Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Smithsonian Snippets

Some items from the Smithsonian's online magazine.

A Starchy Sixth Sense Could Explain Why Humans Love Carbs
Our tongues may be even more sensitive than once thought 

Scientists had long thought that there were four taste elements: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. But in 2009, the savory taste sense known as Umami was added to the list. Now, a new study published in the journal Chemical Senses suggests it might be time to add a sixth taste sense to the human tongue, and it could explain our species' love for starchy foods, Jessica Hamzelou reports for the New Scientist.

To test whether people might have a starchy taste sense, Juyn Lim, a food scientits at Oregon State University, and her colleagues gave 22 volunteers a taste of liquids with varying levels of carbohydrates dissolved into them. When she asked them to describe the liquid’s flavor, many responded by calling them “starchy,” Daisy Meager writes for Munchies. The participants continued to taste this starchy flavor even after they were given a chemical known to block the tongue’s sweet receptors, suggesting that they could sense the carbs independently of a sugary sensation. “Asians would say it was rice-like, while Caucasians described it as bread-like or pasta-like,” Lim tells Hamzelou. “It’s like eating flour.”

Lim’s study used a small sample size and did not identify any particular parts of the tongue that could specifically sense starchy flavors. However, this does question previous ideas of how people taste complex carbohydrates. While more research needs to be done before researchers can say for sure whether or not starch should be enshrined alongside the five other tastes, it seems that there is a lot more to how our bodies sense flavors than scientists once thought.


The Motorcycle that Rode the Tsunami
A Harley, washed out to sea, traveled more than 4,000 miles to its current home, the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee

The Tsumai that hit Japan on 11 March, 2011 killed over 15,000 people. It also washed over 20 million tons of belongings, materials and rubbish out to sea.

Some of that rubbish has been washing up on the coast of Graham Island, Canada, including a container which had inside it a Harley-Davidson. The Harley was able to be tracked down as belonging to Ikuo Yokoyama. The company initially offered to restore the bike for Yokoyama, but quickly discovered that 99.9 percent of it would need to be replaced. Instead, they offered him a brand new motorcycle to replace the one he’d lost. Yokoyama respectfully declined the gift, saying that he didn’t want to be a “tall blade of grass among a shorter lawn” and that he didn’t feel right accepting. According to a Museum representative, "[He told us,] 'Why should he have something when so many people lost so much?'" explains Jones. "He lost pretty much everything, too; members of his family, all of his possessions. But he felt humbled and didn’t want to be treated specially."

Instead, Yokoyama requested the bike be displayed in a place of prominence at the museum as remembrance of their lives and the 2011 tragedy. 

Objects communicate things that sometimes words don’t do justice for,” according to museum curator. Kristen Jones. “When you look at this motorcycle, you see the enormity of the tragedy that occurred. To see something like that bearing the scars of the forces of nature, I think it becomes very real to people what happened in Japan.”
The motorcycle is now part of the museum’s permanent display—a rusty tribute to the still-fresh wounds of the disaster that rocked a nation. 

(Whole article reprint)

Benjamin photographed at Beaumaris Zoo in 1933

Remembering the Tasmanian Tiger, 80 Years After It Became Extinct
Today, the animal’s memory is alive and well in Australia

Eighty years ago today, the last Tasmanian tiger died in the Hobart Zoo. It was called Benjamin.

Video footage of the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, captures an unusual creature. Bobbing its head and glancing at the camera, it doesn’t seem much like a carnivore—until it yawns, revealing an improbably large mouth with pointed teeth. 

Video link:

Its movements aren’t the lithe swagger you might expect from a feline. But that makes sense: despite its deceptive name, the thylacine was a large marsupial, about the size of a dog. It got the name “tiger” because of the stripes that ran down its body.

The last thylacine’s death came about because a zookeeper forgot to lock it in its shelter one night and it died of exposure, a release by the Australian government states. Whether that’s true or not, this story about the thylacine is illustrative of a dark chapter in Australia’s environmental history.
Besides habitat destruction and other factors associated with settlement in Tasmania, thylacines were actively hunted. Bounty systems for the thylacine were established as early as 1830. Ironically, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology found that the thylacine likely wasn’t strong enough to hunt sheep—one of the rationales behind the thylacine bounty.

Image of a bagged thylacine from 1869.

Though the last recorded kill of the animal in the wild came in 1930, the Tasmanian government finally granted protected status to the thylacine in 1936, just 59 days before Benjamin’s death. Though it took another 50 years for the species to be officially declared extinct, the writing was on the wall for the thylacine back in 1851. As naturalist John Gould observed then:

When the comparatively small island of Tasmania becomes more densely populated, and its primitive forests are intersected with roads from the eastern to the western coast, the numbers of this singular animal will speedily diminish, extermination will have its full sway, and it will then, like the Wolf in England and Scotland, be recorded as an animal of the past...
Today, Tasmanian tigers are alive and well in urban myth throughout Australia. The animal once existed on mainland Australia as well, but there it was in competition with the dingo, Richard Macey reports for The Sydney Morning Herald, which spelled an earlier end for the tiger by some 3000 years.

Still, most recently, a video released on the Thylacine Awareness Group’s Youtube channel claimed to show one of the extinct creatures in an Adelaide suburb. Like numerous other claimed sightings over the decades, this one is unconfirmed, reports The Advertiser.

Talk about bringing thylacines back via cloning has also surfaced in recent years, although plans by the Australian Museum were abandoned in 2005 and the ethics of de-extinction are an open conversation.

At present, though, the easiest place to see a thylacine is on the Tasmanian coat of arms.

Tasmania's Coat of Arms

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