Humpback whales run an underwater music industry in which a "hit single" can quickly sweep the Pacific, eventually topping the charts across 4,000 miles of ocean, according to a new study published in the journal Current Biology. It's an awe-inspiring and humbling example not only of animal communication, but of animal culture, the study's authors explain: "The level and rate of change is unparalleled in any other nonhuman animal, and thus involves culturally driven change at a vast scale." 

The researchers recorded songs in six Pacific humpback populations between 1998 and 2009, hoping to learn more about the whales' mysterious, soulful serenades. It's still unclear exactly what purpose the songs serve (attracting females and warding off rival males are two leading theories), but what is clear is that the whales take them very seriously. All males in a population sing the same song, which changes from year to year, undergoing not just minor tweaks but dramatic overhauls. In every case but one, the songs started in a humpback population along Australia's eastern coast, then moved step by step to French Polynesia, thousands of miles away. As Wired reports, one song even made it to the Atlantic. The songs are usually "remixes," with old and new material blended together, but some turn out to be duds, soon abandoned for fresher sounds. These hit songs then move like "cultural ripples from one population to another," University of Queensland biologist Ellen Garland tells the Guardian. 

It takes about two years for a song to cross the Pacific, most likely transported either by small groups of wandering minstrels, or by whales in neighboring groups that hear the new songs as they swim together. The songs move eastward, Garland says, because the largest humpback populations live farther west, giving them more cultural sway over their less populous cousins to the east. When eastern whales catch wind of a hot new tune, Garland says, they probably start singing it for the same reason humans gravitate to new music — to seem cool. "We think this male quest for song novelty is in the hope of being that little bit different and perhaps more attractive to the opposite sex," Garland says. "This is then countered by the urge to sing the same tune, by the need to conform."

(Sources: Current Biology, Wired, Guardian, Underwater Times)


Mining claims in the Western U.S. have spiked by 2,000 percent since 2004, and increasingly threaten to disfigure the borders of national parks and wilderness areas such as the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore and Joshua Tree, according to a new report by the Pew Environment Group. Rising global prices for uranium, copper, gold and other metals are behind the mining spree, but it's enabled by an 1872 law that was meant to lure prospectors into sparsely populated Western states, the report states.

"The 1872 law as it applies everywhere is carte blanche: You extract everything you can and don't pay royalties on it," Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., tells the Los Angeles Times. "We're still dealing with an antiquated law that in its wake has left huge cleanup and contamination problems all over." The Obama administration already passed a two-year moratorium on new mining claims within a 1 million-acre zone around the Grand Canyon in 2009, due to concerns about excessive uranium mining near the national park. The administration is now mulling a 20-year extension of that ban, the Times reports, but existing claims near the Grand Canyon would be unrestricted, and land around other parks remains open to new mining claims. There are already some 3,500 uranium claims surrounding the Grand Canyon alone, and only 50 of them are currently being mined, a Bureau of Land Management geologist in Arizona tells the Times. Many local residents and environmentalists are worried about contamination from radioactive tailings and other mining byproducts, which could infiltrate the Colorado River watershed, affecting up to 25 million people.

Anti-mining advocates have pushed Congress for years to modernize the 1872 law, possibly amending it to include a competitive bid process and royalty payments, as is done with most oil, gas and coal mining. But reform seems unlikely anytime soon, the Times reports — the GOP-controlled House isn't very fond of new regulations in general, and even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is opposed to limiting the mining industry in his home state, which is dotted with major gold mines.

(Sources: Los Angeles Times, Pew Environment Group)


A major U.S. energy utility has agreed for the first time to reduce its reliance on coal to generate electricity, the New York Times reports, potentially setting a pivotal precedent in the country's slow-motion move away from fossil fuels. In a legal settlement announced Thursday by the EPA, the Tennessee Valley Authority pledged to close 18 of its coal-fired generators over the next six years, and also said it will spend $3 billion to $5 billion on pollution controls for its remaining coal-burning units.

The agreement will wipe out at least 16 percent of the TVA's coal-fired capacity, and it leaves open the possibility that some or all of another 18 units will also close — totaling up to one-third of the utility's coal-based portfolio. While this is big news in the national effort to reduce U.S. contributions to climate change, it's also significant to regional public health, the EPA points out. The TVA's emissions of nitrogen oxides, which help produce smog and ground-level ozone, will fall at least 69 percent by 2018; its emissions of sulfur dioxide, which can form tiny particles linked to heart and lung disease, will fall 67 percent. The settlement stems from a lawsuit filed by four states and three environmental groups against the TVA in 2002, seeking primarily to reduce the region's air pollution. And as the Times notes, it marks a major shift for the TVA, which grew into one of the country's top coal-consuming utilities in the 1960s and '70s. "This is what we wanted — a broad-based agreement for the reduction of pollution from all its plants," says North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, whose state was among those that sued the TVA. "It's been a long time coming."

In addition to North Carolina, the settlement also includes Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as the National Parks Conservation Association, Our Children's Earth Foundation and the Sierra Club. According to the EPA, the TVA's changes will avoid at least 1,200 premature deaths and prevent hundreds of cases of bronchitis and nonfatal heart attacks, as well as 21,000 asthma attacks. As TVA President Tom Kilgore adds, it's also a wise long-term strategy for the utility. "A variety of electricity sources, rather than heavy reliance on any single source, reduces the long-term risks and helps keep costs steady and predictable," he says.

(Sources: New York Times, Chattanooga Times Free Press)


Amid all the turmoil surrounding Japan's ongoing nuclear crisis — not to mention the historic earthquake and tsunami that triggered it — it's easy to overlook the ghost towns that were abruptly abandoned for fear of encroaching radiation. The sudden evacuation created a Pompeii-like atmosphere, freezing in time what everyone was doing at the pivotal moment. It also left lots of pets ownerless, wandering empty streets and unsure what to do. But that was too much for some Japanese animal lovers to bear, and as the Associated Press reports, a few brave volunteers have now risked their lives to enter the exclusion zone and rescue some of the stranded pets.

"My heart trembled," Etsumi Ogino, a 56-year-old volunteer at an animal shelter in Chiba Prefecture, tells the AP. "They looked just like my dog. I started searching for them right away." Ogino first saw the packs of shelties in the local Asahi Shimbun newspaper, which she contacted for more information. The paper told her it was an AP photograph taken in Minami Soma city, and the U.S.-based news agency then gave her further details. Ogino passed the news on to a team of volunteers called Sheltie Rescue, which had already been collecting information on abandoned dogs in the exclusion zone. The group discovered the pack belonged to a sheltie breeder in Minami Soma, whom they contacted for permission to rescue the dogs. Upon getting the go-ahead, the volunteers donned everything from actual radiation suits to vinyl raincoats, braving dangerous radiation levels to search for the shelties. They soon found them at a train station near the owner's home. "They were waiting for their owner," rescuer Tamiko Nakamura tells the AP.

Some dry dog food had been left out for them, so they weren't starving, and it reportedly took some time for the rescuers to lure them with snacks. Six or seven were placed in each car, with the rescuers retrieving 20 dogs in all. They took most of them to a veterinary clinic near Tokyo, while a few others are now staying with various individuals elsewhere. The dogs' owner and the rescuers both express relief at the rescue, but Nakamura says she's still haunted by the dogs they couldn't rescue — a few of the shelties ran away, and countless other dogs and cats are still scattered throughout the abandoned area. "There are still some left behind," she says. "I'm concerned about them and want to pull them out."

(Sources: Associated Press, CNN)


First McDonald's franchise opens, a U.S. city considers becoming a biodome, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (humpback whales): U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Photo (Grand Canyon vista): U.S. National Park Service

Photo (TVA's Cumberland Fossil Plant in Tennessee): TVA

Photo (dog being tested for radiation in Tamura, Japan): ZUMA Press

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Weekend Briefing 4/15/2011
Whales make hit songs, mines may threaten Grand Canyon, TVA to wean off coal, and volunteers go in to save the lost pets of Japan.