Can whale help human aging?

Bowhead whales are most likely the longest-living mammals on the planet. There's evidence (some of it in the form of Victorian-era harpoons embedded in blubber) that they can live as long as 200 years. And there are humans who'd like to get a little slice of that longevity for themselves.

Some of them took the first step to stealing the bowhead whale's secrets: They sequenced its genome. Their results were published in Cell.

"I think that having the genome sequence of the bowhead whale will allow researchers to study basic molecular processes and identify maintenance mechanisms that help preserve life, avoid entropy and repair molecular damage," said corresponding author Joao Pedro de Magalhaes of the University of Liverpool.

Of particular interest is the whales' resistance to cancer: The species can weigh as much as 100 tons, and has thousands of times more cells than a human does. So statistically, it would make sense for the whales to exhibit more instances of cancer. But examination hasn't found this to be so. Magalhaes believes that bowhead whales may be better at repairing DNA damage, which would keep them alive longer and protect them from diseases like cancer.

not singing the Same Old Song

A sparrow's song may sound simple, consisting of little more than whistles and trills. But to the sparrows, those few noises can take on vastly different meanings depending on small variations in context and repetition, researchers have found.

In humans, the ability to extract nearly endless meanings from a finite number of sounds, known as partial phonemic overlapping, was key to the development of language. To see whether sparrows shared this ability, researchers at Duke University recorded and analyzed the songs of more than 200 swamp sparrows. They found that the sparrows' whistles could be divided into three lengths: short, intermediate and long.

The researchers then played the sparrows two versions of the songs. They found that replacing a single short whistle with an intermediate one, for example, could significantly alter a bird's reaction, but only if it came at the right moment in the song.

The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are part of a larger effort to better understand how human language evolved.

birds washing ashore in Pacific

The carcasses of thousands of small birds called Cassin's auklets have been washing ashore over the past few months from Northern California to Washington.

Scientists have been trying to determine what is causing the large die-off of the birds. Executive Director Julia Parrish, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Washington, said it's largely a mystery to experts.

The birds have been found mostly starved to death, said Lindsay Adrean, a wildlife biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. One explanation is that the birds are starving as a consequence of an unusually successful breeding session last year in British Columbia.

The Pacific also has been a few degrees warmer this winter, which could touch off subtle changes in the food chain. But other birds are not dying at unusual rates.

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