four minutes.

Researchers tracked the movement of the dominant males and fellow orangutans in their arboreal territory after each call and found that the flanged male will travel in the direction of his howl until he produces a new long call along a different route. Local females also use the direction of the long call to stay within range of their dominant male, traveling the same course.  To find out more, check out the following articles in Scientific American, The New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

The relationship between mice and cats has taken a surprising turn.  Prior research revealed that mice infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii lost their fear of cats. This month, the tale continues with a new study published in PLOS ONE. Researchers exposed three types of mice to cat urine: mice never infected with T. gondii, mice currently infected, and mice cleared of the parasite. The cleared mice exhibited no anxiety over the potential threat of a nearby cat.A_Cat_And_Mouse_Game

The researchers suggest that the loss of fear in the mice becomes hardwired and that some parasitic infections may leave a lasting impact. Learn more about this study by visiting Nature, BBC News, and the Smithsonian.

New research on the ridiculously cute fat-tailed dwarf lemurs, — the only known hibernating primates — received highlights in National Geographic, The LA Times, and NBC News.

Researchers studied captive and wild fat-tailed dwarf lemurs, and found that they sleep differently during hibernation than other hibernating mammals. For instance, ground squirrels experience non-REM sleep during moderate temperatures, whereas fat-tailed dwarf lemurs experience mostly REM sleep.

While we don’t know much about why humans and animals sleep, we suspect that temperature and metabolic rate are affected. Now, hibernation isn’t exactly sleep; instead, hibernation is when the body dramatically reduces temperature and metabolic rate to conserve energy. Since both hibernation and sleep relate to the regulation of body temperature and metabolic rate, hibernation research on this little primate could teach us about human sleep, and maybe one day, human hibernation.


Ingram WM, Goodrich LM, Robey EA, Eisen MB (2013) Mice Infected with Low-Virulence Strains of Toxoplasma gondii Lose Their Innate Aversion to Cat Urine, Even after Extensive Parasite Clearance. PLoS ONE 8(9): e75246. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075246

Krystal AD, Schopler B, Kobbe S, Williams C, Rakatondrainibe H, et al. (2013) The Relationship of Sleep with Temperature and Metabolic Rate in a Hibernating Primate. PLoS ONE 8(9): e69914. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0069914

van Schaik CP, Damerius L, Isler K (2013) Wild Orangutan Males Plan and Communicate Their Travel Direction One Day in Advance. PLoS ONE 8(9): e74896. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0074896


Figure 1 from “Flanged Male Orangutan” by Anita Ritenour

Figure 2 from “Cat + Mouse” by Denis Defreyne

Keywords: orangutan, Sumatra, flanges, long call, hibernation, sleep, fat-tailed dwarf lemur, REM, non-REM, Toxoplasma gondii, mice, fear, parasite, metabolic rate, temperature, hypothermia, homeostasis, Cheirogaleus medius, Madagascar, Pongo abelii, great apes.

The Power of the Claw: Not Your Average “Soft” Material

Sep blog-tiger cropped

Earlier this month we gave you cuddling between affectionate lions. Lest we become overwhelmed by the desire to cuddle one of these (albeit adorable) feline predators ourselves, here is a look at exactly what one of their clawed paws could do to us, including to one of our toughest components: bone. In a PLOS ONE study published earlier this month, researchers tested the ability of claws to scratch the surface of bone. The effects of claw damage are often overlooked because claws are made of a material softer than bone. Contrary to expectations, however, these researchers found that claws produced recognizable bone damage.

The setup was simple: let a Kansas zoo tiger participating in their enrichment program spend an afternoon leisurely playing with carefully nested cow thigh bones, also called femora. To ensure that the cow femora were only accessible to tiger claws and not to tiger teeth, researchers bolted femora down into a log that was narrowly hollowed out—preventing the big cat from sticking his snout in.

Sep blog- cow femora

The result: impressively lacerated cow femora. Once tiger playtime was over, researchers removed the log, unbolted the femora, and microscopically examined the bone. Four scratches were clearly visible upon the bone’s surface. The scanning electron microscope (SEM) image below further highlights the depths of the tiger claw handiwork.

Sep blog-fomora scratches microscope

In this particular gouge, the main diagonal chasm in the image, the gulf made by the tiger’s claw penetrated the outer covering and subadjacent bone into the bony matrix. As we can see, tiger claws can do some damage.

Damage done to bone, however, is for the most part attributed to the effects of a predator’s teeth and not its claws, the reason being that measures of scratch resistance adhere to a so-called Mohs scale of mineral hardness. The Mohs scale is graded, with talc (1) as the softest material and diamond (10) as the hardest. On the scale, harder materials damage softer materials, but not vice versa. And in our case, bones are, in fact, harder than claws. Claws are made of the protein keratin—the same stuff is in hair, wool, nails, horns, and hooves—which scores a meager 2.5 on the Mohs scale. Bone, on the other hand, scores a much more formidable 5.0.

The current research, however, shows that we can expand our understanding of scratch resistance and mineral hardness to include the effects of softer materials striking harder materials, as long as we consider the kinetic energy involved, like the action of a tiger swatting or grabbing with its paw. In essence, more could be going on in the fossil record than previously thought.

Paleontologist and PLOS ONE Section Editor Andy Farke points out in the PLOS ONE blog The Integrative Paleontologist that fossils inevitably resurface as imperfect objects, which is, in part, what makes them so interesting: These fossils bear the visible marks in postpartum decay of a long and varied history. When studying bone narratives, paleontologists encounter everything from water damage to the bore marks of little critters. Including big-critter claw marks in the repertoire of possible bone modifications broadens this narrative and evidences, as the researchers themselves so aptly put it, the power of the claw.

For more information from the paleontologist perspective, check out blog posts on this article in The Integrative Paleontologist  by Dr. Farke and National Geographic.


Rothschild BM, Bryant B, Hubbard C, Tuxhorn K, Kilgore GP, et al. (2013) The Power of the Claw. PLoS ONE 8(9): e73811. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0073811

Image 1: Tiger by Dave Stokes

Image 2: doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0073811

Image 3: doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0073811

Walruses Choose Alaskan Beaches as Sea Ice Recedes


With sea ice receding in the Arctic, animals that rely on this ice to rest are being forced to find alternate places to haul out. Pacific walruses, like those pictured above, are retreating from their typical resting spots on ice in the Chukchi Sea and instead heading to land on Alaskan beaches to rest in the summer. With animals closer to shore, it is easier for researchers to study these populations and obtain data that was previously difficult to capture.

Flying over the herds in a helicopter, researchers took videos of walruses as they lay on beaches (see the clip below) and evaluated their demographics. Researchers looked for distinguishing features to identify males and females and used Fay’s method which considers head morphology and the ratio of an individual’s tusk length to snout width or depth to estimated age. They found that a majority of the herd was comprised of females and young less than two years old.

The walruses seemed to gather in much larger groups on land than they did at sea, perhaps simply because the space allowed but this may also be a strategy to protect from predators that is not possible on ice.  Gathering in these large groups of up to 19,000 individuals, however, increases the risk of trampling calves. The researchers suggest this may be why young were found in greater numbers along the outer edges of the groups rather than within the herd. Being on the outside could possibly also allow a quick escape into the water should the herd be disturbed.

As sea ice continues to recede, populations of Pacific walrus, as well as other animals, will continue to adjust their behavior to survive. Monitoring their population dynamics could provide insight to how their habits may be influenced by climate change.

For more research on pinnipeds in PLOS ONE, check out this post on the cooling abilities of baby seals, or this video of a seal lion feeling its way through water on our Youtube Channel!

Citation: Monson DH, Udevitz MS, Jay CV (2013) Estimating Age Ratios and Size of Pacific Walrus Herds on Coastal Haulouts using Video Imaging. PLoS ONE 8(7): e69806. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0069806

Image: Walrus 2 from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters http://bit.ly/19TeYMp

Predicting Movie Box Office Success Using Wikipedia

Iron Man photo by HarshLight

It’s Friday evening and perhaps you’re planing to watch a movie, but will the new release you choose be a blockbuster or a lackluster flop? Well Wikipedia may help predict your choice’s success or failure in the box office, according to a recently published study.

In this study, researchers tracked activity on Wikipedia entries for 312 movies (released in 2010), including aspects like number of views, users, and edits; and compared this activity to the box office success of the movies in a computational model. They found a strong correlation between higher Wikipedia activity before a movie was released, and the box office success of the film.

The study could accurately predict the blockbuster success of movies like Iron Man 2, Shutter Island and Inception, but was unsuccessful with movies such as The Lottery and Animal Kingdom. The scientists attribute the lack of predictability to the amount of data provided for the different types of movies. According to the authors, their analysis can be used to provide reasonable predictions about a movie’s success as early as a month prior to its release.

The study is a foray into using “big data” generated from the social web to predict people’s reactions to a new product- in this case, a movie. Previous studies have used social data, such as tweets related to an event, to estimate public sentiment and reactions. Here, the authors use social data in advance of the ‘event’ to gauge public sentiment after the movie has launched. They conclude, “Our statistical approach, free of any language based or sentiment analysis, can be easily generalized to non-English speaking movie markets or even other kinds of products.”

CitationMestyán M, Yasseri T, Kertész J (2013) Early Prediction of Movie Box Office Success Based on Wikipedia Activity Big Data. PLoS ONE 8(8): e71226. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071226

Image Credit: Iron Man Tech by HarsLight

Heating up the Science Behind PLOS’ New Climate Change Collection

Satellite images of penguin colonies in the southern Ross Sea

From penguin colonies in Antarctica, to California birds and North Carolina bugs, this month PLOS ONE focuses on the far-reaching aspects of climate change. In conjunction with the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), PLOS ONE and PLOS Biology unrolled a new collection of 16 research articles, curated by PLOS ONE Academic Editor, Ben Bond-Lamberty. The collection, “Ecological Impact of Climate Change”, features many articles that made a splash in the media. Here are some of the highlights:

Spring flowers are blooming earlier now than they did in the past. In a recent study, researchers compared the average flowering time for native species in Massachusetts and Wisconsin to data recorded by notable American naturalists Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold. These native species have shown remarkable flowering shifts, especially during recent years: In 1865, Thoreau observed the highbush blueberry flowering in mid-May; in 2012, researchers observed this species flowering six weeks earlier in early April. For more about this study, visit National Geographic, NPR, and MSNBC.

Like spring flowers, corals also react to increasing temperatures, but to a much more ghostly effect. When pressured by unusually warm or polluted waters, corals shed the algae that enliven them with color, becoming white.

Tioman Island, Malaysia, Acropora colony

New research suggests that this phenomenon, known as coral bleaching and often fatal for coral colonies, may not be as devastating as expected: Coral colonies that survived previous coral bleaching were much more likely to rebound successfully the next time it occurred. An astounding 95% of Acropora, a coral species highly susceptible to bleaching, survived at a research site in Singapore in 2010. Read more about these tough coral taxa, in the New York Times blog.

Summer days are heating up in the city, too, and urban, tree-dwelling insects are thriving as a result. A recent PLOS ONE article reports that scale insects like Parthenolecanium quercifex are 13 times more numerous in the hottest parts of Raleigh, North Carolina, than in cooler, neighboring rural areas.

Scale Bugs CCBY Aug blog

And these scaly squatters don’t stop once they settle down. Researchers also found that urban scale insects were four times more abundant when placed in hot greenhouse conditions than rural scale insects in the same conditions. The Atlantic Cities and Discovery News have more on this and other urban insects studies.

As temperatures continue to rise, researchers in this PLOS ONE study integrated climate change threats with traditional conservation concerns by comparing the vulnerability of California’s birds in relation to the predicted effects of climate change over the coming years. Of the 29 threatened-bird taxa considered in the state of California, these researchers determined 21 of those 29 (72%) are considered vulnerable to climate change. Lucky for us and the birds who call those most vulnerable coastal environments home, the findings of this study can be used as an assessment tool to foster future conservation efforts. For more local and international coverage, check out KQED News and the Huffington Post.

Read Ben Bond-Lamberty’s overview of the Collection, learn how climate change may impact coffee plants, or more from the PLOS Blogs network. View the entire Collection here. For more news on PLOS ONE papers headlining in August, dive into our Media Tracking Project.


Ellwood ER, Temple SA, Primack RB, Bradley NL, Davis CC (2013) Record-Breaking Early Flowering in the Eastern United States. PLoS ONE 8(1): e53788. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0053788

Guest JR, Baird AH, Maynard JA, Muttaqin E, Edwards AJ, et al. (2012) Contrasting Patterns of Coral Bleaching Susceptibility in 2010 Suggest an Adaptive Response to Thermal Stress. PLoS ONE 7(3): e33353. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033353

Meineke EK, Dunn RR, Sexton JO, Frank SD (2013) Urban Warming Drives Insect Pest Abundance on Street Trees. PLoS ONE 8(3): e59687. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059687

Gardali T, Seavy NE, DiGaudio RT, Comrack LA (2012) A Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment of California’s At-Risk Birds. PLoS ONE 7(3): e29507. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0029507

Image 1: Satellite images of penguin colonies in the southern Ross Sea. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060568

Image 2: Tioman Island, Malaysia, Acropora colony. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033353

Image 3: Ants and sapsuckers by John Tann


Making the News in May


Laughter, fungi, pipettes and ants – last month, PLOS ONE papers made headlines with an array of research. Here are some of our May media highlights:

Not all laughter is the same and your brain knows it. In recently published research, scientists studied the effects of three types of laughter (joyous, taunting, and “tickling”) on the human brain. Participants listened to recordings of these laugh and were asked to discern the type and count how many bouts had occurred. The researchers found that the participants could discern joyous and taunting laughter at comparable rates and that it was slightly more difficult to discern laughter in response to tickling. Participants were  able to count the number of taunting laughs more accurately than joyous and tickling laughs. Read more about this study in the Huffington Post UK, TIME, and Los Angeles Times.

There are fungi afoot! New research confirms that the chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatis), which has decimated amphibian populations around the world, can be found in frogs in California. Scientists swabbed 201 South African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis) in the California Academy of Sciences’ collection, 23 of which were caught in California. Eight specimens tested positive for chytrid, including one frog caught in San Francisco County in 2003. This frog species was once imported to aid in pregnancy testing. To read more, visit the National Geographic, Science News, ABC and the Smithsonian blog, Smart News.

Pipettes are a staple lab equipment, but not without their drawbacks. According to a new PLOS ONE paper, certain methods of dispensing and diluting liquids can introduce errors in experimental data. The researchers of this study compared pipetting, or tip-based transfer, with an acoustic dispensing technique and found that laboratory results depended greatly on the dispensing technique. Learn more about this study by reading the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Chemistry World, Nature’s Methagora blog, and In the Pipeline.

There are plenty of odd couples in nature. For one example, just look at the unlikely partnership of the ant and the pitcher plant. A recent study finds that a particular ant species, Camponotus schmitzi, has formed a mutually beneficial relationship with the carnivorous Nepenthes bicalcarata, a pitcher plant. Scientists observed that the ants provide pitcher plants with nitrogen and preys on other insects, such as mosquitoes, that may otherwise steal nutrients from the plant. In return, the pitcher plant provides a home and a steady source of sustenance. You may find more about this study at Discovery News, The Scientist, and the New York Times.

To find out what other PLOS ONE papers were in the news in May, check out our Media Tracking Project.

Image: Figure 1 from “A Novel Type of Nutritional Ant–Plant Interaction: Ant Partners of Carnivorous Pitcher Plants Prevent Nutrient Export by Dipteran Pitcher Infauna”


Wildgruber D, Szameitat DP, Ethofer T, Brück C, Alter K, et al. (2013) Different Types of Laughter Modulate Connectivity within Distinct Parts of the Laughter Perception Network. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63441. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063441

Vredenburg VT, Felt SA, Morgan EC, McNally SVG, Wilson S, et al. (2013) Prevalence of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis in Xenopus Collected in Africa (1871–2000) and in California (2001–2010). PLoS ONE 8(5): e63791. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063791

Ekins S, Olechno J, Williams AJ (2013) Dispensing Processes Impact Apparent Biological Activity as Determined by Computational and Statistical Analyses. PLoS ONE 8(5): e62325. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062325

Scharmann M, Thornham DG, Grafe TU, Federle W (2013) A Novel Type of Nutritional Ant–Plant Interaction: Ant Partners of Carnivorous Pitcher Plants Prevent Nutrient Export by Dipteran Pitcher Infauna. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63556. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063556

March Madness: PLOS ONE News and Blog Round-Up

1660014877_10c78dd1a9For the month of March, a variety of papers caught the media’s attention, from distracting cell phone conversations, to the devastating decline in forest elephants.  Here are some of the media highlights for this month:

Have you ever wondered where your hound originated from? In a paper featured this March, researchers have identified the fossil remains of the oldest domestic canine ancestor. In this study, researchers analyzed the DNA of a 33,000 year old tooth belonging to a Pleistocene dog from central Asia. In their evaluation of the fossil, they assessed its relationship to modern dogs and wolves’, concluding the tooth was more closely related to the domestic canine.

In another study, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic have found that football players might sustain long-term brain injuries without ever having a concussion. 67 players who had never suffered a concussion underwent testing over the course of a season.  The testing, which included blood sampling, brain scans, cognitive and functional assessments, screened for potential brain damage among the participants. The researchers searched for S100B in the blood, an antibody linked to brain damage. This antibody was found in many of the participants, with the highest levels belonging to the players with the most hits.

Have you ever found yourself distracted when a co-worker is on a phone call? In an eye-catching paper published this month, PLOS ONE authors examined the effects on attention and memory when listening to cell phone conversations, versus two-sided conversations. The participants were assigned a task while two conversations were in progress, one on a cell phone, and another between two individuals.  After the task was completed, the participants were assigned a recognition memory task and questionnaire measuring the distracting nature of the conversation. The participants who overhead the cell phone conversation measured it as much more distracting compared to the two-sided conversation.

And in a fourth study capturing the attention of many, researchers have examined the decline of forest elephants in Central Africa. The study concludes that forest elephants are being poached at increasing rates. Poaching, in addition to the human population rise and the absence of anti-poaching law enforcement, is contributing to the elephant’s population decline. The analysis revealed that 62 percent of the African forest elephants have been eliminated in the last decade due to poaching.

These four papers are just a taste of the variety of papers published this month. For more research headlines, visit our site here.



Druzhkova AS, Thalmann O, Trifonov VA, Leonard JA, Vorobieva NV, et al. (2013) Ancient DNA Analysis Affirms the Canid from Altai as a Primitive Dog. PLoS ONE 8(3): e57754. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057754

Marchi N, Bazarian JJ, Puvenna V, Janigro M, Ghosh C, et al. (2013) Consequences of Repeated Blood-Brain Barrier Disruption in Football Players. PLoS ONE 8(3): e56805. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056805

Galván VV, Vessal RS, Golley MT (2013) The Effects of Cell Phone Conversations on the Attention and Memory of Bystanders. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58579. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058579

Maisels F, Strindberg S, Blake S, Wittemyer G, Hart J, et al. (2013) Devastating Decline of Forest Elephants in Central Africa. PLoS ONE 8(3): e59469. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059469

Image: by digitalART2 on Flickr

Marine microbes make musical waves

Music may be the newest addition to a science communicator’s toolbox. A PLOS ONE paper published today describes an algorithm that represents terabytes of microbial and environmental data in tunes that sound remarkably like modern jazz.

Microbial bebop”, as the authors describe it, is created using five years’ worth of consecutive measurements of ocean microbial life and environmental factors like temperature, dissolved salts and chlorophyll concentrations. These diverse, extensive data are only a subset of what scientists have been recording at the Western Channel Observatory since 1903.

As first author Larsen explained to the Wired blogs, “It’s my job to take complex data sets and find ways to represent that data in a way that makes the patterns accessible to human observations. There’s no way to look at 10,000 rows and hundreds of columns and intuit what’s going on.”

Each of the four compositions in the paper is derived from the same set of data, but highlights different relationships between the environmental conditions of the ocean and the microbes that live in these waters.

“There are certain parameters like sunlight, temperature or the concentration of phosphorus in the water that give a kind of structure to the data and determine the microbial populations. This structure provides us with an intuitive way to use music to describe a wide range of natural phenomena,” explains Larsen in an Argonne National Laboratories article.

Speaking to Living on Earth, Larsen describes how their music highlights the relationship between different kinds of data. “In most of the pieces that we have posted, the melody is derived from a numerical measurement, such that the lowest measure is the lowest note and the highest measure is the highest note. The other component is the chords. And the chords map to a different component of the data.”

As a result, the music generated from microbial abundance data played to chords generated from phosphorus concentration data will sound quite different from the same microbial data played to chords derived from temperature data.

“Songs themselves probably are never going to actively replace, you know, the bar graph for data analysis, but I think that this kind of translation of complex data into a very accessible format is an opportunity to lead people who probably aren’t highly aware of the importance of microbial ecology in the ocean, and give them a very appealing entry into this kind of data”, explained Larsen in the same interview with Living on Earth.

Though their primary intent was to create novel way to symbolize the interactions of microbes in the ocean, the study also suggests that microbial bebop may eventually have applications in crowd-sourcing solutions to complex environmental issues.

For further reading, a PLOS ONE paper in 2010 demonstrated that the metaphors used to explain a problem could have a powerful impact on people’s thoughts and decisions when designing solutions. Could re-phrasing complex environmental data in music lead to solutions we haven’t heard yet? As you ponder the question, listen to some microbial bebop!

Other media sources that also covered this research include LiveScience, gizmag and the PLOS blog Tooth and Claw

Citations:  Larsen P, Gilbert J (2013) Microbial Bebop: Creating Music from Complex Dynamics in Microbial Ecology. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58119. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058119

Thibodeau PH, Boroditsky L (2011) Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16782. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016782

Image: sheet music by jamuraa on Flickr


Heart Health Awareness Month

Before this month comes to a close, let us not forget to honor February as American Heart Month.

According to the CDC, heart disease, also known as coronary artery disease or cardiovascular disease,  claims 600,000 lives in the U.S. each year. Heart disease refers to the plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries, resulting in a heart attack or stroke. Other heart conditions include arrhythmia, congenital defects, heart failure and hypertension (high blood pressure).

Researchers continue to study the best ways to properly care for and treat the beating organ within us. Last September, we discussed cardiovascular heath among women, and highlighted related articles published. Today, in honor of American Heart Month, we bring you recently published research that increases awareness and insight to heart health.

Did you ever feel there was a connection between your heart beat and self-image? PLOS ONE authors have attempted to answer this question by investigating the relationship between self-objectification and the beating heart in a recent article. Using a heartbeat perception task and questionnaire, researchers found that women who were able to hear their own heart beat were less likely to objectify themselves, proving yet another link between heart health and overall wellbeing.

In another recently published study, researchers explored the connection between white blood cell count and heart disease risk in young adults. The authors tested the white blood cell counts for over 29,000 healthy young men over an average of seven and a half years and also screened the participants for signs of coronary artery disease. Their investigation found that a higher white blood cell count correlated with coronary artery disease risk in young men. They concluded that white blood cell count may help in identifying young men with low or high risk for heart disease progression.

In a third article published by PLOS ONE, researchers from the University of Granada investigated heart rate variability and cognitive performance. Participants were divided into a high-fit group and a low-fit group, and the authors measured the effects of three cognitive tasks on the participant’s heart rate variability. The researchers found that cognitive processing has an effect on heart rate variability, and the main benefit of fitness level was associated with processes involving sustained attention.

These articles are just a taste of the PLOS ONE research into cardiovascular health and the prevention of heart disease. As American Heart Month comes to an end, explore more research on the topic here.


Ainley V, Tsakiris M (2013) Body Conscious? Interoceptive Awareness, Measured by Heartbeat Perception, Is Negatively Correlated with Self-Objectification. PLoS ONE 8(2): e55568. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055568

 Twig G, Afek A, Shamiss A, Derazne E, Tzur D, et al. (2012) White Blood Cell Count and the Risk for Coronary Artery Disease in Young Adults. PLoS ONE 7(10): e47183. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047183

 Luque-Casado A, Zabala M, Morales E, Mateo-March M, Sanabria D (2013) Cognitive Performance and Heart Rate Variability: The Influence of Fitness Level. PLoS ONE 8(2): e56935. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056935

Image Credit: natalie419 on Flickr

Walk like a Camel (or a Giraffe)

It can be overwhelming to think of  the immense array of special shoes, insoles and orthotics available to relieve any manner of symptoms related to joint impact or stress. We have an entire industry designed to help the human species run and walk without injuries. Then consider the feet and joints of a more massive animal like the elephant or the giraffe, with no such industry to relieve their aches and pains.

A team of researchers studied how the feet and limbs of these animals handle the force of their weight as it hits the ground when they walk or run by analyzing a menagerie of videos.

Their results were published in PLOS ONE last week.

When you watch the plates shudder from the impact of the giraffe walking over the force platforms in the video below,  it seems a wonder that such small hooves manage to support such a massive animal without frequent injury. In view of how important these beasts of burden are for global welfare, understanding the dynamics of their foot design, locomotor behavior and impact forces is critical to ensuring their well-being. The study included elephants, pigs and alpacas as well as several other animals and found that the impact on the animals’ feet was proportional to their body size. But other aspects of the force of impact were distributed differently across their limbs to improve biomechanics and reduce injury. In previous research published in PLOS ONE, Dr. Hutchinson has analyzed locomotion in relation to limb and body dimensions in dinosaurs and cats.

Image Credit: 1 camel, 2 shadows by Sylvain Bourdos on Flickr

Citation: Warner SE, Pickering P, Panagiotopoulou O, Pfau T, Ren L, et al. (2013) Size-Related Changes in Foot Impact Mechanics in Hoofed Mammals. PLoS ONE 8(1): e54784. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0054784

Citation: Hutchinson JR, Bates KT, Molnar J, Allen V, Makovicky PJ (2011) A Computational Analysis of Limb and Body Dimensions in Tyrannosaurus rex with Implications for Locomotion, Ontogeny, and Growth. PLoS ONE 6(10): e26037. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026037

Citation: Zhang KY, Wiktorowicz-Conroy A, Hutchinson JR, Doube M, Klosowski M, et al. (2012) 3D Morphometric and Posture Study of Felid Scapulae Using Statistical Shape Modelling. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34619. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034619