Friday 5: factory farming, “original” Manhattan, bug sex, and lefties

September 4, 2009

I’m going to try to make this a recurring thing. Five things I thought were interesting this week:

Factory-farming frogs is now possible (sort of) but still seems like a bad idea. “Just over half the marsh frogs survived three years of intensive farming, whereas only 5 to 8 per cent of the pool and edible frogs did.” Doesn’t sound very humane to me. The upside is supposed to be protecting wild frog populations in Asia from overharvesting. But is this really a good solution? One expert says: “it may be better to simply harvest frogs sustainably in the wild rather than building elaborate, energy-intensive farms that rely on fish meal.” To quote another: “I hear frogs’ legs taste like chicken. Eat that and leave the frogs alone.”

But Genetically “pain-free” animals would make abusive farming practices ethically OK! “I’m offering a solution where you could still eat meat but avoid animal suffering,” says a philosopher who published a paper on the subject this week. This ignores the idea that physical pain is the only kind of suffering that matters. Let me tell you, if I had to live in a battery cage, I would be pretty miserable with or without my Nav1.7 gene.

Lefties may have been rare in Victorian England. While currently 11% of British people are left-handed, only 3% of Victorians waved at movie cameras with their left hand. (The modern control was a Google images search of people waving.) In the Victorian clips, older folks were slightly more likely to wave with the left hand, so the researchers concluded that lefties were a dying breed that, later, bounced back.

Female fruit flies prefer to keep sex short. This is surprising (to the researchers) because male flies have pinchers and other nasty ways of supposedly keeping the females from getting away. It seems all kinds of sex research includes the assumption that the males are in charge and females are passive – and that assumption always breaks down as soon as researchers start looking into it. Best quote, about the methodology: “The team propped up the dead [female] insects—Weekend at Bernie’s-style—to convince the males that they were still alive and ready for sex.” (They mated longer with dead females than with ones that could get away.)

The Manahatta Project aims to reconstruct what the island looked like before it became the heart of New York City. National Geographic reports that Eric Sanderson, an ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, compared old maps and modern GPS readings to reconstruct what the island was like in 1609. (Although the article doesn’t mention, the actual click-and-zoom map includes Lenape settlements and their likely uses of land. It’s not like the place was unsettled.)

Bonus links! Improve your life with science!

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