Sunday, 19th August 2018
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. Humans are pretty much the only animal to have hair that grows continuously for many years yet also suffers the indignity of going bald. What else can be said of our tangled relationship with hair?

A. Our entire body, except for the palms of our hands and soles of our feet, is covered with hair, about five million follicles, or about the same as chimps and other primates, says John Murray in his book “How To Be Human,” as excerpted in “New Scientist” magazine. Terminal hair grows on the scalp, eyebrows and eyelashes; vellus hair is found everywhere else, so wispy and short as to be almost invisible. Hair follicles go through stages of growth and dormancy, with the growing stage controlled by hormones: Short, fine leg hairs grow for about two months, armpit hair for six months, and head hair non-stop for six years or more. As for pubic hair, adult humans have thicker hair around their genitals than do most primates.

So why have humans evolved such a variety of hair types? The leading theory is that “when our bipedal ancestors moved out of the forests and onto the searing heat of the savannah, they needed to keep their bodies cool while also sheltering their big brains from the sun.” In fact, genetic evidence shows our ancestors became hairless around 1.7 million years ago on the savannah.

But “we may also have lost body hair to improve our ability to identify others and to make communication easier, or to resist disease, since fur is a prime habitat for parasites,” or for sexual selection: “The least hairy of our ancestors were considered the most attractive and so produced more offspring.” Perhaps sexual selection also explains our head hair, since most people find healthy, well-groomed hair attractive, signaling social and sexual status.

Q. Antibiotics are “the crown jewel of life-saving medicines,” stepping in when the body’s immune system is unable to fight off harmful bacteria. Approximately what percentage of antibiotics sold in the U.S. is actually used to treat sick people? A. 20% B. 40% C. 60% D. 80%

A. Surprisingly, the answer is 20% (A), according to the 2017 Annual Report of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Roughly 80% of antibiotics are used in cattle, chickens and pigs, mostly to promote faster growth and prevent diseases that are rampant in filthy, overcrowded factory farms.”

The World Health Organization and major health and medical groups have called for better management of antibiotics in animal husbandry to avoid proliferation of deadly antibiotic-resistant “super germs.”

Q. Do animals need a brain to sleep?

A. Apparently not, according to Mariah Quintanilla in “Science News” magazine. Caltech researchers (“Current Biology”) found that upside-down jellyfish-–animals without a central nervous system and brain-–pass three critical sleep-qualifying tests: (1) they become less active at night, pulsing about one-third less often than during the day; (2) they are less responsive at night; and (3) if their sleep period is interrupted by squirts of water, for example, they are more sluggish the following day, suggesting they require sleep to thrive.

Jellyfish are cnidarians, an ancient animal lineage that evolved at least 600 million years ago. “The finding raises new questions about when-–and why-–sleep evolved. … it suggests that sleep is one of the most basic requirements of animal life. And unlike in humans, where sleep has been linked to such brain functions as retaining memories, the same can’t be said of the role of sleep in jellyfish.”

Q. “How an unassuming bird changed the world as we know it,” read the “Science” magazine heading. What is the bird, and how did it get this reputation?

A. According to Andrew Lawler’s book, “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?,” as reviewed by Greger Larson, “chickens are everywhere and are inextricably linked to the emergence and maintenance of human civilization.” Largely descended from the red jungle fowl, domestic chickens number 20 billion worldwide, “more than the combined total of cats, dogs, pigs, cows and rats.” There are at least three chickens for every human, and “Americans now consume four times as much chicken as they did 60 years ago,” with current harvesting of the birds “only 47 days after birth—-23 days earlier than chickens raised in 1950 and 2.6 pounds heavier.”

Historically, says Larson, “chickens played a major role in initiating and sustaining the economic independence of both slaves and women in 19th-century America,” since white male farmers had little regard for the “lowly” bird, permitting both groups to raise flocks and sell eggs and meat. More recently, chicken eggs have been critical in the development of vaccines to prevent flu pandemics.

Even the English language shows evidence of chicken infiltration: “We are cocky and hen-pecked, and we brood and crow. We walk on eggshells, hatch ideas, rule the roost, fly the coop, get our hackles up, consider our place in the pecking order, appear cockeyed, and run around like chickens with our heads cut off,” to name a few.

Q. Among the people living in Mongolia, a group known as the burkitshi have taken on the role of eagle-hunters--with a twist. Do you know what it is?

A. For the traditional nomadic clan of the Khazakh minority, the eagles aren’t the prey but rather “the hunting rifles,” says Dan Lewis on his “Now I Know” web site, drawing on the “New Yorker” magazine. The burkitshi capture the eagles when the birds are only about four years old, old enough to know how to hunt but young enough to adapt to human company. Only females are used, since they are larger, with eight-foot wingspans, and are fierce hunters. The eagle-hunters then domesticate and train the birds to hunt foxes and other small animals for the clan. Many of the hunters, in fact, spoke of loving the eagles almost like their own children. Adds Lewis, “The birds, which often live to about the age of 30, are released back into the wild after ten or so years of service.”

Q. Practitioners of meditation sing its praises, citing its origins around 1500 B.C.E. in ancient India and its benefits for both body and mind. What does modern science have to say about it?

A. It seems that different types of meditation have distinct effects on the brain, reports “New Scientist” magazine. Researcher Tania Singer and colleagues at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences looked at the effects of three meditation techniques on more than 300 volunteers over nine months: mindfulness meditation, a second focusing on compassion and emotional connection with a partner, and a third asking people to think about issues from different points of view. “MRI scans taken after each three-month course showed that parts of the cortex involved in the specific skills that were trained grew thicker in comparison with scans of a control group. For example, mindfulness increased the thickness of the prefrontal cortex and parietal lobes, which are linked to attention control.” Tests of the relevant skills showed definite improvement (“Science Advances”).

Perhaps, suggests the magazine, meditation courses like exercise regimes might be designed to focus on particular weaknesses.

(Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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