by Kevin Schofield
Here at Weekend Reads Global Headquarters, we read at least a dozen reports, papers, and other documents every week looking for the choicest morsels to bring to you. For a “read” to make the cut, it must say something interesting, unusual, or counterintuitive — we all already have too much boring stuff to read. But it also must be readable to someone who doesn’t have an advanced degree in the field; perhaps not entirely readable, but enough so you and I can understand what it’s saying and how it reached its conclusions.
That duo of requirements leaves an awful lot of stuff on the cutting-room floor. It’s something I regret; I frequently come across a paper or report that reaches an interesting conclusion, but the paper is simply impenetrable, or so jam-packed with arcane tables and charts that unless you’re really good at reading research papers and have a doctorate in statistics, you’re not going to get much out of it.
So, at the prodding of several friends and colleagues (including my editor here at the Emerald), every few months, I will troll back through the reject pile and bring you the best of them, or at least the “good parts.” Here are the unexpected things I learned from documents that you’re probably not going to want to spend much time trying to read — but the links are below, and you’re welcome to try!
The COVID-19 baby bust and baby bump: The United States saw a decline in the nation’s fertility rate in 2020, not surprising given the raging pandemic — though the drop was smaller than many social science professionals had predicted. It turns out it is due almost entirely to a dramatic reduction in births to foreign-born mothers, which represented 23% of all U.S. births the previous year. What’s more, the drop was felt in early 2020, which means it wasn’t due to fewer babies being conceived during the pandemic (we wouldn’t be able to see that until late 2020). That tells us that the drop in fertility rate had more to do with reductions in international travel than in domestic COVID-19 lockdowns. Interestingly, there was a small increase in the fertility rate for U.S.-born mothers in 2021.
AI camouflage: The proliferation of security cameras has led to increased investments in object- and person-recognition AI software to try to make sense out of all that video footage. Some research groups are trying to do the opposite, though: They are attempting to build ways to defeat (or at least confuse) these computer-vision systems. One group managed to develop some visual patterns that do, in fact, cause problems for the state-of-the-art algorithms — and they even went as far as to print the patterns on T-shirts people could wear to prevent themselves from being tracked by security cameras.
Amphibian population collapses have led to increases in malaria: It’s been widely reported that a deadly fungus has been spreading for the past several years among amphibian species and has wiped out large populations of frogs, turtles, and lizards. Amphibians play a key role in natural ecosystems because they eat a large number of insects and help keep those populations under control. A research team found that the decrease in amphibian populations has allowed for malaria-spreading mosquito populations to flourish, leading to a measurable increase in malaria cases among human populations in Central America. As the researchers describe, this is a hidden cost of the failure of conservation efforts that literally has come back to bite us.
Forest elephants increase carbon sequestration: A group of researchers found that forest elephants, one subspecies of elephant that (true to its name) primarily lives in forested areas, promote “high-density wood” tree species through two means: They eat low-density wood tree leaves and branches, making it easier for high-density wood trees to grow and thrive; and they disperse seeds for high-density wood trees through their fecal matter. High-density wood trees capture more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and fix it in their wood in a process known as “carbon sequestration,” which is a critical part of keeping the “greenhouse effect” under control (and the reason why deforestation is such a problem for the environment). This is in some ways similar to a debate that has been raging for years about whether herds of cattle and bison on the North American plains are good or bad for the ecology: Do they trample plants and compress the soil, making it more difficult for plant life to thrive, or do they fertilize the soil by spreading their poop across the plains? (Or both?)
More on elephants: We were all taught in biology class that evolution looks like a tree: New species emerge from earlier ones as mutations accumulate over time. But as researchers do more DNA testing on species — both living ones and remnants from extinct ones — they learn that it’s much more complicated. A recent research report details how elephant lineage isn’t a “tree” at all: There is a large amount of cross-breeding between subspecies that led to hybrids — some of which turned out to have evolutionary advantages and survived down the line. They found evidence of lots of cross-breeding dating all the way back to the long-extinct woolly mammoths. Before DNA, biologists used “phenotype” — the physical form of living creatures — to make educated guesses about ancestors and descendants: They looked for the emergence of new physical traits, and when they saw them passed down to later generations, they inferred the relationship between them. But DNA evidence, called a “genotype,” is a far more accurate way to learn these kinds of relationships. It is rewriting our understanding of the evolutionary tree, and in cases like this, it’s throwing out the notion of the tree altogether.
Daylight saving time as a traffic safety measure: Researchers have concluded that a permanent switch to daylight saving time would reduce the number of deer collisions with vehicles. Their logic runs as follows: The autumn shift to standard time moves peak traffic until after sunset, and studies have shown that deer collisions are 14 times more frequent two hours after sunset than before it.
Your gut biome is connected to depression: A study looked at the bacteria present in the human digestive tract, and it found strong correlations between certain bacteria (the presence of some, and the absence of others) and whether that person showed symptoms of depression. This is one more in a series of studies over the past two decades that have found connections between single-celled life, such as bacteria, that live within human bodies and overall human health. It all leads to a conclusion that it’s perhaps more accurate to think of a human body as a massive colony of various other kinds of life, constantly interacting with each other, than as a single life form on its own. But the immediate value of this research is obvious and compelling, as it will undoubtedly lead to new therapies that treat depression by introducing missing gut bacteria, or by trying to kill off harmful ones.
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.
📸 Featured image by Dmytro Gilitukha/Shutterstock.com.
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