Tag Archives: American

Pottery fragments.

Native American societies had their own brand of ‘social media’

Societies in America’s southern Appalachian mountains shared art and technologies through regional networks reminiscent of today’s social media, a new study reports.

Pottery fragments.

Examples of pottery shards used in the study. Symbols were stamped into the clay while it was still wet. Each design and the various characteristics of the clay were used to reconstruct social networks among Native American communities.
Image credits Jacob Lulewicz, (2019), PNAS.

Native American villages established social and political connections well before European explorers came a-knocking, new research reveals. These systems — which functioned similarly to today’s platforms such as MySpace or Facebook, the author notes — laid the groundwork for local political systems as far back as 600 A.D.

Like, subscribe, and comment!

“Just as we have our own networks of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, societies that existed in North America between 1,200 and 350 years ago had their own information sharing networks,” said Jacob Lulewicz, the study’s author and a lecturer of archaeology in the Department of Anthropology in Arts & Sciences.

“Our study found a way to reconstruct these indigenous communication networks.”

The study used social network analysis techniques to map out the social and political relationships established between dozens of Native American villages in the studied region. The data came from messages embedded not in bytes, but in bits of pottery unearthed at sites throughout southern Appalachia clustered around the site of Etowah in Bartow County, Georgia (belonging to the so-called Mississippian culture). This included 276,626 sherds from 43 sites across eastern Tennessee and 88,705 sherds from 41 sites across northern Georgia. All the pottery dates between 800 and 1650 A.D., a period that saw the gradual emergence and subsequent decline of powerful chiefdoms that controlled wide networks of villages in the region.

Each fragment of pottery was analyzed to help Lulewicz understand how the technology used to make pottery and the symbols used to decorate them evolved over time. Armed with this rough timeline, Lulewicz then looked at how both elements disseminated among different villages or communities over time — in broad lines, this gave him a rough indication of how intensely they communicated.

Etowah served as the regional seat of social, political, economic and religious power across the region. This influence reached its peak between 1050 to 1325 A.D. and was still running in 1540 A.D. when the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto first reached this area. De Soto accounts how the villages in this area were loosely bound to the influence of a single chief who resided in the town of Coosa (northern Georgia)

Lulewicz argues — based on his findings — that these political elites could emerge because of the social networks he describes. Their political power and centralized leadership, as well as the religious movements and inequality associated with their rule, were built on top of these wider, pre-existing social networks of common people. And, in the end, these networks would prove to be more stable and durable than any interactions dictated by elite chiefs.

“What I show in the paper is that while we see things like the emergence of super powerful chiefs and the rise of major economic inequalities, the very foundations of society — especially relationships and networks of kinship and family and reciprocity — remained virtually unchanged over 1,000 years,” Lulewicz said.

“That is, even though elite interests and political strategies waxed and waned and collapsed and flourished, very basic relationships and networks were some of the strongest, most durable aspects of society.”

Lulewicz argues that these findings show how important social connections between individuals are in guarding communities against unpredictable (or incompetent) leaders and the extended ruling class. He says it mirrors how digital social networks function today, and their role in contemporary revolutions or protest movements. Modern states are often quick to monitor, censor, or even shut down access to these virtual networks, he adds, which shows how valuable such social instruments are even today.

“This is super interesting — at least to me as a social scientist — for understanding how political movements actually play out,” he said. “It doesn’t come down to any particular, innate attribute of leaders and elites. What is comes down to is how those individuals are able to leverage the networks in which they are embedded.”

“Even though chiefs emerge at about 1000 A.D., over the next 650 years, chiefs actually shift their strategies of political and economic control. They tap into different parts of their networks, or leverage their connections in very different ways throughout time.”

“Because these very basic networks were so durable, they allowed these societies — especially common people — to buffer against and mediate the uncertainties associated with major political and economic change. They may have said, ‘You go live on top of that huge mound and do your sacred rituals, and we will go about life as usual for the most part.’ These communication networks served as a social constant for these people and allowed their cultures to persist for thousands of years even across transformations that could have been catastrophic.”

The paper “The social networks and structural variation of Mississippian sociopolitics in the southeastern United States” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Pink Squirrel.

North American flying squirrels are bright pink — under UV light

A chance sighting revealed that the North American flying squirrel (and its related species) glow bright pink under fluorescent light.

Pink Squirrel.

A flying squirrel seen under normal (top) and ultraviolet light.
Credit: Kohler et al., (2019), JoM.

Dr. Jon Martin, associate professor of forestry at Northland College in Wisconsin, stumbled upon the discovery in his own back yard. He was doing an exploratory forest survey with an ultraviolet flashlight, trying to find what lichens, mosses, and plants fluoresced. By chance, however, a flying squirrel dining at his bird feeder startled him, and he beamed his flashlight at it — and it glowed pink.

Secretly pink

Martin set up a team to further investigate the issue, which included Allison Kohler, a graduate student in the Texas A&M University wildlife and fisheries department, as well as Dr. Paula Anich, associate professor of natural resources, and Dr. Erik Olson, assistant professor of natural resources, both at Northland College.

The team first requested access to the collection of the Minnesota Science Museum, to see if their hypothesis holds or if it was just a figment of Martin’s imagination.

“I looked at a ton of different specimens that they had there,” Kohler said. “They were stuffed flying squirrels that they had collected over time, and every single one that I saw fluoresced hot pink in some intensity or another.”

Next, they expanded their investigations to the collection of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. All in all, they looked at over 100 specimens ranging across numerous states by this point, and all of them confirmed their “pink theory.” They then looked at three live specimens of different species of North American flying squirrels — the Northern flying squirrel, the Southern flying squirrel, and Humboldt’s flying squirrel. “All three of them fluoresced,” Kohler recounts.

Comparison with flying species of other squirrels, like the American red squirrel and gray squirrel, revealed that the pink fluorescent color is unique to the flying squirrel (genus Glaucomys).

Exactly why they glow bright pink under UV isn’t known. They’re not the only species to show fluorescence, however. The team’s running hypothesis is that it aids in communication and/or camouflage, but they’ve yet to confirm their suspicions.

“They could be communicating with members of their own species by showing off their fluorescence to each other, or it might be a sort of mating display,” Kohler said.

“The other hypothesis is that they could be using this fluorescence as an anti-predator trait to communicate with other species, avoiding predation by other species by blending in or dealing with their potentially ultraviolet-saturated environments.”

So far, the findings don’t seem particularly important, since we don’t yet know where they fit in the larger picture. Kohler, however, says she will continue expanding on the issue while pursuing her master’s degree at Texas A&M — hopefully, this will reveal the full implications of the team’s finding.

“It could potentially help with the conservation of the species or other species, and it could also relate to wildlife management,” Kohler said. “The more that we know about the species, the more we can understand it and help it. This is opening a new door to the realm of nocturnal-crepuscular, or active during twilight, communication in animals.”

The paper “Ultraviolet fluorescence discovered in New World flying squirrels (Glaucomys)” has been published in the Journal of Mammalogy.

From married couples to the hook-up kids, Americans are having less sex across the board

A new survey found that Americans aren’t having as much sex as they used to. Married couples or those who cohabitate had sex 16 fewer times on average between 2010-2014 compared to 2000-2004. Overall, Americans had sex about 9 fewer times per year in 2010-2014 compared to 1995-1999.

Well, presumably the other two are still going strong.
Image credits GanMed64 / Flickr.

Based on data collected from the General Social Survey which has recorded (among other things) the sexual behavior of more than 26,000 American adults since 1989, a team from the San Diego State University found that Americans today just aren’t getting down between the sheets as much as previous generations did.

“These data show a major reversal from previous decades in terms of marriage and sex,” said Jean M. Twenge, the study’s lead author and professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

“In the 1990s, married people had sex more times per year than never-married people, but by the mid-2000s that reversed, with the never-married having more sex.”

Twenge says that the main factor driving sexual habits seems to be the birth cohort (i.e. generation), with those born earlier in the 20th century having had more sex on average compared to their younger peers at the same ages. But it may not be so much an issue of Americans having less sex with their partners, but rather a lack of partners to get frisky with — Twenge’s previous research found that Millennials/Generation Y had fewer sexual partners on average compared to members of the Generation X at the same age.

“Despite their reputation for hooking up, Millennials and the generation after them [iGen or Generation Z] are actually having sex less often than their parents and grandparents did when they were young,” said Twenge.

“That’s partially because fewer iGen’ers and Millennials have steady partners.”

Age is also an important factor. People in their 20s report having sex in excess of 80 times per year, a figure which declines to 60 times per year by age 45, and goes all the way down to 20 times per year by age 65, the team reports. So individuals’ average sexual frequency declines by 3.2% each year after the peak at age 25.

But it’s not only kids failing at attracting the opposite sex, Twnege says. It’s also happening to married couples.

“Older and married people are having sex less often — especially after 2000,” he said.

“In a previous paper, we found that the happiness of adults over age 30 declined between 2000 and 2014. With less sex and less happiness, it’s no wonder that American adults seem deeply dissatisfied these days.”

While the study doesn’t offer any evidence as to why this is happening, Twenge says that it’s not due to excessive workloads — Americans who worked more hours actually had sex more often than their peers. Which my actually explain why they work so hard.

The full paper “Changes in American Adults’ Reported Same-Sex Sexual Experiences and Attitudes” has been published online in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.

The American pika is being killed off by climate change

The American pika, “one of the cutest animals” in the country, is feeling the heat as a hotter, drier summers threaten its habitat.

I brought you a gift! Don’t kill us please.
Image credits NPS Climate Change / Flickr.

Whole populations of the tiny rabbit-like mammal known as the American pika are vanishing from the animal’s historic range in the mountainous areas of the western USA. The main culprit seems to be loss of habitat powered by climate change, according to findings by the US Geological Survey. After observing the animal from 2012 to 2025, the Survey found that the pika’s range is shrinking in southern Utah, north-east California, and in most of Nevada, parts of Utah, Oregon, Idaho and California — almost the entire Great Basin.

The study provides more conclusive evidence to the effect of global warming on the tiny mammal, building on earlier research which found that climate change was at least partly contributing to the animal’s decline. It did not measure how many total American pika still exist, but studied several areas where it has historically roamed eating grass, weeds and wildflowers. While the pika overall seems to be struggling, the study found that it’s thriving in a few places — most notably the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

But don’t rest easy just yet. The American pika (all species of pika are extremely cute) has completely disappeared from the Zion National Park in Utah, despite sightings as recently as 2011. In the nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument, the animal was nowhere to be seen on three-quarters of their historical range according to Erik Beever, a research ecologist with the USGS and lead author of the study. In north-eastern California, the pika was only found in 11 of the 29 sites of confirmed habitat. In the Great Basin, which stretches from Utah’s Wasatch mountains in the east to the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains in the west, the population is down about 44% compared to historical records.

“The longer we go along, the evidence continues to suggest that climate is the single strongest factor,” said Beever.

Essentially, the pika are dying of exposure in their own burrows, and it’s all because of us.

The pika are tailored to live in a very specific conditions, and are very sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. The animals make their home on mountain slopes, known as talus, where they search for open spaces in the ground to burrow. But the talus fields are becoming a much hotter, drier place in summer and a very harsh place in winter, with less snowfall to insulate the critter from cold.

The historical range of the American Pika. The animal resides in cool, moist microhabitats on high peaks or watercourses. Distribution data from IUCN Red List.
Image credits Wikimedia user Chermundy.

The study is the latest argument in the long-running efforts of wildlife advocacy groups, which have been trying to get the pika on the endangered species list for a few years now. In 2010, the US Fish and Wildlife Service rejected one such request, citing that not all populations are declining. The latest petition was made this April by a high school student in New York state. This situation isn’t singular — ZME Science reported the other day that the average waiting time for a species to make the Endangered Species list is 12 years, or six times more than the designated timeline. 

A preliminary ruling is due this September, but the new study won’t be taken into account because the agency’s staff only takes into consideration information submitted with the petition, said Serena Baker, a USFWS spokeswoman. Hopefully, the ruling will be in favor of the pika. But, should the USFWS turn it down, the study should help future petitions to have the animal declared endangered, as the study confirms that climate change is putting the animal at real risk, says endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona Noah Greenwald. Without such a ruling, future generations of mountain enthusiasts may not have the chance to see these lovable critters on their hikes, he adds.

“It’s gotta be one of the cutest animals in North America. It’s like a cross between a bunny rabbit and prairie dog,” Greenwald said. “Part of what makes our world interesting is the diversity of animals and plants that you can see when you go to different species.”

President Barack Obama is a big supporter of the issue. During his Yosemite National Park speech in June this year, he talked about the damage climate change is inflicting on the country’s national parks. He said the pika was being forced further up-slope at Yosemite to escape the heat.

“It’s not that they’ve just moved, they are gone all together,” Beever said.