‘Wandering’ salamanders glide like skydivers from the world’s tallest trees

In one of the tallest trees on Earth, a tan, mottled salamander ventures out on a fern growing high up on the trunk. Reaching the edge, the amphibian leaps, like a skydiver exiting a plane.

The salamander’s confidence, it seems, is well-earned. The bold amphibians can expertly control their descent, gliding while maintaining a skydiver’s spread-out posture, researchers report May 23 in Current Biology.

Wandering salamanders (Aneides vagrans) are native to a strip of forest in far northwestern California. They routinely climb into the canopies of coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens). There — as high as 88 meters up — the amphibians inhabit mats of ferns that grow in a suspended, miniature ecosystem. Unlike many salamanders that typically spend their days in streams or bogs, some of these wanderers may spend their whole lives in the trees.
Integrative biologist Christian Brown was studying these canopy crawlers as a graduate student at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt in Arcata, when he noticed they would jump from a hand or branch when perturbed.

Now at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Brown and his colleagues wondered if the salamanders’ arboreal ways and proclivity to leap were related, and if the small creatures could orient themselves during a fall.

Brown and his team captured five each of A. vagrans, a slightly less arboreal species (A. lugubris), and two ground-dwelling salamanders (A. flavipunctatus and Ensatina eschscholtzii). The researchers then put each salamander in a vertical wind tunnel to simulate falling from a tree, filming the animals’ movements with a high-speed camera.

In all of 45 trials, the wandering salamanders showed tight control, using their outstretched limbs and tail to maintain a stable position in the air and continually adjusting as they sailed. All these salamanders slowed their descents’ speed, what the researchers call parachuting, using their appendages at some point, and many would change course and move horizontally, or glide.

“We expected that maybe [the salamanders] could keep themselves upright. However, we never expected to observe parachuting or gliding,” Brown says. “They were able to slow themselves down and change directions.”
A. lugubris had similar aerial dexterity to A. vagrans but glided less (36 percent of the trials versus 58 percent). The two ground huggers mostly flailed ineffectively in the wind.

The wandering salamanders’ maneuverable gliding is probably invaluable in the tops of the tall redwoods, Brown says. Rerouting midair to a fern mat or branch during an accidental fall would save the effort spent crawling back up a tree. Gliding might also make jumping to escape a hungry owl or carnivorous mammal a feasible option.

Brown suspects that the salamanders may also use gliding to access better patches to live. “Maybe your fern mat’s drying out, maybe there’s no bugs. Maybe there are no mates in your fern mat, you look down — there’s another fern mat,” Brown says. “Why would you take the time to walk down the tree and waste energy, be exposed and [risk] being preyed upon, when you could take the gravity elevator?”

There are other arboreal salamanders in the tropics, but those don’t live nearly as high as A. vagrans, says Erica Baken, a macroevolutionary biologist at Chatham University in Pittsburgh who was not involved with the research.

“It would be interesting to find out if there is a height at which [gliding] evolves,” she says.

A. vagrans’ relatively flat body, long legs and big feet may allow more control in the air. Brown and his colleagues are now using computer simulations to test how body proportions could impact gliding.

Such body tweaks, if they do turn out to be meaningful, wouldn’t be as conspicuous as the sprawling, membraned forms seen in other animals like flying snakes and colugos that are known for their gliding (SN: 6/29/20; SN: 11/20/20). There may be many tree-dwelling animals with conventional body plans that have been overlooked as gliders, Brown says. “The canopy world is just starting to unfold.”

Ice at the moon’s poles might have come from ancient volcanoes

Four billion years ago, lava spilled onto the moon’s crust, etching the man in the moon we see today. But the volcanoes may have also left a much colder legacy: ice.

Two billion years of volcanic eruptions on the moon may have led to the creation of many short-lived atmospheres, which contained water vapor, a new study suggests. That vapor could have been transported through the atmosphere before settling as ice at the poles, researchers report in the May Planetary Science Journal.
Since the existence of lunar ice was confirmed in 2009, scientists have debated the possible origins of water on the moon, which include asteroids, comets or electrically charged atoms carried by the solar wind (SN: 11/13/09). Or, possibly, the water originated on the moon itself, as vapor belched by the rash of volcanic eruptions from 4 billion to 2 billion years ago.

“It’s a really interesting question how those volatiles [such as water] got there,” says Andrew Wilcoski, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We still don’t really have a good handle on how much are there and where exactly they are.”

Wilcoski and his colleagues decided to start by tackling volcanism’s viability as a lunar ice source. During the heyday of lunar volcanism, eruptions happened about once every 22,000 years. Assuming that H2O constituted about a third of volcano-spit gasses — based on samples of ancient lunar magma — the researchers calculate that the eruptions released upward of 20 quadrillion kilograms of water vapor in total, or the volume of approximately 25 Lake Superiors.

Some of this vapor would have been lost to space, as sunlight broke down water molecules or the solar wind blew the molecules off the moon. But at the frigid poles, some could have stuck to the surface as ice.

For that to happen, though, the rate at which the water vapor condensed into ice would have needed to surpass the rate at which the vapor escaped the moon. The team used a computer simulation to calculate and compare these rates. The simulation accounted for factors such as surface temperature, gas pressure and the loss of some vapor to mere frost.

About 40 percent of the total erupted water vapor could have accumulated as ice, with most of that ice at the poles, the team found. Over billions of years, some of that ice would have converted back to vapor and escaped to space. The team’s simulation predicts the amount and distribution of ice that remains. And it’s no small amount: Deposits could reach hundreds of meters at their thickest point, with the south pole being about twice as icy as the north pole.

The results align with a long-standing assumption that ice dominates at the poles because it gets stuck in cold traps that are so cold that ice will stay frozen for billions of years.
“There are some places at the lunar poles that are as cold as Pluto,” says planetary scientist Margaret Landis of the University of Colorado Boulder.

Volcanically sourced water vapor traveling to the poles, though, probably depends on the presence of an atmosphere, say Landis, Wilcoski and their colleague Paul Hayne, also a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder. An atmospheric transit system would have allowed water molecules to travel around the moon while also making it more difficult for them to flee into space. Each eruption triggered a new atmosphere, the new calculations indicate, which then lingered for about 2,500 years before disappearing until the next eruption some 20,000 years later.

This part of the story is most captivating to Parvathy Prem, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., who wasn’t involved in the research. “It’s a really interesting act of imagination.… How do you create atmospheres from scratch? And why do they sometimes go away?” she says. “The polar ices are one way to find out.”

If lunar ice was belched out of volcanoes as water vapor, the ice may retain a memory of that long-ago time. Sulfur in the polar ice, for example, would indicate that it came from a volcano as opposed to, say, an asteroid. Future moon missions plan to drill for ice cores that could confirm the ice’s origin.

Looking for sulfur will be important when thinking about lunar resources. These water reserves could someday be harvested by astronauts for water or rocket fuel, the researchers say. But if all the lunar water is contaminated with sulfur, Landis says, “that’s a pretty critical thing to know if you plan on bringing a straw with you to the moon.”

Biocrusts reduce global dust emissions by 60 percent

In the unceasing battle against dust, humans possess a deep arsenal of weaponry, from microfiber cloths to feather dusters to vacuum cleaners. But new research suggests that none of that technology can compare to nature’s secret weapon — biological soil crusts.

These biocrusts are thin, cohesive layers of soil, glued together by dirt-dwelling organisms, that often carpet arid landscapes. Though innocuous, researchers now estimate that these rough soil skins prevent around 700 teragrams (30,000 times the mass of the Statue of Liberty) of dust from wafting into the air each year, reducing global dust emissions by a staggering 60 percent. Unless steps are taken to preserve and restore biocrusts, which are threatened by climate change and shifts in land use, the future will be much dustier, ecologist Bettina Weber and colleagues report online May 16 in Nature Geoscience.
Dry-land ecosystems, such as savannas, shrublands and deserts, may appear barren, but they’re providing this important natural service that is often overlooked, says Weber, of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany. These findings “really call for biocrust conservation.”

Biocrusts cover around 12 percent of the planet’s land surface and are most often found in arid regions. They are constructed by communities of fungi, lichens, cyanobacteria and other microorganisms that live in the topmost millimeters of soil and produce adhesive substances that clump soil particles together. In dry-land ecosystems, biocrusts play an important role in concentrating nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen and also help prevent soil erosion (SN: 4/12/22).

And since most of the world’s dust comes from dry lands, biocrusts are important for keeping dust bound to the ground. Fallen dust can carry nutrients that benefit plants, but it can also reduce water and air quality, hasten glacier melting and reduce river flows. For instance in the Upper Colorado River Basin, researchers found that dust not only decreased snow’s ability to reflect sunlight, but it also shortened the duration of snow cover by weeks, reducing flows of meltwater into the Colorado River by 5 percent. That’s more water than the city of Las Vegas draws in a year, says Matthew Bowker, an ecologist from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff who wasn’t involved in the new study.

Experiments had already demonstrated that biocrusts strengthened soils against erosion, but Weber and her colleagues were curious how that effect played out on a global scale. So they pulled data from experimental studies that measured wind velocities needed to erode dust from various soil types and calculated how differences in biocrust coverage affected dust generation. They found that the wind velocities needed to erode dust from soils completely shielded by biocrusts were on average 4.8 times greater than the wind velocities need to erode bare soils.

The researchers then incorporated their results, along with data on global biocrust coverage, into a global climate simulation which allowed them to estimate how much dust the world’s biocrusts trapped each year.

“Nobody has really tried to make that calculation globally before,” says Bowker. “Even if their number is off, it shows us that the real number is probably significant.”

Using projections of future climate conditions and data on the conditions biocrusts can tolerate, Weber and her colleagues estimated that by 2070, climate change and land-use shifts may result in biocrust losses of 25 to 40 percent, which would increase global dust emissions by 5 to 15 percent.

Preserving and restoring biocrusts will be key to mitigating soil erosion and dust production in the future, Bowker says. Hopefully, these results will help to whip up more discussions on the impacts of land-use changes on biocrust health, he says. “We need to have those conversations.”

Headbutts hurt the brain, even for a musk ox

Punishing headbutts damage the brains of musk oxen. That observation, made for the first time and reported May 17 in Acta Neuropathologica, suggests that a life full of bell-ringing clashes is not without consequences, even in animals built to bash.

Although a musk ox looks like a dirty dust mop on four tiny hooves, it’s formidable. When charging, it can reach speeds up to 60 kilometers an hour before ramming its head directly into an oncoming head. People expected that musk oxen brains could withstand these merciless forces largely unscathed, “that they were magically perfect,” says Nicole Ackermans of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “No one actually checked.”
In fact, the brains of three wild musk oxen (two females and one male) showed signs of extensive damage, Ackermans and her colleagues found. The damage was similar to what’s seen in people with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disorder known to be caused by repetitive head hits (SN: 12/13/17). In the musk ox brains, a form of a protein called tau had accumulated in patterns that suggested brain bashing was to blame.

In an unexpected twist, the brains of the females, who hit heads less frequently than males, were worse off than the male’s. The male body, with its heavier skull, stronger neck muscles and forehead fat pads, may cushion the blows to the brain, the researchers suspect.

The results may highlight an evolutionary balancing act; the animals can endure just enough brain damage to allow them to survive and procreate. High-level brainwork may not matter much, Ackermans says. “Their day-to-day life is not super complicated.”

Lasers reveal ancient urban sprawl hidden in the Amazon

A massive urban landscape that contained interconnected campsites, villages, towns and monumental centers thrived in the Amazon rainforest more than 600 years ago.

In what is now Bolivia, members of the Casarabe culture built an urban system that included straight, raised causeways running for several kilometers, canals and reservoirs, researchers report May 25 in Nature.

Such low-density urban sprawl from pre-Columbian times was previously unknown in the Amazon or anywhere else in South America, say archaeologist Heiko Prümers of the German Archaeological Institute in Bonn and colleagues. Rather than constructing huge cities densely packed with people, a substantial Casarabe population spread out in a network of small to medium-sized settlements that incorporated plenty of open space for farming, the scientists conclude.
Airborne lasers peered through dense trees and ground cover to identify structures from that low-density urban network that have long eluded land-based archaeologists.

Earlier excavations indicated that Casarabe maize farmers, fishers and hunters inhabited an area of 4,500 square kilometers. For about a century, researchers have known that Casarabe people fashioned elaborate pottery and constructed large earthen mounds, causeways and ponds. But these finds were located at isolated forest sites that are difficult to excavate, leaving the reasons for mound building and the nature of Casarabe society, which existed from about the year 500 to 1400, a mystery.

Prümers’ team opted to look through the Amazon’s lush cover from above, aiming to find relics of human activity that typically remain hidden even after careful ground surveys. The scientists used a helicopter carrying special equipment to fire laser pulses at the Amazon forest as well as stretches of grassland. Those laser pulses reflect data from the Earth’s surface. This technique, called light detection and ranging, or lidar for short, enables researchers to map the contours of now-obscured structures.

Looking at the new lidar images, “it is obvious that the mounds are platforms and pyramids standing on artificial terraces at the center of well-planned settlements,” Prümers says.

Prümers’ team conducted lidar surveys over six parts of ancient Casarabe territory. The lidar data revealed 26 sites, 11 of them previously unknown.

Two sites, Cotoca and Landívar, are much larger than the rest. Both settlements feature rectangular and U-shaped platform mounds and cone-shaped earthen pyramids atop artificial terraces. Curved moats and defensive walls border each site. Causeways radiate out from Cotoca and Landívar in all directions, connecting those primary sites to smaller sites with fewer platform mounds that then link up to what were probably small campsites or areas for specialized activities, such as butchering prey.

The Casarabe society’s network of settlements joins other ancient and present-day examples of low-density urban sprawl around the world, says archaeologist Roland Fletcher of the University of Sydney. These sites raise questions about whether only places with centralized governments that ruled over people who were packed into neighborhoods on narrow streets, such as 6,000-year-old Mesopotamian metropolises, can be defined as cities.

Some past urban settlements organized around crop growing spanned up to 1,000 square kilometers or more in tropical regions. These include locales such as Southeast Asia’s Greater Angkor roughly 700 to 800 years ago and interconnected Maya sites in Central America dating to at least 2,300 years ago (SN: 4/29/16; SN: 9/27/18). Today, extended areas outside large cities, especially in Southeast Asia, mix industrial and agricultural activities over tens of thousands of kilometers.

Clusters of interconnected Casarabe settlements ranged in area from 100 square kilometers to more than 500 square kilometers. Spread-out settlements of comparable area include 6,000-year-old sites from Eastern Europe’s Trypillia culture (SN: 2/19/20).

Tropical forests that have gone largely unexplored, such as Central Africa’s Congo Basin, probably hosted other early forms of low-density urban development, Fletcher predicts.

Only further excavations guided by lidar evidence can begin to untangle the size of the Casarabe population, Prümers says. Whether primary Casarabe sites represented seats of power in states with upper and lower classes also remains unknown, he adds.

Casarabe culture’s urban sprawl must have encompassed a considerable number of people in the centuries before the Spanish arrived and Indigenous population numbers plummeted, largely due to diseases, forced labor and slavery, says archaeologist John Walker of the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Whatever Casarabe honchos had in mind as their tropical settlement network spread, he says, “we may have to set aside some of our strongly held ideas about what the Amazon is, and what a city is, to better understand what happened.”

A ‘mystery monkey’ in Borneo may be a rare hybrid. That has scientists worried

Six years ago, tour guide Brenden Miles was traveling down the Kinabatangan River in the Malaysian part of Borneo, when he spotted an odd-looking primate he had never seen before. He snapped a few pictures of the strange monkey and, on reaching home, checked his images.

“At first, I thought it could be a morph of the silvered leaf monkey,” meaning a member of the species with rare color variation, Miles says. But then he noticed other little details. “Its nose was long like that of a proboscis monkey, and its tail was thicker than that of a silvered leaf [monkey],” he says. He posted a picture of the animal on Facebook and forgot all about it.

Now, an analysis of that photo and others suggests that the “mystery monkey” is a hybrid of two distantly related primate species that share the same fragmented habitat.
The putative offspring was produced when a male proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) mated with a female silvered leaf monkey (Trachypithecus cristatus), researchers suggest April 26 in the International Journal of Primatology. And that conclusion has the scientists worried about the creature’s parent species.

Hybridization between closely related organisms has been observed in captivity and occasionally in the wild (SN: 7/23/21). “But hybridization across genera, that’s very rare,” says conservation practitioner Ramesh Boonratana, the regional vice-chair for Southeast Asia for the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s primate specialist group.

Severe habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation caused by expanding palm oil plantations along the Kinabatangan River could explain how the possible hybrid came to be, says primatologist Nadine Ruppert.

“Different species — even from the same genus — when they share a habitat, they may interact with each other, but they may usually not mate. This kind of cross-genera hybridization happens only when there is some ecological pressure,” says Ruppert, of the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang Island.

The state of Sabah, where Kinabatangan River is located, lost about 40 percent of its forest cover from 1973 to 2010, with logging and palm oil plantations being the main drivers of deforestation, a study in 2014 found.
“In certain areas, both [monkey] species are confined to small forest fragments along the river,” Ruppert says. This leads to competition for food, mates and other resources. “The animals cannot disperse and, in this case, the male of the larger species — the proboscis monkey — can easily displace the male silvered leaf monkey.”

Since 2016, there have been some more documented sightings of the mystery monkey, though these have been sporadic. The infrequent sightings and the COVID-19 pandemic has, for now, prevented researchers from gathering fecal samples for genetic analysis to reveal the monkey’s identity. Instead, Ruppert and colleagues compared images of the possible hybrid with those of the parent species, both visually as well as by using limb ratios. “If the individual was from one of the two parent species, all its measurements would be similar to that of one species,” Ruppert says. “But that is not the case with this animal.”

A photograph of a male proboscis monkey mating with a female silvered leaf monkey, along with anecdotes from boat operators and tour guides about a single male proboscis monkey hanging around a troop of female silvered leaf monkeys, has added further weight to the researchers’ conclusion.

The mystery monkey is generating a lot of excitement in the area, but Ruppert is concerned for the welfare of both proposed parent species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies proboscis monkeys as endangered and silvered leaf monkeys as vulnerable. “The hybrid is gorgeous, but we don’t want to see more of them,” Ruppert says. “Both species should have a large enough habitat, dispersal opportunities and enough food to conduct their natural behaviors in the long term.”

Increasing habitat loss or fragmentation in Borneo and elsewhere as a result of changing land uses or climate change could lead to more instances of mating — or at least, attempts at mating — between species or even genera, Boonratana says.

The mystery monkey was last photographed in September of 2020 with swollen breasts and holding a baby, suggesting that the animal is a fertile female. That’s another surprising development, the researchers say, because most hybrids tend to be sterile.

High-energy neutrinos may come from black holes ripping apart stars

When a star gets too close to a black hole, sparks fly. And, potentially, so do subatomic particles called neutrinos.

A dramatic light show results when a supermassive black hole rips apart a wayward star. Now, for the second time, a high-energy neutrino has been spotted that may have come from one of these “tidal disruption events,” researchers report in a study accepted in Physical Review Letters.

These lightweight particles, which have no electric charge, careen across the cosmos and can be detected upon their arrival at Earth. The origins of such zippy neutrinos are a big mystery in physics. To create them, conditions must be just right to drastically accelerate charged particles, which would then produce neutrinos. Scientists have begun lining up likely candidates for cosmic particle accelerators. In 2020, researchers reported the first neutrino linked to a tidal disruption event (SN: 5/26/20). Other neutrinos have been tied to active galactic nuclei, bright regions at the centers of some galaxies (SN: 7/12/18).
Discovered in 2019, the tidal disruption event reported in the new study stood out. “It was extraordinarily bright; it’s really one of the brightest transients ever seen,” says astroparticle physicist Marek Kowalski of Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron, or DESY, in Zeuthen, Germany.

Transients are short-lived flares in the sky, such as tidal disruption events and exploding stars called supernovas. Further observations of the brilliant outburst revealed that it shone in infrared, X-rays and other wavelengths of light.

Roughly a year after the flare’s discovery, the Antarctic neutrino observatory IceCube spotted a high-energy neutrino. By tracing the particle’s path backward, researchers determined that the neutrino came from the flare’s vicinity.

The matchup between the two events could be a coincidence. But when combined with the previous neutrino that was tied to a tidal disruption event, the case gets stronger. The probability of finding two such associations by chance is only about 0.034 percent, the researchers say.

It’s still not clear how tidal disruption events would produce high-energy neutrinos. In one proposed scenario, a jet of particles flung away from the black hole could accelerate protons, which could interact with surrounding radiation to produce the speedy neutrinos.

‘We need more data … in order to say that these are real neutrino sources or not,” says astrophysicist Kohta Murase of Penn State University, a coauthor of the new study. If the link between the neutrinos and tidal disruption events is real, he’s optimistic that researchers won’t have to wait too long. “If this is the case, we will see more.”

But scientists don’t all agree that the flare was a tidal disruption event. Instead, it could have been an especially bright type of supernova, astrophysicist Irene Tamborra and colleagues suggest in the April 20 Astrophysical Journal.

In such a supernova, it’s clear how energetic neutrinos could be produced, says Tamborra, of the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen. Protons accelerated by the supernova’s shock wave could collide with protons in the medium that surrounds the star, producing other particles that could decay to make neutrinos.

It’s only recently that observations of high-energy neutrinos and transients have improved enough to enable scientists to find potential links between the two. “It’s exciting,” Tamborra says. But as the debate over the newly detected neutrino’s origin shows, “at the same time, it’s uncovering many things that we don’t know.

Pressure to conform to social norms may explain risky COVID-19 decisions

The pandemic has entered a murky stage, and social norms are quickly shifting, something I’ve thought a lot about lately. Many people are testing at home, or not at all. Here in Vermont, where I live, you can pick up a type of PCR test that can be taken at home. But state officials both here and elsewhere are no longer carefully monitoring the results of these tests, which means that the actual spread of coronavirus in the U.S. population remains unclear (SN: 4/22/22).

For a few weeks, rumors of a stealth COVID-19 wave have been circulating both in the media and on my Twitter feed. Now cases and hospitalizations are rising, as are the levels of coronavirus in wastewater. That suggests that more cases, and ultimately deaths, could follow.
Even with rising caseloads and a vaccination rate that has flatlined at about 66 percent of the eligible population, the American public has largely begun to move on from the COVID-19 crisis. People are shedding their masks, eating out, attending concerts, traveling to far-flung locations, having large, indoor weddings and doing all the social things that people tend to do when left to their own devices.

The 2,600-person White House Correspondents’ Association dinner late last month is a case in point. Just as host Trevor Noah prophesied, many of those in attendance have since tested positive for COVID-19, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and reporters from NBC, ABC, the Washington Post, Politico and other media outlets. And those who almost certainly knew better — cue White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Ashish Jha — nonetheless made an appearance.

Myriad quirks related to human behavior undoubtedly underpin these arguably poor choices. The Decision Lab website has a list of the biases and mental shortcuts people use to make decisions. The one that caught my eye is social norms. This particular quirk outlines what behaviors people deem appropriate in a given situation.

I started thinking about social norms while writing a feature on how to get people in the United States to eat less meat when the practice is so, well, normal (SN: 5/11/22). Social norms, my research informed me, vary with the group one is hanging out with and one’s environs. “We rapidly switch our perspective depending on the context of the situation we find ourselves in,” writes marketing expert John Laurence on the Decision Lab site.

I might have found this idea of rapid switching suspect had I not recently experienced the phenomenon. My husband’s Disney-phile brother and his wife had been planning a family reunion in Disney World in Florida since the start of the pandemic. And I, a curmudgeonly sort not prone to feeling the magic, long ago agreed to go on the condition that other people do all the planning. And so it was, after multiple COVID-related postponements, that my kids, my husband and I landed in Orlando on a blisteringly hot April day.

Disney normal, I soon learned, bore little resemblance to Vermont normal. This was obvious immediately from people’s attire. All around me parents and kids dressed in coordinated outfits and matching Mickey Mouse ears. (Apologies to my kids — your mom missed the fashion memo.)
Social norms almost certainly arose to foster cohesion among our earliest ancestors, who needed solidarity to hunt large prey, share limited resources and ward off predators and enemy tribes. In-group norms also provide humans with a sense of belonging, which research suggests is vital for our overall health. A meta-analysis of more than 3.4 million people followed for an average of seven years showed that the likelihood of dying during the study period increased by 26 percent for participants who reported feeling alone (SN: 3/29/20).

Not surprisingly, then, one of the strongest drivers of human behavior is to seek out belonging. At Disney, that quest means blocking out the reality that exists just outside the fiefdom. Wars, climate crises, political fighting and the like have no place within those magical walls. Nor do reminders of a global health crisis that, according to the latest World Health Organization estimates, has thus far killed nearly 15 million people worldwide.

Within Disney’s walls, throngs of mostly maskless tourists packed onto iconic rides and into restaurants. When halfway through our trip, a Florida judge ruled that masks could not be mandated on public transit, nary a mask was to be seen on buses shuttling people to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center. And everywhere, all the time, people seemed to be coughing, sniffling or blowing their noses.

As a science reporter covering COVID-19, I certainly knew that I should keep my mask on. And yet, my resolve soon faltered. My kids pointed out that no one else was masking, not even my typically rule-following relatives. Donning my mask meant confessing that I was not reveling in the sparkle and glitz and magic and making all too obvious to my beloved extended family that I did not, in fact, belong. I kept my face covering in my pocket.

Humans’ tendency toward conformity is not all bad. In a now classic study from the 1980s, researchers investigated how to reduce water consumption in drought-prone California. Signs at the University of California, Santa Cruz asking students to turn off the shower while soaping up led to only 6 percent compliance. So researchers recruited male students to serve as norm-setting role models. These role models would hang out in the communal shower until they heard another student come in, and then soap up with the water off. When one role model soaped with the shower off, roughly half of the unwitting students also began turning off their faucets at soaping time. Compliance jumped to 67 percent when two role models followed the sign.

But conformity can also distort how we make decisions. For instance, in the summer of 2020, when the pandemic was still new, researchers asked 23,000 people in Mexico to predict how a fictional woman named Mariana would decide whether or not to attend a birthday party. Most participants believed Mariana should not attend. But when they read a sentence suggesting her friends would attend or that others approved of the party, their predictions that Mariana would also go increased by 25 percent, researchers reported in PLOS ONE.

My decision to conform to Disney normal ended predictably — with a positive COVID-19 test. After weeks of coughing and sleepless nights, though, my frustration is less directed at myself than at political leaders who so blithely ignore both epidemiology and human behavior research and tell us to live like it’s 2019. It’s not. Nor is it 2020 or 2021. It’s the murky year known as 2022. And the rules of behavior that bolster our social norms — such as role models who refrain from large, indoor, unmasked gatherings, and leaders who uphold mask mandates on public transit to protect the most vulnerable — should reflect this liminal space.

A Denisovan girl’s fossil tooth may have been unearthed in Laos

A molar tooth from Southeast Asia probably belonged to a member of a cryptic group of Stone Age hominids called Denisovans, researchers say.

If so, this relatively large tooth joins only a handful of fossils from Denisovans, who are known from ancient DNA pegging them as close Neandertal relatives.

Analyses of the tooth’s internal structure and protein makeup indicate that the molar came from a girl in the Homo genus. She died between the ages of 3½ and 8½, paleoanthropologist Fabrice Demeter of the University of Copenhagen and colleagues say.
A Denisovan molar that dates to at least 160,000 years ago was previously found on the Tibetan Plateau (SN: 12/16/19). The newly discovered tooth strongly resembles that other molar, indicating that the new find is probably Denisovan too, the team reports May 17 in Nature Communications. Before the Tibetan Plateau tooth, all known fossils from the mysterious hominids had been found in Siberia.

Estimated ages of sediment and fossil animal bones in Tam Ngu Hao 2, or Cobra Cave, in Laos place the tooth found there between 164,000 and 131,000 years old.

It’s possible that the Cobra Cave tooth represents a Neandertal or someone with Denisovan and Neandertal ancestry (SN: 8/22/18), Demeter says. His group hopes to extract DNA from the fossil, which could clarify its evolutionary status.

It now appears that at least five Homo species, including Denisovans, inhabited Southeast Asia between roughly 150,000 and 40,000 years ago, Demeter says. Others include Homo sapiens, Homo erectus (SN: 12/18/19), Homo luzonensis (SN: 4/10/19) and Homo floresiensis (SN: 3/30/16), also known as hobbits, he contends.

Still, some researchers regard Denisovans as one of several closely related, ancient Homo populations rather than a distinct species (SN: 6/25/21). Whatever evolutionary ID Denisovans actually held, the Cobra Cave tooth adds to suspicions that the hominids inhabited Southeast Asia’s tropical forests as well as Central Asia’s cold mountain ranges and Siberia.

COVID-19 has killed a million Americans. Our minds can’t comprehend that number

One million deaths. That is now roughly the toll of COVID-19 in the United States. And that official milestone is almost certainly an undercount. The World Health Organization’s data suggest that this country hit a million deaths early in the year.

Whatever the precise dates and numbers, the crisis is enormous. The disease has taken the lives of more than 6 million people worldwide. Yet our minds cannot grasp such large numbers. Instead, as we go further out on a mental number line, our intuitive understanding of quantities, or number sense, gets fuzzier. Numbers simply start to feel big. Consequently, people’s emotions do not grow stronger as crises escalate. “The more who die, the less we care,” psychologists Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll wrote in 2014.
But even as our brains struggle to grasp big numbers, the modern world is awash in such figures. Demographic information, funding for infrastructure and schools, taxes and national deficits are all calculated in the millions, billions and even trillions. So, too, are the human and financial losses from global crises, including the pandemic, war, famines and climate change. We clearly have a need to conceptualize big numbers. Unfortunately, the slow drumbeat of evolution means our brains have yet to catch up with the times.

Our brains think 5 or 6 is big.
Numbers start to feel big surprisingly fast, says educational neuroscientist Lindsey Hasak of Stanford University. “The brain seems to consider anything larger than five a large number.”

Other scientists peg that value at four. Regardless of the precise pivot from small to big, researchers agree that humans, along with fish, birds, nonhuman primates and other species, do remarkably well at identifying really, really small quantities. That’s because there’s no counting involved. Instead, we and other species quickly recognize these minute quantities through a process called “subitizing” — that is, we look and we immediately see how many.

“You see one apple, you see three apples, you would never mistake that. Many species can do this,” says cognitive scientist Rafael Núñez of the University of California, San Diego.

When the numbers exceed subitizing range — about four or five for humans in most cultures — species across the biological spectrum can still compare approximate quantities, says cognitive scientist Tyler Marghetis of the University of California, Merced.

Imagine a hungry fish eyeing two clumps of similarly sized algae. Because both of those options will make “awesome feasts,” Marghetis says, the fish doesn’t need to waste limited cognitive resources to differentiate between them. But now imagine that one clump contains 900 leaves and the other 1,200 leaves. “It would make evolutionary sense for the fish to try to make that approximate comparison,” Marghetis says.
Scientists call this fuzzy quantification ability an “approximate number sense.” Having the wherewithal to estimate and compare quantities gives animals a survival edge beyond just finding food, researchers wrote in a 2021 review in the Journal of Experimental Biology. For example, when fish find themselves in unfamiliar environments, they consistently join the larger of two schools of fish.

The approximate number system falls short, however, when the quantities being compared are relatively similar, relatively large or both. Comparing two piles, one with five coins and the other with nine coins, is easy. But scale those piles up to 900,005 coins and 900,009 coins, and the task becomes impossible. The same goes for when the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 goes from 999,995 to 999,999.

We can improve our number sense — to a point.
The bridge between fuzzy approximation and precision math appears to be language, Núñez says.

Because the ability to approximate numbers is universal, every known language has words and phrases to describe inexact quantities, such as a lot, a little and a gazillion. “For example, if a boy is said to have a ‘few’ oranges and a girl ‘many’ oranges, a safe inference — without the need of exact calculations — is that the girl has more oranges than the boy,” Núñez writes in the June 1, 2017 Trends in Cognitive Science.

And most cultures have symbols or words for values in the subitizing range, but not necessarily beyond that point, Núñez says. For instance, across 193 languages in hunting and gathering communities, just 8 percent of Australian languages and 39 percent of African languages have symbols or words beyond five, researchers reported in the 2012 Linguistic Typology.
The origin of counting beyond subitizing range, and the complex math that follows, such as algebra and calculus, remains unclear. Núñez and others suspect that cultural practices and preoccupations, such as keeping track of agricultural products and raw materials for trade, gave rise to more complex numerical abilities. As math abilities developed, people became adept at conceptualizing numbers up to 1,000 due to lived experience, says cognitive scientist David Landy. Those experiences could include getting older, traveling long distances or counting large quantities of money.

Regular experiences, however, rarely hit the really big number range, says Landy, a senior data scientist at Netflix in San Francisco. Most people, he says, “get no experience like that for a million.”

Numbers that exceed our experience perplex us.
When big numbers exceed our lived experiences, or move into the abstract, our minds struggle to cope. For instance, with number sense and language so deeply intertwined, those seemingly benign commas in big numbers and linguistic transitions from thousands to millions or millions to billions, can trip us up in surprising ways.

When Landy and his team ask participants, often undergraduates or adults recruited online, to place numbers along a number line, they find that people are very accurate at placing numbers between 1 and 1,000. They also perform well from 1 million to 900 million. But when they change the number line endpoints to, say, 1,000 and 1 billion, people struggle at the 1 million point, Landy and colleagues reported in the March 2017 Cognitive Science.

“Half the people are putting 1 million closer to 500 million than 1,000,” Landy says. “They just don’t know how big a million is.”
Landy believes that as people transition from their lived experiences in the thousands to the more abstract world of 1 million, they reset their mental number lines. In other words, 1 million feels akin to one, 2 million to two and so on.

Changing our notations might prevent that reset, Landy says. “You might be better off writing ‘a thousand thousand’ than ‘1 million’ because that’s easier to compare to 900,000.” The British used to do this with what people in the U.S. now call a trillion, which they called a million million.

Without comprehension, extreme numbers foster apathy.
Our inability to grasp big numbers means that stories featuring a single victim, often a child, are more likely to grab our attention than a massive crisis — a phenomenon known as the identifiable victim effect.

For instance, on September 2, 2015, Aylan Kurdi, a 2-year-old refugee of the Syrian Civil War, was on a boat with his family crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Conservative estimates at the time put the war’s death toll at around 250,000 people. Kurdi’s family was trying to escape, but when their overcrowded boat capsized, the boy drowned, along with his brother and mother. The next day a picture of the infant lying dead on a Turkish beach hit the front pages of newspapers around the world.

No death up until that point had elicited public outcry. That photograph of a single innocent victim, however, proved a catalyst for action. Charitable contributions to the Swedish Red Cross, which had created a fund for Syrian refugees in August 2015, skyrocketed. In the week leading up to the photo’s appearance, daily donations averaged 30,000 Swedish krona, or roughly $3,000 today; in the week after the photo appeared, daily donations averaged 2 million Swedish krona, or roughly $198,500. Paul Slovic, of the University of Oregon, Eugene, Daniel Västfjäll, of Linköping University, Sweden, and colleagues reported those results in 2017 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Earlier research shows that charitable giving, essentially a proxy for compassion, decreases even when the number of victims goes from one to two. The flip side, however, is that psychologists and others can use humans’ tendency to latch onto iconic victims to reframe large tragedies, says Deborah Small, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Some research suggests that this power of one need not focus on a single individual. For instance, when people were asked to make hypothetical donations to save 200,000 birds or a flock of 200,000 birds, people gave more money to the flock than the individual birds, researchers reported in the 2011 E-European Advances in Consumer Research.

Framing the current tragedy in terms of a single unit likewise makes sense, Västfjäll says. Many people react differently, he says, to hearing ‘1 million U.S. citizens dead of COVID’ vs. ‘1 million people, roughly the equivalent of the entire city of San José, Calif., have died from COVID.’

Milestones do still matter, even if we can’t feel them.
Kurdi’s photo sparked an outpouring of empathy. But six weeks after it was published, donations had dropped to prephoto levels — what Västfjäll calls “the half-life of empathy.”

That fade to apathy over time exemplifies a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation, or humans’ ability to eventually adjust to any situation, no matter how dire. We see this adaptation with the pandemic, Small says. A virus that seemed terrifying in March 2020 now exists in the background. In the United States, masks have come off and people are again going out to dinner and attending large social events (SN: 5/17/22).

One of the things that can penetrate this apathy, however, is humans’ tendency to latch onto milestones — like 1 million dead from COVID-19, Landy says. “We have lots of experience with small quantities carrying emotional impact. They are meaningful in our lives. But in order to think about big numbers, we have to go to a more milestone frame of mind.” That’s because our minds have not caught up to this moment in time where big numbers are everywhere.

And even if we cannot feel that 1 million milestone, or mourn the more than 6 million dead worldwide, the fact that we even have the language for numbers beyond just 4 or 5 is a feat of human imagination, Marghetis says. “Maybe we are not having an emotional response to [that number], but at least we can call it out. That’s an amazing power that language gives us.”