Watching the World

Don’t Count Sheep

Chronic sleeplessness is a worldwide problem affecting 1 in 10 people, reports New Scientist magazine. Scientists estimate that sleeplessness in just the United States costs the economy $35 billion a year in sick days and accidents. What can insomniacs do to help themselves fall asleep? Researchers at Oxford University asked one group of insomniacs to think of a pleasant and relaxing scene, such as a waterfall or a favorite vacation destination. A second group was asked to count sheep, while a third group was left to their own devices. The second and third groups took slightly longer than usual to fall asleep, but the first group was asleep, on average, more than 20 minutes earlier than usual. Allison Harvey, a member of the research team, said that counting sheep does not work because it “is just too mundane to effectively keep worries away.”

 Forests That Harvest Clouds

Wet tropical rain forests growing above 3,000 feet [900 meters] may harvest “up to 40 per cent more water out of the clouds than is measured as rainfall,” say Australian scientists Drs. Paul Reddell and David McJannet. According to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, “low cloud, mist and fog blow constantly through the forest, condensing on trees and running or dripping down them to the ground,” thus adding millions of gallons to the flow of tropical rivers. However, “when rainforests are cleared, the amount of moisture reaching the soil decreases significantly.”

Uneven Consumption

Twenty percent of the earth’s population now consume 86 percent of the world’s goods and services, reports The State of World Population 2001. The report, produced by the United Nations Population Fund, warns of “a huge ‘consumption gap’” between those who live in industrialized countries and those who live in developing countries. For example, “a child born today in an industrialized country will add more to consumption and pollution over his or her lifetime than 30 to 50 children born in developing countries. Currently, the fifth of the world’s people who live in industrialized nations produce over half of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, while the poorest fifth produce only 3 per cent,” states the report. Moreover, the area of productive land or sea required to sustain the life-style of an individual in wealthy countries is almost four times larger than that required to support individuals in developing lands.

Ingenious Beetles

Researchers have recently discovered how beetles of the genus Stenocara obtain drinking water in the Namib Desert, in southwestern Africa. To survive in the desert, which generally receives about half an inch [1 cm] of rainfall annually, the beetles collect drinking water from the dense fog that blows inland off the Atlantic Ocean. How do they do it? According to Natural History magazine, “the beetles’ backs are covered with bumps,” which, under a microscope, “resemble a landscape of peaks and valleys.” The peaks attract water, while the wax-coated valleys repel it. “Facing into the wind, the beetles tilt their bodies forward as moisture from fog collects on the bumps. Once a collected droplet grows heavy enough, it rolls down to the insect’s mouthparts,” states the magazine.

Early Signs of Anorexia

“Parents can spot the early stages of anorexia or bulimia in their children from their eating habits,” reports The Times of London. The Eating Disorders Association (EDA) has published a guide that helps parents and caregivers to identify eating problems before they progress too far. Early warning signs may include obsessively cutting food into tiny pieces or pausing as long as five minutes between mouthfuls. Some with eating disorders use tricks, such as wearing very loose clothing to hide uneaten food inside. They may also request that photos of themselves, looking healthy and of normal weight, be put away. The EDA guide advises parents not to ignore these signs and to be open about what they have observed.

Poison From Thermometers

“The mercury in just one thermometer can contaminate an 11-acre lake, and broken thermometers add some 17 tons of mercury to the U.S. waste stream annually,” states National Geographic magazine. Fish take up the mercury, and humans who eat the fish thereby ingest the metal, which can cause neurological damage. Mercury thermometers have already been banned in numerous cities including Boston, where some stores will exchange thermometers containing mercury for digital thermometers and other less dangerous devices.

Exercise in Moderation

“It is good to practice an endurance activity (jogging, cycling, or swimming) three times a week for 30 minutes or an hour,” notes the French newsmagazine L’Express. But if you are to avoid serious health problems, exercise should not be extreme. Excessive athletics can cause worn joints, crushed cartilages, slipped disks, stress fractures, hypertension, digestive troubles, premature bone loss, and even heart attacks. “Each year in France, physical effort causes the sudden death of 1,500 sportsmen in top form,” reports L’Express. Dr. Stéphane Cascua, a sports-medicine specialist at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, gives this advice to the numerous “Sunday sportsmen” who wind up recuperating in the hospital: Exercise regularly, but only at about 75 percent of your maximum cardiovascular capacity.

Truffles, Trees, and Potoroos

Potoroos​—rare, ratlike marsupials—​are now believed to be indirectly responsible for the existence of some of Australia’s most impressive eucalyptus forests, reports the Sydney newsmagazine The Bulletin. Potoroos live among the towering forests of Gippsland in Victoria. At least 90 percent of the marsupials’ diet consists of native fungal truffles, which grow beneath the soil. The fungi that produce the truffles work in partnership with the surrounding trees by forming sheaths around their roots and extending a dense network of filaments into the soil to gather water and nutrients. In return, the trees supply the fungi with sugars produced by photosynthesis. What part do potoroos play? After devouring the pungent truffles, the animals spread undigested fungal spores across the forest floor as they deposit their droppings. Thus, truffles, trees, and potoroos continue to thrive.

The Danger of Noisy Seas

“There are growing fears that the ocean has become a booming, buzzing and confusing place for whales, dolphins and other marine mammals,” reports London’s newspaper The Independent. Researchers investigating the deaths of six whales and a dolphin stranded off the coast of the Bahamas found that they had died of severe brain hemorrhaging, suspected to have been caused by sonar transmissions from nearby navy ships. Shipping, offshore construction, motorboats, and jet skis are other contributors to the distress imposed on marine mammals, which are affected by a wider range of sounds than humans. “When whales and dolphins dive, air from their lungs is forced into cavities in their bodies,” the article explains. “The trapped air bubbles can magnify sound waves by up to 25 times, leading to . . . massive tissue damage at much lower sound levels and over a wider area of the sea than had been thought possible.” Ocean noise also “decreases the range of communication and means that whales and dolphins will have to shout louder,” says researcher Doug Nowacek. “It could keep them from meeting up and mating, and if they can no longer hear they cannot navigate.”