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Moses parting the Red Sea (with strange machine in forefront?). Yes, interesting nonetheless. Photo by allspice1/Flickr.com

Passover and Easter have left me pondering about Seders and empty tombs. After some interesting conversations, I found there’s more science to these holidays than you might think.

Take the Passover plagues, for instance. An interesting All Things Considered piece focuses on speculative explanations for the ten events that plagued Egypt as Moses warned the Pharaoh to emancipate the Israelites from slavery. Author Michael Lukas shares possible scientific explanations for each.

He highlights theories of scientist John Marr, who thinks that dinoflagellates, or tiny aquatic protists, caused the series of events referred to as the “Ten Plagues.”

Photo of dinoflagellates by Neon_ja/Wikimedia Commons

As found in nature today, dinoflagellates occasionally grow in massive colonies, creating what are called red tides. He argues that algal blooms from these small organisms, may explain why the Nile turned red as blood during the first plague. It’s possible the algal bloom affected other parts of the ecosystem as well, pushing an excess of frogs from the river and creating fertile grounds for lice and flies (as observed in the other plagues).

But what’s especially interesting — yet extremely speculative, in my opinion — is the hypothesis of what killed many of Egypt’s firstborn sons. He supports that all these events resulted in increased levels of mold — mycotoxin to be exact — in crop food supplies. And since the oldest sons exhibited seniority to food access, they were the first to fall ill and die.

I don’t necessarily buy this theory. Wouldn’t the children’s parents have first dibs on food? Why didn’t they die? I couldn’t find much online to determine either way.

For a better idea of other scientific explanations of the ten plagues, here’s a rundown.

Moses’ parting of the Red Sea stands as another Biblical miracle dissected by science. After fleeing Egypt, Moses and the Israelites found themselves sandwiched between the Red Sea and the Pharaoh’s pursuing army. Some theories Lukas has written about posit that a volcanic explosion on the Greek island of Santorini may have caused the irregular event. Others state that a phenomenon called the wind setdown effect was at play. This event can occur when powerful and persistent winds move large amounts of water downward in the same direction as the wind, leaving water in the upwind area at a reduced depth while water downwind at a surge (or increased depth).

The videos below give better visuals to the idea, as Christian scientist Carl Drews takes on the setdown theory. While he agrees it’s possible, he proposes something a little different.

Ultimately, it’s hard to be certain about what caused these events, but exploring them furthers my love for science and religion — even if we’ll never know what actually happened.

Photo by Benny Geypens via Fotopedia

In a world riddled with high expectations, deadlines and competition, it’s difficult to stay grounded.

And by grounded, I mean avoiding the state of constant stress that I’m left with by the end of each week. Yes, weekends are recovery times of sorts.

The effects of chronic stress only hit home in the last year and a half or so, after I (falsely) thought my throbbing leg might be a sign of something more serious — namely deep vein thrombosis since I have a family history with the condition.

So after getting the thumbs up from an exam and electrocardiogram, I became more cognizant of the effects of stress on my body. In addition to sprouting a few gray hairs, I had occasional chest pains and was constantly thinking about what I ought to be doing with my off time, which clearly stripped any pleasure out of relaxing or taking a break.

Despite this, one can argue that stress is good. In the animal kingdom, adrenaline and other stress hormones jumpstart an organism’s fight-or-flight response, which can help it avoid becoming dinner. But in animals such as humans where stress can be created through experiences and mental processes, these temporary stress systems can be switched on permanently.

Despite my knowing this, I still failed to manage my stress.

In recent weeks, however, I think I’m coming around. After learning more about the Whitehall data on work-related stress, I’m convinced I need to rethink my health. Outside of primate studies, this was the first longitudinal attempt to measure the effects of stress in people. Essentially, the research focuses on whether hierarchy in the workplace influences health. It turns out this was very much the case, as individuals with less control over their jobs and hours were more stressed and exhibited poorer health and more sick days than their higher-ranking counterparts. And since the data were collected from British civil servants in the same workplace, factors such as access to health care were the same for the entire sample, limiting confounding variables.

I began asking whether it was even possible to live without stress. After all, our society seems to value productivity over wellness, which has definitely pushed stress to the backburner. As highlighted in National Geographic’s special on this “silent killer,” chronic stress can lead to heart disease, depression and a slew of other health problems.

The show also shared interesting story I heard through Stanford University’s Robert Sapolsky — the premier expertise on primate stress.

Given what we know about the topic, the question remains: Is it possible for humans and other primates with hierarchical societies to live without chronic stress?

Interestingly, Sapolsky stumbled upon this answer by accident while studying a group of wild baboons in East Africa. Baboons, primates that exhibit rather rigid social hierarchies, also demonstrated varying levels of stress hormones such as cortisol depending on their social rank, Sapolsky found.

With this line of reasoning, it makes sense that monkeys at the bottom of the totem pole would show increased levels of cortisol from being thrown around and intimidated by superiors (most of the aggressors were males). It’s also reasonable to apply this idea to humans — in fact, this line of research builds on why certain socioeconomic groups suffer more from health problems and have a harder time climbing the social latter.

After spending years studying one group (the Forest Troop), Sapolsky found that a tragic outbreak of tuberculosis wiped out many of the dominant males in the troop, leaving mostly less dominant females in its wake.

But rather than individuals taking the place of the group’s leaders, the less aggressive females kept things relatively peaceful. Even as newcomers joined the group, they adopted a less aggressive more egalitarian (mind my anthropomorphism here) society, which affected everyone’s level of stress. New males who came to the group soon learned the expectations of life there and adjusted their behaviors to fit in. Breaking down the strict hierarchy reduced stress among everyone. It is worth noting, however, that this is an isolated case, so it’s difficult to tell if history will repeat itself in this particular species.

Ultimately, it seems as if society and culture should take more responsibility for influencing stress and allaying it. Perhaps if we take stress reduction more seriously — at the individual and community level, Americans would reap the benefits of greater well-being and satisfaction with life. Yet it seems maintaining competitiveness and well-being is hard to do. We’ll need to change our perspectives and priorities for starters.

LinkedIn has a great overview of the topic — including Sapolsky’s work — in the video below.

All this talk of stress is, well, somewhat stressful! Now if you’ll excuse me while I try to relax!

Also, this wasn’t the focus of my post, but here are tips on stress reduction from Healthfinder.gov.

A young bonobo grooming. Photo by Joachim S. Müller/Flickr.com

Kuni found herself face to face with a starling.

Although she’d seen winged creatures fly above her habitat, she finally had one in her hands. A voice urged her to let the bird go. Obeying, she encouraged it to move away from her, perhaps to avoid unwanted trouble.

She nudged it a bit. Then, a bit more.

The starling didn’t move or take flight.

The female bonobo surprised her keepers with what she did next.

With the bird in hand, she climbed to the highest point of the tallest tree and straddled it with her legs. She manually spread the bird’s wings, one at a time, to prepare it for an avian journey.

Next, she tried throwing the bird beyond the limits of the habitat — perhaps similar to the way humans propel a paper airplane.

The bird didn’t make it beyond the barriers of Kuni’s habitat, but keepers presumed it recovered and flew away minutes later because it was nowhere to be found.

Without directly assuming Kuni’s intentions, it seems through her actions that she wanted to help the bird, not hurt it. On some level, she understood the bird’s situation and wanted to solve the problem.

This story from the Twycross Zoo in England, along with many others, highlights the striking emotional resemblance between humans and nonhuman primates. Socially and morphologically, behaviorally and physiologically — we share much in common with our closest ancestors.

Kuni’s actions, originally featured in one of primatologist Frans de Waal’s books, came to mind after reading about new research suggesting physiological differences between bonobos and chimpanzees in efforts to explain why chimps are known to “make war” while bonobos “make love.”

Contrasting these two species contributes to our understanding of what makes us human or essentially, why our temperaments commonly dip into the spheres of love and hate.

In the research, Yerkes Primate Center researchers (at Emory University) found that bonobos’ brains possessed more gray matter in areas that usually play an active role in identifying distress in social contexts. These apes also have larger connections between the brain’s amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex, suggesting a more emotional spin on resolving conflicts among conspecifics when compared to chimpanzees.

Though such research does not distinguish whether brain structure dictates behavior or the other way around, it does give us a better understanding of why bonobos might be more empathetic, and possibly more attentive to others at times.

But, first, let’s briefly look at where our perceptions of bonobos came from.

Bonobos’ anthropomorphic description as “hippies” originates from the species’ ecology and social structure. Or maybe it’s their perfectly parted, black tuft the most hair-savvy humans would envy (see below).

Photo by Kabir/Wikimedia Commons

One of the key differences between bonobos and chimps is the fact that bonobo society is maintained equally among males and females. Female bonds are the strongest in bonobo society, and some even argue that females are more in charge. In addition, bonobos have sex casually, often to dissipate tensions or reinforce affiliations among members of the group. Females routinely rub genitals, kiss and even give oral sex to others of the same sex — it’s just how their social system works.

This all contrasts with chimps, which at times, settle disagreements with violence or destructive dominance displays. Sex isn’t as fluid and mostly reserved for when females are in estrus.

Also, it’s important to keep in mind the environmental conditions in which each species evolved. Chimps, whose range spans across equatorial Africa, inhabit a diversity of landscapes ranging from mixed savannas to dense rainforests. These environments produce different demands on social groups, and thus, different chimp cultures.

Chimps in Senegal, some of my favorite groups to read about, transfer hunting traditions generationally. Sharpening handmade spears with their teeth, they hunt bush babies — nocturnal primates that sleep in tree holes and crevices during the day.

On the other hand, in Jane Goodall’s Gombe chimp group, red colobus monkey meat frequents the menu.

But what about bonobos?

Found only in a shrinking patch of forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, this endangered species relies mostly on fruit and plant vegetation. Bonobos occasionally feed on insects and small mammals but are not considered active hunters like chimps.

It’s likely that food abundance in bonobo habitats limits extreme competition for food and perhaps the need for active hunting.

In addition to treating each other with great empathy, bonobos’ reposeful demeanors may give them different brains from chimps in another way — perhaps through their ability to learn.

I’m speculating a bit here, but neural brain differences between bonobos and chimps highlighted in the Yerkes research may make it clearer why bonobos represent a few of the most advanced cases of language acquisition in the animal kingdom.

Take the bonobo Kanzi, for instance. With intensive learning and training using lexigrams, he is a formidable lingual opponent to any other animal language contenders (see videos below).

Could it be that Kanzi’s neural wiring contributes to his attentiveness and ability to use symbols and understand language? Is his ability to empathize with others what makes him a good listener and communicator?

It seems to be one of many factors, but certainly not the only prerequisite. As the structure/function debate continues, I still find it fascinating to see our notions of the brain as an impenetrable “black box” turn grayer with time.

Special thanks to my colleague Tim Oleson for bringing the research to my attention.

Twycross Zoo anecdote: de Waal, Frans. “Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape.” University of California Press. 1998.

More background: Angier, Natalie. “Bonobo Society Amicable, Amorous and Run by Females.” http://www.unl.edu/rhames/bonobo/bonobo.htm


Chickens are feared targets of avian flu, especially because of their popularity on the dinner table. Photo: big_chocolate_monster/Flickr.com

In line with my upcoming piece exploring the role of the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in addressing and monitoring wildlife disease, more news suggests animals’ roles as sentinels for diseases affecting both animals and humans. In this case, the article highlights avian influenza.

Avian influenza occasionally maneuvers its way into the public sphere but has become less of a threat in the minds of most Americans in recent years (especially in light of other outbreaks such as swine flu).

In 2006, government agencies began regularly monitoring birds in the United States. Larger migratory birds and domestic birds are more likely to carry the virus — not backyard song birds.

Like other diseases of significant health interest, avian influenza is characterized as a zoonotic disease, or one that can potentially be transmitted among wild animals, domestic animals and humans.

Beginning in 2005, surveillance programs abroad have found the virus in bar-headed geese in China and linked the geese to outbreaks in Chinese poultry farms.

A map of avian influenza’s spread. Photo: Dean_ss/Wikimedia Commons

Although the United States has not experienced nearly as many cases as other areas of the world, scientists have identified strains of avian flu in at least five states in the past decade (these are not cases of the high pathogenicity strain H5N1 in humans, as smartly point out by my colleague Amy Karon, but rather different low pathogenicity strains found among U.S. poultry and the occasional human).

The mortality rate remains at 60 percent among people infected with H5N1, the strain of avian flu with high pathogenicity (to clarify, no H5N1 cases have been found in the United States but have been recorded elsewhere in the world). Researchers are working on developing vaccines for the virus, but its variability each year makes planning ahead difficult.

As our world continues to become increasingly connected, I believe the importance of surveillance programs, especially those with specialties in wildlife disease, will grow.

But amid large federal budget cuts, it’s hard to say whether monitoring programs will be around in full force.

Here is a video from 2004 (sorry, it won’t allow embedding), detailing responses to H5N1 in Thailand.

Only time will tell if monitoring sentinels of this disease will be enough.

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About Me

Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.