The Birds and the Bacteria

A double dose of science goodness for you, my galleons. Aren’t you lucky?

Scientists in Savannah, GA (can anyone read this city’s name in anything other than a lazy, rolling Southern drawl?) have spent the last 30 years studying the songs of sparrows. Which probably does not involve them sitting out on their large porches, sipping mint juleps and listening to the local wildlife, but dammit all, that’s how I want to imagine it went down.

Anyway, the Savannah scientists have discovered that the songs of their sparrows have changed over the course of 30 years. Which might not be too surprising (one would think they’d have to vary their songs every so often, to keep the ladies interested), but considering sparrows actually only learn one type of song in their lives, it is very interesting. The scientists liken it to human speech patterns, making the comparison that the way people spoke in the 80s is quite different than how we speak today. After all, slang terms rise and fall, becoming a central feature of the language of a certain time period. The same holds true for birds- their songs are full of little bits of “slang”, clicks and trills that change over time.

It’s a fascinating look at cultural evolution. Male sparrows learn their song from the males around them, meaning the changes in song are learned changes being passed to new generations. It’s likely the changes came about thanks to the fickle nature of females- their preference for males with shorter trills, for example, means those males will reproduce with them and will teach youngsters the same trilling technique. And all this happened in a mere 30 years, allowing us to study the evolutionary patterns. Awesomesauce.

***

Even astronauts have to worry about splattered bugs on their windshields, even if those bugs are microscopic little bacteria. A recent study by NASA of the middle and upper troposhpere has revealed that a host of microorganisms hang out in the trophosphere, a region of the atmosphere 4-6 miles above the Earth’s surface. This raised some sciencey eyebrows, seeing as the trophosphere is a difficult environment for life to flourish in.

The microorganisms consisted of a variety of bacteria types, as well as a few fungi. The types of bacteria varied depending on where the air samples were taken- marine bacteria were found in air samples from above the ocean, while terrestrial bacteria were abundant in the above-ground air samples.

Of course, whether the microorganisms actually make their home in the troposphere is not yet known. While the troposphere does contain carbons than many of the varieties of found bacteria could thrive on, it’s also likely the microorganisms get kicked up there from the planet’s surface. Frankly, based on the concentrations of marine bacteria over water and terrestrial bacteria over land, I’d wager the latter. Still, it was surprising for the NASA group to find so many of the little buggers kickin’ it way up there.

Atmospheric scientists are keenly interested in this discovery for a few reasons. The first is that these microorganisms might play a role in the formation of ice, impacting weather patterns. And second, it could represent a new form of long-distance bacteria transport that would be of note for disease transmission models.

Who knows, maybe there are whole bacterial colonies hanging out in the clouds… An odd ecosystem (unless you are a Care Bear), but hey, whatever works for you, little bacteria.

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