Science briefs: Hummingbirds' sweet tooth helps find the nectar

  • Updated: August 30, 2014 - 2:00 PM
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Ruby-throat male hummingbird flies ORG XMIT: MIN2014082615285141

One bird’s sweet tooth

Hummingbirds can detect the sweetness of nectar because of a taste receptor that took an unexpected evolutionary path, researchers say.

Nectar is known to make up about 75 percent of a hummingbird’s diet. But birds seem to lack the receptor that vertebrates normally use to taste sweetness, as scientists discovered when they sequenced the chicken genome in 2004.

“We thought, if the chicken is missing the sweet receptor, then maybe all birds are,” said Maude Baldwin, a biologist at Harvard and an author of the new study, published in Science.

Baldwin and her colleagues scanned whole-genome sequences of 10 bird species and found that in hummingbirds, the receptor highly responsive to sugar was one normally used by vertebrates, including chickens, to detect savory umami.

Somewhere along the way, the researchers believe, hummingbirds adapted to regain the ability to taste sweets that was lost in other birds, giving them an important evolutionary advantage for gathering food.

Triton images may help study of Pluto

As NASA’s New Horizons mission heads to Pluto, scientists could get an idea of what to expect by studying Triton, Neptune’s strange icy moon.

New Horizons marked a major anniversary last week when the Pluto-bound spacecraft crossed the orbit of Neptune: the Voyager 2 spacecraft first flew by Neptune and its satellite Triton 25 years ago.

The encounter on Aug. 25, 1989, was brief but dramatic: It snapped images of the cold gassy planet and its icy moon. Those images have now been “restored” by Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston and turned into new global maps and a breathtaking movie.

New Horizons couldn’t fly by Neptune and its moons Monday; Neptune is now far away. But taking a fresh look at Voyager 2 images of Triton could be useful for studying New Horizon’s target, Pluto. Scientists think Triton and Pluto are siblings. They’re roughly the same size, and both probably came from the Kuiper belt, a ring of icy objects in the outer solar system.

Rich Diet of booze and Exotic Birds

Richard III, the English monarch memorably depicted by Shakespeare as a “poisonous bunch-back’d toad” who murdered children to clear his way to the throne, has a new reputation: heavy-drinking glutton.

He consumed the equivalent of a bottle of wine a day, plus enough beer to total about three liters of alcohol, according to analysis of his remains published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. And his diet wasn’t just heavy in the meat, fish and fowl typical of the nobility in 15th-century England: He feasted on “luxury foods” including swan, egret and heron.

Researchers have been studying Richard’s skeleton since 2012, when his remains were identified beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England.

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