Dear Readers, it is my fifth day since I tested positive for Covid and I’m feeling a lot better physically, though my brain is all over the place. What a strange disease this is! I read an article stating that it seems to cause brain shrinkage, and as far as I’m concerned I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised. Hopefully it will spring back like a cushion at some point in the near future. It could also be because of cappuccino withdrawal, our local coffee shop will be missing us, especially as my husband is still testing positive and it’s now day 10. So I am finding myself entertained by little things in New Scientist.
First up, scientists who study the domestication of birds have been dealt a curveball by the discovery of some goose bones in the Chinese Stone Age village of Tianluoshan, which was inhabited between 5500 and 7000 years ago. 232 bones were found, and some belonged to geese who were less than 16 weeks old, so too young to have flown in from elsewhere. No wild geese breed in the area now, and the scientist interviewed, Masaki Eda from Hokkaido University Museum, thinks it very unlikely that it was ever a suitable habitat for geese. Furthermore, analysis seems to show that the adult geese were bred locally (the chemical analysis of the bones can show where the water they drank came from), and that they were all roughly the same size, indicating captive breeding. Carbon dating the bones puts them at about 7000 years old, making them the first birds to be domesticated.
I must admit that I thought that chickens were the most likely candidate for oldest domesticated bird – they are a bit more amenable for a start. A 2014 study reported finding domestic chicken bones from as early as 10,000 years ago. However, the bones weren’t directly dated, and many scientists believe that the bones come from pheasants that were hunted. So, for the minute, it looks like geese might have been our earliest avian companions.
And secondly, as an elder sibling myself I can vouch for the pain of suddenly no longer being the apple of my mother’s eye, so it’s no wonder that scientists studying wild bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo have found that their stress levels go through the roof when a new sibling is born, and stay high for up to seven months. Scientists observed the behaviour of the weaned infants when their new brother or sister was born, and also analysed urine samples for the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol levels jumped to five times their normal level, and the youngsters were seen to be much clingier with their mothers than usual, though scientists weren’t sure whether this was because they wanted to see the infant or because they wanted their mother’s reassurance.
Because bonobos are so similar to us – the offspring stay with their mother for a very long period and are totally reliant on her, even after a new sibling is born – it’s somehow not surprising that the youngsters behave in much the same way that I did. My mother solved the problem of sibling jealousy by making me feel that my little brother was ‘ours’ rather than ‘hers’, and so from very early on I was involved in his care. It would be interesting to know what different strategies bonobo mothers have for keeping their offspring happy – I’m sure that they have such strategies. And also, is the effect less marked when yet another sibling comes along? After all, you can only cease to be an only child once.
And finally (and this is not from New Scientist, but from The Guardian) a couple in New Zealand are heartbroken to discover that the world’s biggest potato, weighing in at 7.8 kilograms, is not, in fact, a potato. Nicknamed ‘Dug’, it was found by Colin Craig-Brown in their garden, but DNA analysis by the Guinness Book of Records has revealed that it is, in fact, the tuber of a gourd. Craig-Brown still has ‘Dug’ in the freezer:
“I say ‘gidday’ to him every time I pull out some sausages. He’s a cool character,” Craig-Brown said. “Whenever the grandchildren come round, they say, ‘Can we see Dug?’”
“He is the world’s biggest not-a-potato.”
And I don’t know if it’s just the Covid or the brain shrinkage, but I just love this story.